MINSK, Belarus — Russia and Belarus ended their two countries’ largest joint military exercises to date last week. They were, in fact, the Russian army's largest war games in nearly 30 years, Russian media reported.
Russian television showed images of military fighters swooping and firing, while lines of explosions perforated an open field. The maneuvers, which began Sept. 18, were conducted in western Belarus and the Russian Baltic territory of Kaliningrad, and involved nearly 14,000 troops, 200 tanks and 100 jets and helicopters.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to his country's Slavic neighbor — a nation of about 10 million on eastern Europe’s edge, wedged next to Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia — for the conclusion of the exercises, named Zapad (“West” in Russian) 2009. Medvedev said that they were purely defensive in nature, and would be repeated every two years.
“These exercises show that our partner relations are growing stronger,” the Russian president said, after discussions that lasted seven hours with Alexander Lukashenko, his Belarus counterpart, during the war games.
The mutual muscle flexing and claims of eternal brotherhood of nations notwithstanding, Zapad 2009, as well as a meeting last month between the two leaders in the Russian resort town of Sochi, indicated instead that relations between Russia and Belarus remain rocky.
As with the Sochi talks, few details were released. (Medvedev merely called the August meeting "substantive.”) The two presidents significantly did not resolve the most important issue between their countries: agreeing on terms to release a final $500 million tranche of a $2 billion Russian loan to Belarus to help weather the world economic recession. Until recently, Belarus was considered virtually a satellite state for Russia. The two countries are linked by a vague “Union Treaty” and a decade ago there was talk of actual unification. Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” had been as predictable in his foreign policy (slavishly following the Kremlin’s line) as he had been domestically (cracking down on all forms of dissent).
A shift began three years ago. Moscow demanded that Minsk pay international prices for the gas it bought from Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, and slowly began to raise its tariffs. At the same time, it demanded half ownership of Minsk’s domestic gas supply network.
The price rise hit Belarus hard, analysts say. Lukashenko has maintained his popularity among large portions of the population in part by preserving the Soviet system of subsidies and free services. (In Belarus many call him “Batka” or “Little Father.”) The heavily discounted oil and gas bought from Russia help underwrite this welfare state, since Belarus industry could operate with much lower costs. The oil was also refined and likewise sold abroad at a considerable markup, contributing to the national budget.
From that moment relations sharply deteriorated. Lukashenko lashed out at Moscow. Crucially, he has withstood weighty Kremlin pressure to join the smattering of nations (Venezuela, Nicaragua and Russia) that have recognized Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Moscow for its part responded with a series of import bans on Belarusian products — meat, dairy products, sugar, toys — causing considerable economic pain since Russia is the country’s overwhelming trading partner.
At the same time, the Belarus leader, after years of Soviet-style anti-EU propaganda, made noises favorable to the European Union and took small steps to liberalize his country, leading to hope that a “Minsk Spring” was in the making.
Lukashenko released the country’s last political prisoners, registered a long-banned opposition group and human rights organization. The EU responded by lifting a travel ban on Lukashenko and other top officials, and including the country in its “Eastern Partnership” integration program for six ex-Soviet states. Western officials hope that they can leverage more concessions and say that the Belarusian authorities are showing signs they will open up even further.
“What has in practicality changed?” asked a Western European diplomat who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The rhetoric, tone and atmospherics have become more positive. And atmospherics do matter.”
Analysts are at a loss to say how far the Belarus officials are willing to pursue economic and political reform. But, as with all authoritarian regimes, policymaking is opaque to the point of darkness. And only the opinion of one man truly counts: Lukashenko. He alone truly knows what his end game is. On one side is the pressure created by the world economic crisis and the loss of Russia’s subsidized oil and gas. The national budget might run a severe deficit this year, analysts say. In the long run he will have to liberalize and privatize portions of his economy to entice outside investment and to convince Europe to open up to Belarusian products.
But reforms — even the smallest ones — are accompanied by the risk of a loss of control. For this reason, some observers, especially among the tiny Belarusian opposition, believe that Lukashenko is trying to secure just enough outside assistance to ride out the economic crisis. They point to a $3.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, announced last year, as evidence that this strategy is working.
“Lukashenko wants just to get loans to save his power,” said Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader who was released from prison last year. “He is just playing for time.”
Ultimately this situation cannot hold, some believe. Belarus needs money — but from where? The Europeans demand reforms that could undercut his hold on power. At the same time, Moscow is offering money, but also with what appear to be a number of strings attached. Ultimately, some analysts believe that the price the Russians are asking is too high — perhaps complete control over Belarus, and Lukashenko sidelined. Hence, a few surmise, is the reason for Lukashenko and Medvedev’s inability to agree.
“For Lukashenko the choice right now is between ‘bad’ and ‘very bad,'” said Anatoly Lebedko, another Belarus opposition leader.