Russia may have finally bought the subservience of Belarus with a £1.8bn loanby James Sherr / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
Belarus does not always set people’s imaginations alight. But it should at least grab their attention, now Russia threatens its independence. Almost 40 per cent of Germany’s imported gas arrives through Belarusian pipelines. Belarus’s loss of independence would directly affect Poland’s relationship with Russia, and upset Ukraine’s balancing act between east and west. Yet Russia still feels the former Soviet Republic is part of the motherland. Belarus is a primary Russian transit artery to Europe and a strategic buffer against Nato. The armed forces of the two countries are integrated. And now Russia may have finally bought the subservience of its neighbour with a £1.8bn loan.
Since 1994, the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained an irksome autonomy from Russia, partly through determination and guile, but largely thanks to his ability to control his people. Now, however, the economy is in crisis and, after 17 years in power, Lukashenko is being forced to choose between control of his country, and independence from Russia. He could lose both. And the immediate beneficiary of his troubles is likely to be Russia.
Until recently, the discomforts of this “brotherly” relationship have been borne by Russia. On becoming president, Lukashenko swiftly moved Moscow’s men out of the political apparat and the KGB (still so named). He made a virtue of the fact that he ruled a congenitally Sovietised country. He retained state control of the economy and kept Russian oligarchs out. He grasped that this country of industrial workers and collective farmers preferred full employment and rudimentary social welfare to the hazards of post-communism. He pursued a model of “union” with Russia that sustained Belarus’s sovereignty yet secured a significant gas subsidy at the expense of Russia’s increasingly cost-conscious energy sector. On these foundations he built the most authoritarian regime in Europe.
Since taking power 2000, Vladimir Putin has used stealth and pressure to destroy this malign synthesis, and Lukashenko has responded with duplicity and defiance. As his nerves and his country’s financial reserves wore thin, he also signalled his interest in a path to the west. When, in 2009, the Hobson’s choice—lose your gas subsidy or surrender your assets—could no longer be deferred, the IMF dispersed a £2.1bn loan, and the EU devised an additional £2.5bn package. This was done under no illusion that Lukashenko would convert to western liberalism. But he was expected at least to adopt western pragmatism and a moderate…