Moscow and Minsk seem to have come to terms. Moscow has increased gas tariffs, and given Belarus a blessing of transition. It has also raised export duties for the oil pumped into Belarus and through it.
To sum up, Moscow has reduced but not stopped de facto subsidizing of the Belarusian government.
This is not the first time we have tried to threaten Minsk or persuade it to switch to a more sensible economic policy. There were almost no official calls for a more adequate policy from within. Be it as it may, but the result was zero, if not negative. Eventually, the Russian government resorted to action but stopped halfway. It is clear that we are not completely sure of what to do next.
Before suggesting an alternative, I would like to analyze the policy we have or have not pursued towards Belarus in the last 10 or 12 years. I took an active part in debates on it, although I am sure that my analysis cannot be totally accurate, and many will not agree with it for at least two reasons — first, there were only approaches to the problem instead of a policy, and, second, many will find my analysis unpleasant.
In 1995-1996, a line towards rapprochement with Belarus was justified for three reasons. They were intertwined in the heads of politicians and political scientists, and the division into schools of thought is a mere convention. The first school was in favor of Russia's unification with Belarus. Its advocates believed that Russia should quickly set up an alliance with Belarus, and move to reunification while Alexander Lukashenko was in power. They believed (probably with good reason) that he was not against this scenario at the time. The second school of short-term pragmatics hoped on the eve of 1996 that the course towards reunification would relieve the Russian president of the guilt for the Soviet Union's disintegration. The third school of long-term pragmatics, to which I belonged, believed that fast rapprochement with Belarus would guarantee a politically safe corridor for the transit of Russian goods to and from Europe, help keep the Kaliningrad Region in Russia, and prevent the formation of the second buffer (in the Baltic-Black Sea zone) for containing Russia. Rapprochement with Belarus was also seen as a vehicle of its economic and political modernization.
Left-wingers opposed the plan of reunification with Belarus for fear that it might prolong Boris Yeltsin's political life. Right-wingers were worried that re-unification might turn Lukashenko into our common leader.
As a result, we established some bureaucratic phantom of a union state. Belarus and its leaders received enormous preferences for a decade to come, and a possibility to have a relatively high standard of living at Russia's expense without carrying out any reforms.
Having created this phantom, the Russian policy-making class calmed down, and practically left its neighbor alone. There was a burst of interest when Putin suggested «separating the flies from the cutlets», that is, switching to a more pragmatic policy. But gradually Belarus receded into the background because of political challenges and economic interests which seemed more important.
Rose and Orange revolutions almost completely hushed up the voices of those who criticized Minsk for having stopped being a reliable ally and transit country a long time ago, and for becoming an increasing burden for Russian policy in Europe. The well-known American maxim gained an upper hand — «He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch.»
Meanwhile, for all its negligible resources, Minsk did have its own policy, and this policy seems to have won. When it transpired that the hopes to occupy the Moscow throne were unrealistic, the Belarusian leader started consistently consolidating his power and reducing Russia's influence.
He reduced to naught the influence of the once dominant Russian media. The idea of the invincible and irreplaceable Lukashenko was imposed on the nation. Dissidents were ousted or thrown behind bars. The ruling class that once waited for a signal from Moscow was harassed or bribed with money from Russian subsidies.
In more than a decade, there has emerged a Belarusian political class which no longer wants rapprochement with Moscow. Typically, the Batka (father) enjoys support of many ultra nationalists that could not tolerate him only a couple of years ago.
Lukashenko has persuaded the majority of the nation's leaders and population that he can always take Moscow for a ride. He has sown mistrust of Russia not only among the liberal and educated strata (which we have never supported, and even allowed an institute of political prisons to appear in a formally union state), but also among the public at large with his viciously anti-Russian massive propaganda.
As a result, both the advocates of the union and long-term pragmatics have been put to shame. Belarus is far from Russia, and continues moving further from it. It is not a dependable transit country for Russian goods, and especially energy carriers. Minsk is threatening Moscow with geopolitical re-orientation, and an idea to set up a Baltic-Black Sea buffer.
In the meantime, pro-Russian politicians are serving prison terms and damaging their health with hunger strikes. They enjoy only Western support, hypocritical as it is. EU countries are happy to buy increasing amounts of Belarusian oil and gas products. As a consequence, Belarusian exports to Europe have increased many times over, and exceed supplies to Russia. However, when Russia belatedly announced its intention to raise prices on energy exports to Belarus and cut down customs preferences, official Washington came out in defense of the «interests of the Belarusian people,» while the Europeans lashed out against Russia for using energy resources as an instrument of political pressure. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) arrived in Minsk with a strategic support mission though Belarus is not a PACE member.
There is little point in looking at the West in determining policy towards Minsk. Those who tacitly listed Belarus as Russia's sphere of interest not so long ago are gone. For the time being, the West has written off Moscow as an ally for a number of reasons. It is not going to consider Russia's interests, and has opted for tough bargaining. The West will condemn Russia regardless of what it does, and for this reason we should pursue our own genuine long-term interests.
In this case, we should not stop halfway and continue supplying Belarus with energy resources at semi-market prices. We should bring the matter to its logical conclusion and explain our position to everyone.
And, last but not the least, we should stop feigning ignorance of human rights violations in Belarus. I don't want to preach morals to the policy-making class in Russia, but moral policy proves to be useful very often. In retrospect this is an axiom. If we had not withdrawn support for the opposition in Belarus and had protected the media's elementary freedom, the Belarusian elite and official Minsk would be much more pro-Russian and we would have many more opportunities to influence the situation there. There would be more chances for a change of power in Russia's favor, and we would not be ashamed of our lack of action, because of which thousands of people in a fraternal country found themselves behind bars and had to peg their hopes for a better life on countries other than Russia.
Sergei Karaganov is co-chairman of the Russian-Belarusian human rights commission.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of the editorial board.