Belarus Leader in Russia for ‘Moment of Truth’ With Putin – Smart Media Magazine

Belarus Leader in Russia for ‘Moment of Truth’ With Putin

MOSCOW — Just days after receiving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the president of Belarus was in Sochi, Russia, on Friday, for what he described as a “moment of truth” meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Putin has been pushing the Belarus leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to revive a long-stalled plan to merge their two countries in a “union state.” But Mr. Lukashenko, emboldened by warming relations with Washington, has taken an increasingly hostile view of any such amalgamation.

Mr. Lukashenk, a past master at manipulating the east-west competition to his advantage, held talks on Friday with Mr. Putin on political integration and the price of Russian oil supplies in Sochi, a Russian resort city on the Black Sea.

Mr. Pompeo’s visit last weekend to the Belarus capital, Minsk — the first by an American secretary of state since 1993 — lasted only a few hours. Nevertheless, his promise that the United States would finally fill an ambassadorial post left empty for more than a decade has given new energy to Mr. Lukashenko’s resistance to what he has repeatedly denounced as Russian pressure to surrender Belarus’s sovereignty.

In the lead-up to his meeting with Mr. Putin in Sochi, Mr. Lukashenko unleashed a barrage of earthy insults directed at Russia and taunted Moscow over his improved relations with the United States. Claiming that Russia had been rattled by Mr. Pompeo’s presence, he said that Russia should stop “crying” about American visits: “If Trump comes tomorrow what will they do then?” he asked on Tuesday.

Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator in Minsk, said that Mr. Pompeo’s visit had done nothing to resolve Belarus’s principal problem — its reliance on Russia for supplies of cut-rate natural gas and oil — but was “symbolically very important for Lukashenko” as a sign of Western support for keeping Belarus an independent state.

In power since 1994, Mr. Lukashenko has long maneuvered adroitly between East and West, tilting one way and then the other in search of support. Denounced in 2005 by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the “last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” Belarus remains an authoritarian country but is no longer an outlier in the region, especially when compared to Russia.

During his visit to Minsk, Mr. Pompeo insisted that Washington was not trying to get Belarus to align with the West instead of Russia. “It’s not about picking us between the two,” he said.

But Mr. Lukashenko, fortified by Mr. Pompeo’s visit, has taken an increasingly combative and at times insulting approach toward Moscow, complaining recently that the Russians have “screwed us.”

In January, after the collapse late last year of talks between Russia and Belarus over forming a “union state,” Russia temporarily halted deliveries of oil, prompting Belarus to buy a shipment of pricey oil from Norway and hunt for other suppliers.

Mr. Pompeo assured Belarus that “Our energy producers stand ready to deliver 100 percent of the oil you need at competitive prices.”

But this promise, along with his pledge to soon send an ambassador to Minsk, has been widely dismissed as meaningless, since Belarus wants subsidized Russian oil not an American substitute at prices set by the market.

“What we need is cheap oil and gas, not an ambassador,” said Maryna Rakhlei, a Belarusian expert on the region at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. Mr. Lukashenko, she added, “has very weak cards” but plays them aggressively in the knowledge that, no matter how strained relations with Moscow become, “geography will not change” and Russia is “not going to lose Belarus.”

Belarus’s relations with the United States and Europe have improved steadily in recent years, particularly since Russia annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in 2014.

Mr. Lukashenko, concerned about his own territory, began distancing himself from Russia’s actions. Western economic sanctions imposed on Belarus in 2006 after a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters have now been mostly lifted.

At the same time, Belarus’s close ties to Russia have frayed badly amid bickering over energy prices and the slow pace of progress toward a union state. This idea was embraced by both countries in 1999, when Russia was ruled by President Boris N. Yeltsin, who was old and sick. Back then, it looked as if Mr. Lukashenko would be the dominant figure in any merged entity.

The emergence of Mr. Putin, far more dynamic and ruthless than Mr. Yeltsin, curbed Mr. Lukashenko’s appetite for a project that, if implemented now, would most likely turn Belarus into little more than a province of Russia.

Like Ukraine, another former Soviet land whose territory stands between Russia’s western border and countries like Poland that now belong to NATO, Belarus has long been viewed by Moscow as an integral part of its own zone of influence and vital to its security.

Mindful of the violence unleashed in eastern Ukraine by Russia in retaliation for that country turning toward the West in 2014, few people in Belarus want to risk a rupture with Russia.

But wariness of Russia is also growing, with a recent opinion poll showing that support for the so-called union state fell last year from 60.4 percent to 40.4 percent. Support for joining the European Union rose to 32 percent, the highest ever.

Mr. Lukashenko, who in the past has cracked down hard on street protests, has of late allowed his citizens to protest openly against the formation of a “union state.” Once a fierce foe of Belarus nationalists, the most prominent of which he drove into exile or threw in jail in the 1990s, Mr. Lukashenko has recast himself as a defender of Belarus’s nationhood against Russia.

Ms. Rakhlei predicted that the current storms between Minsk and Moscow would probably pass like previous ones. “There have always been spats between Belarus and Russia,” she said. “Lukashenko can be very rude about Russia one day but the next he will say the opposite.”

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