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Last Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006, 15:02 GMT
Belarus: Russia's awkward ally
By Chloe Arnold
BBC News, Moscow

Presidents Lukashenko (left) and Putin in St Petersburg, 24 Jan 06
The Belarus-Russia alliance is tricky for President Putin
Alexander Lukashenko's re-election as Belarus president - amid widespread accusations of vote-rigging - puts neighbouring Russia in a difficult position.

On the one hand, the Kremlin regards Belarus as a close ally and has been attempting to revive an official union between the two ex-Soviet states.

On the other hand, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has little personal affection for the outspoken Belarussian president, and endorsing Sunday's vote will put him at odds with other members of the G8, whose presidency he holds this year.

"The situation with Russian-Belarussian relations is relatively stable at the moment because the Kremlin doesn't see an alternative to Lukashenko," Yevgeny Volk, director of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told the BBC.

"The Kremlin is afraid that if an influential competitor to Lukashenko appears, he may be more pro-Western, which could be a serious challenge to Russia."

Soviet legacy

Mr Volk says Belarus provides Russia with a crucial counterbalance to Nato expansion eastwards.

"Lukashenko is regarded as the safeguard of Russia's national interests. Minsk is Russia's only remaining ally in Europe."

Belarus gas transmission station 130km west of Minsk
Russia's Gazprom is now pumping more gas westwards via Belarus
Mr Lukashenko's landslide victory in Sunday's presidential election shows that the Kremlin need not worry about losing its long-time partner in Belarus, despite accusations of fraud by Western governments. His closest rival picked up just 6% of the votes.

This will come as a relief to Mr Putin, who once said that the loss of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century, and has been keen to prevent an "Orange" revolution in Belarus like those in Ukraine or Georgia.

Energy lever

One way he has done this is by subsidising Belarus's energy supplies.

While Ukraine and Georgia have been forced to pay market prices for energy, most of which they get from Russia, Belarus continues to enjoy massive price reductions in its oil and gas supplies.

As a result, analysts say, Mr Lukashenko has managed to maintain the country's economy at an artificially inflated level. With Russia's economic assistance, pensions are paid on time and wages are relatively good.

"Lukashenko has used the economic subsidies to maintain political stability, which means there's not such strong dissent in Belarus (as in Georgia and Ukraine)," Yevgeny Volk told the BBC.

In addition, Belarus's secret police maintain strong ties with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

There are reports that high-ranking officials in the former KGB are now working for the Belarussian secret service, which still calls itself the KGB.

Union problems

Meanwhile, Russia is keen to bolster military ties with its partner to the west. Moscow is interested in using Belarussian military facilities and negotiations have begun on the opening of an airbase in Belarus.

But a much-touted union between Russia and Belarus has been slow to take shape.

Talks on the alliance, which has been in the pipeline for more than a decade, have stalled because Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko cannot agree on the form it should take, Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a leading think-tank.

"Huge differences in their economies mean the two would not be equal partners," he told the BBC. "Also, Lukashenko is still hoping to become head of the union, but Putin would not want that."

Most analysts agree that there is little chemistry between the two heads of state.

"It is obvious that [Putin] and Lukashenko are like close relatives who actually can't stand each other," writes Yulia Kalinina in Monday's Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. "At their meetings, they smile and kiss, but when they've departed they lean against the wall, breathe a sigh of relief and say 'Ugh!'"

The difficulty now for Mr Putin is steering a path between supporting a regime run by a man dubbed by Washington as "Europe's last dictator" and appeasing members of the G8, whose presidency he currently holds.

"Moscow's continuing ties with Belarus cast doubt on its own democratic intentions," said Yevgeny Volk. "And that leaves it open to serious criticism for its support of Lukashenko's administration."

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