Updated at 18:07,08-09-2017

Belarus's quandary: No longer Putin's dependable ally?

Paul Coyer, Forbes

Belarus has long had a reputation as the last dictatorship in Europe, for being the Kremlins lapdog, and for its generally anti-Western orientation. For several years, however, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has at times surprised observers by bucking Moscow and charting a more independent course.

In the past year, the Russian takeover of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine, as well as the implosion of the Russian economy, has seen a much quickened pace on the part of Minsk to distance itself from Russia and to build ties with the West. The fact that the ongoing Ukraine crisis and its broader impact on Russia and the region has altered the strategic calculations of one of Vladimir Putins best friends, illustrates the degree to which the situation has harmed Russias long term interests.

As part of Vladimir Putins attempts to reassert Russian influence and control over the post-Soviet states on the Russian periphery, Moscow has worked hard to tighten its grip on Belarus over the past decade or so, and has succeeded in increasing its leverage, particularly in the area of energy. Gazprom, the Russian state-owned natural gas giant, purchased a 50% ownership stake in the Belarusian pipeline operator, Beltransgaz, in stages between 2007 and 2010, and succeeded in late 2011 in gaining complete ownership. Gazprom Transgaz Belarus (the new name of Beltransgaz) operates more than 4,600 miles of gas pipelines, as well as the Yamal-Europe and the Northern Lights pipeline networks, accounting for about 20% of Russias gas exports to Europe. Gazprom has been charging Belarus significantly-reduced fees, which fees have been continuously reduced in stages since 2011, for Russian gas, which subsidies have been very valuable to Minsk. (In 2011, Belarus paid $286 per cubic meter, and that price has been steadily dropping and according to Belaruss First Vice Prime Minister, Vladimir Semashko, the newly-inked contract will reduce that fee further to $154-155. The price paid by EU customers is approximately $400.) These tariff reductions are a double-edged sword, however. The steeper the reductions and the greater the subsidy, the greater the leverage Putin has with which to ensure Lukashenkos loyalty. Gazprom maintains the legal right to change the rates Belarus pays for Russian gas, and Putin has not been shy of reminding Lukashenko of this fact in the past.

Moscow also controls Belaruss oil refineries and has major influence in its electricity sector. Although Belarus has majority ownership of its own oil infrastructure at present (Russia has a significant minority stake), Russia is its sole supplier of oil, and Putin therefore maintains political leverage with oil pricing. Moscow is looking to complete a Russian takeover of Belarusian oil infrastructure, as well, to make Moscows energy stranglehold complete. Due to the Kremlins control over Belarusian energy, it has the ability to bankrupt Belarus, a point of leverage that Lukashenko cannot ignore. Putin also maintains leverage through Belarus membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, about which Belarus is no more enthusiastic than is Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Armenia. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is another vehicle through which Moscow attempts to assert influence in Belarus and other CSTO members.

Despite the immense leverage held by Moscow, however, and for all Lukashenkos public statements asserting support for Putin and occasional criticisms of the West, he has regularly shown that he can chart an independent course and dislikes complete dependence upon Russia. Following the crisis with Georgia in 2008, for example, Lukashenko promised Putin that Belarus would recognize the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, yet more than six years later he has yet to deliver on that pledge. And although practiced at reciting a mantra of friendship with Moscow, Lukashenko has been making overtures to the West, including attempts to expand economic and political ties with the EU and to attract Western investment in such areas as Belaruss energy and petrochemical sectors. His need to diversify away from his nearly complete energy dependence upon Russia led him to purchase Venezuelan oil from 2010-2012, despite the fact that the deal had little to recommend it commercially.

More recently, in light of Russias actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Lukashenko has been increasingly pursuing a course that belies his nervousness regarding Russian intentions and his determination to create more distance between Minsk and Moscow, while not going so far as to completely alienate his powerful neighbor on whose goodwill Belarus so obviously depends. Belarus shares with Ukraine a sizable Russian minority, and Moscows actions have not only made Minsk nervous, but have also strengthened the relationship between Minsk and Kiev. Prior to the Maidan protests that caused former President Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Moscow and brought Petro Poroshenko to power, Lukashenko surprised Moscow by supporting Ukraines talks with the EU, and has continued to support Kievs pro-EU leanings since. Lukashenko has even gone so far as to state that he would have no problems if Ukraine were to become a member of NATO.

Last March Belarus refused Moscows request that it send observers to the Crimea referendum, unwilling to help Putin create any type of legal precedent that would support his claim that Russia has the right to intervene in neighboring states with Russian minorities. Lukashenko quickly recognized the election to the Ukrainian Presidency of Petro Poroshenko and received the new Ukrainian ambassador, making sure that Belarusian media gave much attention to the meeting. While criticizing Western sanctions against Russia, he refused to support Russias counter-sanctions against the EU, and has even done interviews on Russian opposition television in order to express support for Ukrainian territorial integrity. He has hosted Poroshenko several times since he took office last June, most recently just prior to Christmas, when he went so far as to publicly promise Poroshenko any support needed within 24 hours.

Lukashenko has gone out of his way to assert Belarusian sovereignty in the past year, indicating that he is more concerned about his neighbor to the east than those neighbors to his west. While criticizing NATOs increased military presence in neighboring countries in order to placate Moscow, last spring the Belarusian military and troops of the Interior Ministry undertook drills aimed at countering a potential repeat in Belarus of what has occurred in eastern Ukraine. And after the meeting last month of the Security Council of Belarus, in which Lukashenko made the obligatory recitation opposing the strengthening of NATOs forces in Poland and the Baltics, he followed that with a statement that todays behavior by our eastern brother cannot but cause alarm. Several months ago, feeling the need to warn Putin against an attempt to do to Belarus what he was doing to Ukraine, Lukashenko pointedly said that he would fight any aggressor who would arrive on Belarusian soil . . . . . even if it is Putin. Minsk has also, for the first time, moved toward creation of full scale control of its border with Russia, and has refused a Russian suggestion that the two states establish a unified visa regime.

In the realm of church governance, the new Patriarch of the Belarusian Orthodox Church has recently formally requested that the Russian Orthodox Church grant the Belarusian Church greater autonomy in decision-making it now has very little, being considered an exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin is certain to view the request, correctly, as being not so much motivated by theological as by political concerns and a desire on the part of Lukashenko to reduce Moscows influence within Belarus.

Lukashenkos hosting of multilateral talks aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement of the crisis in Ukraine has helped both to emphasize his continued usefulness to Putin, as well as to make Minsk useful to the West and to help bring Belarus out of its self-imposed isolation. The visit of three EU commissioners in relation to the talks broke the de facto boycott of high level EU officials visits to Belarus, in place since Lukashenkos crackdown on dissidents following his 2010 election.

Minsk has strongly engaged its Baltic neighbors, all members of NATO, who share, together with Belarus, sizable Russian minorities as well as a palpable concern about Putins intentions towards them. In addition to the Baltics, Lukashenko has used the Ukraine crisis to draw closer to neighboring Poland and much of Central Europe, using warming relations with Central Europe as another means to more actively engage the EU. He has also sought to engage the United States, which remains untrusted but the support of which Minsk views as necessary for the success of its policy of warming relations with Brussels. Poland has been willing to allow relations with Belarus to warm as it sees Minsk as an important source of information on Russias intentions towards Ukraine and appreciates the balanced position which Minsk has taken in relation to the ongoing crisis. With the EU, Belarus has begun a series of conversations with Brussels on modernization. While the talks thus far have been modest in scope and Lukashenko seems intent on focusing on economic development and trade issues and ignoring the issues of human rights and democratic reform, they are an important start. For its part, Washington has sent three official delegations to Belarus in the past year, including one in September which consisted of high level State Department, USAID, and Pentagon officials. As with the EU, the warming of ties between Belarus and the US are thus far very modest, but the important issue is the trend in this direction.

Russias economic implosion, given the closeness of the Russian and Belarusian economies and Belaruss membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, has harmed the Belarusian economy greatly, alarming Minsk and leading to actions aimed at insulating Belarus from the contagion. Belarusian ruble has fallen significantly along with the Russian ruble over the past several months, falling approximately 30% against Western currencies in January alone, and inflation is through the roof. In September Minsk halted the printing of 50 ruble notes as such notes are now worth only a fraction of a penny. The Belarusian Central Bank has attempted to address the situation by announcing the raising of its key refinancing rate, and imposing a significant tax on the purchase of foreign currency (which tax has now been done away with). Belarusian stores, due to price manipulation, are beginning to look like those in Venezuela with empty shelves and a lack of some basic foodstuffs. A December poll by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies shows that the public is now more concerned about the state of the Belarusian economy than they are about the situation in neighboring Ukraine. As a political response to the worsening economic situation, in late December Lukashenko fired his Prime Minister and several other ministers, as well as the head of the Belarusian Central Bank. With respect to Russia, he has demanded that all trade between Belarus and Russian be denominated in US dollars or euros rather than in rubles. Already nervous due to Putins behavior in Ukraine, the economic situation has reinforced Lukashenkos desire to search out other partners and chart a more independent course.

Unhappy with Lukashenkos more independent stance and worried about his overtures to the West, the Kremlin has made its displeasure known in several ways. When Lukashenko refused to support Russian counter-sanctions against the EU, Moscow came up with a health-related excuse to stop importing dairy and food products from Belarus. Given that Russia represents by far the most important export market for Belarusian products, accounting for over forty percent of all Belarusian exports, Russias ability to harm Belarus in its trade relations is large. In addition, Russian media has undertaken a campaign of attacks on Belarus in general and on Lukashenko in particular. Ominously echoing Putins late August statements questioning Kazakh statehood, well known Russian analyst Aleksandr Shumsky published a piece suggesting that Belarus was actually part of Russia and asserting Russias right to actively work to prevent a pro-Western orientation on the part of Belarus. Also ominously, and indicative of the Kremlins penchant for pushing bizarre conspiracy theories, a popular Russian television channel produced a program alleging that the West was preparing a coup in Belarus. Adding pressure, the online Russian publication Sputnik & Pogrom has been publishing a series of articles asserting that Belarus should not be an independent state. Although this media posturing is likely aimed more at placing a shot across Lukashenkos bow than anything else, Moscow would obviously like to remind him that the possibility of stronger Russian action does exist should he continue to flirt with the West.

It is clear that Lukashenko and his inner circle view Belaruss nearly complete dependence upon Russia as no longer desirable in the long term, and for this reason wish to bring Belarus closer to the West and to create greater space between themselves and Moscow. A recent poll has shown that support among the Belorusian public for a more pro-Western orientation is growing as the negative impact on Belarus of Russian economic problems appears to be affecting public attitudes toward geopolitics. Lukashenko, however, remains sensitive to the fact that his regime continues to depend upon Russian support to survive and that Moscow is the only actor capable of removing him from power, and therefore realizes that he must tread very carefully. Both antagonizing Moscow too much, on the one hand, and opening to the West and therefore opening himself further to Western pressure to pursue democratic political reforms and to enlarge human rights protections, on the other, carry significant dangers from his perspective. Ultimately, the extent to which Lukashenko is able to succeed in bringing Belarus out of its international isolation and to build stronger ties with the West, which he understands to be critical to his attempts to extract Belarus from the Russian grip as well as critical to Belaruss long term development needs, will depend upon the degree of political liberalisation that he is willing to tolerate.