The Broken Axis

21 Diciembre 2006
Article
The Minsk-Moscow axis is the last fore post of the Russia’s imperial geopolitical strategy, writes Kagarlitsky. With the latest gas war, Russia risked losing its last ally for the sake of enriching Gazprom.

The gas ultimatum issued by Moscow to Kyiv on the eve of the New Year 2006 signaled that the Kremlin decided to use its energy resources as a weapon in the looming geopolitical conflict. Then nobody believed in Russia’s speculations about the new market pricing policy. Ukraine had turned to the West and it was to be punished for that – both the Russian political commentators and ordinary people saw it that way. If the Ukrainians were more pliable, they would pay the same old tariff and keep on siphoning the Russian gas off the pipeline! For we shell eagerly share it with a sisterly Slavic nation.

A year has passed. The Ukrainian government has been changed; however, the gas prices are still high. Now Gazprom is turning its zeal to Minsk. From January 1 the Russian company will charge Minsk $200 (or at least $160) for 1000 cubic meters. Belarus has an option – to introduce common currency and sign a Constitutional Act, liquidating Belarus as an independent state. There’s still another option to sell half of the Belarusian Beltransgaz pipeline, a major conduit for Russian gas exports to Western Europe, to Gazprom on account of future gas supplies.

But what has Minsk done Moscow wrong? It is clear that the times of self-denying friendship between bat’ka Lukashenka and the Kremlin have passed. Today Minsk recognizes its own specific interests and has learned to count much better. But the Belarusian president lacks the one-time freedom of movement – in the beginning of his political career Lukashenka could choose if to ally with Russia or not – back then he made a pro-Russia choice following his own preferences rather than political interest, and we should accept that his preferences coincided with the general public opinion. Lukashenka’s regime was more democratic back then, though it already carried the authoritarian features, and the Moscow vector of the Belarus’ foreign policy wasn’t seen as an obstacle to building ties with Western Europe. Economic growth guaranteed stability better than police brutalities did.

Today official Minsk finds itself in a quite different situation. Relations with the West are hopelessly bettered. And the Belarusian officials balked an opportunity to profit from controversies between the EU and the United States in the early 2000s. As for its neighbors: Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine – their bilateral relations with Belarus are not much better. All in all this impedes the Belarusian products access to the world market. Another obstacle is a tougher competition that stems from the industrial revival in Russia and Ukraine. Now mutual adoration between Moscow and Minsk has passed, but Lukashenka doesn’t have a choice – he has to accept Moscow’s “friendship”.

The Kremlin in its turn has no obvious reason to go rough about Minsk. Russia has spoilt relations with too many former Soviet Republics; the West has been suspicious of Moscow ever since the end of the Cold War. And even though at first Russia managed to take advantage of the tense EU-US relations; then the conflict with Ukraine, refusal to sign the European Energy Charter and aggressive behavior of the Russian corporations abroad have spoilt the situation.

The Minsk-Moscow axis is the last fore post of the Russia’s imperial geopolitical strategy. After all, Moscow has too few allies to bid defiance to one of its faithful partners.

Political scientists fabricated a new explanation of the situation: Minsk has no option, so Moscow can exert additional pressure forcing Minsk to join Russia de facto. It is a kind of “the Anschluss”, but solely through economic means.

Here in Russia some criticize this policy; others applaud it arguing that it is high time Russia restored the empire. Belarus is not an enclave with ruined economy like Transnistria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia, it’s a European state with developed industry and almost ten million citizens and the UN member.

As for the Anschluss idea, the Russian citizens don’t agree with political scientists. Why press Minsk? There’s nothing heroic about annexing a sisterly nation.

In terms of geopolitics and economy there’s little sense in annexing Belarus. It was during the Yeltsin’s presidency that the issue of the Union State first came on the political agenda. Some wanted to prolong the Russian President’s political life nominating him a leader of the Union State. As for the present situation, there’s too little time left before the 2008 election and the procedure is too complicated. Besides, there are easier ways like dropping a hint to the State Duma’s United Russia faction to change the Constitution of the Russian Federation to establish the third presidential term or the life-term presidency or even hereditary monarchy, whatever. Well, that won’t please the West. But annexation of Belarus won’t please them either.

Actually, the situation has nothing to do with geopolitics or politics at all.

It was a misstep to take Gazprom for a tool of the Russia’s foreign policy and to believe the speculations of the experts about alleged political differences underpinning the debates about the gas prices. That was a mere propaganda intended to disguise the fact that the state was the rubber-stamp tool of Gazprom, not vice versa. To let Gasprom gain surplus profit, the Russian authorities aggravated the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, immolated relations with the European Union and Berlin in particular and by doing so ruined the very idea of creating a counterbalance to Washington. Now the state officials are making the same mistake complying with the gas monopolist and running the risk of loosing the last ally for the sake of better economic performance of Gazprom. For the Russian corporation has already reached its limit of profitability – the home market and Belarus are the only growing points. It would be too risky to press the Russian citizens a year before the elections, Russia having too many social problems even without that. So Gazprom, via the Russian government, will press the Belarusian citizens.

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