Sunday, October 10, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Pipelines Not Personalities behind Moscow-Minsk Spat, Russian Expert Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 10 – The clash between the Russian Federation and Belarus has its roots less in the personalities of the presidents of those two countries, however much that may account for the atmospherics, than in pipeline routes and other economic considerations, according to a leading Moscow specialist on Belarusian foreign policy.
Kirill Koktysh, who teaches in the political theory department of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), argues that one must look beyond the charges and countercharges of the two leaders and the suggestion by Dmitry Medvedev that relations with Alyaksandr Lukashenka are now irrevocably destroyed.
If one does that, the MGIMO scholar said on a Finam.FM talk show at the end of last week, one can see that what is happening now is the playing out of Moscow’s decision in 2006 to build pipelines bypassing Belarus, pipelines that will come online over the next two years, and thus depriving Minsk of much-needed income (
Up to now, Koktysh pointed out, Belarus had been able to pay for “up to a third” of its state budget from the transit fees it has been receiving for the 80 percent of Russian oil exports that cross its territory on the way to European markets. (The other 20 percent of Russian oil exports in that direction has been passing through Ukraine.)
But in 2011 and especially in 2012, Russia’s planned bypass pipelines should “begin to work,” Koktysh says, thereby “minimizing” Moscow’s dependence on the willingness of Belarus, Ukraine and other East European countries to serve as transit routes. This may be “good or bad,” he says, but that is what is happening.
The impact of this shift on Belarus will be devastating, and Minsk is worried about it. At present, “up to a third” of its state budget comes from oil transit fees, money that some in Moscow see as a form of assistance but that in fact, given the size of Russia’s earnings from the export of oil via this route, is within the normal range of the cost of doing business.
. Not surprisingly, the MGIMO scholar says, Belarus is not happy with this situation and is trying to find alternative sources of financing. That does not mean that Minsk is about to denounce the union state accord. That has always been more a virtual “PR project” than something real.
Those in Moscow who are now angry at Lukashenka need to remember this and recognize that doing something like not recognizing the results of the upcoming presidential election in Belarus would be to play into the incumbent Belarusian president’s hands because it would allow him to gain support from the West by presenting Russia as a threat.
Moreover, Koktysh continues, those Russian officials who think this way are showing that they do not realize that “the union state was denounced by [Moscow’s] construction of the bypass oil and gas pipelines” and that today the Russian and Belarusian economies are competitors rather than complementary players in the international marketplace.
Still worse, the MGIMO scholar says, it reflects the mistaken view that “Belarusians and Russians are a single people.” That is simply not the case. “They are two different peoples. More than that,” he adds, “attempts to make them one people” will have negative consequences for both, leaving Russians and Belarusians less well off than they are now.
Consequently, while “personal relations” between Medvedev and Lukashenka may have been destroyed as the Russian president and his supporters insist, the underlying geopolitical relationship of the two countries is far different than officials and experts in the Russian capital and elsewhere appear to assume.
Belarus is not going to denounce the “virtual” Union state, nor is it likely to leave the Customs Union or the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, however much Minsk may criticize this or that aspect of these bodies and however much it like other members will constantly redefine what membership means.
A major reason for that conclusion, he continues, is that Lukashenka is not a fool but rather “a competent politician who knows very well what he is doing.” The Belarusian president like “all of Eastern Europe and all of Central Asia” is “a limitrophe state, that is a state located between big neighbors which earns its way” as a transit bridge between them.
Like any such state, Belarus “is interested in supporting a sufficient level of distrust between the major and interacting figures and in cultivating the truth in the extreme case with one of these two figures in order to win the chance to serve” as such a bridge.
Such an approach is both “understandable and simple,” and “in this regard, if Lukashenka started when Russia funded his anti-Western confrontation and pro-Russian orientation, now, he must receive the same sum from the West, a sum which Russia in fact refuses to pay because of the construction of its new pipelines.”
The only change is that now this sum will be sought “for the defense of sovereign Belarus from insolent Russian imperialism which is attempting to russify, divide and swallow it up in its imperial embraces.” And everyone must recognize that “in this case, Belarus was not pro-Russian in the early 1990s just as it is not pro-Western today.”
Instead, the MGIMO scholar insists, “Belarus always has been pro-Belarus.”

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