Russia holds tight leash on Western-leaning Belarus

9th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

The most recent spat, dubbed a "milk war," that broke out between the two longtime allies over the weekend reflects the deep influence that Russia has on its smaller neighbour's economy, which the West cannot replace anytime soon.

Minsk -- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is steering his country towards closer ties with the West, but Russia still has powerful cards to play in keeping Belarus within its orbit, analysts say.

The most recent spat, dubbed a "milk war," that broke out between the two longtime allies over the weekend reflects the deep influence that Russia has on its smaller neighbour's economy, which the West cannot replace anytime soon.

The outcome of the dispute may determine whether Belarus, an ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people that borders the European Union, continues to cooperate with a Kremlin seeking to play a dominant role in what it views as its backyard.

For years, Belarus seemed stuck in a time warp, preserving a Communist-style command economy and keeping such close ties to Russia that the two countries formed a "union state" in 1997 and pledged to work towards reunification.

Meanwhile Lukashenko was ostracized in the West as "Europe's last dictator" and his country found itself isolated.

But over the past year, the EU has switched to a policy of engagement widely seen as an effort to pull Belarus out of Russia's orbit.

On Monday, reflecting warming ties with the West, Minsk and the World Bank signed a 125-million-dollar (88-million-euro) loan agreement to improve energy efficiency in heat and power generation in the country.

Lukashenko -- a strongman leader who has ruled Belarus since 1994 -- has become increasingly dissatisfied with Russia, declaring last month that Minsk would no longer "bow down" to Moscow.

On Monday, he told a top EU official that Belarus was serious about building strong ties with the European bloc.

"You should be absolutely sure that everything which is happening with our Western partner -- the European Union -- is not a one-time event on our part, not some sort of game," Lukashenko said.

"This is the realisation of our long-term strategic course," he said at a meeting with Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar, the current chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

But Moscow fired a warning shot at its wayward ally when Russian health officials announced Saturday that they were banning 500 kinds of dairy products from Belarus, ostensibly for health reasons.

"A milk war has erupted between Russia and Belarus," the Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote Monday, estimating that a halt to dairy exports to Russia would cost Minsk about one billion dollars (700 million euros) per year.

Analysts described the move as Moscow's attempt to put Lukashenko in his place by reminding him of his nation's economic dependence on Russia.

"Russia could destroy the entire agriculture sector of Belarus in an hour. Because it can buy food anywhere, but Belarus can sell its products only to Russia," independent political analyst Konstantin Skuratovich told AFP.

Lukashenko cannot fully escape Russia's hold because the EU is not in a position to offer the same economic perks, said Alexander Klaskovsky, an analyst with the BelaPAN information agency in Minsk.

"We are not talking about the final divorce of Belarus and Russia. They will make peace and the milk problem will be resolved. Today the EU... is not ready to financially maintain Belarus," Klaskovsky said.

Some analysts put Russia's financial help to Belarus at 10 billion dollars (seven billion euros) a year.

Much of Russia's assistance comes in the form of subsidized natural gas, which helps prop up Belarus' inefficient industry.

Besides the economic risks, analysts say Lukashenko would face political difficulties if he swings too far to the EU, which expects him to pursue democratic reforms.

"By changing the existing political regime and economic system, Lukashenko would immediately lose power, and he knows it," Klaskovsky said.

AFP/Expatica

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