Wednesday, June 28, 2006

War for the Eurasian Soul: A Second Footnote

Simultaneously, the 30th session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Russia-Belarus Union (RBU) opened in Navapolatsk. On this occasion, parliamentarians from Russia, led by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, condemned the U.S. and EU sanctions against Belarus as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Sergei Baburin, deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, went further, demanding that Belarus offer a suitable response and expressing his surprise at the relatively mild reaction to date from Minsk. Belarus's essentially symbolic response -- it is highly unlikely that the 10 leading U.S. officials have assets in the country -- soon followed.

Presidential aide Dzmitry Bulakhau described the RBU as the “nucleus of post-Soviet integration in principle” and noted that if Russia and Belarus went down separate paths, then the outside "destructive forces" would be directed against Russia with its vast resources and territories. In this way, Belarus is serving as a protective shield for Russia in geo-strategic terms. Such a stance may help to explain the importance of the joint military exercises, which coincided with yet another high-level summit in Minsk, that of the Council of Defense Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Belarus then is pursuing several paths: it seeks to be a cooperative partner with Russia in economic, trade, and security bodies that are -- at least in theory -- directed toward greater integration, especially between the two Slavic countries. Likewise RBU directly threatens Belarusian sovereignty, but has largely been a paper entity and would need a common currency to ensure its deeper development. Gryzlov did say, however, that a working group had "almost completed" the draft of the constitutional act of the union state.

Two questions emerge for the summer of 2006: the first is whether the Lukashenka regime is an asset or a liability from Russia's perspective, and if so to what extent Putin will accede to Western demands to put more pressure on his neighbor to improve human rights and restore a more democratic system; the second, and far more critical question is to what extent Belarus can survive as a sovereign and independent entity within the various integration structures and particularly with the prospective finalization of the structure of the RBU. There is little indication that the Belarusian government has thought through this question, but it cannot be avoided for much longer.

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