Belarus: the importance of the coming presidential election for Minsk's geopolitical position
The upcoming presidential election to take place in Belarus on December 19 is discussed with lively interest both at the internal and international level. Still far from a real integration with Europe, the country is rapidly loosening its traditional close ties with Russia, putting Lukashenko's authoritarian regime in a delicate position. The so-called Milk War, started in July 2009 when a Russian ban of all dairy imports from Belarus lead Minsk to accuse Moscow of employing that measure for political reasons and next gas disputes have actually broken the special relationship between the two neighbours, that are also members of regional organizations such as the CIS, EurAsEc and CSTO.
In an attempt to reduce his country's dependence from Russia, during the last months Lukashenko has been trying to improve relations with Minsk's western neighbours, resorting to the Eastern Partnership program inaugurated in Prague on 7 May 2009. The importance of Belarus in the launching of the initiative, which was promoted by Poland with Swedish assistance, has been confirmed by words recently pronounced by Pirkko Tapiola, Senior Adviser to the High Commissioner of the European Union's foreign and security policy. According to the European official, the Eastern Partnership program was created specifically for Belarus in order to connect the country to the integration process with Europe, although Brussels does not intend to retreat from the democratic and moral values for the sake of implementing its plans for Minsk. This is why for him the process of forthcoming election is more important than its result. "The most important thing is the process, the way it looks. For example, the OSCE/ODIHR presented a series of recommendations. Let's see to what extent these recommendations will be implemented. We know that the President of Belarus, to some extent, is popular in the country, we know that opposition groups are weak. And here we are not talking about who should be elected and who should not. The most important thing for us is the election process. We will be watching what will happen on December 19 and in the run-up to this event, the way the campaign will be carried out and the election itself", Tapiola said.
Such openings show the importance of Belarus for European security. Since achieving independence nineteen years ago and even more after Lukashenko's seizure of power in 1994, Belarus has been the closest Russia's partner in Europe. By giving Batka's regime both diplomatic and financial support it needed to survive international isolation, Moscow actually succeeded in keeping one of its former Soviet republics out of NATO, still regarded by the Kremlin as a potential threat to Russia's national security. In late 2008, after US agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic on the placing of a missile shield in Eastern Europe, Lukashenko even proposed to deploy Russian Iskander missiles in Belarus as a response to Washington's plan. The cooling of relations between Minsk and Moscow gives now Europe a concrete possibility of neutralizing a potential threat to its eastern borders. From Europe's point of view, such a goal should be reached even in case the current president would be re-elected, as many polls suggest. This is the reason why some European countries have been actively trying to appease critics on Lukashenko's regime.
Aware of increasing European and especially Polish interest in the Belarusian situation, during a recent visit to Warsaw, on October 28, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed Moscow's hope that, on the eve of the presidential elections in Belarus, there will be no calls for people to choose between Russia and Europe. "We would hate to see a repeat of the situation from six years ago, when ahead of the Ukrainian elections we heard battle-cries urging people to choose whether they are with Russia or with Europe", the Minister said, adding that "there is reason to believe that such calls will be heard in Minsk this time". Although Lavrov's statements denotes the Kremlin's fear of loosening control over Belarus, recent developments in Ukraine have nevertheless counterbalanced Western activism in the region, strengthening Moscow's position in the second most populated republic of the former Soviet empire. The great game for Eastern Europe is still far from being decided.