By Paul Goble
Two new developments – a Russian plan to tighten control of its border with Belarus and a report that Minsk is actively considering leaving not only two Moscow-dominated regional organizations but even the “union state” with Russia as well – could fundamentally change the geopolitics of Eastern Europe.
But it cannot be excluded that they have a more ominous meaning, an indication that relations between Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka have deteriorated to the point that Moscow is preparing both by its actions on the border and its spread of stories about Minsk’s intentions to intervene in Belarus in order to change its leader and hence its orientation.
Ever since Minsk extended visa-free travel to a large number of countries and adopted a different approach to trade with the West, many in Moscow have been talking about the need for a more real border control regime than had been in place given that Russia and Belarus are nominally “a union state.”
Now the Kremlin has decided to act and directed the FSB to set up border posts with Belarus over the next five days so that any free flow of people and goods between the West and Belarus will stop at the Russian border (rg.ru/2017/02/01/v-prilegaiushchih-k-belorussii-regionah-rf-poiavitsia-pogranichnaia-zona.html and novayagazeta.ru/news/2017/02/01/128635-glava-fsb-rasporyadilsya-ustanovit-pogranichnuyu-zonu-na-granitse-s-belorussiey).
Belarusians of a more nationalist orientation are celebrating rather than bemoaning this development, viewing it as establishing “almost a border” between the two countries and thus reinforcing Belarusian sovereignty rather than being some kind of a threat, even though the new facilities could present one (belaruspartisan.org/politic/369594/).
There are, of course, many reasons that the dividing line between the Russian Federation and Belarus is a real border or should become one; but this reality is visually underscored by a picture that has accompanied some Russian and Belarusian accounts. It shows well-paved roads on the Belarusian side and potholed ones on the Russian (snob.ru/selected/entry/120094).
More intriguing is a Regnum report today in which an anonymous source says that given Belarus’ aspiration to be “an independent state like ‘fraternal Ukraine’ [the term Lukshenka has used in recent days], Moscow “will not make any loud declarations if Belarus moves to leave the Eurasian Economic Union, the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty and “possibly” the Union state of Russia and Belarus (regnum.ru/news/polit/2233858.html).
Regardless of what Belarus does, the anonymous source says, Moscow will always consider that country “a fraternal one” just as it does Ukraine. But it will not help Minsk either, and people in Belarus need to consider what their fate would likely be if they turn away from Russia and thus move to “the sidelines of world development.”
Dmitry Oreshkin, an opposition Russian political scientist, says that at the very least all this means that the union state is dead and that Russia will be left with allies drawn exclusively from Central Asia and the South Caucasus (svaboda.org/a/28274604.html and charter97.org/ru/news/2017/2/2/239609/).
But unfortunately it remains to be seen whether the end of that Kremlin project will result in a truly independent Belarus moving toward integration with the West or in one whose government and people have been taken over by force from the east. After all, the notion that even Belarus is moving away from Russia is a most powerful mobilizing tool for Moscow.