Belarus, Relations with

Belarus, Relations with
   The region of contemporary Belarus was annexed by the Romanov Empire during the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century. Like ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, Belarusians are an East Slavic people confessing Orthodox Christianity. After a short-lived period of independence during the Russian Civil War, Belarus was renamed as the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919 and became a founding republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. With the territorial redistribution that followed World War II, Belarusian territory was expanded to the west at the expense of lands held by interwar Poland. The Belarusian republic held a seat at the United Nations from 1945 onward.
   Heavily Russified and dependent on Soviet-style subsidies, Belarus’s first generation of postindependence leaders, including President Stanislau Shushkevich, sought accommodation with the Russian Federation, but blocked the market reforms that characterized Boris Yeltsin’s first administration and remained suspicious of the country’s shift toward democratization. Under the presidency of Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, Belarus has pursued the most pro-Russian foreign policy among the former Soviet republics. As the Belarusian economy faltered and Yeltsin’s embrace of pluralism lessened, Lukashenko made integration with his eastern neighbor the central guiding principle of the mid-1990s. In 1997, Lukashenko’s desire for economic as well as political integration with his country’s eastern neighbor culminated in the establishment of the Union of Russia and Belarus. The supranational entity promised common citizenship, a common currency, and joint armed forces for the two states, governed by a Supreme Soviet comprised of leaders from both countries. While all these benefits have yet to be fully realized, the new relationship effectively slowed Belarus’s transition to a market-style economy and its integration with Europe by tying the country closely to Moscow and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The treaty was opposed by the left in Russia as detrimental to the country’s economic situation and own reform process; however, many Russian nationalists, including then-Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, strongly endorsed the scheme as a step toward Russia’s return to great power status in Eurasia and a stopgap measure against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion.
   Still ravaged by the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Belarus sought to leverage the renewed relationship with Moscow to protect its public sector from challenges posed by globalization and as a political shield against Western condemnation of Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule. However, during the administration of Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin became much more critical of Belarusian politics, and many of the economic benefits of a close alliance began to wane.
   President Lukashenko depends on the continued subsidization of Russian-produced natural gas and oil to maintain his popularity. However, in the winter of 2006, Gazprom subjected Minsk to the same “marketization” of energy prices that had been deemed political “punishment” for the pro-Western states of Georgia and Ukraine in the previous 12 months. Belarus occupies the intermediary position between Russia’s hydrocarbon fields and lucrative European markets; as a result, Russia’s increasing control of Belarus’s transit infrastructure has emerged as a major political issue between the two governments.
   Despite the appearance of fraternal relations, Lukashenko’s regime has fallen afoul of Russia’s commercial elites, due to protectionist policies and failure to assist Moscow in improving trade links between Kaliningrad and the rest of the country. While the economic relationship between the two states remains dynamic, Moscow continues to support Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, fearful that a “color revolution” might produce an anti-Russian regime similar to that in Georgia.
   During the lead-up to the failed “Jeans Revolution” of 2006, the Kremlin, under the banner of “East Slavic brotherhood,” loudly backed the sitting president and condemned the opposition as stooges of Poland, the European Union, and the United States. While Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian nongovernmental organizations have supported the development of youth-oriented civil society in Belarus, their efforts are consistently countered by Moscow’s political and economic influence in the country. All three countries have also become home to political dissenters and journalists fleeing the Lukashenko regime. Poland’s decision to host the European Interceptor Site (EIS), an American antimissile system that Moscow believes is aimed at encircling Russia, has further worsened relations between Belarus and the rest of Europe after the announcement that Moscow may place missiles in the republic.
   Minsk offered diplomatic support to Russia in the wake of the 2008 South Ossetian War, with Lukashenko backing (though not formally recognizing) the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In mid-2008, a spokesperson for the Belarusian-Russian Union State invited three Russian-backed breakaway republics— Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia—to join the union.
   See also Foreign relations; Russification.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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