They ‘Won.’ Now What?

by Joshua Foust on 1/15/2007

President Lukashenka was able to score a major concession from Russia in getting it to reduce export duties on oil transiting Belarus. While it looks like a significant victory—other instances of Gazprom relaxing fees seemed far more calculated—Lukashenka is actually in a desperately weak position. Commonly derided as “the last dictator in Europe,” he has made Belarus an economic backwater, highlighted the farce of his election-equivalents, and as one of the few serious human rights violators west of the Urals has few friends. So what now?

There are larger implications for the oil spat. In 2003, years before its own gas crisis with Russia, Ukraine had made a half-hearted stab at diversifying oil routes on the southwest corner of Russia: the Odessa-Brody pipeline. It was partially sunk by Kazakhstan choosing to funnel its oil through the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, going further south to the Mediterranean rather than north around the Black Sea and into Poland. Dealing a death blow was Russia essentially dictating that the pipe flow south, rather than north: a complete reversal of the geopolitical coup it was meant to strike in the first place. Though late in 2005 the EU decided to invest in the OB line, nothing concrete had taken place. It’s only been in recent months that Ukraine’s desire to gain some independence from Russian energy policy has made sense, now that the discontent with Moscow’s bullying is widespread.

Georgia’s spats with Russia have increased, too, from the recent tangerine embargo to the more momentous decision to buy natural gas from Azerbaijan, at the same time Azerbaijan began its own supply games with Moscow. Across the Caucasus, countries are trying to band together to form alternatives to Russian projects.

Of course, these alternatives aren’t without problems: Turkey and Azerbaijan have decided to circumvent Armenia in their new railway. Both are mad at the Armenians over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region with a majority of ethnic Armenians, occupied by Armenia, but officially part of Azerbaijan (Turkey also still hasn’t quite gotten over its little genocide thing 90 years back). The situation is enough of a slap to have U.S. diplomats worried. More broadly, there remain simmering tensions throughout the region; each state, including Turkey, has major problems with unrest and separatism.

In other words, no one, at least no one serious, is predicting some kind of Unified Caucasus acting in opposition to Moscow. But it will be interesting to see how Lukashenka’s latest ploy eventually reverberates through the Near Abroad. The CIS has chafed under Russian membership, and multiple revolutions to throw out Moscow-approved leaders in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have hinted at the depth of such discontent. It has also inspired a fresh wave of pro-Western politiking, at least in Kazakhstan, and weakened the rule of both Karimov in Uzbekistan and Lukashenka in Belarus.

Karimov is in no particular danger of falling any time soon. But in Lukashenka’s case, he has managed to alienate his only friend—Putin. Without Moscow’s strong support, Belarus’ economy won’t thrive. Nor will the EU swoop in to save him. No one west of Kaliningrad much cares for Belarus. If this latest crisis wasn’t the exact downfall of Lukashenka, I think we can at least start the clock from this point. He is permanently weakened, further delegitimized at home, and caught out in a bad way regionally. My only big question is: will this be a “soft” collapse with a reasonably smooth transition into other better governance, or will Belarus simply swap tyrants?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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