Monday, December 10, 2007

Back to Belavezha?

A union between Russia and Belarus with Putin as president? Those are the rumours presently at sway in Moscow, as Dmitri Medvedev has just been nominated Putin's successor as Russian president. According to Ekho Moskvy, Putin is to sign an agreement on a full political union between the two countries during his visit to Minsk this week.

One would normally be inclined to agree with the Kremlin spokesman who characterised these rumours as coming "from the realm of speculative fantasies," but one never knows what might come out of Moscow these days. Still, the idea seems far-fetched and appears to arise from those who simply cannot imagine a Russia without Putin. Fears are wide-spread among the security structures that the choice of Medvedev as new Russian leader might topple the delicate balance Putin has ensured. Still, in recent years, the security structures have gained many of the system changes they have so eagerly wanted.

Putin's presidency has been an era of stabilization for Russia. However, from 2005 the influence from security structures have been felt by the so called new democratisation or the development of sovereign democracy - effectively ridding Russia of political rights and freedoms. Now, having attained stability and control of the country, Russia's next project is modernization, as expressed by the so called Putin plan. Then, the choice of Medvedev comes naturally.

Letting go of influence to enable socioeconomic development is no minor matter for the security structures, especially if it means giving power to so called liberals. As has however been demonstrated, there is little liberal politically in Russian elite liberalism. Or, as James Carville once put it: "It's the economy, stupid!" Russian elite liberalism today is all about economic growth and development and has little to do with liberal rights and freedoms.

Still, despite an impressive economic growth in recent years, there is a long way to go yet and many obstacles to overcome. The main problem on the way ahead might actually be to deal with the consequences of dismantling Russian democracy. Paradoxically, the greater political control the Kremlin has gained, the more severe are the potential consequences for the economy. As surveys from the World Bank has shown, the 2005 policy of new democratization coincides with a general downturn for the systems supporting a good business climate. Would this trend continue, it might become a mounting obstacle for the economic growth and diversification envisioned by the Putin plan as the coming era of modernization. Then, both security structures and Kremlin liberals are in for trouble.

To even consider a union with Belarus under these circumstances appears mere wishful thinking by soviet nostalgics, but might well be a test-balloon to see what room there is for a new political project by the security structures. Reunification of the Slavic lands - Belarus, and perhaps eventually Ukraine and even Kazakhstan - would be exactly the kind of task that would topple the construction of a new and successful Russia the entire Putin presidency has been about. If Putin were to sign an agreement on political union with Belarus, it would be as if reverting the 1991 Belavezha accords, signifying the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That would be a thoughtless revanchist act of the magnitude of Compiègne, but perhaps those are the sentiments in Russia presently.

A union between Russia and Belarus fundamentally contradicts the Putin plan's policy of modernization, and the only reason why it might still be seriously considered, would be as a concession from the liberals to the security structures for letting Medvedev succeed Putin as president of Russia. The question one must then ask, is if the ongoing Kremlin power struggle has been allowed to go so far, as to enable even the craziest ideas. If the union and similar ideas would materialise, people will in a few years time look back with nostalgia to the relative peace and quiet of the Putin era.

13 comments:

Michael Averko said...

Re: Russian-Belarusian Reunification & Below Fred Weir Article

Excerpt:

"Surveys show that people in mainly Russian-speaking Belarus remain deeply nostalgic for the former Soviet Union and strongly back the idea of reunification with Russia."

****

Subtle McCarthyism, reminiscent of Madeleine Albright's June '04 NYT op-ed, where she said the same of some in Ukraine. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus go back centuries, for a period much longer than Communism. Anti-Russian west Ukrainian based nationalists aren't called Soviet nostalgic when they support the 1954 incorporation of Crimea into Ukraine. I know my share of Russocentric Ukrainians who aren't Soviet nostalgic in the manner suggested. Note the limited appeal of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

Excerpt:

"'Reunification is something vast majorities in both Russia and Belarus want,' says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst."

****

Another not so original thought from the above cited "Kremlin connected analyst". As was recently noted ( http://www.siberianlight.net/2007/11/15/book-review-the-new-cold-war-by-mark-mackinnon/ ), his performance at times is lacking. One of them was when he provided commentary for a News World International (NWI) feature on Ukraine, shortly after Yushchenko's presidential inauguration (now defunct, NWI was a Canadian Broadcasting Company television affiliate). When asked why the Orange government was counterproductive, Sergei Markov said that its Russia unfriendly elements served to provoke a nationalist backlash in Russia. From a Russian vantage point, this wasn't good public relations, in addition to not offering the most accurate of thoughts on the subject. Markov's emphasis on Russia conjures up the image of a Russian not concerned with how Ukraine feels and provides fodder for the faulty notion of Russia being collectively ripe with overly aggressive nationalists. The better answer to the NWI question would note that the newly inaugurated (at the time) Orange government's not so Russia friendly members are an anathema to many in Ukraine, who don't view Russia with hostility.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20071210/wl_csm/omerger

Putin Eyes Full Merger with Belarus

By Fred Weir Mon Dec 10, 3:00 AM ET
MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin may be about to unveil a political bombshell: a full-scale union between Russia and its smaller Slavic neighbor Belarus.

It's a plan that not only would expand Russia's territory and national prestige; it could also give Mr. Putin, required to step down when his second term ends in March, a new lease on power by producing a fresh Constitution.

Citing Kremlin sources, the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station reported Friday that Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko will sign a union treaty during Putin's two-day visit to Minsk this week.

A Kremlin spokesman said the report came "from the realm of speculative fantasies," though he did not deny that the long-debated Russia-Belarus union might be on the verge of realization.

The purported deal, to be endorsed by popular referendum, would involve a full merger of the two countries, including common currency, legal system, armed forces, and state symbols. Putin would be likely to become the new superstate's provisional leader and Mr. Lukashenko its speaker of parliament, the station said.

Belarus's beleaguered opposition called on Belarussians to the streets this week to protest "imminent annexation" by Russia.

"It has become clear that Russia will use economic levers [such as high energy prices] to annex Belarus, or at least compel it to join a 'union state,' " Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy head of the Belarussian Popular Front coalition, said in a statement.

Belarus is Russia's closest ally among ex-Soviet states and has long been dependent on Moscow for energy supplies, security assistance, and economic subsidies. The two countries have had a partial union since 1996, when Lukashenko championed the idea. Since the youthful and popular Putin took power from a weak Boris Yeltsin, however, Lukashenko has cooled to the idea.

But Russia has racheted up the pressure on Lukashenko. Last week the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom announced a new round of hikes that will triple the price Belarus paid barely a year ago. "As Lukashenko searches for ways to survive politically, it may be that cutting a deal with Putin is starting to look like his best option," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

Moscow has been seething with speculation about Putin's endgame. As the March presidential elections approach, Putin has not been acting like a politician on the eve of retirement. He personally led the electoral ticket of the United Russia party, which won a commanding 64 percent majority in parliamentary elections last week - a victory which he said gives him a "moral mandate" to continue exercising power.

But one by one, theories about how he will do that have collapsed. Putin did not resign before the presidential election campaign officially began, which could have circumvented the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms and enabled him to run again in March. Last week he declined the State Duma seat he had won, ruling out scenarios that saw him as head of a parliamentary majority.

"One of Putin's main characteristics is to never disclose his plan until the last moment," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a foreign policy journal. "He allows all sorts of misimpressions to thrive, while he bides his time and decides what he wants to do."

Experts say a Russia-Belarus union might provide the perfect solution for Putin. "This Russia-Belarus union looks like a very timely plan, one that's closely connected with all the other things that are going on, politically, right now," says Mr. Petrov. A referendum could be held as early as March, in both countries, to approve the Constitution of the new state, followed by elections for its key leaders, says Petrov.

Surveys show that people in mainly Russian-speaking Belarus remain deeply nostalgic for the former Soviet Union and strongly back the idea of reunification with Russia. With a two-thirds majority in the Duma, Putin would be unlikely to face impediments at home.

"It's a very serious project. Reunification is something vast majorities in both Russia and Belarus want," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. He says the final details are yet to be worked out, but the basic plan under discussion would involve giant, oil-rich Russia absorbing tiny, economically dependent Belarus in much the way China took over the former British colony of Hong Kong a decade ago. "There are powerful economic and security reasons to go ahead," says Markov.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your comment! Still, it seems somewhat beyond my point.

Of course, if the respective peoples of Russia and Belarus want to enter into union or become one state, they are free to do so.

My point is that this, from Russia's point of view, would be an enormous mistake and furthermore contrary to the policies the Kremlin, United Russia and others have so long been trying to develop and pursue.

In essence, plans of a union contradict the next phase, viz. modernisation, on the political agenda of Russia. Negative effects of the 2005 reforms are already beginning to be felt, and a union with Belarus would even more impair the possibilities to develop a more efficient and competitive Russia in the form of a "sovereign democracy".

Yours,

Vilhelm

Michael Averko said...

You're quite welcome Vilhelm.

With all due respect, your point remains to be seen. Russia is ahead of Belarus in democratic traits. The larger Russia will have a greater impact on Belarus than vice versa.

All this might be jumping the gun. It's quite possible that the reunification doesn't happen as stated.

Patrik said...

välkommen tillbaka till bloggandet

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Michael,

I do hope my point does not have to be demonstrated, as unification of Russia and Belarus would impede Russia's modernisation project.

This is not a question of democracy, which you might realise if you consider the contents of sovereign democracy and its role in developing Russia. Emphasis here is on sovereignty and not democracy.

As it already is, Russia has increasing problems with implementing its modernisation project, partly due to its dismantling of elements of a free and fair democracy. This a new Russian government with Medvedev as president will have to tackle.

To assume the additional burden of Belarus in this situation would in no way improve Russian prospects of modernisation and is therefore contrary to the Putin plan.

Yours,

Vilhelm

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Patrik,

Thank you for welcoming me back to blogging! Still, posting will continue to be scarce I fear. As a fact, I have not considered to quit blogging, but it is simply a matter of how much time I may be able to use for it during certain periods or that I have to consider the ramifications of various commissions. So, you may expect some pieces being published also in the future, but then probably on a highly irregular basis.

Yours,

Vilhelm

Michael Averko said...

Dear Vilhelm

The flip side is that another 10 or so million people would be affiliated with Russia. Russia is said to be short on population.

As for "burden", I see such a reunificaton as far less burdensome than the Anders Aslund like advocacy of the last decade.

In the final analysis, the choice of the Russian and Belarusian peoples should be respected.

Best,

Mike

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Michael,

As Russian leaders never stop to underline these days, there are great tasks ahead, of which one is to stop the demographic decline, mainly due to social and health problems. To deal with these problems is one of the main points in the so called Putin plan, and this has nothing to do with the influx of another 10 million people or so. It has to do with getting to grips with the core issues at hand.

As for Anders Åslund, I really have nothing to say, as the implied comparison does not concern the contents of my piece.

With a union, Russia would face the same dilemma as the European Union between enlargement and integration - or modernization and development as Russian leaders now put it. Currently paying the price of the 2005 legal and administrative reforms, Russian leaders would be advised not to venture into any new project before they have finished the one they are currently only starting. From a self-interested point of view, that would bea matter of whether Russia wants to use its resources on itself or on others.

As for the choice of the respective peoples, I have already stated that they are they have every right to do so choose which way they want to go - provided that referenda are free and fair.

Yours,

Vilhelm

Michael Averko said...

Dear Vilhelm:

It depends on how such a reunification will be implemented. It could be a gradually phased process, which would better address your points.

A healthier and secure Belarus is mutually beneficial to the West, Russia and Belarus. If properly implemented, a Russo-Belarusian reunification has a sensible basis to it.

Best,

Mike

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Michael,

It would be interesting to see you develop these views on your own - regrettably dormant - blog. What would be the benefits of a union between Russia and Belarus?

As for now, I am sorry to say, I must close this particular discussion for lack of time, as I have a deadline to meet, but I would look forward to read - and possibly, in due course, discuss - more on the theme on your blog.

Yours,

Vilhelm

Michael Averko said...

Dear Vilhelm:

It's already pretty well developed as per the stated desires of many in Russia and Belarus. Having a firm belief in something is often a key to having that objective succeed. Of course, there've been some unrealistic goals flunking out on that same premise. I don't believe a possible Russian-Belarusian reunification to be one of those.

Here's what a non-Russian/non-Belarusian had to say:

"I hope it happens. In my opinion, Belarus should be part of Russia."

Thanks for your blog suggestion. I prefer covering a diverse range.

Best,

Mike

Ibn ad Dunya said...

Welcome back!

Giustino said...

Because Lukashenko has been in power since I was in 9th grade (and I am now 28 years old) I believe that Belarus really has a worse reputation in the EU and North America compared to Russia.

Russia -- with all its illiberalism -- is a known quantity. Belarus, though, exists in some kind of mental blackhole.

So let's just say that any kind of unification would reduce Russian international political capital at a time when they are trying to earn it.

Some argue that Putin does not care what "the West" thinks, but I disagree. he wouldn't have put forth his friendliest face -- Medvedev -- if he didn't care what the West thought, he woul dhave just stayed in power himself, like Lukashenko.

Unification would just stir fears of a new Soviet Union. Nobody wants that. Some people think its inevitable, but is it inevitable that the UK will take back Ireland? Is it inevitable that Norway and Sweden will reunite under one crown? Will there be any more partitions of Poland?

So I don't think it's inevitable. More likely a waste of time.