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.