MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s careful balancing act between Russia and the European Union may yet come to grief because of a conflict on the other side of the former Soviet Union.
Russia, his traditional ally, has been pressing Minsk to recognise as independent states two separatist regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after Russia drove Georgian forces out of South Ossetia last August.
This unofficial demand has been made just as Lukashenko has undertaken small but significant steps towards the EU, which condemned Russia’s actions last August and has urged any country wanting friendly ties not to recognise the two regions.
For years Lukashenko faced Western accusations of human rights abuses but recently he has relaxed his grip on the state and the EU has noticed.
“The authorities now face an important choice — to recognise or not Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And this choice is about with whom Belarus wants to be — with the West or with the East,” said Alexander Milinkevich, the most prominent leader of the often divided liberal and nationalist opposition.
“This is the litmus test of how seriously the authorities want to develop relations with the European Union and what sacrifices they are prepared to make.”
The United States had long labelled ex-Soviet Belarus the “last dictatorship in Europe” and, together with the European Union, had accused Lukashenko of stamping out opposition by jailing activists, muzzling the media and rigging elections.
But since arguing with Moscow in 2007 over energy prices, Lukashenko has gradually taken steps to appeal to the EU. The last of those the West called political prisoners were released last year and independent media have been allowed to publish.
In response the EU has suspended a travel ban on Lukashenko and may invite him to a summit of eastern non-EU countries and EU members in May. That would be the first top-level meeting between Lukashenko and the EU in over a decade.
Lukashenko has avoided a decision on recognising the regions by handing the matter over to Belarus’s compliant parliament, asking it more than half a year ago to vote on the issue. But no motion has yet been submitted to the chamber and no one doubts that any decision would reflect Lukashenko’s choice.
So which will it be?
“He has enough people around him who, though not democrats, are pragmatic enough not to close the open window of opportunity which the EU is offering and who are ready for a slow change to the system,” said independent analyst Leonid Klaskovsky.
“Lukashenko understands that the imperial ambitions of the Kremlin are a continuous threat to Belarussian independence in general and his rule in particular.”
Analysts say the row over gas prices in 2007, which resulted in Minsk paying twice as much for its energy, jolted Lukashenko into seeking friendlier relations with the West. That, in turn, angered Moscow.
Russia has plenty of leverage over its smaller neighbour of 10 million people. Gas bills almost doubled in the first quarter of 2009 to $200 per 1,000 cubic metres, though prices are expected to drop as the year goes on.
“Recognition (of the Georgian regions) may happen in the autumn or at the end of the year when the question of Russian gas prices arises,” Klaskovsky said. “But I think Lukashenko would like to avoid recognition.”
EU sources have said recognising the two regions would wipe out the progress achieved with Brussels and that EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told Lukashenko as much on his first visit to Belarus in February.
Russia has given Minsk loans to offset the gas price rises and help Minsk deal with the global financial crisis, which was late in coming to the country but may cause serious problems as exports — key to the economy — slump over 45 percent.
“The debt pit we are falling into and economic dependence on Russia are very dangerous. Full economic dependence on another country spells the end of Belarus’s sovereignty,” Milinkevich said. He said Belarus could pay its way by selling state firms, giving Russian firms a tighter grip over the economy.
But apart from Russia’s $2 billion (1.4 billion pound) loan, Minsk has also reached an unprecedented agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a $2.4 billion loan. Some say that showed the benefits of moving closer to the EU.
“The support of EU countries on the IMF board was critical in ensuring that the loan was granted,” a Western diplomat said.
Editing by Jonathan Wright