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Political Trends in the New Eastern Europe: Ukraine and Belarus

Authored by Dr. Arkady Moshes, Dr. Vitali Silitski. | June 2007

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OVERVIEW

For most of its existence as a newly-independent state in Eastern Europe, Belarus enjoyed a dubious reputation of being the continent?s last dictatorship. The regime established by the country?s president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has a solid domestic base. Nevertheless, the continuous political, economic, and diplomatic support provided to Lukashenka?s Belarus by its Eastern neighbor, the Russian Federation, greatly contributed to the overall stability and smoothness with which the Belarus leader accumulated power, institutionalized his autocratic rule, and fended off both internal and external challenges.

Belarus-Russia relations are often seen as the alliance dominated primarily by ideological rather than pragmatic reasons. This point of view is not completely adequate, though. Incumbents and political elites in both countries have considerations far broader than immediate material benefits for themselves, their budgets, and national economies. They constantly calculate and weigh a variety of political, social, economic, and cultural factors that ensure or threaten their political survival and stability of power. In this sense, the Belarus-Russia union has served the Kremlin under both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin and the official Minsk throughout the last decade. By pursuing an alliance with its Eastern neighbor, Lukashenka guaranteed economic advantages crucial for his unorthodox policy experiments and a cover-up on the international arena. By engaging with Lukashenka, the Yeltsin regime was able to minimize somewhat the political pressure exerted by Communists and ultranationalists, and to reestablish some credibility with military and bureaucratic elites who loathed disintegration of the Soviet Union. In spite of several highly-publicized brawls with Lukashenka, Putin?s administration generally continued this line, although more for geostrategic than purely political reasons.

In the last few years, pragmatism and ideology converged in Belarus-Russia relations under the influence of the wave of democratic revolutions that swept through the former Soviet Union in 2003-05. Paraphrasing the words of President George W. Bush, autocratic incumbents throughout the region came to understand that the survival of their own regimes greatly depended upon the preservation of autocracies beyond their borders. Ukraine?s Orange revolution in 2004, in particular, hastened the formation of an informal ?authoritarian international? of former Soviet leaders who are eager to provide each other political, intellectual, and information support to reverse the wave of the democratic change. The Belarus-Russia union is rapidly becoming a core of this newly-emerging authoritarian international.

CONCLUSION

The vector of Ukraine?s political evolution is now determined. If earlier, as the famous title of Leonid Kuchma?s book suggested, for the Ukrainian elite it was enough to state that Ukraine was not Russia, now the country has a better vision of the destination of its transition. Ukraine declares willingness to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic community, which implies deep internal transformations and reforms. And it has a chance to succeed, although its travel in the chosen direction may be long and full of zigzagging and deviations.

In any case, the systemic change in Ukraine will take years?maybe decades. The strategy to promote its transformation and Euro-Atlantic integrationshould, therefore, prioritize the direction of the trendover its speed. If the process goes too fast, it can becounterproductive and even destabilizing. The follow-ing recommendations could be proposed for those inthe West who wish to assist Ukraine to attain the goal.Internal developments should be closely moni-tored and assessed against the highest standards of democracy and the rule of law. If any wrong-doing is found, the criticism should be firm, unambiguous, and transparent both domestically and internationally. It is important to prove wrong the assumptions that the Western policies are driven primarily by Ukraine?s geopolitical importance, which results in indulgence given to regimes that publicly lean to the West. In the case of Western inability to treat the imperative of transformation higher than geopolitics, emergence of the ?Kuchma-2? model inside Ukraine will be a realistic possibility.

The Russian factor remains considerable in Ukraine, but its impact should not be overestimated. Russian influence in Ukraine has decreased dramatically and is not likely to be restored. In Kiev, Moscow is not seen as having a veto on Ukraine?s fundamental choices, although its leverages in certain areas are strong. In this regard, it is essential for the United States, together with its European allies, to help Ukraine address the problem of its energy dependence on Russia. On the one hand, Ukraine should be assisted to relatively quickly introduce energy-saving technologies. On the other hand, Ukraine could benefit from the construction of a new direct system of energy transit between Europe and Transcaspian regions.

The NATO door should be kept open for Ukraine. The MAP can be launched without a major delay. Practical cooperation on the issue of military reform in Ukraine should continue, as well the information campaign on what is NATO today. However, to think of issuing Ukraine a formal invitation to join the Alliance before the presidential elections of 2009 seems premature, taking into account public attitudes about NATO membership and doubts as to the leadership?s ability to change them in the short term. Russia-NATO cooperation is likely to weaken popular opposition to the membership in Ukraine, but that is not the only factor that affects perceptions.

The issue of Russian military bases in Crimea should not be central for Ukraine?s NATO accession. This will weaken the temptation to use them as an obstacle and provoke a conflict around Sevastopol when the time to make decisions comes. At the same time, Russia?s commitment to withdraw the Black Sea Fleet by 2017 should not be a subject of any discussion.

Finally, the United States should promote opening of the EU perspective for Ukraine. Doing this will be understandably difficult, but also promising. Ukraine?s population is more likely to accept the double enlargement, as it instinctively strives to get into the European prosperity zone more than into the Western security system. In turn, the EU perspective creates much stronger incentives for systemic internal transformation than NATO membership does.