Outside view: Defusing a clash on Belarus
By Alexei Arbatov
Outside View Commentator

United Press International
June 1 2005

Moscow, Russia, May. 31 (UPI) -- The West clearly demands that Belarus
should be freed of what it calls the last dictatorship in Europe.

I am afraid that Russia-West confrontation in this area could end in
a head-on clash.

The president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is not former Ukrainian
leader Leonid Kuchma: He will suppress the slightest sign of protest,
especially by young people. The West may intervene by providing help to
the protesters, forcing Lukashenko to seek assistance from Russia, and
the Kremlin will be hard put to deny it. After the defeat in Ukraine,
Belarus has become doubly important to it for communications, defense
and access to the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad. Belarus is very
nearly the last ally of Russia in the former Soviet Union.

I do not think that Russia will send in troops. But there are
special operations units and internal troops. Moscow may intervene
if Lukashenko appeals for help and it is clear that his downfall will
send Belarus in Ukraine's footsteps toward NATO without Russia.

This will mean NATO will be along the entire Russian border,
complicating the Kaliningrad situation and putting enormous pressure on
Vladimir Putin. He will have to think about how to maintain political
stability. Losing Belarus after Ukraine would be a new, serious blow
to his authority at home.

If Belarus falls, or if developments there provoke a Russia-West
confrontation, the domestic situation in Russia will be affected
immediately. The country will be unable to develop a market economy
and democracy if it is involved in a confrontation with the West.

The West will most probably not intervene in Belarus and the republic
will remain allied to Russia. In this case, the West will take its
"revenge" in Ukraine, the Baltic states and Georgia, and try to win
over Azerbaijan and Armenia. Russia and Belarus will be completely
surrounded by NATO countries.

NATO is neither an adversary nor a friend for Russia; it is a partner
and, though the two sides disagree on some points, they also have
many areas of interaction. But they will have to forget about it if
Belarus is hit by a "color revolution."

If Russia develops relations with the opposition leaders of Belarus in
good time (and some of them are living overseas), a choice between
"Belarus with Lukashenko and with Russia" and "Belarus without
Lukashenko and without Russia" will not figure on the agenda. But this
would mean skating on very thin ice, because Lukashenko has actually
outlawed the opposition. To develop contacts with it would mean acting
against Lukashenko as the incumbent president. This would be difficult.

Revolutions, even such bloodless ones as recent color revolutions in
former Soviet republics, cannot develop without a breeding ground.
They need an ineffective and unpopular regime that is not supported
by the vast majority of the people. For example, Ukraine was almost
split by the time of its "orange revolution."

When half of the population does not support the regime, this is
an alarming sign. It is a dangerous moment when external forces can
influence the situation. Opinion polls show that the majority of the
population and the political elite in Russia are more pro-etatist
than the president. And no liberal revolution can happen here. On the
contrary, nationalists and the radical Left might take to the streets,
but not the rightwing forces.

Besides, we must not forget history: In the 1990s the right-wing
liberals, who held ranking posts in the Russian power structure,
if not directly ruled it, failed to carry through the reforms. This
left people disillusioned. There was nothing of the kind in Ukraine
or Belarus.

Russia must decide with whom it will work. In my opinion, it should
work with the West and above all Greater Europe. Its relations with
NATO should be promoted to a stage where Russia will not fear the
accession of its close neighbors to the bloc. In other words, NATO
should cease to become a hostile organization for Russia, but this
depends both on NATO and Russia.

Their relations are crawling rather than moving, largely because
of Russian ministries, including defense ministry, but also because
of the West's unclear approach to Russia. The West does not want to
outline unambiguous and lasting relations for NATO and the EU with
Russia. Better and deeper relations may be not a goal but a process.
Yet every process should have a goal, otherwise current policy will
be reduced to tactical steps that completely overshadow strategy.

--

(Alexei Arbatov is a non-voting member of the Russian Academy of
Sciences, and head of the International Security Center at the IMEMO
Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the RAS.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may
not necessarily represent the opinions of the RIA Novosti editorial
board. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti.)

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