How Lukashenko Outsmarted Putin

President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Belarus was rather strange. First, Putin arrived with a huge retinue that included Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. Then Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko met one on one until 5:30 a.m.

The Russian delegation brought two sets of documents to Minsk. The smaller one contained the two agreements that the leaders signed. The second, larger set contained documents concerning the formation of a Russia-Belarus union.

The creation of a federation would require that both countries alter their constitutions and hold an election in 2009 to select a president of the new union. It would also mean that Putin's chosen presidential successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, would be reduced to a temporary figurehead who would occupy the Russian throne for not more than one year.

It is clear why Putin would want such an arrangement. But this would hardly be attractive to Lukashenko, a dictator who enjoys even more control over his people, bureaucrats and the press than Putin wields in Russia. Why would a dictator give up this type of authority? Under what circumstances would Lukashenko willingly opt for a federation with Russia? The answer is simple: He would do so only if he believed that there was a real chance that he could become president of the union.

No other explanation is possible. Under no other circumstances would an absolute dictator --whose every word becomes law and whose every capricious command is dutifully fulfilled by the sycophants surrounding him -- agree to serve as a servant in the court of some other dictator.

Let's consider a hypothetical situation in which new presidential election for the new federation are held in 2009 and the two candidates are Putin and Lukashenko. Who would win? I think Lukashenko would be the victor by a huge margin. He has an absolute monopoly on power and would never allow any oligarch or secret service official to get his hands on even a tiny piece of that monopoly.

Were Lukashenko to run for federation president, voters aligned with the Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party would surely vote for him. Moreover, I am confident that two thirds of all United Russia supporters -- and even United Russia's functionaries, including the top ranks -- would back him. Although it may not be visible on the outside, many members of so-called pro-Putin political parties are unhappy with the way Putin uses them as little more than doormats to wipe his boots on.

My guess is that the two presidents were discussing the idea of a federation until the wee hours of the morning. Utilizing his keen skills as an intelligence officer and psychologist, Putin recruited the absolute dictator, Lukashenko, to serve as his court toady and to gain a third term for himself. At the same time, Lukashenko, with his overblown ambitions, tried to secure the right to run for president of the federation.

In the end, the two leaders came to some kind of understanding, signed an unrelated gas deal, and then went their separate ways.

And one other detail: Lukashenko didn't even bother to go to the airport to meet Putin and his large delegation when they arrived in Minsk.

When Moscow announced that it would extend Minsk $1.5 billion in credit, it was packaged as a way to compensate for the expected steep price hike for Russian gas. The price increase turned out to be smaller than anticipated, but Russia offered the loan anyway. It seems that Putin shelled out $1.5 billion hoping that it will strengthen his position in a future Russia-Belarus federation.

Is this how Putin takes advantage of Lukashenko?

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.