Vice President Lukashenko

Last week, President Vladimir Putin met his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, for talks in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. The meeting was officially described as routine. The leaders agreed that Belarus should continue to receive Russian gas at reduced prices and postponed the introduction of a joint currency based on the Russian ruble. However, an informed Kremlin source told me that the real progress was made behind the scenes.

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Putin and Lukashenko apparently agreed on a joint strategy to prevent popular democratic revolutions from overthrowing their regimes. The Kremlin insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that a tentative agreement has been reached that would drastically speed up the process of merging Russia and Belarus into a bastion opposing Western-sponsored democratic change.

In a year or so, a referendum will be held in Russia and Belarus to merge the two nations. The Russian Constitution will be rewritten, and the State Duma will be disbanded to create a new joint parliament. The countries' defense and foreign ministries will be merged. Putin will be re-elected sometime in 2007 for seven years to be president of the new joint nation with Lukashenko as vice president. Such a combination would solve the so-called problem of 2008, the need to replace Putin, whose second and last term as president under the current Constitution will soon end. Lukashenko will run with Putin as vice president, assured that the Kremlin will be his after Putin's seven-year term ends.

The merger with Belarus was always a high-priority goal for Putin, the first step in reuniting the former Soviet Union. Since 2000, Lukashenko has refused to give up his fiefdom, but now fear of regime change is driving the two leaders together, though they do not particularly like each other.

The concern in the Kremlin is genuine. In a recent interview, Putin chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev warned that the growing split within the Russian elite may destroy Russia. It is clear, though, that Medvedev was more afraid of regime change than of Russia's possible disintegration. It is also clear that Putin and his close cohorts have reason to be worried. The ruling elite is split today, and not in Putin's favor. Over the last year, discontent has spread rapidly, engulfing previously loyal parts of the bureaucracy. It's not well known to the general public, but no secret to insiders: The middle ranks of the military, security services and law enforcement are today disgusted with Kremlin policies and no longer support Putin's regime.

The reasons why different parts of the elite today loathe Putin are diverse. Liberals detest the dismantling of democracy. Journalists despise the shrinking freedom of the press. Businessmen are outraged by the ever-growing bribes they are forced to pay corrupt officials, and they are unnerved by the uncertain nature of property rights after the Yukos affair. Officers and security officials with nationalist leanings believe Putin has sold Mother Russia to the hated Americans by letting them occupy former Soviet Central Asia.

Corrupt middle-rank military, security and law enforcement officials detest the amount of money the Kremlin gang takes. As insiders, they know all too well that their superiors rake in hundred of times more in bribes than the rank and file. In 2000, Putin promised to restore the greatness of the Russian military, and defense spending has indeed grown substantially, but the only result has been grossly increased misappropriation.

Salaries of officers in the overstaffed military, security and police armies remain entirely inappropriate. Putin and his ministers apparently do not understand that when Kremlin-controlled propaganda trumpets another pay hike of several hundred rubles the penny-ante increase only causes more dissent.

As Medvedev made clear in his interview, Kremlin insiders feel their growing isolation. If the men with guns are increasingly disloyal, any serious crisis may, as in Kyrgyzstan or in Georgia, lead to sudden regime collapse. There will be no one willing to fight for Putin if some future stupid reform brings the masses onto the streets.

Enter Lukashenko, who built a loyal military in Belarus that is ready to batter dissenters anytime. During serious internal crises, Putin has tended in previous years to keep a low profile, but in the future, Vice President Lukashenko could step in, airlift his rogues from Minsk to Moscow and save the regime. This marriage of convenience may help Putin stay in power, while ending Lukashenko's present international isolation.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.