Kremlin Caught in Lukashenko's Trap

MINSK, Belarus -- If it weren't for the clean streets and the road signs in Belarussian, Minsk could easily pass for a well-off provincial town in Russia.

The books and newspapers sold in the newsstands all come in Russian. Most of the radio stations broadcast in Russian and play Russian pop songs. People mainly watch Russian television channels. When asked, they say Russian President Vladimir Putin is their favorite politician.

And it is thanks in part to Russia's policies that Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has nothing to fear from Sunday's election. Despite growing allegations that he has had political opponents killed, Lukashenko is certain to trounce Vladimir Goncharik, the opposition candidate running against him.

Russia wants to keep Belarus as its main political and military ally in Europe, and as the last remaining buffer between its western border and NATO. But some observers warn that Belarus has become a trap for the Kremlin, which, to protect its strategic interests, finds itself backing an increasingly totalitarian president who has become an outcast in Europe.

Dmitry Trenin, a foreign policy expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Lukashenko is "a walking embarrassment" for his Russian partners. "It's difficult for a decent person even to sit down with him at the same table, let alone run a union," he said in a recent telephone interview.

And yet, Russian politicians do much more than share a table with their Belarussian colleague. For years they have been hammering out a customs union, discussing a common currency and planning joint military forces, with the goal of making the Russia-Belarus Union a reality.

But more important, Russia is effectively keeping its tiny neighbor's comatose economy alive, said Alexander Sosnov, an economist and the deputy director of the Independent Institute for Social, Economical and Political Studies in Minsk.

"The Belarussian economy would have long ago fallen apart if it weren't for Russian help," Sosnov said in an interview. "The only things that keeps it alive are cheap Russian energy and the regular debt relief Minsk gets from Moscow."

Russia, he said, is also the main market for many Belarussian products, from its relatively good-quality tractors -- which have 13 percent of the world market -- to Gorizont television sets, which would have trouble finding buyers anywhere else. Another source of help is the customs union, which gives Belarus access to taxes on products heading for Russia. "All in all, Russian financial help to Belarus varies between $1 billion and $2 billion a year," Sosnov said.

Russia has a good reason for keeping Belarus' economy afloat. With Poland having joined NATO and the Baltic states heading the same way, Belarus seems to be the only country to Russia's west that it can count on.

"It never plays any tricks on Russia in international forums and, on top of that, so far it has kept Russian oil and gas flowing to the west without any major problems -- no stealing, as in Ukraine," Sosnov said. Belarus also houses the western-most early warning radar, and its military factories produce key elements of Russian strategic rockets.

But financing an ally whose economy looks very much like it did in Soviet times is becoming harder and harder, according to Sosnov. "The Russians have started counting their money. And they don't like to see it wasted."

The cracks are showing on other fronts as well -- the days of boozy backslapping with Boris Yeltsin are long gone and the new Russian president has kept cordial but cold personal relations with Lukashenko and has never publicly supported him.

"The Russian leadership doesn't like him at all," said Sergei Markov, a political analyst with the pro-Kremlin Strana.ru web site.

"Putin openly dislikes Lukashenko," said Alexander Feduta, an independent political analyst in Minsk and a former Lukashenko insider. "And Lukashenko simply dreads him. Next to Yeltsin he looked and felt himself a statesman. Next to Putin he feels like a suspect being questioned by an investigator."

Officially, at least, Russia has chosen a hands-off policy in the election.

But the Belarussian opposition still accuses Moscow of helping Lukashenko. Their anger is directed mostly at the politicians who have visited Belarus in the run-up to the election and praised the president on state-controlled television. St.Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleyev, populist State Duma Deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov have made trips to Minsk, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is scheduled to arrive Wednesday.

Vasily Leonov, the former agriculture minister now heading Goncharik's campaign staff, said in an interview that the visiting Russian politicians were "cynically and openly messing with Belarussian politics."

But what seems to upset the opposition the most is the behavior of the Russian television channels, whose influence is deemed greater than that of local television.

Until recently, all main Russian main channels were, to one degree or another, critical of Lukashenko and at times have been taken off the air. In recent months, however, this changed, and the only channel to attempt any criticism of Lukashenko lately is NTV. Others either are skipping Belarus altogether or airing pro-Lukashenko programs.

"This is the only country of the former Soviet Union where Russia could literally change everything in a week, if it only wanted to," said Alexander Tomkovich, the head of the independent Den newspaper. "All it would take would be to give the order to the national TV stations: Go and get him! But the order apparently has not come."

Markov, however, said Russia's ability to influence Belarussian politics through the media is limited. "Lukashenko is genuinely popular, and slinging him with mud could easily backfire," he said. "Russia could make a difference only if the situation is unclear, but the situation now is as clear as it gets."

Michel Rivollier, deputy head of the OSCE mission in Minsk, said Russia feels it has no alternative to Lukashenko. "Russia is going to support Lukashenko even if it dislikes him," he said. "They need stability at the moment."

Feduta agreed, saying Lukashenko is the only politician who Moscow feels can guarantee Belarus will not become another former Soviet state turning its back on Russia. "Russia has only bad choices here: It's either pro-Russia Lukashenko with his erratic behavior and embarrassing heavy-handed tactics or a pro-Western opposition president."

Any candidate that Moscow could have seen as a potentially reliable ally and an alternative to Lukashenko one way or the other was taken off the ballot.

The Belarussian opposition -- a medley of civic and nationalistic parties and pro-independence trade unions -- understands that most of the population feels a deep connection with Russia. But although the opposition formally pledges allegiance to the Russia-Belarus Union, Moscow sees this as no more than a electoral trick, Markov said.

"They might be democratic, but they are certainly not pro-Russian," he said. "They are strongly supported by the United States and once they are in power, they might start loosening up ties with Moscow and turning their faces across the Atlantic. This Russia cannot afford."

Russia's only choice is Lukashenko. "He, on the other hand, is definitely pro-Russian, but most certainly not democratic," Markov said.

"Russia is trapped in Belarus," he said. "More than anything Moscow would like to see a democratic and democratically elected pro-Russian president in Belarus. And that, unfortunately, is not possible at the moment."