In case you have been following the conflict between Russia and Belarus: the “milk wars” (the Russian ban on imports of Belarussian dairy products, followed by the imposition of harsh new customs tariffs on Russian roducts in Belarus) are over. Now, it seems there’s a gas war coming. Belarus’s wily authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko (popularly known as “bat’ka” — a folsky and rather affectionate term best translated as “Big Daddy”), canceled his presence at a summit on security issues in a fit of pique. What it’s really about is the fact that nearly a year ago, Russia gave Belarus a $500 million loan with the tacit understanding that it was the first of installments in a bribe for recognizing Russia’s new client states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Big Daddy, who has been playing a skillful game of seduction with both Russia and Western Europe. took the money and bailed on the two republics. Russia refused to cough up the second installment of the bribe.
There are no good guys in this clash: Belarus is an authoritarian state that, in many ways, makes Russia look like a beacon of freedom, and Bat’ka Lukashenko is a clever thug. Nonetheless, this latest row underscores the fact that Russia’s power in the “post-Soviet space” it likes to claim as its sphere of “privileged interests” is not nearly as great as it is often made out to be — even if the Kremlin still has the ability to throw money around (in a crisis!) to give another neighboring state the incentive to kick out a U.S. air force base. Russia’s crude manner of swinging its weight around — in response to Lukashenko’s show of defiance, a senior Medvedev Administration official told Kommersant newspaper, commenting on the situation in Belarus, that “apparently, someone has had enough of being president of that country” — has contributed to its problems.
In this excellent Russian-language article on Grani.ru, the astute Russian policy analyst Stanislav Belkovsky notes that in the past decade, “the Kremlin has done everything it could to squander the remnants of its influence in its former empire” and to quarrel with precisely those neighbors with whom it most needs good relations.
(Cross-posted to RealClearPolitics.com.)