ROAR: Belarus, Ukraine step up cooperation, with Moscow in mind

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is strengthening ties with Kiev to get more concessions from Moscow, the media and analysts think.

The presidents of Belarus and Ukraine met in Kiev last week to settle two major issues that have hindered bilateral relations. Minsk agreed to ratify the agreement of the border. Ukraine will reduce tariffs on electricity for Belarus to pay its debt.

Analysts note that Minsk and Kiev have made mutual concessions in these issues. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko also promised to support Minsk’s efforts to return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

The assembly cancelled Belarus's "special guest status" in 1997 over alleged election fraud at the presidential election. In June 2009, PACE passed a resolution banning Belarus’s participation as “a special guest” at the assembly’s meetings until the country abolishes death penalty.

Lukashenko and Yushchenko agreed to cooperate in the framework of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program. Minsk and Kiev will submit their joint proposals concerning the program to the EU.

At the same time, the Russian media stressed the importance of the “hidden agenda” of the meeting between Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders. They are interested in strengthening relations first of all to oppose Moscow, observers believe.

Yushchenko described relations with Minsk as those “of strategic partners,” Kommersant daily said. Lukashenko thanked his Ukrainian counterpart for “colossal support” for Belarusian efforts to build relations with other states, first of all, Western states and the US.

However, only two years ago nobody “could have predicted that Lukashenko would visit Kiev,” Expert magazine said, adding that the Belarusian leader had sharply criticized the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

The goal of Lukashenko’s visit to Ukraine is to create another “tactical advantage in his bargaining with Moscow,” believes commentator Olga Mefodyeva. As always, this bargaining contains Russia’s demands and Belarusian financial interests, she said.

Lukashenko’s rhetoric toward Kiev and his Ukrainian counterpart “was markedly positive,” Mefodyeva wrote at Politcom.ru website. Belarusian leader did not conceal long-term intentions of cooperation with Kiev, she noted.

However, despite the fact that the visit to Kiev may bring Minsk certain financial dividends, including cheap Ukrainian electricity, “the friendship” will be short-term because Yushchenko’s prospects to extend his presidential power are minimal, Mefodyeva said. To continue “brotherly relations,” Lukashenko will have to come to an agreement with a new Ukraine’s president, the analyst added.

Lukashenko chose Kiev for several reasons, Mefodyeva believes. When Ukraine gets a new president, the agreements with Yushchenko may be reconsidered. At the same time, Yushchenko remains “an emotional irritant” for the Russian leadership, so it was easy for the Belarusian leader to deliver his message in Kiev, she added.

After making unsuccessful overtures to Europe and the US, Belarus finds in Ukraine “the last object that could be used when bargaining with Russia,” Mefodyeva stressed.

“Lukashenko went to Yushchenko to strengthen friendship against Russia,” Moskovsky Komsomolets daily said. Belarus and Ukraine are stepping up relations when Moscow’s attitudes toward Belarusian leader have chilled, the paper noted. “Before, Russia defended Lukashenko on the world arena, and now Yushchenko has assumed the role of the defender,” the daily said.

Political scientist Vladimir Kornilov agrees that Lukashenko has used his visit to Ukraine to get concessions in his economic talks with Russia. For his part, Yushchenko is interested in friendship with Lukashenko “to oppose Russia,” the analysts told Rosbalt news agency.

The visit of the Belarusian leader to Kiev coincided with the establishment of a working group by the Belarusian parliament to consider a question about the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Observers stress that this was done at the suggestion of the Belarusian leader.

Minsk is not in a hurry to recognize the republics, the media say. Kommersant daily quoted the head of the Belarusian parliament’s commission on foreign affairs Sergey Maschekvich as saying that there is no task to consider the issue by the end of 2009. This statement coincides with the vector of foreign policy that Lukashenko had indicated in Kiev, the paper added.

The consideration by the Belarusian parliament of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may be also connected with the European Union’s sanctions against top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, Moskovsky Komsomolets daily said. “Now Minsk is hinting to Brussels that in case of the wrong decision it will go to Moscow again,” the paper noted. Minsk has “an additional interest” in getting a loan from the European Union, the daily added.

“The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states is one of the main topics in Russian-Belarusian relations,” Polit.ru website said. “In March, Lukashenko personally promised to Medvedev that the Belarusian parliament would take a decision,” it added. “However, in April the issue was not included in the agenda of the newly elected parliament,” the website noted.

“The European Union invited Minsk to the Eastern Partnership, and Lukashenko is trying to maneuver between Moscow and the West,” Polit.ru said. In addition, Lukashenko has criticized Moscow for failing to grant a $500 million credit to Minsk.

Observers considered the issue of the recognition of the two Caucasus republics by Belarus “hopeless” after Minsk in July ordered its citizens to observe Georgian laws while entering Abkazia and South Ossetia, the website said.

In October, Lukashenko blamed Moscow for the fact that Minsk had not recognized the two republics. He stressed that the Russian media had begun criticizing the Belarusian leadership “at the moment when it was ready to take a decision on the recognition,” Polit.ru said.

But following these statements Lukashenko made a step toward Russia, signing the agreement of the rapid reaction force of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Observers believe that Minsk has begun fulfilling its promises facing serious economic difficulties, the website said.

To confirm this, the Russian media quoted Lukashenko as saying in Kiev that problems in cooperation of Russia and Belarus show “the depth of bilateral relations.” Some disagreements “do not evidence the crisis in the Union State of Russia and Belarus,” Lukashenko said.

The Belarusian leader also stressed that cooperation between Moscow and Minsk has become “more pragmatic,” adding that it is “a natural pace of history and integration.”

Sergey Borisov, RT