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Belarusian Review


Putin Doctrine: Immediate Threat to Belarus

While the United States has been preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and the Middle East, Putin has succeeded in having a series of his bold imperialist initiatives put into action.

Starting five centuries ago, and continuing today, Russia has been a classical example of an expanding empire. It started when an obscure principality of Moscow (Muscovy) freed itself from Mongolian control. By the end of the 15th century Moscow declared itself the "Third Rome" and, under the guise of spreading Orthodox Christianity, embarked on a program known as the "collecting of all 'Russian' lands." But each time the empire expanded, there were new borders and new enemies behind them, calling for further expansion in the name of creating secure borders. In the process it grew into an empire, tsarist and later communist, stretching from the Pacific in the east to the Berlin Wall in the west by the end of the 20th century. Belarus was made part of the empire piecemeal - the last chunk annexed in 1795.
Over the years, the ruling elite and the Russian people came to believe that their mission was to rule the world. Communism seemed like an ideal doctrine to this end - one world state, no more borders, and the Russians in charge. Khruschev was very blunt about it. While visiting the U.S., he told an audience, "we will bury you [capitalism]."
It seemed the Russian expansion was unstoppable. But then came the Soviet incursion into Afganistan, where the Russians got their noses blooded, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russians, inculcated with the belief as the future world rulers, felt they had been cheated by the outside world. They just couldn't picture themselves as something lesser than a world power. They wanted the old empire restored. Integration of Belarus with Russia, conceived by Presidents Yeltsin and Lukashenka, was the first step in that direction. But the process has turned out to be cumbersome, with no end in sight.
More breakup aftershocks, the Chechen uprising and the search for a strong leader to replace Yeltsin, brought Vladimir Putin to the fore - in 1999 as prime minister and as president in 2000. With him came the new authoritarianism, having more in common with the old empire than with a democratic state.
To save the empire, Putin hit the Chechens hard. To restart the process of rebuilding the empire, he found it expedient to use Belarus as a stepping stone. Rather than labor over a union of two states, he proposed straight incorporation of Belarus into the Russian Federation. Lukashenka, intent on retaining his power, balked, insisting that Belarus retain its independence and sovereignty in the new union. To cow Belarus into compliance with his plan, Putin switched to the use of economic coercion. He let the Russian gas companies put pressure on Belarus and set January 1, 2005, as target date for adopting the Russian ruble as its currency. To push his initiative further, on September 19 in Yalta, the Russian president pressured the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan into signing a far-reaching economic treaty providing for a "single economic space." None of the three wanted to lose their sovereignty but they knew they had not much of a choice, being dependent economically on Russia.
The Putin doctrine. On October 9, Putin and his defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, told a press conference that Moscow reserves the right to settle, with military force if necessary, any disputes in its neighboring states, and to maintain oil and gas pipelines running "even in those parts of the system," said Putin, "that are beyond Russia's borders." Herein lies the danger to Belarus. There is currently a heated dispute between Russia and Belarus over who owns the gas pipelines running across Belarus. Russia insists it owns the pipelines. In addition, Russia has two strategically important military bases in Belarus operated by its military. Lukashenka is unpredictable ? he may cave in if the Russians threaten the use of force on the Belarusian territory.
The Putin doctrine is also dangerous for democracy in Russia itself. The December 7 elections to the State Duma should serve as a wake up call to the West. The pro-Putin majority in the new Duma consists of zealous imperialists of all stripes.
This dramatic deterioration of democracy in Russia calls for a review of West's own policy toward Russia. Russia is fast mowing towards neo-imperialism abroad and authoritarian control at home. Mr. Putin should be told that his government's undemocratic behavior and Russia's appetite for the "near abroad" will not be tolerated and will result in the exclusion of Russia from the company of Western democracies.
As regards Belarus, Mr. Putin should be reminded of the December 1994 CSCE Summit memorandum signed in Budapest, in which Russia, along with the U.S. and the U.K., in paragraph 1, reaffirmed their commitment "to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of the Republic of Belarus." And in paragraph 3 they reaffirmed their commitment "to refrain from economic coercion... to secure advantages of any kind." (See page 5 for the full text of the memorandum.).-
Russia's ongoing attempts to annex Belarus and the use of severe economic pressure and the threat of military force to this end call into question the sincerity of Russia's commitment. Paragraph 6 of the memorandum calls for consultation "in the event a situation arises which raises a question concerning these commitments." We would like to see the U.S. and the U.K. tell Mr. Putin that Russia's use of any form of force to incorporate Belarus into the Russian Federation is unacceptable.
For the record, the memoranda were signed in conjunction with Belarus' accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Simultaneously, identical memoranda were signed on behalf of Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Incidentally, these are the same three countries that Putin coerced into the signing of the economic treaty in September this year, clearly undermining the spirit of the Budapest memoranda.

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 15, No 4
Copyright 2003 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.

Joe Arciuch, Editor-at-Large

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