The Growling Bear

March 26, 2006

It seems that Russia is slowly but surely extending its influence into some of its old Soviet Bloc nations. In Belarus Russian backed forces are fighting to keep a dictatorship in power, and in the Ukraine Russian backed forces are trying to regain power. Russian president Putin is an old school KGB man, and he is working to counter Western influence at his borders.

From Belarus:

Violent clashes erupted yesterday on the streets of Minsk, capital of the authoritarian state of Belarus, when riot police attacked protesters with teargas, stun grenades and batons, injuring several people.

Hundreds of demonstrators, who had been protesting against the allegedly fraudulent outcome of last weekend’s presidential elections, marched on a police station where their fellow protesters had been taken.

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The violence will further ignite tensions within the country of 10 million that has been ruled since 1994 by Lukashenko, dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ by the Bush administration. On Friday the US and European Union said that they would introduce ‘targeted sanctions’ against Lukashenko’s regime.

Yet Russia, Belarus’s ally and a cautious backer of Lukashenko said that a report damning the vote by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe had inflamed tensions.

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It was unclear yesterday whether the violence would consolidate the climate of fear in Belarus or inspire further protests. The Belarus security services, the KGB, had warned before last week’s vote that opposition demonstrators would be arrested for ‘terrorism’ and could face the death penalty. Opposition activists and human rights workers are routinely jailed on charges ranging from ‘slandering the president’ to ‘unsanitary behaviour’.

The EU is not to thrilled about events in Belarus. They don’t want a dictator on the European continent. Who could blame them. But I think there is also growing fear of a Russian power resurgence.

Ahead of a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Russia-Belarus Union, the Russian president advocated closer political, economic, and military ties with Belarus.

“We are meeting today to discuss the union state budget and some other problems. I would like to thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss these issues. I hope this meeting will take place as usual — in a warm and constructive atmosphere,” Putin said.

Russia and Belarus have long planned to join in a unified state with the Russian ruble as a single currency. But Putin riled Lukashenka in 2002 by proposing a plan under which Belarus would virtually become a part of Russia.

Lukashenka, however, spoke warmly of Russian-Belarusian relations today and stressed the need to boost efforts toward unifying the two nations. “In this short period of time since our last meeting [on 4 April in Sochi], there have already been some positive reactions from our people, Russians and Belarusians,” he said. “They hope we will be able to move forward in the main areas of the union building and there is every reason to believe we will. There are more than 15 issues on the agenda of the Supreme State Council and I think we will discuss them, make decisions and find solutions.”

Lukashenka and Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, signed a treaty in 1996 promoting closer cooperation with Belarus. Last summer, Putin and Lukashenka set January 2006 as the date for introducing the Russian ruble as the single currency, a move that had originally been planned for last January.

Today’s Supreme State Council meeting culminated in the signing of an agreement planning to give Russian and Belarusian citizens identical rights as regards pensions, health care, and income tax by the end of the year.

Events in Ukraine show a similar trend:

President Viktor Yushchenko, sporting a bright orange tie, said talks would start immediately after the election to form a government restoring the shattered coalition of liberal parties that backed the heady street protests of December 2004.

“Tomorrow we start consultations with political forces which made up the coalition which was victorious in the Orange Revolution,” he said as he cast his ballot in central Kiev.

But he was aware that much depended on the outcome and that disillusionment over his record left his Moscow-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovich, poised to bounce back on the political scene.

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At stake is the fate of a country of 47 million, whose “Orange” leaders have been unable to deliver on promises after prising Ukraine loose from centuries of Russian domination and setting it on a course for joining the European mainstream.

Optimism, generated by the turfing out of the pro-Moscow old guard, has evaporated amid slow growth and infighting.

Russia has lashed out over inclusion of two other neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, in the EU.

Sergei Markov, the head of the Moscow-based Institute for Political Studies, criticized Belarus’ former Soviet stable mates, Latvia and Estonia, which joined the EU in 2004, for effectively disenfranchising a quarter of their population and weighed into the debate about whether sanctions should be levied against Minsk following the incumbent leader’s disputed recent landslide reelection.

“Latvia and Estonia are less democratic states than Belarus,” he said. “As far as sanctions are concerned, they should be imposed on Latvia and Estonia, which have completely excluded 25% of their residents from political life.”

Also, from the same article:

He added that Belarus would need investment in the future and one possible way to obtain it would be through a long-discussed union with Russia, based on a model of “one country – two systems.”

The idea of a union state first emerged in 1997 to foster political and economic integration, in particular by standardizing taxes and tariffs, but has largely remained on paper. Belarus was to have adopted the Russian ruble as a single currency for the state in 2005, but the move has been postponed.

Sucking them back in one at a time. Russia has been trying to do this with other former Soviet controlled nations through the Commonwealth of Independent States, but has met resistance.

Guess Putin will have to keep working toward Asian domination throught the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

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