WARSAW - Exactly a year ago Russian Special Forces — the infamous “green men” — were actively involved in the seizure of control of key sites in Crimea. Unidentified professional paratroopers “helped” Crimean pro-Russia activists and politicians to promptly organise a referendum that on March 16 announced the transfer of the peninsula from the Ukrainian state to the Russian Federation. This unprecedented act, the annexation, has marked a new era for the entire European continent, ultimately changing the post-soviet configuration of intergovernmental relations, and dividing Russia from its closest “friends”.
Prior to the annexation and the war in the east of Ukraine, Russia’s “near abroad” strategy relied on close alliances with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both neighbouring nations, while voicing deep support for Russia’s cause, and having historical and cultural connections to the largest player in the region, have utilised the relationship in the most pragmatic way possible. For over the last two decades Minsk and Astana have financially gained from being Russia’s best friends, whether via cheaper energy prices, massive credits or market preferences. Presidents Lukashenka and Nazarbayev, hardly being strong examples of democratically elected officials, valued their special relations with Putin’s Russia, and in exchange for preferable conditions never publicly contradicted Putin or mingled with Putin’s foes. Their key role since 2011 was the participation in the Moscow-led Eurasian integration effort, a dubious project of integration that is far more image than substance.
But Moscow’s radical approach to the Ukrainian revolution, its gambit in Crimea and the war in the east of Ukraine has changed how Minsk and Astana see their future. Indeed, from the very beginning of the Crimean endeavour up until early March 2015 both Astana and Minsk strongly opposed Russia’s interpretation of the events in Ukraine.
Moreover, both Lukashenka and Nazarbayev openly approached President Poroshenko and proposed their help and support to the Ukrainian people on several occasions. Appearance is terrifically important to Putin’s Russia, whether in the domestic or international domain. And its lack of public support, mixed with condemnation of Moscow’s Ukrainian policy by its closest allies, was highly irritating for the Kremlin.
To some extent, the Belarusian president was much more successful than the president of Kazakhstan. Both have tried to act as mediators by hosting peace talks, but only Lukashenka has been successful. The man famously known as “the last dictator in Europe” has become the “peace broker” and passed his former title over to his “big brother to the East”.
Russia’s game in Ukraine has nothing in store for Kazakhstan and Belarus. Clearly, every moral, historical and patriotic sentiment Russia’s propaganda uses to justify the Kremlin’s actions do not work for people of Belarus, even more Kazakhstan. The more Russia clashes with the West, the less its neighbors wish to be at any way related to Moscow and its agenda. Along the desire not to suffer politically from being part of the “Russian world”, Minsk and Astana are trying to protect themselves from the economic burdens that the recent crisis has brought.
The turbulence in the Russian economy and the ruble devaluation has hit Kazakhstan and Belarus more than any other nations directly because of their close relations with Russia through the Eurasian Economic Union. Kazakhstan, which has suffered from the flow of cheapening Russian exports, has considered placing an embargo on some Russian goods. Belarus has threatened to leave the Union if Russia doesn’t stop discriminating against Belarus transits through Russia, effectively undermining the cornerstones of the Customs Union provisions.
Any further significant degradation of Russian economic and political situation is a direct threat to the security and stability of Lukashenka’s and Nazarbayev’s regimes. With no option to slam the door on Russia’s Eurasian project or other mutual agreements, Minsk and Astana have begun a step-by-step improvement of their relations with the West. But as long as Russia holds it together, none of its “allies” would dare to publicly abandon Putin and turn 180 degrees towards Europe.
But, one could not miss, all the prep work the “last dictator in Europe” and Central Asia’s oldest ruler is doing. Lukashenka has been quite efficient in voicing his readiness to improve his relations with the West, especially the EU, which may already result in his participation in the Eastern Partnership summit in Latvia this May. For someone who has been a persona non grata, this is a breakthrough.
Kazakhstan went out of its way to initial a new partnership agreement with the EU, which should be signed by the end of this year. Although it is possible that this agreement will not mean much for bilateral relations, it could be used to foster a dialogue on a new level. What is more politically vocal is the announcement to host joint Kazakhstan-US military exercises this year south of Kazakhstan-Russia border.
Minsk and Astana are signaling to the West that they are ready to be a part of the dialogue over Russia. But one has to be realistic; neither Lukashenka, nor Nazarbayev have suddenly turned “liberal” or “democratic” — they remain just highly pragmatic. Russia hasn’t guaranteed that all their demands will be met, and thus a new bargain with the West could be struck.
Anton Barbashin is an analyst at the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.