MOSCOW (Alexei Arbatov for RIA Novosti) - The West clearly demands that Belarus should be freed of what it calls the last dictatorship in Europe.
I am afraid that Russia-West confrontation in this area could end in a head-on clash.
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is not former Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma: He will suppress the slightest sign of protest, especially by young people. The West may intervene by providing help to the protesters, forcing Lukashenko to seek assistance from Russia, and the Kremlin will be hard put to deny it. After the defeat in Ukraine, Belarus has become doubly important to it for communications, defense and access to the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad. Belarus is very nearly the last ally of Russia in the former Soviet Union.
I do not think that Russia will send in troops. But there are special operations units and internal troops. Moscow may intervene if Lukashenko appeals for help and it is clear that his downfall will send Belarus in Ukraine's footsteps toward NATO without Russia.
This will mean NATO will be along the entire Russian border, complicating the Kaliningrad situation and putting enormous pressure on Vladimir Putin. He will have to think about how to maintain political stability. Losing Belarus after Ukraine would be a new, serious blow to his authority at home.
If Belarus falls, or if developments there provoke a Russia-West confrontation, the domestic situation in Russia will be affected immediately. The country will be unable to develop a market economy and democracy if it is involved in a confrontation with the West.
The West will most probably not intervene in Belarus and the republic will remain allied to Russia. In this case, the West will take its "revenge" in Ukraine, the Baltic states and Georgia, and try to win over Azerbaijan and Armenia. Russia and Belarus will be completely surrounded by NATO countries.
NATO is neither an adversary nor a friend for Russia; it is a partner and, although the two sides disagree on some points, they also have many areas of interaction. But they will have to forget about it if Belarus is hit by a "color revolution."
If Russia develops relations with the opposition leaders of Belarus in good time (and some of them are living overseas), a choice between "Belarus with Lukashenko and with Russia" and "Belarus without Lukashenko and without Russia" will not figure on the agenda. But this would mean skating on very thin ice, because Lukashenko has actually outlawed the opposition. To develop contacts with it would mean acting against Lukashenko as the incumbent president. This would be difficult .
Revolutions, even such bloodless ones as recent color revolutions in former Soviet republics, cannot develop without a breeding ground. They need an ineffective and unpopular regime that is not supported by the vast majority of the people. For example, Ukraine was almost split by the time of its "orange revolution."
When half of the population does not support the regime, this is an alarming sign. It is a dangerous moment when external forces can influence the situation. Opinion polls show that the majority of the population and the political elite in Russia are more pro-etatist than the president. And no liberal revolution can happen here. On the contrary, nationalists and the radical Left might take to the streets, but not the rightwing forces.
Besides, we must not forget history: In the 1990s the rightwing liberals, who held ranking posts in the Russian power structure, if not directly ruled it, failed to carry through the reforms. This left people disillusioned. There was nothing of the kind in Ukraine or Belarus.
Russia must decide with whom it will work. In my opinion, it should work with the West and above all Greater Europe. Its relations with NATO should be promoted to a stage where Russia will not fear the accession of its close neighbors to the bloc. In other words, NATO should cease to become a hostile organization for Russia, but this depends both on NATO and Russia.
Their relations are crawling rather than moving, largely because of Russian ministries, including defense ministry, but also because of the West's unclear approach to Russia. The West does not want to outline unambiguous and lasting relations for NATO and the EU with Russia. Better and deeper relations may be not a goal but a process. Yet every process should have a goal, otherwise current policy will be reduced to tactical steps that completely overshadow strategy.
Alexei Arbatov is a non-voting member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and head of the International Security Center at the IMEMO Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the RAS
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.