On Tuesday April 27, the parliaments of Russia and Ukraine ratified an agreement extending by 25 years Russia's lease of the base in Sevastopol, where it's Black Sea Fleet is stationed. This agreement is the clearest sign yet of the two countries' rapprochement. Russia's relationship with Belarus, on the other hand, is veering off course.
In fact, this "Slavic triangle" has never been isosceles. Until recently, Russian-Ukrainian relations were essentially frozen. The tension was only punctuated with periods of downright hostility. Moscow's alliance with Belarus seemed stable in comparison; the two countries even established the Union State with its own joint governing bodies.
Ukraine and Belarus have unexpectedly reversed roles. Russia's relations with Ukraine are improving with each passing day, while its Union State partner - who should be more than a mere ally - is making unfriendly statements about Moscow with ever greater frequency. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told Reuters in February that Russia is displaying the same imperial ambitions in its foreign policy as the United States. That is a breathtaking accusation.
Condemning Russia's "imperial ambitions" was a favorite pastime of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Unsurprisingly, Russian-Ukrainian relations were strained during his tenure. Now that he has been replaced by Viktor Yanukovych, bilateral relations are on the upswing. As for Belarus, the government has not changed hands there for a long time. Lukashenko has been running the country since 1994. During those 16 years, he seemingly failed to notice Russia's "imperial ambitions". What changed his mind? Why is it that Russia's long-time partner and faithful ally, as Lukashenko once positioned himself, has changed his rhetoric so abruptly?
Lukashenko's rhetoric continues to grow more and more aggressive. On April 25, the Belarusian leader said, "the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces seems to have forgotten that there are two Russian bases in Belarus: one near Baranovichi and the other near Vileika. Let me remind him that unlike for Sevastopol, Russia doesn't pay us a single ruble or kopeck in rent for these bases." Were it not for the long-standing alliance between Russia and Belarus, this "reminder" might have sounded an awful lot like blackmail. But Lukashenko did not stop there. "Russia has no friends in the West except for the Belarusian army," he added.
Lukashenko made this statement right after Russia and Ukraine signed the agreement on the Sevastopol base. Russia will be able to keep its Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, but at a price of several billion dollars. True, if the lease had not been extended, the cost of relocating the fleet to a new base in Novorossiysk would have been much greater. But this would have been Russia's problem, not Ukraine's.
Could it be that Lukashenko's grudge is rooted in the fact that Belarus makes no profit from Russian military bases? This is not even the first time he raised the issue of money. "Russia will have to pay hard currency for something it is used to get free of charge," Lukashenko said in February. He also claims that Belarus has lost a total of $5 billion since January 1, when Moscow introduced export customs duties on refined oil products and petrochemicals supplied to Belarus. This dispute has been taken up by the CIS Economic Court. In any case, it's strange to see two members of a Union State squabbling over money.
Was it a coincidence that the dispute escalated just as Russian-Ukrainian relations finally began to improve? Hardly. Lukashenko is an experienced and shrewd politician. He has always been adept at exploiting Belarus's role as Russia's only friend in a hostile environment and its geographical position as Russia's gateway to Europe. Lukashenko was not troubled by the New Year's gas wars between Moscow and Ukraine. Instead he saw an opening to pressure Moscow for even more generous subsidies.
Now the situation has reversed. Lukashenko has lost his unique role now that Moscow has settled its gas dispute with Ukraine and signed a range of agreements, including the extension of the lease on the Sevastopol base and a gas supply agreement with an enormous 30% discount for Ukraine. Perhaps this is why Lukashenko recently launched a broadside against Russia's policy toward Kyrgyzstan.
Lukashenko decided to try on the role of defender of the CIS. He began in February with his accusation that Russia was "paying little notice" to the former Soviet republics, taking it for granted that they will remain "attached" to Russia forever. In April, he granted asylum to Kyrgyzstan's ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and harshly criticized the CSTO for standing by as the Kyrgyz coup unfolded: "If the CSTO continues on like this, the organization has no future."
It is not clear why Lukashenko believes the CSTO should meddle in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs. This was not even the first time a president was overthrown there. When Askar Akayev was forced out five years ago, Lukashenko did not seem too concerned about his fate or the situation in the newly-independent Central Asian republic. Things are different this time around: Lukashenko is so fond of his new high-ranking refugee that in addition to granting Bakiyev asylum, he announced that Belarus still recognizes him as the legitimate president. Nor was Lukashenko embarrassed by being completely alone in this position, as the other CIS states all established contact with the interim government in Kyrgyzstan.
Far from strengthening the CIS, Lukashenko's game threatens to take this delicate structure down from within. Perhaps Lukashenko saw what happened to Bakiyev and wondered if he's next. Lukashenko may even be hoping to use Bakiyev as a bargaining chip against Moscow, weak though it is.
One thing is clear: the Belarusian president's position has been weakened by the rapprochement between Russia and Ukraine, once again proving that old adage that nations have no permanent friends or permanent enemies - only permanent interest. The Slavic triangle is no exception.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (Nikolai Troitsky, RIA Novosti political commentator)