As Putin’s Embrace Tightens, Belarus Strongman Reaches Out to EU

(Bloomberg) — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is set to make his first bilateral visit to the European Union since it dropped sanctions against him in 2016, as he strives to balance growing pressure from Moscow for integration with Russia.

Lukashenko, once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by the U.S., is due to meet Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen in Vienna on Nov. 12, his first state visit to the country that hosts United Nations agencies and likes to act as hub of West-East diplomacy. The trip was flagged when then Chancellor Sebastian Kurz met Lukashenko in Minsk in March.

Belarusian officials “are really trying” to boost ties with the West, mainly for economic reasons, said Igar Gubarevich, senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre, a London research group. Still, “they are willing to improve relations insofar as they don’t require reforms which may threaten Lukashenko’s power.”

The visit comes a week before the Russian and Belarusian prime ministers hold talks in Moscow on integration “roadmaps” intended to bind the two countries’ economies more tightly together. The program is due to be presented for approval by Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in December.

The EU has been trying to pry the former Soviet republic out of the shadow of the Kremlin by removing sanctions that included Lukashenko personally, when he freed political prisoners and helped mediate in the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists.

The U.S. has also thawed relations, announcing in September that its returning its ambassador to Belarus for the first time since 2008. That came shortly after the then National Security Adviser John Bolton met Lukashenko in Minsk to “emphasize U.S. support for Belarus’s sovereignty and independence,” according to the U.S. embassy.

‘Build Bridges’

Lukashenko’s Austria visit shows that ”gates that were closed before are opening now for Belarus,” said Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s committee on CIS affairs. “Belarus is trying to build bridges with the West and the West is interested in encouraging Belarus.”

While Russia and Belarus signed a 1999 accord to form a so-called Union State, Lukashenko has rebuffed demands for a monetary union, single legal system and common foreign and security policy. As recently as April, three people close to the Kremlin said Russia may press for a unified state with Belarus as a way to sidestep a constitutional ban on Putin extending his presidency when his current term ends in 2024.

Putin has denied any such plans. Lukashenko ruled out unification in July, saying he’d agreed with Putin that “absorbing Russia into Belarus or Belarus into Russia” shouldn’t even be discussed, the Belta news service reported.

Still, with Belarus largely dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies, Lukashenko felt the pressure when Moscow introduced new tax rules this year that he said may lead to nearly $11 billion in losses for his country by 2024 through increased crude costs.

Topics to be discussed in Vienna include the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and the maintenance of a memorial site in Maly Trostinets near Minsk, where the Nazis killed many Austrian Jews in World War II. The Austrian presidency said there will be a “critical dialogue on human right problems” and a meeting of business leaders.

While Lukashenko “can make all the gestures he wants” to demonstrate his independence, “there is one objective thing – Belarus is deeply economically dependent on Russia,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Kremlin. The Union State plans “suggest that Belarus has no room for maneuver,” he said.

–With assistance from Aliaksandr Kudrytski.

To contact the reporters on this story: Boris Groendahl in Vienna at bgroendahl@bloomberg.net;Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow at skravchenko@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at cthomas16@bloomberg.net, Tony Halpin, Gregory L. White

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©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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