Much has been made of Russian great power politics. Western media has been swamped with reports of Russia’s assertive energy politics, its Cold War-style military parades and photographs of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in shirtless macho poses.
More discreetly however, Russia has been striving to display the country’s greatness through the realization of various projects that commemorate Russia’s glorious history and show off the country’s modernization and economic growth. By holding prominent international events, Moscow hopes to restore the country’s national pride and revive some of its regional centers through the development of infrastructure projects that typically accompany such events.
But will Russia’s investments into these events improve its image abroad and bring much-needed progress for its lesser-developed regions?
Some of Russia’s pipelines have names that reflect more than just technical realities – such as the Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline system that brings oil to Central Europe. Yet, others are of a more prosaic kind, including the recently opened Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean Pipeline (ESPO). ESPO will bring the black gold from Eastern Russia to China and Russia’s Pacific Coast. Whether this new pipeline is the beginning of a new Russian-Chinese energy-friendship remains to be seen.
China’s growing appetite for gas and oil will be hard to saturate in the next decades. According to projections of the International Energy Agency, China’s demand for primary energy will nearly double from 1,765 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2007 to 2,539 Mtoe in 2020 and 3,451 Mtoe in 2035. The country will account for 30 percent of the increase in global primary energy demand for that period. Oil demand is expected to more than double while the demand for natural gas will more than triple.
Before that backdrop one would expect Russia, home to 5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 24 percent of all proven gas resources, to be eager to enter this growing market; even more so, since the focus of Russia’s oil and gas production is moving eastwards. There are untapped hydrocarbon resources in Eastern Siberia and Russia’s Far East that are expected to cover falling production elsewhere. Furthermore, hooking up with China holds major potential for developing an economically backward region and would add another trump to Russia’s hand when bargaining with its European energy customers.
But that’s not how Russia seems to view the situation.
Many countries are not fully recognized by international organizations and other countries. Kosovo, Somaliland and Taiwan are good examples of states that are not recognized internationally. But these states have either de facto autonomy and can sustain themselves or are recognized by a comfortable number of “powerful” countries that allow them to survive on the international stage.
Some other countries, however, are recognized but are also heavily dependent on one country to survive. This is the case with Northern Cyprus, only recognized by Turkey, but also Abkhazia, supported by Russia and only recognized by a handful of states.
Abkhazia is located in the territory of Georgia and, together with South-Ossetia, declared their independence in the 1990s. The territory became the center of international attention during the South-Ossetian war in the summer of 2008. Currently only recognized by Nauru, Nicaragua, Venezuela and, of course, Russia, Abkhazia is also recognized by non-recognized territories such as South-Ossetia and Transnistria. Furthermore, Abkhazia is also part of a group called the UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.)
If we look deeper into the motivations for recognition of Abkhazia, however, we can see beyond the standard political arguments (about the right to self-determination, for example) and into a world where money matters more than political ideals.
Alexander Lukashenko is still there, whether you like it or not. As president of Belarus since 1994 he has overseen the ostensible stabilization of his country, if you are willing to ignore how it has been achieved, that is.
But what are Lukashenko’s prospects after the next presidential election, expected to be held at the beginning of 2011?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union (a collapse it opposed) Belarus took a unique way, different from the 14 other former Soviet states. While the others went through political, economic and social turmoil, Belarus’ path resembled that of a light version of Soviet socialism with stability and modest prosperity.
Over the years, Lukashenko centralized economic and political power in the hands of his regime. Two thirds of Belarus’ economy is still state owned. This in turn assured loyalty from the bureaucracy and the political elites who could not get access to sources of national wealth, which would have allowed them to develop a political appetite and gain leverage. Unlike in Ukraine or Russia, no ‘oligarch class’ could develop, making the president the ultimate re-distributor of wealth and political power in the country.
After the constitutional reform of 1996 a semi-presidential system was established that led to a complete dismantling of a western-style system of checks and balances. The legislative powers of the parliament are weak, the president controls the executive branch and the judiciary is simply an extension of the presidential administration. Since there is no liberal elite, pressure for liberalization and cooperation with the West is practically non-existent.
Another pillar of regime stability is sustained public support, despite rigged elections and lack of freedoms. Opinion polls from 2006 and 2008 demonstrate public support for the Lukashenko regime and its ability to ensure economic growth, low unemployment and social welfare – underlying the regime’s sustainability in a very real, tangible way.
Yet, what looks like a success story comes at a price that will be increasingly felt in the future – dependence on Russia.
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The RES is a global initiative of leading academic institutes, think-tanks, NGOs and media organizations. It offers a framework for studying security-related developments in Russia and the states of the Eurasian region. The RES hosts two original content publications which can be subscribed to via newsletter; the Russian Analytical Digest (RAD) and the Caucasus Analytical Digest (CAD).
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