It sounds familiar in 2013: Belarus is aiming high. It plans to have 8.5 percent GDP growth and it has unveiled a big-hearted programme on modernisation, social housing, wage growth and debt repayment. After another period of turning its back on the West, it also says it wants to get back to the negotiating table.
But time is a river, you cannot really step into the same water twice. Yes, the average wage is back to $500/month. Meanwhile, prices keep growing. Stable, but low is the President’s popularity rate, at just 30 percent.
So who can help with a bit of cash to keep ambitious plans alive? It is Russia and/or the West.
Moscow already owns the gas pipelines that run through Belarus. It does want to see more extensive privatisation. But with oil prices going down, its support is also dwindling, be it in the form of Russian oil which Belarus refines and sells on, cheap gas, loans or, more simply, in terms of Russian demand for Belarusian exports.
The EU is a rich neighbor. It also has the means to help modernise industry and to bring private sector investment. But it wants Belarus to free political prisoners and to see economic and political reform.
So today it is cheaper to come to terms with the West. You release the inmates and you pick up the discourse of yes-we-want-to-be-your-democratic-friend.
The Russians want the family jewels, and you can only sell those once.
However, the EU might be less easy to fool after the violent post-election crackdown in December 2010 than it used to be. Lukashenko can put on his poker face. But he has already showed his cards.
Let’s wait and see who outwit the others.
The game is: promise more and give less. Complain about the iron fist of Russia but reap the benefits of its Eurasian Union project. Release dissidents and arrest new ones. Rinse and repeat.