Belarus has repaid Azerbaijan the money it borrowed to pay its gas debt to Russia.This comes at the end of a gas clash between Minsk and Moscow that saw President Lukashenko order the gas pipeline to Europe shut down.
But the Belarusian president has been widely criticized for his hard-line stance on this issue.
In his homeland, he is known as “Papa” – but to many abroad, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko is known as Europe’s Last Dictator.
Until recently, relations between Moscow and Minsk were cordial. But something seems to have clicked in Lukashenko’s head and his former allies now find themselves on the list of his top foes.
When energy giant Gazprom raised the question of Belarus not paying its gas bills on time, the country retaliated by threatening to cut off the gas pipeline, which supplies gas to European countries.
And president Lukashenko lost no time in turning what seemed to be a purely financial conflict into a political one.
“The purpose of the conflict is obvious: to restrain the Belarusian leadership by forcing it to make concessions which go against the national interests of a sovereign state and grab hold of lucrative parts of Belarusian property.”
This is an excerpt from Lukashenko's letter to Belarusian businessmen, which was sent after Gazprom made concessions to Belarus by agreeing to pay a significantly higher fee for the transfer of Russian gas to Europe.
Such actions do not surprise those who are familiar with Lukashenko’s tactics.
“Lukashenko is used to playing dirty games, because he never fulfilled his promises – be they given to the east, or to the west, and has gotten away with it for a long time,” said Andrey Sannikov, Belarus opposition leader. “And he’s not doing anything new at the moment. He’s not fulfilling his obligations. You should watch Belarusian TV – there’s an all-out anti-Russian propaganda war going on. Russia is being blamed for everything that goes wrong. With the relations that our countries have, it’s unacceptable to lead such wars.”
Asher CJ Pirt, an expert in Russian and Central Asian Affairs, believes Lukashenko's actions are unlikely to bring him any real dividends.
"The news concerning the gas transit agreement between Belarus and Gazprom has undoubtedly pleased the Belarusian leader. The president of Belarus, Lukashenko must feel that he has achieved a victory in his great game. However, he is not making any friends in Moscow and is still facing sanctions from the European Union and the USA."
Lukashenko rules his country with an iron fist. After all but wiping out the opposition, he changed the constitution in October 2004, allowing him to run for the presidency an unlimited number of times.
In the spring of 2006, after several months of rallying, several thousand protesters marched in Minsk. Lukashenko sent out a special task police force who got the job done – by brutally dispersing the rally. Such bold actions have left his image tarnished.
So in 2008, one of the world’s leading political PR experts, Timothy Bell, was hired to improve the image of the country – and of the President along with it. But it’s unclear whether Lukashenko’s recent shift in foreign policy is a simple PR stunt.
“Over the past several years Lukashenko's position has been shaken by the economic crisis,” said Dr Nikolay Brabanov from Moscow State University of Foreign Relations. “As a result, Belarus is incapable of leading a full-scale social policy. So, Lukashenko started a game of double standards – flirting with the West, defrosting his relations with the European Union… at the same time he started being more aggressive in relations with Russia, trying to secure more financial and economic preferences.”
Lukashenko has relied on Russia for the last 16 years, ever since becoming Belarus' first – and so far, only – President.
And his outward negativity towards his country's closest neighbor – and strongest ally – has left many asking why.