At a Sufi prayer service in Grozny early this month, President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov called for a decisive eradication of the territory’s Wahabi influences: “Wahabis did not come along today or yesterday. They have been around for a long time. And prominent Islamic religious figures noted that they bring woes, sufferings, destruction and shed blood… this evil can spread across many regions if it is not nipped in the bud.” After decades of fearing and quelling Sufi influence in the Causcusus, the Kremlin and pro-Russian Chechen government now finds itself in a peculiar position: embracing Sufism as an alternative to Wahhabism.

History of Islam in Chechnya:

In addition to their 200-year quest for autonomy, the Chechen people also have a long history of facing religious intolerance. Sunni Islam has long been the main religion in Chechnya, where two forms of the faith have coexisted since the 18th century: a dogmatic and canonical form of Sunni Islam and a more mystical interpretation of Sufism. Between the 1880s and 1920s, the first tsarist government and then the Bolsheviks attacked the spiritual leadership of all Sufi brotherhoods in Chechnya and Ingushetia. During the Soviet years, mainstream Sunni Islam was tolerated, while Sufism, previously dominant, was suppressed and driven underground. Many mosques were destroyed and Sufi practices were forbidden, though carried out in secret at risk. With the impending collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Islam began to be revitalized. At the same time, ex-Soviet Air Force general, Dzhokhar Dudayev initiated a movement for recognition of Chechnya as a separate nation. Despite the movement’s peaceful nature, post-Soviet Russians still considered Sufism as the rebels’ fuel, as they interpreted the sikr celebration as a symbol of Chechen aggression and the Sufi dance as a ritual of the untamed. Rise of Radical Islam:

With the end of the Cold War, radical Islam began to permeate Chechnya’s separatist movement. In the past decade, it has become a poisonous source of regional violence. The ideological and political vacuum in Chechnya following international changes in the Soviet Union was filled with more militant interpretations of Islam. And during the war following the declaration of Chechen independence in 1991, Chechen rebels used terrorist tactics to achieve political gains for the first time in the Budyonnovsk hospital crisis.

Wahhabism began to infiltrate the region following the war, as the plight of the Chechens at hands of the Russians were well publicized, and Chechnya became identified by jihadi groups as important new battleground. Consequently, between the first and second Chechen war in 1997 – 1999, Wahhabi forces began to infiltrate the region. In August of 1999, radical Muslims declared a jihad for the liberation of Chechnya from the hands of non-believers. During the Second Chechen War, an influx of Wahhabi Muslims, whose version of Islam was more closely aligned with that of the Afghan Taliban, came to fight beside the Chechen separatists. After Chechnya’s surrender in 2000, the rebels retreated to the mountains and rewrote the Chechen quest for independence as a jihadist political movement. The new constitution called for anIslamic Caliphate across Russia’s North Caucus region, and terrorist attacks as the means to achieve this goal.

The past decade has seen dozens of suicide bombings, indiscriminate shelling, hostage-taking, beheadings of capture combatants and suspected informants, systemic use of torture, and more, all in the name of the holy war. Today, there are an estimated 700-odd radical fundamentalists in Chechnya, supported by networks in the Arab world, fighting for separatism in Chechnya through Wahhabi-inspired jihad, and recruiting followers.

Sufi Resurgence:

As a response to this surge in violence, for the past five years, President Kadyrov’s pro-Moscow administration has championed the more moderate form of Islam associated with Sufism to combat the intransigent Wahhabism imported from the Arab world. Kadyrov’s campaign has included the inauguration of a $20 million mosque in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny in 2008, which is now the largest mosque in Europe. Other efforts include the construction of a Russian Islamic University in Grozny, a school in Tsentoroi for scholars of the Koran, and a center of Islamic medicine. Additional mosques will also be constructed. The hope is that the Sufi revival will attract young Muslims who would otherwise be recruited by extremist forces based in the mountains. The Kremlin is supporting these efforts politically and financially, to “confront terror through spirituality and high ethical standards,” while simultaneously hunting down rebels in the Caucasus.
“If people in Russia do not take the path of traditional, pure Sufi Islam, Russia will lose out,”says President Kadyrov, “All the other denominations, like Wahhabism, are new inventions for our country… we will never accept it.” The trouble is that it is not always easy to differentiate the enforcement of Islamic law carried out by Kadyrov and his Wahhabi opponents. Kadyrov, a champion of Sufism, also believes in strict enforcement of Islamic purity. For example, he supports honor killings for “loose” women and harsh punishments for women who do not wear headscarves. His two philosophies are perhaps contradictory, although not mutually exclusive.
Implications:
The Kremlin’s cultivation of the moderate Sufi sect has taken hold over Chechnya and its construction projects. Ironically, Sufi Muslims in the region have always wanted Chechen independence, resulting in a number of contradictions. Whether Sufi Islam of the Chechen traditions is undercutting Wahhabi separatists remains unknown, although the recent surge in terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2010 would suggest otherwise. What is certain, however, is that the politicization of Sufism, along with and strong-arm enforcement, have been divisive, separating the varying communities of faith, geographic regions (cities vs. rural Chechnya), and political positions (vis-à-vis Moscow). And increased polarization is unlikely enhance stability in this war-torn region.
– jt
Advertisements

The world's deposits of rare earth minerals

China’s September 2010 spat with Japan regarding waters which both countries claim as part of their exclusive sovereign territory amounts to another feud in a series of Chinese border conflicts.  What differentiates this dispute from the others was China’s willingness to halt the export of rare earth minerals to Japan in order to gain advantage in the altercation.  This behavior reinforces a recent trend of China restricting the sales of rare earths.  In July 2010, China announced a 72 percent reduction of rare earth export quotas for the rest of the year[1].  The export quotas for this year totaled 30,258 tons, which is significantly less than the 65,609 tons of rare earth minerals exported in 2005[2].

Distribution of the rare earth mineral deposits across China

Consequently, countries highly dependent on rare earths, such as Germany and Japan, began to panic.  An official of the Federation of Germany Industry anonymously noted that with regards to rare earths, “China runs a virtual monopoly.  There is a real need to develop new sources”[3].  German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by stating that it was “urgently necessary” to step up European investment in regions such as Eastern Europe or Central Asia in order to break the reliance on China.  Furthermore, Germany agreed to convene a special conference in early November 2010 with members of the WTO and European Commission to discuss the issue.  Yoshikatsu Nakayama, Japanese vice-minister of the economy, trade, and industry warned that Japan’s cache of rare earth minerals could vanish by March or April unless China reverses its export ban[4].  Japan is deeply concerned about the situation, due to the heavy reliance on rare earths for a wide array of its export products, ranging from hybrid cars to LCD screens.

China is able to wield such influence because it is the dominant supplier of rare earths to the world market.  According to the Government Accountability Office, China produced roughly 120,000 tons of rare earths in 2009, or 97 percent, of the world’s supply[5].  Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 statement that, “there is oil in the Middle East; but there is rare earth in China” has been realized by the Chinese.  For certain minerals, such as dysprosium and terbium, China produces over 99% of the world’s supply[6].  These minerals are utilized in nuclear reactors, fluorescent lamps, and hybrid cars, among other applications.

To understand China’s strategy in this regard, it is necessary to look at the distribution of rare earth deposits around the world.  Estimates suggest that China possesses anywhere from 36 to 50 percent of the global reserves[7].  While this figure is high, significant deposits of rare earth minerals are obviously located outside of China.  The largest rare earth concentration is actually in Greenland at the Kvanefjeld Mines, which accounts for 36 percent of the world’s supply.  The next largest deposit is at the Bayan Obo mines in Inner Mongolia, in northern China.  While roughly 32 percent of the world’s deposits are located here, Bayan Obo produces approximately 45 percent of the global supply.  After these two major locations, concentrations drop off significantly.  Some rare earth deposits lie scattered across Australia, and 7 percent of the world’s supply lies in the Mountain Pass Mines in California near the Nevada border[8].

Deposits outside of China, however, are rarely worked.  As the 2010 U.S. Geological Survey of Mineral Commodity Summaries indicates, while 120,000 tons of rare earth production came from China, only 2,700 tons came from India, and only 650 tons from Brazil.  No production was recorded from the United States or Australia in 2009.  Surprisingly, Greenland with its Kvanefjeld Mines was absent from the list as well.  The government of Denmark, which controlled all oil, gas and mineral resources in Greenland until early 2010, has opposed all resource extraction that involves radioactive materials which are usually found in association with rare earth minerals[9].  As a general rule, environmental hazards have formed a barrier for rare earth mining.  Ore materials are usually embedded with radioactive elements, such as thorium, radium, or uranium.  In order to isolate the rare earth minerals from the radioactive material, the ore must be intensively processed in acid baths generating large quantities of toxic waste.  In the case of California’s Mountain Pass mines, extraction was suspended in 1998 after thousands of gallons of radioactive waste spilled into the neighboring land[10].  For much of the world, stringent environmental regulations make rare earth mining economically impractical.  In China, with its lax environmental standards, such conditions do not exist, creating an excellent setting from which to extract rare earth minerals with little concern for regulations.

An image of the Mountain Pass mines in California

While China has been the predominant supplier of rare earth minerals for some time, it is currently seeking to reduce exports for several reasons.  While some claim this decision is a “21st century economic weapon” and a case of monopolistic bullying, China argues that it is simply trying to conserve these non-renewable resources.  China may also be trying to increase the market value of its exports.  One government official explicitly stated that China “wants a higher price on our rare earth minerals [so that] foreign buyers more or less share our costs, including the high cost of reducing environmental pollution[11].”

The resulting rare earth shortages have begun to catch attention of governments across the world.  As a result, new production sites are being explored in areas such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and Greenland.  The Government Accountability Office, however, estimates that it may take up to fifteen years before the U.S. can rebuild its supply chain.  Significant costs to entering the market may preclude private investors from making a real impact unless government subsidies are forthcoming.  But with the increasing need for rare earth minerals in both green technologies (wind turbines, electric and hybrid cars) and defense industries (anti-missile systems, jet engines, or missile guidance systems), this issue has serious national security implications as well.  As a result, a number of countries may soon begin to invest heavily in rare earth extraction.

– the Ruckus


[7] The U.S. Geological Survey says that China possesses roughly 36% of the worldwide reserves whereas Mineweb.com estimates that China contains nearly 50% of the world’s rare earth supplies.

[9] http://agmetalminer.com/2009/11/13/kvanefjeld-rare earths-project-takes-a-step-closer-to-reality/

The New York Times reported on Sunday that a top aide of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was receiving cash by the bagful from the government of Iran.  Karzai stopped denying the story today, stating,

“They give us bags of money – yes, yes it is done,” Mr. Karzai said. “We are grateful to the Iranians for this. Patriotism has a price”

Wait, what kind of money are we talking about here, a couple thousand dollars perhaps? Not even in the ballpark. Afghan officials told the Times that individual payments ranged as high as $6 million. I know this was only reported yesterday, but where is the outrage?  This blatant bribery by Iran, a state sanctioned by the United States and most of the world, shows us the nature of the Afghan government we’re fighting to support. I’m not sure if bags of cash were listed in UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (the most recent resolution sanctioning Iran), but perhaps we should think of lobbying for their addition.

President Karzai’s rhetoric recently has become increasingly anti-Western and anti-NATO.  Whether that’s the Iranian cash talking or simple pandering to domestic sentiment (unlikely due to mixed polls on U.S. popularity), it’s hard to tell.  But this event further signals the erratic and downright corrupt nature of the regime we’re fighting for.  Why do we put up with it? Because the U.S. Government doesn’t believe it has an alternative to Karzai.  We’ve staked our hopes on him and we don’t know what to do if he turns out to be as corrupt as all this evidence shows.

Let’s just hope these bags of cash don’t make Iran’s word more important than NATO’s in influencing Afghan policy, or Afghanistan may start buying uranium for its own nuclear research reactor.

LAPD

The 400,000 square kilometer territory called Ogaden, Ethiopia’s most underdeveloped periphery, is marked by conflicting identities: it falls in the southeast portion of the Somali Regional State. It is home to eight million ethnic Somalis who speak the Somali language and practice Islam. These inhabitants refer to their land as “Somali Galbeed,” translating to “Western Somalia.” Yet the territory is in and is governed by Ethiopia, a mostly Christian country in which Amharic is the dominant language. The product of this mismatch has been decades of instability, guerrilla uprisings, and rebel faction fighting. However, on October 12, 2010, the Ethiopian government signed a peace deal with the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the main separatist group seeking an independent state. After 25 years of bloodshed, the rebels denounced violence, ending the insurgency, at least for the time being, and perhaps establishing the first steps to peace in the Ogaden region.

As is the case through much of Africa, Ogaden’s troubles stems from colonial and postcolonial land disputes. In 1936, the Ogaden Somali territory was annexed to Italian Somaliland after Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. In 1941, the British defeated Italy in the horn of Africa and reestablished Ethiopian independence. Britain administered Ogaden for eight years until transferring it to Ethiopia in the mid 1950s. Despite differences in language, ethnicity, and culture, the people of Ogaden found themselves under Ethiopian rule. Irredentists seeking separation from Ethiopia and union with Somalia soon began a campaign of sporadic guerilla activity, which led to the creation of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), a Somali separatist rebel group.

In 1977 and 1978, Somalia and Ethiopia fought a conventional conflict over the disputed Ogaden region. During the 1970s, Ethiopia was marked by political turmoil following the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, while Somalia, under the auspices of Soviet and Egyptian aid, strengthened militarily and politically. Aligning itself with the WSLF, the Somali National Army invaded Ogaden and fought a six-month war against the US-backed Ethiopia over the region and its people. However, with the rise of the Communist Derg in Ethiopia, the Soviet Union switched from supplying aid to Somalia to supporting Ethiopia. The war concluded with Somali defeat and withdrawal, as well as the birth of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which replaced WSLF in the Ogaden territory.

The ONLF has been operating in Ogaden, since the 1980s, seeking self-determination and autonomy from the Ethiopian government. Its objectives differ from other Somali nationalist movements, which have sought a Greater Somalia including all Somali–speaking or Islamic populations. Militarily, the ONLF has focused on ambushes, guerilla-style raids against Ethiopian troops, kidnappings of foreign workers presumed to support Ethiopia’s government, and bombings in major Ethiopian cities. One of the greatest sources of contention between the central government and the ONLF has been over the presence of energy companies in the region; the ONLF refuses to allow the exploration of oil and gas in the area until it gains independence.

The ONLF guerrilla campaign started making national headlines three years ago, when a surge in violence sparked an Ethiopian crackdown. In early 2007, the ONLF killed hundreds of civilians in a series of terrorist attacks: a grenade attack on a cultural gathering in Jijiga killed four middle school students; an attack on the town of Debeweyin killed ten civilians; an ONLF-planted landmine in Aware in the Degehabur Zone killed three. The deadliest attack occurred on April 24th, when ONLF gunmen attacked a Chinese firm working on a 21,000-square oilfield in Abole about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Jijiga.

The attack killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers. In response, the Ethiopian government imposed a blockade to prevent supplies from reaching the rebels across the porous Ethiopia-Somalia border region. In addition, the government initiated a major counter-insurgency operation, calling on local leaders to mobilize their clans to form militias and destroy the rebel faction. The crisis attracted widespread attention both to the immediate region and greater East Africa.Human rights groups have accused the Ethiopian government of war crimes for killing hundreds of Ogaden civilians, while blaming the ONLF for massacres of non-Ogaden Somalis and for using civilians as human shield. The UN and international community have also criticized Ogaden’s neighbors, Eritrea and Somalia, for fueling the conflict by backing rebel groups financially and militarily.

Violence diminished in 2008 and peace talks began in early 2010 in Washington DC, leading to the signing of the Ethiopian-ONLF peace accord in Addis Ababa on October 12, 2010. The chairman of the ONLF, Salahadin Abdurrahman, announced that the rebel group had learned its lessons, saying, “violence never solves the problems of the people but rather results in a boomerang effect that exacerbates existing difficulties. It is with this understanding that we have decided to sign this agreement.” Abay Tsehaye, national security adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, praised the deal, calling it an “important input toward realizing unity in the Horn of Africa’s country.”

The peace deal, however, is not universally welcomed. ONLF is a factious organization, and Salahadin Abdurrahman’s ONLF contingent may or may not be the main group. Another faction of the ONLF, based in London and led by Mohamed Omar Osman, has vowed to continue fighting. This group, still at war with the Ethiopian government, calls the Salahadin’s faction irrelevant. “They don’t represent anybody and it will not change anything in the Ogaden. The fighting will continue.” Osman’s words have raised doubts about the relative significance and sustainability of the deal. This ONLF faction’s influence largely hinges on Eritrea, the country with the highest military expenditures per GDP (20.9%), Ethiopia’s bitter enemy since the border war in 1998-2000, and consistent supporter of Ethiopian rebel forces.

Despite possible destabilizing forces, the deal marks an important step towards peace. Ethiopia remains one of America’s important African partners in our counterterrorism efforts, and given recent concerns of Ogaden devolving into an al-Qaeda breeding ground, a stable and secure horn of Africa has become one of Washington’ s top priorities. The recent peace deal will hopefully address this danger by increasing social and economic development in Ethiopia’s poorest region.

– JT

In the foreign policy world, the words Iran and nuclear in the same sentence immediately get the attention of the State Department, Defense Department, Intelligence Agencies and all the rest. Why is the U.S. Government so worried about Iran? Should you be worried about it as well, or is it all just the same old Iraq talk all over again? The Ivory Bunker will do its best to tell you over the next 400 words or so.

I’ll first highlight four reasons why I think the U.S. Government is worried about a nuclear Iran. First, they are worried about the immediate and practical implications of a nuclear-capable Iran led by anti-semitic and somewhat unstable dictator.  Second, they are worried about what a nuclear Iran would mean for the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime.  A nuclear Iran could signal what arms control gurus have feared for decades – the effective end of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), a treaty that has more or less stymied the expansion and proliferation of nuclear arms for almost four decades. Third, the U.S. Government is concerned about the potential proliferation, either accidental or intentional, of nuclear weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Hezbollah or another related terrorist organization. Fourth, they are concerned about the potential domino effect of latent proliferation spreading across the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt consider following in Iran’s footsteps down the nuclear path.

Should you be worried about this? The good news is that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon nor will they be likely to get one in the next several years.  The bad news is that Iran has not signed the Additional Protocol (AP), which allows International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to inspect all potential facilities, both declared and undeclared, for evidence of nuclear weapons.  So we don’t know for sure how far along Iran really is in their nuclear exploits.  What we do know is that Iran has been operating an enrichment facility at Natanz and they just opened a nuclear reactor at Bushehr. We also know they have been frequently denying IAEA inspectors access to certain facilities and have provided incomplete explanations of issues the IAEA has raised.  But unless Iran has another secret enrichment facility (which is indeed possible), they cannot develop sufficient Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) without kicking out IAEA inspectors from Natanz. This in turn would send a clear signal to the world of Iran’s intentions and would likely incur the actual wrath of China and Russia, not just the feigned sort U.S. diplomacy has worked so hard to achieve.

The bottom line – there is no need to panic just yet.  I believe, as do several other foreign policy writers, that Iran will do its best to hedge its nuclear capabilities, going as close as possible to constructing a bomb without actually going the entire way.  All the United States and the UN more broadly can do is continue to disincentivize non-cooperation and promote full cooperation.  Any deal between the P5+1 should aim to have Iran sign the Additional Protocol and forswear most domestic enrichment capabilities (perhaps leave some enrichment symbolically for prestige preservation). In exchange, the P5+1 should give further security guarantees, economic aid and offer a secure supply of enriched uranium fuel under international controls for Iran’s future nuclear plants.

LAPD

Brookings’ Bruce Riedel wrote a three-incher in the November issue of FP urging CINC to form a South Asia COCOM to seal the rift in AORs between CENTCOM and PACOM. He points out that this isn’t just a COCOM problem: OSD Policy, NSC, and State all have different desks for Af/Pak and India, muddling policy planning and execution vis a vis South Asia:

If Barack Obama is to really get serious about the region, he needs to create an executive bureau for Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan — one that spans across the U.S. government. Good organization does not guarantee good policy, but a poorly constructed bureaucracy is almost always a recipe for bad policy. A new military command that puts Pakistan and India in the same theater would help enormously in improving U.S. strategic thinking about South Asia. No longer would one commander talk to the Pakistanis and another to the Indians; the Pentagon would have just one voice. And likewise for Foggy Bottom: An empowered assistant secretary of state for South Asia could travel regularly on diplomatic missions between Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi.

Obama was right to recognize that the Afghan war could not be effectively prosecuted without dealing with Pakistan. But it’s foolish to think that Pakistan can be effectively assisted without dealing with the issue that dominates its own strategic calculus: India.

What surprises me most is that everyone on the Af/Pak side appreciates this is an artificial distinction, and I’m sure the India hands feel the same way. Yet: if this is such a great idea, why hasn’t it been done already? SWJ has been writing about this for a while, so what gives? And it’s not like ignoring India is trivial–consider Chris Hitchens’ proposal:

When the throat-slitters and school-burners and woman-stoners come to the villagers of Pakistan and Afghanistan at dead of night, they have one great psychological advantage. “One day, the Americans and the Europeans will go,” they say. “But we will always be here.” There’s some truth in this: Most of the talk in this country is now of an “exit strategy,” and for all the good they are doing, most of the other NATO contingents might as well have shipped out already. But if the United States was to upgrade and cement an economic, military, and political alliance with the emerging giant in New Delhi, we could guarantee without any boasting that our presence in the area was enduring and unbudgeable. It would also be based more on mutual friendship and common values and less on the humiliating practice of bribery and cajolery. And the Pakistani elite would have to decide which was its true enemy: the Taliban/al-Qaida alliance or the Indo-American one.

This might be the vodka lassis talking, but why is it again that we should–in the words of former Afghan intel chief Amrullah Saleh (a.k.a. that guy Karzai fired for speaking truth to Pakistan)–“incentivize bad behavior”? (That transcript is from PBS Frontline’s documentary on Afghanistan, featuring a few familiar faces.) I know we’re worried about their nukes, but what if the ruling elite is actually more friendly to the Taliban than other segments of the population? Stay tuned…

–The Fifth Indian

Trouble with White Russians

Posted: October 13, 2010 in Europe

Europe’s last dictatorship may be heading towards a new direction, but towards which?

Last fall, I traveled from Warsaw to Brest and had to make a prolonged stop at the Polish-Belorussian border, where I was given an entry form in Cyrillic and forced to wait as my train wheels had to be changed to accommodate for the Soviet-era gauges still used in Belarus. As I waited, I looked from the entry form to the customs cost and it dawned on me how isolated Belarus remains nearly twenty years after its independence. The Belorussians preserve mementos of a bygone era on their trains as well as in every other aspect of their lives: it still celebrates the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, something even the Russians had forsaken. Soviet symbols were everywhere – some shockingly recent – and the state-run newspaper is still called Sovietskaya Belorussiya. In a country that vaunts the highest number of police per capita in Europe, the state intelligence bureau still chillingly retains its Communist moniker, the KGB.

On December 19th, the citizens of what has been dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ will go to the polling booths and choose as their next president, Alexander Lukashenko or Alexander Lukashenko. With a comfortable economy and disorganized opposition, it is certain that Lukashenko will win his fourth term in office.

Lukashenko, a former military officer whose self-professed idol was Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, first came to power in 1994 in the elections widely considered as free and fair. His law and order stance was widely popular in Belarus, then witnessing post-independent disenchantment and nostalgia for the certitudes of the former Soviet Union. In a run-off, Lukashenko won eighty percent of the vote – an overwhelming mandate that enabled him to slowly dismantle the democratic system that put him in power.

Once Lukashenko was in office, the brief economic reforms the Belarusians enjoyed in the early 90s were replaced by a Soviet-style planned economy. Although Lukashenko’s personality cult is almost negligible compared to those of other post-Soviet dictators (for instance in Central Asia), it is still lèse majesté to criticize Mr. Lukashenko in Belarus, and he won a referendum that would allow him – and only him – to run for unlimited number of presidential terms. In this half-Kafkaesque, half-Orwellian state, the Orthodox Church pledges allegiance to Lukashenko (as well as Moscow patriarchy) and Lukashenko appoints everyone from ministers to village store managers. Many opposition leaders and journalists died, ‘committed suicide’ under mysterious circumstances, or simply disappeared.

Mr. Lukashenko was a devoted Russophile; as a Belorussian apparatchik, he was the only deputy to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the Belorussian Soviet. Lukashenko entertained a vision for a pan-Slavonic state encompassing not only Belarus and Russia but extending from the Adriatic to the Bering Strait with himself as its president. During the Balkan wars in the late 90s, he suggested that Yugoslavia join the Union State, a loose confederation between Russia and Belarus.

Because of these credentials, Lukashenko enjoyed immense popularity in Russia in the 1990s. He unsuccessfully maneuvered for the top position at the Kremlin as the then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin floundered. Although far right elements in Russia perennially considered Lukashenko as a potential presidential candidate, Lukashenko seems an anachronistic caricature in Putin’s Russia. With his ambition hampered, Lukashenko viewed the subsequent occupants of the Kremlin as adversaries, although Belarus increasingly depended on Russia for much of its trade.

Putin might be the reason Mr. Lukashenko seems to be slowly turning against Moscow. In 2009, he ignored a Russian gas price increase and underpaid; when the Russians cut gas supplies to Belarus, Lukashenko countered by a cut of his own: stopping transit shipments of Russian gas to the EU. In other arenas too, there are increasing signs that Moscow is slowly losing control of its protégée: Lukashenko refused to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and also decided to shelter Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the deposed leader of Kyrgyzstan loathed by Moscow. Lukashenko delayed a customs union among Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus much wanted by Russia, and threatened to deny Russia a lucrative contract to build the first nuclear power plant in Belarus.

Last week, in his video blog, President Dmitri Medvedev spoke out: “The Belarusian leadership has always been characterized by a desire to create an external enemy image in the public consciousness. The United States, Europe, and the Western countries acted as such ‘enemies’ earlier. Now Russia is declared the enemy.” Moscow also fought back by banning Belarusian exports, and then by hypocritically denouncing the lack of media-freedom and democracy in Belarus. The upcoming presidential elections may yet be Russia’s biggest weapon: its state-controlled media has been airing documentaries critical of Alexander Lukashenko, and it has been speculated that Moscow might fund Andrei Sannikov, the opposition leader who is not too close to the West.

The elections also come at a crucial time for the international community, which recently abandoned its isolation of Belarus. When Russia cancelled its $500 million aid to Belarus, the IMF stepped in with an additional $1 billion loan. In 2009, Belarus was included in the EU’s Eastern Partnership Initiative, which serves to strengthen economic and political ties between Europe and six former Soviet states. Lukashenko’s travel ban to Europe was also lifted. In return, Lukashenko released a large group of political prisoners.

For the last fifteen years, Belarus served as Russia’s buffer state; Russia maintains electronic warning stations and radars in Belarus, as well as an important nuclear submarine control center in Vileyka. Overall, Russia would benefit from a friendly leader in Belarus and that was the reason Russia supported Lukashenko despite allegations of vote rigging by the West in the last presidential elections in 2006.

In this election, however, Russia may be forced to make the unpalatable political choice between Lukashenko and any of his less mercurial but also less-Russophilic opponents. It is likely that Russia may merely threaten Mr. Lukashenko rather than actually transfer their support elsewhere. Although it is unlikely, it would also be a bold personal move for Mr. Medvedev if he refused to recognize the election results. But, the Russian leadership has always considered Belarus to be in Russia’s backyard, and it will do everything to prevent any unfavorable outcomes there, even if it means creating yet another volatile political situation in the region.

— The Archer