Sunday, November 19, 2006

Have you ever had the feeling you've been had?

Do you remember Johnny Rotten? He was the singer for a band known as the Sex Pistols, an original punk band from the 70's or 80's. You will have to forgive me but I was never a fan so I cannot hit you with a bunch of accurate information here, but I do know that at the end of a show played in San Francisco, the parting words which Mr. Rotten uttered were: "Have you ever had the feeling you've been had?" The implication was that if you thought you were supporting a band that was supporting you, you were a fool. But of course people liked it this way and so we still have punk music to this day.

But what got me thinking of this little piece of ironic show talk is the ongoing issue of Belarus and the greedy, Russian Gasprom people. For months and months now, or to speak of it accurately, from the moment that the elections ended, the primary international news item as concerns the Republic of Belarus has been its on-going debate with the Russian oil giant as to how much would have to be paid for gas. As we all have been told endlessly, the number would have to go up from $46 per thousand cubic meters to some number between $150 and $200. This money of course would have to come out of the Belarusian budget somewhere, and there have been arguments from both sides as to where this will be. The Russians would like to take control of the pipelines that take their oil and gas through Belarus to its European customers, The Belarusians have claimed that with its earnest decision to make a Union State with Russia, it should never pay more for its gas than other Russian regions.

This story has the smell of blood on it, sort of like street punks waiting to take part in a gang rape of a neighborhood girl. The western press just can't wait to see Belarus come down.

The problem with this though is that the western press simply cannot stop thinking western. This means that they think in terms of individuals playing against each other, sort of the law of the jungle. But the thing is that Belarus and Russia are not western countries. They are intensely socialist countries descended from communism and the ideology comes from this sort of thinking.
What I am getting at is that he US needs to understand is that issues between the two countries are decided in meetings, well, well, well before hand. People here talk to each other. And this means that there is a good chance that the whole Gasprom deal is nothing but a scam. I mean, let's take a look at it:

1. Belarus is about to have to pay a lot of money it doesn't have to pay.
2. This leaves them vulnerable
3. The rift with Russia creates an opportunity for "someone' tp come in and save the day
4. The specific implication is that in this vulnerable position, a little infusion of American money would help sway the Belarusians away from the Russian whom they don't really like anyway.

Doesn't this all seem a little too cut and dried? What if all of this is simply playacting? What if the Belarusians and the Russians are really already together and working together on the state level? If these assumptions are true, this could it be that this entire Gasprom deal is nothing but a giant swindle made to give a reason for economic assistance from the states.

Not bad, huh. Pretty good sting, if you ask me.

Why would Belarus do this? Well, Belarus is poor country. It has very limited resources and needs to maximize its income as much as possible. It also has a lot of "issues" built up with the USA because of the lack of support they received 15 years ago. This was from the time of Perestroika and Glasnost and the Russians got nothing but empty promises and were allowed to die a slow, miserable death.

So now, with the sanctions and limitations placed upon them by the west, because they have such very limited opportunities available, Belarus sells arms to Venezuela, the do business with the Arabs, with the north Koreans, the Chinese and have basically told the Russians (publicly) that they have always been together, even if the politics of the last decade and a half have said otherwise. All for money.

But lately we have read that there are new, openhanded invitations from the Lukashenka regime to the increasingly unpopular George Bush presidency for new talks about opening markets and economic assistance for Belarus. This at a time when seemingly even Europe is ready to treat Belarus better and is acting up against the USA over the Cuban blockade. The door seems to be open.

The obvious argument from the side of the Belarusians is that they cannot afford the deal that they are going to have to make with Russia and that perhaps it is time for the Americans to come in on their white horse and fix things up with some good old American green. "Now is the time folks." say the Belarusians, "We know in the past that you have been unwilling to back us up, but really, now is when it is needed. And hey, we really believe in your ideas of safety from terrorism. We never wanted to work with the Arabs, but you wouldn't let us work with you. How about a change of heart and we make friends?"

The problem with this argument is that it is a catch 22 from both sides. For the Belarusians, taking money from the Americans could be just a picking of the pocket, a joke for all to see. But should they offer assistance and it does turn out to be a joke (i.e., that the Americans do not gain the economic control over Belarus they desire, the Americans decide to get tougher, accept the issue as a simply provocation and start some action- poverty after all makes people brave. This by the way has another effect of harming the American economically via the Afghanistan Effect, wars of attrition that can never be one, but nevertheless deplete the coffers substantially- just like their costly war in Afghanistan blew apart the USSR. But on the other side of the coin, taking American assistance to help heal the wounds of having to pay Gasprom several billion a year more for gas would actually open up Belarus to agreeing to have American strings attached. That is to say, if it is real.

For the Americans though, they do have the responsibility either way to listen. Allowance of Belarus into the American market would not cure all of their economic woes, but it would put more money into the hands of the Belarusian people. The Americans have not shown in any way, shape or form that Lukashenka has been stealing the money, all what he has seems to come back to the people in some way. And at this time, all of Europe seems to have come to the understanding that non-support of Belarus creates an economic situation that could lead to Nuclear war, something nobody wants, but the Russians and Iranians seem to be showing us could be, and soon.

For me, it is hard to say what is right and what is wrong. Twice this last week I ended up buying things I did not want because the offer to buy them came from someone who needed a few rubles. I didn't need what they had, but I gave the rubles. It made peace. It was a mitzvah. But on the other hand, easily twenty times I have had an almost Shakespearian play made for my eyes that would in the end lead to my paying more rubles. I guess I am lucky in that I don't have a lot of money because when the show starts, I know I can't afford the proposition so it all dies at the beginning and so I am not constantly being badgered. I am probably happier in this way.

But the USA does have the money and so perhaps it ought to think in terms of doing the mitzvah already. They could just allow the markets to be opened. They deal with corporations rather than individual entrepreneurs all the time. They could think of Belarus as just one big firm. Belarus has stuff to sell. In fact, if it had a few more contracts, it could sell a lot more. Everyone here agreed already that the country would like to go on in the style in which it has become accustomed- that was by popular vote by the way. Why not simply allow for some trade so that Belarus doesn't have to do business with terrorists? I mean, we know they are lying? We know that they are all in cahoots, right? But so what? Maybe it actually might be the time to play along anyway.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, the Western press has its slant, but so does the press that you read.
Your article still clings to a mythical idea of separateness that is increasingly outdated. The Russians went through a disastrous period between the fall of the USSR and now, but the Russian leaders have finally gotten that power lies in economics. In today's world, this is the only power that matters. Hard power is mostly outdated (although it is still required).
Lukashenka tied the whole economy of Belarus into a model that made it dependent on cheap energy from Russia. In return, Lukashenka preached eternal friendship with Russia, and put together the Union State scam. But Russia will not continue the scam any longer. First, Russia has been losing obscene amounts of money, and will no longer let itself be had. Second, Russia can no longer afford to do so. Gas production in Russia is not growing fast enough, and there is already talk about gas shortages in Russia itself. All due to the distortion caused by cheap prices which encourages waste of gas, and discourages investment in gas production. Gas prices are rising in Russia also, and there is a new gas bourse where a limited amount of gas can be sold at market prices.
Belarus is in for an economic debacle, and this is why Lukashenka is increasingly desperate and mooting absurd ideas such as creating a Union State with Ukraine instead. Absurd because no Western leader can have any dealings with him, after all the animosity that has been developed. If Lukashenka really wanted a Union State with Russia, he should immediately put a referendum on Belarus accession to the Russian Federation. Belarus could negotiate wide autonomy like Tatarstan within Russia. Otherwise, stop crying about not getting gas prices at the domestic Russian level. You can only get this price if you are a part of Russia.

Friday, November 24, 2006  

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