Russian president Vladimir Putin has long been suspected of trying to rekindle the glory of the former Soviet Union. But last week he more than hinted at just the opposite, coming down hard on Belarus's President Aleksandr Lukashenko two days after the two met in St. Petersburg. "No one will be permitted to restore the Soviet Union at the expense of Russia's economic interests," Putin declared.
What does that mean? Putin doesn't want Russian growth to be held back by commitments to former Soviet states like Belarus, with its dire economic troubles. Moreover, Putin has tilted his policy westward--and if he wants to build maximum trust with Western Europe and the United States, talk of old empires won't do. In the new era, U.S. bases are sprinkled across Russia's Central Asian backyard, and Russia was recently granted a junior role in NATO.
Lukashenko no longer belongs in the picture. In the previous Kremlin regime, the Belarus boss helped Boris Yeltsin appeal to those Russians still nostalgic for Soviet power. But these days Lukashenko stands isolated, generally regarded by outsiders as little more than a dictator with a propensity for human-rights violations.
This certainly isn't the first time Russia has criticized its cousin, but "never before," as the Russian newspaper Kommersant put it, "has a president of Russia shown Lukashenko his place in such definite terms." And they certainly were definite. Putin even recited a pointed anecdote: a man in a restaurant orders meat--and politely asks for the flies separately. Russia can no longer take on all of Belarus's problems simply because they were brother Soviet states, explained Putin. Ignore the fact that his anecdote was an old Soviet favorite. Russia is looking to the West, and it seems that Putin is finally ready to leave old ghosts like Lukashenko behind.