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In early March, the U.N. Security Council's independent panel of experts raised the issue of Belarusian and Russian arms sold to Sudan.
According to the experts, Sudan had used these weapons in the Darfur region, violating a Security Council resolution and written pledges to Belarus and Russia to not do so. Most non-state Belarusian experts expressed doubts about possible Belarusian involvement and pointed out the lack of clear evidence corroborating the claims.
Such charges, however, have emerged periodically for more than a decade now. Belarus is supporting global villains of all kinds and its regime finances itself to a substantial extent through the illegal arms trade, the radical opposition insists. The charges are groundless, the government says. The truth, however, is not simple as the known facts prove.
First Smoking Gun?
Hardly any violations of international legal regulations of arms trade by the Belarusian government have ever been explicitly proven. From a legal point of view, the Belarusian arms trade is in a grey zone, as is the work of many occasions even by such prominent weapons-producing corporations like BAE Systems or Lockheed.
Likewise, it is very difficult to classify some Belarusian deals. Thus, a month ago, the First Channel of Iranian TV broadcast a short film about hunting down a US drone in the Eastern Iranian province of Khorassan. On the seventh second of the video, one can clearly see the a Belarus-produced electronic warfare system, Vostok-E. It is shown in an Iranian-like landscape, and indicates that Belarus actually sold such equipment to Iran.
The US immediately – in a couple of days – reacted by imposing sanctions against two Belarusian companies involved in producing the weapons system. However, the time of transfer of these systems is not clear, and the international legal grounds are shaky.
After all, the Vostok-E is a defensive weapon and is not covered by the UN sanctions against Iran. Dr. Paul Holtom of the Stockholm-based SIPRI Institute, told the Jerusalem Post in December that while it was possible that Belarus cooperates with Iran on military-technical projects, but until now he had seen no “credible evidence that it has provided to Iran items falling within the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms.”
Countries Like Belarus
Yet at least it was the first case in years with some substance behind it. There were many accusations for which facts were lacking. For instance, the much quoted 2004 Report of the Special Advisor to the Director of US Central Intelligence on Iraq’s WMD contains only two minor cases of explicit charges.
The rest of Belarus-related material found in the report sounds rather opaque and sometimes oddly uncertain. Here is one example:
Iraq imported at least 380 SA-2/Volga liquid-propellant engines from Poland and possibly Russia or Belarus.[...] Iraq also imported missile guidance and control systems from entities in countries like Belarus, Russia and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
In November 2004, Belarusian pilots participated in the attack launched by the national army of Ivory Coast on a French military base in the country. Yet nothing has confirmed the Belarusian government's involvement in the incident and its sending military specialists to the African country.
Actually if the Belarusians were there privately, of their own accord – something not entirely unusual for jobless post-Soviet military pilots – then the French government could not even press charges against them as it did not join the appropriate conventions on mercenaries in internal conflicts. No wonder, it let the Belarusians go.
For some years, in particular in 2009 and 2010, Belarus regularly faced accusations that it provided Iran with the S-300 air defence system. They looked extremely murky, especially when levelled by the Jerusalem Post. Yet even such authoritative news agency as Associated Press published in August 2010 a news piece based – according to its own admission – on the Iranian FARS news agency quotation of the Lebanese al-Manar TV saying that Iran might have acquired the S-300s from Belarus.
Another time, in 2011, some Belarusian and international media published a package of documents allegedly proving the shipments of Belarusian arms to Pakistani-based terrorists via Syria. The electronic scans were presumably stolen by a hacker group from Italian cyberpolice. The content of documents, however, looked so outwardly fake that nobody followed this trace.
Maybe the most dubious of all was the extremely doubtful publication in September 2012 of documents allegedly proving the involvement in drug trafficking by people close to the former Kyrgyz president now in exile in Belarus. The site belonging to the Belapan news agency claimed that the original documents of Nepal's military were stolen by hackers from the web-site of Cambodian Foreign Ministry. Such pedigree of accusations did not prevent Belarusian media from republishing the story.
Arms Stories For Internal and External Use
The reasons for such interest in this kind of stories are clear. The Belarusian regime is ugly and despotic, yet it is also petty. That is good as far as human lives are rarely threatened. Yet it is unsuitable and unhelpful for motivation and mobilisation of the regime's opponents.
In these circumstances, every mention of possible illegal deals of Belarusian regime abroad, especially with the regimes opposing the West, looks very seducing. The published fake documents in particular refer to the headlines of international politics (alleged link to Syria and Pakistan). If the Belarusian state is an arsenal for the world's conflicts and problems, then to fight it means to fight something more than an election-stealing and rights-suppressing deeply provincial regime.
It means also that such a battle will be more interesting for the rest of the world. And to attract Western attention to Belarusian problems is rather difficult after years of futile efforts to effect changes in the country and the resulting weakness of the opposition.
Actually, the absence of “smoking guns” proving illicit arms trade by Belarus may show that the Belarusian regime cares about this danger of becoming global problem itself. To avoid it, Minsk stays away from international hot spots and violations of international legal norms. Lukashenka feels, as long as his rule remains, however ugly, internationally sound, he can be certain that nobody in the West will bother to topple the ruler in Minsk.
There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth?
Sure, one should not dismiss the possibility of some “black swans,” i.e., unexpected and unsuspected facts about Belarusian arms trade which can arise after the present ruler goes. Among the known unknowns are the cases with Belarusians allegedly being involved in armed conflicts on the side of Ivorian and Libyan governments.
Nobody knew about Ukrainian officers selling top-secret missile samples to the Communist China and Iran until after Orange revolution Yushchenko came to power and revealed the incidents in 2005.
But such eventuality does not justify the speculations and hyping evident fakes now. Unsubstantiated claims undermine the moral case of the Belarusian opposition and non-state media. There are more than enough appropriately documented outrageous conditions and policies in Belarus to lash out at.
Mixing these substantiated critics with dubious charges and irresponsible rhetoric is a rather destructive. After all, as the proverb goes, one rotten apple spoils the bunch.
Siarhei Bohdan is a Research Director at the Ostrogorski Centre. He is an alumnus of the Belarus State University and European Humanities University in Lithuania.