Belarus Arms Trade: an Autocrat in Need is an Asset Indeed

The waves of revolutions rolling across the Middle East have taught the Belarusian regime an important lesson. Helping fellow dictators in need – even in faraway African countries – pays off in the long run. Democratic dominoes do fall, just as Dwight Eisenhower predicted half a century ago, and the more autocratic regimes are still standing the more secure one’s own hold on power.

Together with economic benefits and the lack of concern for its already irredeemable reputation, this explains why Belarus arms one autocratic regime after another defying the international community.

Just yesterday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Belarus violated the international arms embargo on Ivory Coast. Minsk is accused of delivering three attack helicopters and related material to President Laurent Gbagbo. According to Ban’s spokesman, additional deliveries were scheduled for Monday.

How big of a deal is the Belarusian assistance to Gbagbo? Minsk’s transfer could potentially tip the balance of power in Ivory Coast in Gbagbo’s favor and will certainly lead to a new bout of political violence in the country. In fact, Gbagbo may have a lot to learn from the 16-year rule of the Belarusian President. Like Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Gbagbo is clinging to power after disputed 2010 election. To be fair, Lukashenka’s pursuit of his political opponents after December 19 has been much more elegant than the power struggle in Ivory Coast, which is teetering on the brink of another civil war.

Belarus is also suspected of supplying arms to Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi’s paramilitary forces have unleashed a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters. According to SIPRI, a military cargo plane from Belarus landed in Libya two weeks ago. The UN imposed arms embargo a week later, so technically Minsk did not violate anything. However, the gesture by the Belarusian regime is very meaningful.

All UN embargoes in history have been violated, and all of Warsaw pact countries, including the states that have acceded to the EU after the Soviet collapse, are guilty of violating them. Belarus has been one of the most egregious violators, however. In 1998-2001, the country has sold $1 billion in arms taking the 11th position in the world. Since then, the volume of exports has declined, but the country continues to be an important arms supplier. Almost three-quarters of Belarus’ weapons are sold to African states, according to SIPRI. Belarus does not break down the data on its arms exports by recipient, but it is known that Sudan accounts for 40 per cent of all Belarusian arms exports. The EU and the USA prohibited arms sales to Sudan, which has been at war with itself since 1956, because from Sudan the arms traveled to Darfur. For comparison, only 17 per cent of Ukrainian arms are sold to African states, with the rest directed to Eastern Europe and Asia.

Why does Belarus violate arms embargoes so often? To begin with, its international reputation is so bad that additional criticism hardly makes a difference and therefore does not enter into the Belarusian regime’s calculation of the costs of skirting international rules. Of course, sanctions, which are all too familiar to the Lukashenka regime, do matter. If proven to have occurred, Belarus’ violation will be reviewed by the UN Security Council's committee responsible for sanctions. Because the revenues from illegal weapons sales may be going directly into the Belarusian officials’ pockets, the sanctions could bite. While most of Belarus’s African customers would continue importing arms, Belarus would have to avoid European and US banks and resort to inconvenient currencies in its transactions.

Belarus is likely to be partly motivated by the economic benefits of arms exports. Ivory Coast is the largest economy in the West African Economic and Monetary Union, and can certainly pay. Libya has one of the highest GDPs per capita in Africa due to its high revenues from oil, a very valued commodity for the Belarusian leader who is seeking to diversify Belarusian energy supply. Moreover, selling arms illegally to the states avoided by more principled suppliers, Belarus can charge higher prices. Additionally, because most other civilized states refuse to deal with Minsk and because the quality of its exports may not satisfy the needs of more technically advanced states, Belarus may be relying on the African recipients of its illegal arms shipments as much as they rely on Belarus.

Economic interests may have indeed dominated Minsk’s reasoning during the economic crises induced by the Soviet collapse. In the 1990s, with and without the state’s acquiescence, former military in virtually all post-Soviet countries engaged in peddling weapons to rogue states for purely economic reasons. Today, Belarus is stable and no move evades the watchful eye of the Belarusian president, who is surely aware of the consequences of illegal weapons trade.

It seems that contemporary Belarus may also be driven by political interests as much as economic benefits when skirting UN embargoes. It is no coincidence that the Belarusian regime tends to sell arms to politically similar countries. The argument that arms embargo violations are politically motivated is also supported by many researchers. For example, Matthew Moore (2010) found that state decisions to violate embargoes are often driven by political rather than economic consideration.

Thus it is to be expected that with its arms sales Belarus chooses to prop up autocratic rulers who rig elections and refuse to step down, like Gbagbo and Qadafi. The embargoes imposed on the countries under such rulers must be making the Belarusian support even more meaningful and appreciated. Conveniently, by violating the UN embargoes that aim at promoting democracy as much as at ending conflicts, the Belarusian state weakens the very international norms that condemn its own behavior.

Of course, it may also be that given Belarus’ climate, the Belarusian leader has developed an addiction to cocoa, Ivory Cost’s main commodity. In that case, little can be done to make him respect the international law.

VC

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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