Belarus-Iran: Noisy Friendship Without Real Results
Belarusian State Oil Company “Belarusnafta” can no longer extract oil in Iran. According to official statements released this week the Iranian side decided that the Belarusian company had not fulfilled the contract's conditions and revoked its extraction permit. This case illustrates the nature of Belarus-Iranian relations – they are deprived of any real meaning despite all efforts by political leadership to fill them with content.
Could it be a kind of 'quid pro quo', after Belarus declared its intent to shut down the Iranian Samand cars assembly line in the country? The plant existed since 2008, but failed to organize a sustainable production of cars. Nevertheless, the project was important for the image of the Iranian company which tries to go beyond national borders and become a global player.
The Iranian regime certinly used new contacts with Belarus in its propaganda – as a demonstration of a "breakthrough to a new European market." Iranian pro-government media devoted significant attention to projects, visits and exhibitions in Minsk. The negative aspects were omitted – even the opposition Iranian media this February did not notice the statement by the Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Semashko that the project of producing "Samand" cars in Belarus failed and the assembly line facilities may be given to another, Chinese automaker.
Iranian news agency "Fars" still vigorously writes about global success of "Iran Khodro" – the company implementing the project. Now, it exports cars to thirty countries and its production plants are located on four continents – in Syria, Venezuela, Belarus, Egypt, Senegal and Azerbaijan. "The Senegal plant procures the needs of the African market and the Belarus plant meets the demands of the Commonwealth of Independent States." At the same time Iranian media periodically discuss the possible bankruptcy of the company.
The economic effect of the Belarusian-Iranian relations is modest. Just last year the bilateral trade volume has exceeded the symbolic mark of $100 million – although this target for trade volume has been set long ago in 2004, during a visit to Minsk by then Iranian President Khatami. For the Belarusian side, however, more important is that out of approximately one hundred million dollars more than ninety million are Belarusian exports to Iran. For a nation with a chronic negative foreign trade balance it is a noticeable sum.
There are few large projects underway between Belarus and Iran. The oil extraction has been a point of pride for president Lukashenka, yet it never has had tangible economic effect. Iranian investments in Belarus materialized only in form of quite ordinary construction, logistics, and low-technology production projects.
Of course, while working with Iran, some Belarusian companies were sanctioned by the US government. However, the sanctions had a more preventive than punitive nature. In 2004, it was Belvneshpromservis, in 2011 – Beltekheksport, BelOMO and Belarusnafta were also subject to sanctions. Some experts even believe that Belarusnafta decided to voluntarily leave Iran to avoid American sanctions rather than thrown out by the Iranian government. Anyway, recently some Belarusian officials began to criticize projects with Iranian involvement.
The Iranian side, too, was not satisfied with the relationship. The current Iranian ambassador in Minsk Abdullah Hosseini said in summer 2009, "The administration system of this country [Belarus] is not too smooth (ravan), it has a peculiar bureacracy and lack of regular sea route with the Iranian side is a noticeable problem." Another problem, according to Mr. Hosseini, is that "the English language in this country is not widespread."
Of course, the Iranian ambassador always had trust in Lukashenka. In the same speech two years ago Mr. Hosseini said, "Now, taking into consideration the political situation in Belarus, it seems to me that in the five-year perspective, we will not see major changes in this country and its interests are so intertwined in a knot with Russia that it is not capable to separate its political structure from Russia."
At the same time the Belarusian regime is extremely careful in dealing with Tehran. In particular it avoids high-level military-related contacts with Iranian officials. This approach contrasts with usual policy of the Belarusian government which prioritizes military and security-related issues in its cooperation with developing countries. Despite numerous allegations, Belarus most likely never tried to sell Iran anything sensitive, as anti-aircraft S-300 systems or radars. Last time when Minsk sold Iran military equipment was in early 2000s. Then Belarus supplied several T-72 tanks. The contracts were concluded with support from Iranian reformist president Khatami. The statements on these contracts were duly filed with the UN conventional arms trade register.
Lukashenka always distanced himself from the ideological and geopolitical premises of Iranian regime, including its anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli rhetoric, especially after Ahmadinejad's came to power. Lukashenka's attitude towards Iran, as towards the developing world in general, has always been opportunistic – to work wherever possible using capacities already existing in Belarus. And the Soviet-era capacities rather limited his choice of partners. Unlike Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the Belarusian leader has no stable ideological preferences.
Bargaining for Political Prisoners Has Begun? – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Belarusian analysts began discussing the reasons why Lukashenka pardoned nine participants of protests against falsification of elections in December 2010. Others analyze why those protests have not materialized in political changes and what comes next as the economic crises deepens.
Official Minsk starts bargaining for political prisoners? Alexander Zaitsev, a columnist of naviny.by, examines the possible reasons for Lukashenka’s pardon of nine participants of Ploscha events on December 19, 2010. The journalist believes that the first batch of the amnesty "is likely to be a trial balloon, an attempt to assess the reaction of the West, to throw the hook for a possible dialogue". Over thirty people, including several presidential candidates, remain in Belarusian prisons.
What is happening in Belarus explains Alexander Feduta, political analyst who works for Vladimir Nyaklyaeu's team. According to him, the crisis in the Belarusian economy is payback for populism, and the violent suppression of silent protests linked to the authorities' fear of any public expression of discontent. Unlike in Ukraine during the Orange revolution, there is no independent television in Minsk, nearly anybody can be dismissed from work for political reasons and no rich people who could support the opposition. Feduta hints that they will come up with an alternative strategy to combat the crisis in September.
Delayed revolution. Moscow-based Andrey Suzdaltsev writes about the completion of the Internet revolution in Belarus. He considers silent protests campaign successful, because it demonstrated the protest potential of ordinary Belarusians. Political analyst predicts that suppressing peaceful protests, the government thus could provoke people protests of force format.
The dangerous passivity. Sergei Nikolyuk disagrees that protests will revive to the autumn: "We still observe the reverse process: authoritarian regime is not “crumbled” under pressure by people on squares, but on the contrary, the people come out to the squares after the regime is “scattered”. The cornerstone of a contemporary state regime can only constitute active citizens who are ready to bear responsibility. The economic crisis, however, makes Belarusians to distance themselves from the state and they become very passive. At some point the quantity of those who distance themselves from the state will turn into quality and the state will start crumbling. This is when according to Nikolyuk squares in Belarus will be filled with protesters.
Vain hopes on the German-Russian agreements on Belarus. Mikhas Ilyinsky points out that the Belarusian issue was not on the agends of German-Russian consultations at the highest level in Hanover, held on July 18-19. In any case, the analyst is sure that “the hope for the advent of democracy from the East (Russia) is at least dangerously naïve, and intentionally or not – in fact, encourages Belarus to the loss of state sovereignty”.
Public Councils in Belarus. Olga Smolyanka, director of Legal Transformation Center, writes on legal regulation of the formation and activities of the public councils in Belarus. These councils function under auspices of state institutions, such as ministries to reflect pubic opinion in decision-making by official bodies. She concludes that the lack of clear regulation of activities of public councils and the possibility of state organs to ignore recommendations hinders their effectiveness.
State of gender policy in Belarus – Lyudmila Petina analyzes the state of gender equality and women's rights in Belarus. She thinks the Belarusian experience of recent years has no significant positive changes. Moreover, the last period should be called “the time of missed opportunities and the destruction of gender education”. There are no legislative mechanisms to address domestic violence against women and no attention to gender issues on the labour market. Prosecution of a number of NGOs, including working on gender issues, absence of transparency and civil dialogue affected position of women on the labour market.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.