Belarus Space Odyssey

On 31 December 2012 Alexander Lukashenka announced that Belarus had become "a space nation". In other words, it had entered a club of countries having their own guided objects in space.

The Belarusian ruler meant the launch of the first Belarusian satellite that took place on 22 July 2012 at the Baikonur cosmodrome. But many consider  the launch to be little more than a PR action.

Actually it was not the first attempt by Belarus to join the club of "space nations." Six years earlier, on 26 July 2006 the Russian carrier rocket "Dnepr" with Belarusian satellite "BelKA" crashed after an unsuccessful launch.

The failure was shameful for Belarusian authorities. Lukashenka himself visited the Baikonur cosmodrome to observe the launch and with his own eyes observed the misfortune. Later, the investigation showed that the problem was not in the Belarusian satellite but in the combustion chamber of the carrier rocket. Nonetheless, that failure badly spoiled the mood of Lukashenka.

The Second Attempt and New Plans

Soon after the events of the July 2006, Belarusian officials announced: "There is going to be a second attempt". Independent experts criticised the idea. Some said that a small country like Belarus did not need expensive space projects.

Finally, after many postponements, on 22 July 2012 the successful launch was carried out. This time Russian rocket Soyuz-FG successfully launched into orbit the Belarusian satellite named "BKA".

The time of the satellite is set to function is five years. If Belarus had to pay the market price for the whole project, it would have cost $100m. But they launched BKA at a serious discount thanks to Russia. The total price tag reached only around $17m, which looked more like sponsorship than ownership.

Soon after the launch the government revealed new cosmic plans: Belarus will produce its own satellites and will soon start another launch project in cooperation with Russia.

The Advantages are Overrated

The news really inspired government experts and officials. "Belarus has become a space nation", - they proudly announced, as if they foresaw Lukashenka’s annual New Year's speech. The data from the satellite might be useful for agriculture, geodesy, cartography, combating forest fires and generally for the work of the Ministry for Emergency Situations – they predicted.

After some time, the first pictures from the satellite arrived. The satellite photographed Mozambique and Bahrain. After that, the advocates of the idea claimed that the Belarusian satellite would be even profitable: pictures can be sold to foreign customers.

Proceeding with self-praise, the National Academy of Sciences declared that several potential customers had already expressed some interest to the pictures from the Belarusian satellite. Among them: old friends Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and even Google. The latter, as was later honestly admitted, agreed only to consider whether it needed products from the Belarusian satellite.

And then came the silence. Not a single foreign customer has bought pictures from the satellite. Nothing has been heard about the usage of satellite in agriculture or by the Ministry for Emergency Situations. We can presume that if such cases indeed occurred officials would have proudly told about them. Hence, the reverse is likely the case.

Vladimir Belyakovsky, a manager from Peleng, a company that took part in manufacturing the satellite, admitted that such space projects were seldom profitable. The only more or less sound guarantee of the Belarusian satellite's payback was low initial costs due to the favourable conditions, provided by Russia.

With regards to prestige, today the status of "a space nation" is quite a common thing among more or less developed countries. Around 60 states including most of Belarusian neighbours are in the club. Having ones own satellite was a privilege half a century ago. Now it is just something that states possess if they need it. So the point of pride is a bit weak.

The True Motive is Self-Satisfaction

Since the time of communism , space exploration has been more than a mere branch of science and economy. Soviet party leaders did their best to foster the development of space technologies. While the country suffered heavy food deficits nobody dared to cut down on financing for space projects.

The same is true for today’s populist dictatorships. Belarusian fellow members of the "space nations" club are Iran and North Korea. In the meantime, thousands North Koreans die of starvation. What is also really symbolic, the first North Korea’s satellite was also launched in 2012.

Commenting for BelarusDigest, Belarusian economist and an ex-candidate for presidency, Yaraslau Ramanchuk named several points of governmental motivation for the space programme: "Lukashenka’s pride, lobbying of the National Academy of Sciences and a false idea of​​ technical and technological progress. And maybe even an illusion of some kind of possible safe means of communication without the Kremlin listening to secret talks".

An Example of Window-Dressing

The willingness of wasting money on "prestigious" projects is not limited only to Belarus' space ambitions. The history of Belarusian-Russian relations has seen many cases of dumping money just for producing an image. Globally, the whole project of "the Union State" among two nations is a project of this kind.

Belarus contributes 35% to the budget of this organisation, which in figures will be around $2bn (out of $5bn) during the 2013. These funds are used to finance numerous supranational entities, bodies and their projects. For more than 15 years this organisation has been a perfect example of how two populist governments can waste peoples’ money in order to feed their nostalgic illusions.

One of the most glaring examples of such "fruitful" partnership is a project "Union TV-set" dating back to 1999. By means of this programme two governments wanted to support the moribund branch of TV-sets production. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a serious production crisis in this sphere.

The investments in this branch reached tens of millions of dollars. But the market was already captured by foreign cheap and high-quality TV-sets. Enormous money injections in out-of-date plants without their modernization resulted in failure. The folding of the project in 2001 entailed mass dismissals at the related Belarusian enterprises.

Now back to space. The Belarusian government has introduced another Russian-supported project with obscure aims. The lack of practical results together with the critical experts’ estimations brings to an unpleasant conclusion. The satellite launch was done mainly for the sake of the traditional window-dressing.

Whether the state of the Belarusian economy can sustain expensive technological prestige projects does not seem to bother the Belarusian leadership. 

Artyom Shraibman

Artyom Shraibman is an analyst and political observer working for BelaPAN independent news agency in Minsk.

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