Belarusian Military Cooperation With Developing Nations: Dangerous Yet Legal

Milex-2011, Military Exhibition in Minsk.

On 26 November, unknown militants believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda attacked two Belarusians in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. One was killed, another severely wounded.

The men worked for the Yemeni presidential security service for about a year, as reported by the Reuters news agency, referring to local security sources.

International media and human rights organisations regularly accused the Belarusian regime of collaborating with “extremist” governments and groups around the world.

In 2000s, the Wall Street Journal Europe claimed that Belarus sold arms to Hamas, as well as to a series of countries labelled as sponsors of terrorism. Later on, Belarus was implicated of illicit arms sales to Cot-d'Ivoire and Sudan. However, no firm evidence of illicit deals ever appeared.

The evidence points out another reality – of Belarus doing risky business, though with legitimate governments.

Supporting the Global War on Terror

Commenting on the recent incident in Yemen the Reuters noted, “Citizens of countries in the former Soviet Union are not previously known to have been targets for Yemen's al Qaeda branch or other Islamist militant groups.” Working for the Yemeni presidential security service, the Belarusians clearly joined the Western side of the global war on terror. Lukashenka might be unscrupulous, yet he knows that in the global crusade against terrorism he cannot afford ambiguousness.

The experts killed in Sanaa worked there with the implicit knowledge of the Belarusian government. Chairman of Belarusian Military Industrial Committee Siarhei Hurulyou stated that the Belarusian experts worked on a “Belarusian” contract but declined to say which enterprise concluded the contract.

Belarusians badly need money and are willing to go on the most risky missions in order to make a living. In March 2007, two Belarusian transport aircrafts of Transaviaexport were shot down in Somalia, and eleven pilots and technicians died. The issue was again used in the domestic political struggle inside Belarus. Transaviaexport officially claimed that the first machine was chartered by the UN Security Council to bring cargo for the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

Some other commentators claimed that the aircraft participated in illegal arms deliveries for armed African groups. The only evidence they produced were photographs of the first aircraft with military equipment inside. This equipment was not something that itself could be viewed as incriminating, as the peacekeeping mission would have needed this equipment as well. Furthermore, Transaviaexport at that time was registered as an official UN air carrier and transported UN cargo around the world.

Fighting for the Ivorian Government

The most suspicious case of Belarusian military involvement in developing world relates to domestic political confrontation in Cote-d'Ivoire in the early 2000s. In August 2004, the French Defence Minister claimed that nine French soldiers were killed as a French military base there was bombed by the Ivorian government air force. It was Belarusian military specialists that piloted the Ivoirian aircrafts, according to the Defence Minister. Both Ivorian and Belarusian defence ministries refuted the accusations.

In 2010 Wikileaks published a cable from the US embassy in Paris. It reported a conversation with a former Togolese minister which had fled afterwards to France. He said that nine Belarusian military experts were detained in Togo after the raid on the French military base but Paris had displayed no interest in persecuting the Belarusians.

Most of the Belarusian media quite uncritically assessed the words of former Togolese official without reporting that he was in a very specific situation of looking for support as he talked to Americans and it could potentially influence his statements.

Actually, the French might have had good reasons to let the detained Belarusians go back then, as the legal grounds for persecution were weak. After all, the Belarusians worked for the Ivorian government and France was not a party to the convention against mercenaries.

Choppers for Nigerian Special Forces

Belarusians work for the government in Western Africa as well. Belarus-Nigerian cooperation within the military sphere reportedly started in 2003, long before the Belarusian embassy opened in Abuja last year. The two governments reportedly signed an agreement on military technical cooperation in June 2010.

A high-level Nigerian Defence Ministry official told the Belarusian delegation visiting Nigeria in 2011 that relations between the two countries shall not start and end with commerce but they should consider one another "partners in military development".

In 2010, Minsk sold two helicopters Mi-24B​ to Abuja. Belarusian “Belspeczneshtekhnika” since the early 2010s has been providing maintenance to Nigerian Mi-35 attack helicopters, and Nigeria sent its pilots and engineers to Belarus among other countries to receive training.

Alongside the Belspeczneshtekhnika, the Nigerian air force uses the services of Alenia Aeronautica and AgustaWestland. Belspeczneshtekhnika is responsible for the choppers of the 97th Special Forces Group in Port Harcourt, a main region of oil extraction and the very heart of rebel activity in Nigeria.

Last year, the Belarusian ambassador in Nigeria Vyachaslau Biaskosty stated that his country is willing to render Nigeria technical assistance to tame terrorists threatening the African nation. That includes humanitarian aspects. In 2012, the Nigerian government sent scores of former Niger delta rebels to Belarus (as well as South Africa and Italy) for university studies.

No Deal with the Ethiopian Dictatorship

The Belarusian regime might look unscrupulous, yet it certainly avoids conducting overtly risky deals and has some understanding of humanitarian issues. A case in point is cooperation with Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi.

In early 2000s Belarus hoped to revive old links with Ethiopia as a former Soviet ally. After all, Belarusian MTZ tractors were being assembled there since as far back as 1984. Minsk managed to secure some defence contracts which, according to Ethiopian media, in the early 2000s was worth more than $100m.

In the summer of 2005, this cooperation came to an abrupt halt. In July 2005, after post-election violence in Ethiopia, eight Ethiopian pilots undergoing 6-month training in Belarus applied for political asylum. These pilots, according to some sources, learned to fly the most modern version of the Su-27 fighter jet. This training was extremely important for the Ethiopian regime because this African country had at the moment almost no more pilots trained to fly these Soviet jets.

After the Belarusian authorities rejected their requests, the Ethiopian pilots left for another country. The Belarusian government did not hamper them. The Ethiopian diaspora boasted of bringing the pilots out of Belarus. Yet given the control the Belarusian regime had in the country and effective non-existence of an Ethiopian diaspora in Belarus, it was undoubtedly the Belarusian government which facilitated the escape of the Ethiopian pilots. In a parallel development, fierce pressure by the Ethiopian government resulted in Djibouti returning the dissident pilots to Addis Abeba but failed to produce such results with Minsk.

Belarus paid dearly. Ethiopian ruler Meles Zenawi broke relations and they did not revive them while he was alive. Political contacts resumed instantly after the Ethiopian strongman passed away in August 2012.

The quoted cases show that the Belarusian leadership is not interested in confrontation with the West as such, either on ideological or geopolitical grounds. Belarusians look even for the most risky contracts in developing world for the sake of money, yet Minsk so far has demonstrated that it knows where the redlines set by the West lie.

Essentially, Lukashenka tried to earn money by avoiding confrontation with the West at the same time. This is important to consider in order to understand the opportunistic and non-ideological foreign policy of Belarus over almost the past two decades.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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