Was the White Legion really planning an armed attack?

On 11 April, the official Belarusian media launched a massive propaganda campaign. They aimed at revealing the alleged plans of a group called White Legion to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The White Legion is a patriotic sports and military-style organisation which ceased to exist in the early 2000s.

At the moment, 35 people remain under investigation on charges of organising mass riots and creating an illegal armed group. However, independent experts have revealed numerous facts that prove the official evidence false.

The authorities seem to have reanimated the White Legion to create a fabricated threat and discredit the wave of protests sparked by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The authorities are also attempting to sell the threat of a Maidan scenario, complete with anti-Russian armed groups, to the Kremlin.

A secret organisation with terrorist plans uncovered

On 11 April, Belarus Segodnia, the largest official newspaper in Belarus, published a lead article describing a 'journalist investigation' of the preparation of mass riots set for 25 March, 'Freedom Day' in Belarus. According to the article, 35 people are currently under investigation. 17 detainees have already been charged, while the rest remain suspects.

20 people also face charges on another criminal case – creation of an illegal armed group. This is unprecedented in Belarusian history. The newspaper gave a detailed report on the White Legion group, including their training and plans for 25 March, along with evidence from the investigation.

The piece explains that although the White Legion was officially dissolved in the early 2000s, this was really a cover for a more elaborate conspiracy and an attempt to outwit security services. The group supposedly preserved its links and continued training, avoiding publicity and oppositional communities.

According to the investigation, the group also took part in the Ukrainian Maidan and the following military conflict in Eastern Ukraine to gain experience. The article maintained that White Legion fighters were preparing to topple the political regime in Belarus and using patriotic training as a cover. They possessed illegal weapons and had assembled a cachet of iron rods to attack the police. According to the state media, the White Legion was closely associated with former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, and backed his political endeavours.

Security services revealed to the main state-run daily newspaper Belarus Segodnia that they had received information about the planned mass riots on 25 March from a German woman with Belarusian roots, called Frau A. She heard about the plot from a friend acquainted with Belarusian oppositional activists in Poland. She immediately rushed to the Belarusian embassy in Germany to write a letter to the President Lukashenka, asking him to take immediate action.

On 12 April, an even harsher propaganda film, 'White Legion with Black Souls' was aired on the TV channel Belarus 1. The film accused the White Legion of Nazism, links with the Islamic State, plans to commit terror attacks in the Moscow metro, training children to become suicide bombers, and similar ludicrous claims. Moreover, the film cast Belarusian singer Anatoli Jarmolenka and actor Uladzimir Hasciuchin as 'experts'. Observers were quick to characterise the film as very poor-quality propaganda.

How true is the official version?

Even without the accusations of White Legion links to ISIS and Nazism, the investigation's 'evidence' appears mostly false. Belsat published an article which analysed photos of the weapon cache and concluded that they were either replicas of real arms or legally-sold airguns and airsoft guns.

Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, former head of the White Legion, who has been living in Ukraine over the last years, denies the article's accusations. In an interview with Euroradio, he stated that he would be honoured to be responsible for the creation of a deeply secret organisation, but in really the group had ceased all activity long ago. It was simply impossible to function legally in Belarus.

People close to former White Legion members informed the newspaper Naša Niva that although the organisation ceased to exist ages ago, its former associates still retain links and engage in training and cultural activities, including youth education in a Patriot Club near Babrujsk. They also admitted that they were ready to become the backbone of a volunteer battalion in case of Russian aggression, but had no plans for toppling the Lukashenka regime.

Mikalaj Statkievič also called the article a lie – he was not acquainted with any of the detainees, and the last time he met Čyslaŭ was ten years ago. Many other facts also prove the criminal cases to be a politically-motivated fabrication. For instance, Frau A., who speaks Russian with a strong accent in the propaganda film aired on the Belarusian television, somehow managed to write a letter without a single typo and used technical phrases commonly found only within security agencies.

Pro-Russian organisations not perceived as a threat

With exception of a single case when Russian nationalist publicists from the news website Regnum were arrested in December 2016, most pro-Russian groups face no serious pressure in Belarus.

Various Belarusian pro-Russian Cossack groups perform openly on a much larger scale the same activities of which  the Patriot Club and former White Legion are accused. They regularly conduct military drills with replica guns, train children, and cooperate with their Russian colleagues, who took an active part in the war in Eastern Ukraine on the pro-Russian side.

What's more, real pro-Russian combatants of Belarusian origin who fought in Ukraine freely visit Belarus and face only 'preventive talks' with security officers. Many of them admit in interviews that Belarusian siloviki sympathise with them and 'express support', as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.

Let's invent a threat as a distraction from the economic crisis

The case of the White Legion seems to aim at discrediting the wave of protests triggered by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The majority of the population is experiencing economic hardship and is losing faith in the government. The authorities are trying to destroy any group which could even theoretically be capable of organising resistance.

As Siarhiej Čyslaŭ puts it, it is important for the authorities that protestors be framed as fighters and terrorists, rather than political prisoners, thus avoiding new confrontation with the West.

The West, frightened by the Ukraine crisis, fears similar developments in Belarus and is inclined to trust the Belarusian government. At the same time, the authorities are trying to represent the crackdown on 25 March as an operation to save citizens from a terror attack.

Finally, the authorities are also apparently attempting to sell the threat of Maidan and anti-Russian armed groups to the Kremlin in order to achieve better oil and gas prices and other subsidies.

The White Legion case shows that in a difficult situation, the authorities prefer to rely on brutal force and illegal methods rather than open dialogue with the opposition and civil society. However, by destroying patriotic communities, they make themselves  and the Belarusian statehood even more vulnerable to threats from Russia.

Belarus-Russia conflict, prospect for 2019 elections, end of recession – digest of Belarus analytics

BISS: relations with Russia have deteriorated to a minimum from early 2011. Arciom Šrajbman in his article notes that even if Minsk and Moscow are able to resolve their current dispute, the standoff will go down in history.

Reformation project presents a “dream government of reforms” for Belarus. Zautra.by explains why Belarusian public officials are unable to implement reforms. Poll: only 15% of Belarusian students feel positive effects of the Bologna process.

EBRD: Belarus will come out of recession in 2017. Belarus in Focus forecasts that economic recovery may be postponed till 2018. Belarus government reportedly adopts a series of progressive steps by 2020.

This and more in the new edition of digest of Belarus analytics.


The Far-Reaching Consequences of Belarus’s Conflict with RussiaArciom Šrajbman in his article for Carnegie Moscow Centre, notes that even if Minsk and Moscow are able to resolve their current dispute, the standoff will go down in history, at least in Belarus. After Belarus’s declaration of independence and the creation of its state infrastructure this conflict will be one of the most important stages in the country’s movement away from Russia.

Russia Introduces a Border Zone With BelarusJaŭhien Prejherman in his article for Jamestown Foundation, analyses the media reaction to the establishment of the border between Russia and Belarus. The expert recommends that particularly important for observers to prevent their analysis from being driven by hot media headlines and unprofessional and poorly sourced blogging, which tries to sell such headlines as serious research.

Are Moscow and the West Swapping Positions on Belarus? – Paul Goble, The Jamestown Foundation, notes that now there are intriguing indications that Russia and the West are progressively swapping their positions on Belarus, with Moscow viewing its Western neighbour as a threat and the West increasingly considering Belarus a possible ally against Russia.

Stanislav Belkovsky: In Free Elections in Russia, Lukashenka Would Win Putin – In his interview with TUT.by, Stanislav Belkovsky, Russian political scientist, discusses the Russian president's attitude to Lukashenka and Belarus, why Russia needs conflict in Ukraine and the operation in Syria. Belkovsky visits Belarus at the invitation of Nobel laureate, Svetlana Aleksievich for the 2nd meeting of her Intellectual Club.

Belarus Foreign Policy Index #35. November-December 2016 – BISS presents its regular monitoring, in which Belarus’s foreign policy is explored in five dimensions. Namely, at the end of 2016 relations with Russia have deteriorated to an absolute minimum since the entire period of analysis (from early 2011). At the same time, a long-term trend to expand the agenda in relations with the EU has continued.

Domestic politics

Belarus-2019: Return to Repression Or Partnership of Government and Opposition? – Thinktanks.by analyses the recent debate organised by Belarus Security Blog, where experts tried to predict the development of domestic and foreign policy situation for Belarus. One of the findings is that Russia will not return to the same level of support for the Belarusian authorities, so they will come weakened to the next presidential election.

Reformation website presents “dream government” for reforms in Belarus. Among the criteria are professionalism, representation of the current government and the opposition and, gender balance. So, the Prime Minister is Kyril Rudy, former Assistant to the president; Minister of Economy is Aliaksandr Čubryk, IPM Research Institute, Minister of Labour is Tacciana Karatkievič, Havary Praŭdu campaign, Ombudsman is human rights activist Aliena Tankačova.

Why officials cannot conduct reforms. Zautra.by website believes that one of the Belarusian problems’ reasons is the inefficiency of the leading elite. In particular, almost all political Belarusian elite got higher education and academic degrees in Belarus or Russia, which leads to a shortage of fresh ideas, misunderstanding of modern trends, and preservation in a narrow professional world.


Investments fell below the threshold of economic security. Reducing the share of investment in relation to GDP for three consecutive years is observed in Belarus. Their volume dropped to its lowest level since 2003. The Government is preparing a special meeting on this topic and the related report to the president.

The anatomy of Belarusian joint stock companies. This work is an attempt to find answers to a number of undiscovered issues of joint stock companies activity in Belarus. 

How To Treat The Arrests of Businessmen – Vitali Volyanyuk, Probusiness.by, given the recent arrests of 11 Belarusian businessmen and the criminal case of investor Aliaksandr Muraŭjoŭ, analyses, how to treat this situation. The author believes that in the current paradigm, a normal psychological climate for the business in the country can be created only from scratch.

In 2017, Belarus will come out of recession. According to the EBRD Chief Economist Sergei Guriev, Belarus will come out of recession with GDP growth by 1% in 2017. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) considers that Belarus should conduct structural reforms to accelerate economic growth, in particular, reforms in the public sector, pension system, etc.

Belarus in Focus: Economic growth in Belarus may be delayed until 2018. The Belarusian economy has been in recession for two consecutive years. Amid anticipated decline in retail trade, construction and unresolved dispute over energy supplies from Russia, economic recession is likely to persist in 2017 and the economic recovery may be postponed until 2018, forecast Belarus in Focus experts.

Government announces a series of progressive innovations until 2020. The Government of Belarus has approved a package of measures to implement the Program of socio-economic development of Belarus for 2016-2020. Among 380 events there are quite revolutionary, in particular, the improvement of the monetary and foreign exchange policy, the decriminalisation of economic risks, etc.

Education and civil society

Poll: Only 15% of Belarusian Students "Feel" the Bologna Process – Only 11% of the students are familiar with the contents of the Roadmap of the Belarusian higher education reform by 2018; 48% say that their students' rights were violated. These data were obtained in a survey on the assessment of the Education Ministry from the viewpoint of the students held in December 2016 – January 2017 by Baltic Internet Policy Initiative and commissioned by the Public Bologna Committee.

Belarus Grows Up. Civil Rise Above ItselfVadzim Mažejka, Belarusian Journal, examines the latest trends in the Belarusian civil society. Thus, Belarusians start realising that no one but themselves can finance social benefit initiatives, comprehend the Belarusian society and discuss upcoming reforms. It's called growing up. 2017 for the Belarusian society is the year to rise above itself.


Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area. The paper analyses the main challenges to implementation of the Roadmap in Belarus and provides recommendation which could help to do it on time.

Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area. In 2015 Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and committed to putting a Roadmap for higher education reform into effect by 2018. The implementation of the Roadmap is running behind schedule, which poses a threat to fulfilment of Belarus' obligations by the due date. The paper ‘Challenges To Belarus Joining The European Higher Education Area’ released by the Ostrogorski Centre analyses the main challenges to implementation of the Roadmap in Belarus; it also provides recommendation which could help to do it on time and benefit a wider range of stakeholders.

The anatomy of Belarusian joint stock companies. We do not know how effective the Belarusian enterprises are, what share of the economy belongs to the state, how state-owned enterprises differ from private ones, how labour, capital and materials are distributed between the companies, and how emergence, evolution and exit of enterprises from the market impacts the economy. This work is an attempt to find answers to these questions by analysing the activities of Belarusian joint stock companies.

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.

Will Russia occupy Belarus in 2017?

Recently, the Russian Ministry of Defence disclosed logistical data of railway traffic to other countries for the upcoming year.

It revealed that the Kremlin is planning to significantly increase the amount of military cargo headed for Belarus.

This may be a sign that Moscow is preparing to redeploy a large number of Russian troops to Belarus in 2017.

A piece by Belarus Digest predicted that the Kremlin is trying to transform Belarus into a flash point for menacing NATO and Ukraine by deploying its military capabilities on Belarusian territory.

Unfortunately, this prediction is corroborated by the aforementioned logistic data, as well as the fruitlessness of the recent meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

The negotiation agenda: two different angles

On 22 – 23 October 2016 Alexander Lukashenko paid a working visit to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss bilateral economic problems. The lack of official comments on the results of the negotiations in Moscow raises some doubts about its real agenda. Moreover, the current state of affairs demonstrates that the Kremlin is unwilling to compromise and will continue to put pressure on Minsk.

Significant economic problems have been accumulating in Moscow-Minsk relations since the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014. The list of grievances includes permanent trade wars and restrictions of Belarusian goods on the Russian market, the gas price dispute and the incomplete delivery of oil to Belarus from Russia, and the sudden implementation of controls on the Belarusian-Russian border.

However, Alexander Surikov, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, announced shortly before the meeting that the two presidents would not be discussing economic problems. According to him, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko would focus on political issues in the changing international context. He did not specify which 'changes' were implied.

Nevertheless, it seems that Putin had already set the political agenda for negotiations with Lukashenko during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Peru on 21 November 2016, one day before the meeting in Moscow. He explained why Russia is so alarmed by NATO’s expansion and stressed that the 'situation is heating up'.

Without doubt, Putin did discuss the current security situation in the region with his Belarusian counterpart. According to Kremlin strategists, upcoming deployments of four NATO battalions in Poland and the Baltic states will undermine the strategic stability of the region.

Putin believes that Belarus must participate in Russia’s military response to NATO’s activities on its Eastern flank

For this reason, Putin believes that Belarus must participate in Russia’s military response to NATO’s activities on its Eastern flank. Part of this response includes the large scale 'Zapad / West 2017' military drills taking place on the territory of Belarus and Kaliningrad next year.

Military drills or occupation?

However, the newly revealed logistical data of Russian military cargo to Belarus illustrate the Kremlin’s far-reaching strategic designs. It seems that Moscow is planning to redeploy a large number of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus for purposes other than military drills.

According to these data, the Russian Ministry of Defence plans to send 4,162 railway carriages to Belarus next year. This would be 33 times more traffic than in 2015, and 83 times more traffic than this year. Some more argue that this increase in flow is connected with the 'Zapad/ West' joint strategic military exercises taking place next September.

However, comparing next year's logistical data with the number of railway carriages coming from Russia in 2013, during the previous 'Zapad' military drills, paints a rather different picture.

The Russian Ministry of Defence sent only 200 railway carriages to Belarus that year. Moreover, almost half of the motorised brigade of the Russian Armed Forces (comprising 2,500 troops) took part in the joint military exercises on the territory of Belarus.

In contrast, next year the Russian Ministry of Defence is planning to send 20 times more railway carriages to Belarus than during previous 'Zapad' drills in 2013. What's more, the Kremlin’s strategists are not required to publish certain military logistic data in open sources. This is a usual practise. Therefore, to get a more realistic idea of the scale of Russian troops’ redeployment to Belarus, the number of railway carriages should be multiplied at least by a factor of 1.5.

This logistical military data indirectly confirms that Russia is going to redeploy a number of troops to Belarus almost equal to the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District, and not simply participate in regular military drills.

Obviously, the Kremlin does not need this many troops for training purposes. A more likely scenario is that Russia plans to transform Belarus into an outpost for military confrontation with NATO. Specifically, Russia may use Belarusian territory in order to generate security threats and challenges to the Baltic states.

the Kremlin must first set up a strategic military presence on the territory of Belarus

In order to accomplish this, the Kremlin must first set up a strategic military presence on the territory of Belarus. Obviously, if this many Russian troops arrive in Belarus, it will be difficult to send them home later. Without doubt, this is detrimental to the sovereignty and independence of the Belarusian state.

Implications of the meeting in Moscow

Notably, this Russian military logistical data appeared in open sources one week prior to Lukashenka's visit to Moscow earlier this month, despite the fact that Belarusian military officials had not yet ironed out the details of next year's 'Zapad' drills with their Russian counterparts.

In this regard, the publication of these data can be seen as a tool to put psychological pressure on Minsk in order to bring Belarus into line with the Kremlin.

Simultaneously, the Russian media launched an information campaign dedicated to Belarus immediately following Lukashenka's visit to Moscow. Even certain federal-level Russian TV channels, such as 'Channel One Russia' and 'Zvezda', reported on the topic of Belarus

Some journalists' stories drew parallels with the situation in Ukraine. According to them, the same fate of destabilisation awaits Belarus, as Western intelligence agencies are preparing a colour revolution to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko.

Other stories focused on the growth of nationalist sentiment and 'Russophobia' in Belarusian society, as well as an outburst of right-wing oppositional political movements and parties. 'Zvezda', the TV channel of the Russian Ministry of Defence, warned explicitly that Alexander Lukashenko could be overthrown by Ukrainian provocateurs and so on.

Belarus Digest has written articles outlining a hypothetical coup scenario in Belarus launched by the Kremlin. According to this sequence of events, Russian-backed sabotage groups could operate as Belarusian nationalists or 'Ukrainian provocateurs'. In another scenario, based on the failed tactics of plotters in Montenegro, Russian agents could also pose as local security forces.

It seems that the Kremlin is preparing Russian public opinion for a serious crisis in Belarusian-Russian relations. The fruitlessness of Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Moscow also signals that Belarus is refusing to become a Russian military outpost in the event of a confrontation between NATO and the West.

In the future, an intensification of tension and an increase in coercive measures by the Kremlin – should Belarus continue to defend its national sovereignty and independence – is possible. This could even entail a coup attempt and destabilisation as an excuse for the Russian military to intervene in Belarus and instal a fully pro-Kremlin regime in Minsk.

Without a doubt, such a pro-Kremlin regime would acquiesce to however many Russian troops the Kremlin desires on Belarusian territory.

Arseni Sivitski

Arseni is the Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies based in Minsk; he is also a military officer in reserve for the Belarusian Armed Forces.

What does a New Cold War mean for Belarus?

Last week's visit by the Russian Minister of Defence clearly demonstrated the Kremlin’s intentions to undermine the image of Belarus as a country with a predictable and neutral military and foreign policy.

The confrontation between NATO and Russia, as a manifestation of the New Cold War, has direct implications for the independence, sovereignty and national security of Belarus.

There is a risk that Russia will manage to transform Belarus into a Cold War outpost in order to generate conventional and hybrid threats to NATO member states and Ukraine. The Kremlin may also destabilise the political and military situation in Belarus if it decides that Aliaksandr Lukashenka is crossing too many red lines.

A sudden visit from Shoigu

Last week Sergey Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defence, paid an unexpected visit to Minsk to discuss Russian-Belarusian bilateral military cooperation during a joint board of defence ministries; such a meeting usually takes place only once a year. Nevertheless, the visit was not announced beforehand and seemed to be urgent.

During the meeting, he stated that the US and NATO are increasing their offensive capabilities on the western borders of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. He also detailed NATO’s plan to deploy four multinational battalions on its Eastern flank in order to undermine the strategic stability of the region.

According to Shoigu, this means that the Union State has to formulate a joint response. Thus, Russia has already taken “defensive” measures against a possible Western threat, and the Kremlin is trying to persuade Minsk to do the same.

Without doubt, the Kremlin is trying to increase its political and military clout in Belarus. It involves Minsk in a number of different initiatives such as deploying Russian air, land, and missile bases on Belarusian territory. The formation of the joint military organisation of the Union State (by 2018) and the conducting of joint large scale military drills such as 'West'/'Zapad' have helped Moscow undermine Belarus’s image as an open and reliable partner with an independent, predictable, and peaceful military policy. This also calls Belarus’s intention to behave neutrally in the context of NATO-Russia confrontation into question.

Belarus and the region's military balance

Russia began to increase its military capabilities on the Western strategic direction right after the Crimean annexation and destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine. Moscow has already established the first Guards tank army on the Belarusian direction and re-deployed the 20th Guards Army to the Ukrainian border to assist in the hybrid war conflict in Donbas.

The Kremlin also plans to form new motorised (mechanised) and tank divisions in the Western military district and one motorised (mechanised) division in the South military district. Moscow is also rearranging the 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad, providing it with additional facilities to enforce two motorised (mechanised) brigades to division level.

According to official statements, Russia is undertaking these military steps as a defensive response to NATO’s increased activity in Central Europe and the Baltic region. The Kremlin will deploy two motorised brigades close to the border with Belarus for this reason as well.

One of these is stationed in Klintsy, Bryansk region, 40 km from the Belarusian border, and will be upgraded to a mechanised regiment. The second one is located in Yelnya, Smolensk region, 90 km from the Belarusian border, and will be reinforced to a mechanised division at the beginning of 2017.

Russia's measures are disproportionate and superfluous from the point of view of military balance in the region

It is obvious that Russia's measures are disproportionate and superfluous from the point of view of military balance in the region, especially given that Belarus and Russia are still allies. According to statements of the Belarusian military, Minsk does not believe the deployment of the four NATO battalions in Poland and the Baltic states to be a direct military threat to the security of Belarus.

These steps will not significantly change the current military balance between Belarus and neighbouring NATO states. According to the Global Militarization Index, Belarus remains among the ten most militarised countries in Europe, placing 12th out of a total of 152 countries, leaving Poland (68), Latvia (85), Lithuania (63), and Estonia (25) far behind. From this point of view, Minsk doesn’t have any reason to be concerned.

Russia as the real source of concern

If NATO's activities on its Eastern flank do not generate a direct military threat even to Belarus, then the same must be true for Russia as well. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has been exacerbating the military situation in the region since the annexation of Crimea using any decision or move by NATO as a pretext.

Russia has already conducted sudden readiness checks of its armed forces in the Western military district with as many as 100,000 troops, practising large-scale conflicts with NATO on the Baltic and Scandinavian theatres. The fact that Russia has sent 'Iskanders'– nuclear-capable missile systems — to Kaliningrad, and deployed 'Kalibrs' — capable long range missile warships and submarines — to the Baltic Sea support the fear that Russia may use nuclear weapons in a hypothetical conflict with NATO.


This strategy of escalation serves as a tool of pressure and psychological leverage on the EU and NATO; it is meant to undermine the unity and solidarity of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. However, first and foremost this strategy generates security challenges and threats to Russia's neighbours, especially Ukraine and Belarus.

On the other hand, Moscow is generating instability in the countries along its border as a mean of reducing the influence of other world and regional powers in those regions. This is a result of Russia being unable to maintain its influence in the region through economic cooperation and soft power.

Is Belarus Russia's next target?

Obviously, the hardliners behind the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine and the confrontation with the West perceive the normalisation process of Belarus with the EU and US as a threat to Russia’s influence.

For example, Russian military analysts believe that the West will be able to separate Belarus and other Eastern Partnership countries from Russia and draw them into its sphere of influence by the end of this year. Such analysis is problematic, as the normalisation with the West has obvious limits. Moreover, Belarus is not planning to join the EU and NATO or even sign an Association agreement in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, such analysis arms the Kremlin with reasons to put more pressure on Belarus. Moscow may even attempt to destabilise the country if it fails to stop its shift towards the West and China or if it loses its political influence following a regime change.

Belarus Digest will discuss possible scenarios in upcoming articles.

Arseni Sivitski

Arseni is the Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies based in Minsk and military officer in reserve of the Belarusian Armed Forces.

Belarus is preparing for a Donbass-like hybrid war conflict

On 14-20 September 2016 the Belarusian Armed Forces conducted large-scale military drills.

Despite the fact that these military exercises were planned, they demonstrate a significant shift in security policy as Minsk increasingly takes into consideration possible risks and challenges from Russia.

It seems that the Belarusian Armed Forces are preparing for a possible Donbass-like hybrid conflict in light of increasing pressure from the Kremlin.

Full-spectrum pressure from the Kremlin

As a matter of fact, Belarus is in a position of uncertainty in regards to what to expect from Russia. Permanent trade wars between Belarus and Russia have become the new normal since the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Moreover, there is also a possibility of gas and oil wars because there is still no consensus on a new agreement. This is why Minsk has voiced profound dissatisfaction with the efforts of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Union State.

These sore spots in Belarus-Russia relations have given reason for the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka to heavily criticise various integration programmes with Russia. He has also expressed his concerns about certain unfriendly actions as “pressure that he would not tolerate”.

What's more, at the beginning of this year Kremlin decided to deploy two mechanised brigades not far from the Belarus-Russia border. One of them is stationed in Klintsy, Briansk region, 40 km from the Belarusian border and will be upgraded to a mechanised regiment. The other one is located in Yelnya, Smolensk region, 90 km from the Belarusian border, and will be reinforced to a mechanised division at the beginning of 2017. Because this will be the first time the Kremlin deploys mechanised formations directed towards Belarus, it is necessary to speak about full-spectrum pressure on Belarus, not only economic, but political and military as well.

New drills reflect the military-political situation in the European region

Underlying the general framework of these recent national military drills are special operations to stabilise the situation in potential crisis areas. Some 7,500 troops, 60 battle tanks, 220 armoured combat vehicles, and 50 artillery pieces, mortars and multiple launch rocket systems were part of these exercises. Territorial defence and Border guard forces, as well as the Ministry of Interior and Emergencies Ministry also joined them.

Thus, the Belarusian Armed Forces brought a very large number of military equipment to the firing range. As a matter of fact, roughly the same amount of military hardware was used in the “West” (“Zapad”) joint strategic exercises with Russia in 2013 (350 armoured vehicles, including 70 tanks, over 50 artillery pieces and multiple rocket launcher systems).

According to statements by Alieh Bielakonieŭ, the Head of the Belarusian Armed Forces General Staff, military officials took the new military-political situation in the European region into consideration, as well as the experience of new military conflicts, which have significantly changed the nature of war. Recently Belarus has adopted a new Military doctrine which pays a lot of attention to countering hybrid warfare.

Therefore, the Belarusian Armed Forces are now conducting exercises in preventing hybrid conflicts in order to put the basic provisions of the new Military doctrine into practise. Since the Ukraine-Russia conflict they have been conducting drills which include elements of a Donbass-like hybrid scenario. Recent military exercises were completely dedicated to hybrid warfare.

Donbass-like hybrid scenario

According to this scenario Belarusian military strategists simulated a situation in which a hypothetical foreign adversary provoked an internal armed conflict in the country with the help of reconnaissance and sabotage groups and illegal armed formations. Incidentally, the new Military doctrine of Belarus doesn’t mention “hybrid conflict”, favouring the term “internal armed conflict."

The Belarusian Armed Forces have been practising neutralising illegal armed groups, securing and releasing captured critical infrastructure objects, and neutralising separatist groups backed from abroad. Assigned tasks also included establishing temporary checkpoints on the state border and main road routes and conducting surveillance along the border. Without doubt such measures remain necessary only on the Belarus-Russia border due to the absence of any border control, in contrast with the NATO countries and Ukraine.

This was the first time that military drills were held over the entire territory of Belarus: officials achieved a uniform distribution of forces in the Western and Eastern parts of the country. What's more, the General Staff emphasised that the main idea behind the exercises was to ensure Belarus is capable of maintaining independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity with its own forces.

It also differs from previous military exercises before the Ukrainian crises (for example “West”/ “Zapad” in 2009 and 2013 or “Shield of the Union” in 2011 and 2015) when Belarus and Russia formed the Regional army group in order to defend Belarus from possible attacks from the West.

Blockage and mopping–up, liberating an airfield, securing a border

Many elements of the recent military drills bear a strong resemblance to the actions of the so called DNR and LNR separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. At the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine hybrid conflict, separatists under the command of Igor Strelkov (Girkin) successfully seized towns and cities such as Slavyansk. They captured important infrastructure objects including the railway stations Debaltsevo and Avdiyivka and Donetsk airport. They crossed the Russia-Ukraine border and received a military support from Russia without any problems. It seems that Belarusian military strategists are taking this experience into consideration.

For example, one element of the recent military exercises included the creation of a humanitarian corridor for civilian residents from a town captured by illegal armed groups.

According to this scenario, illegal armed groups capture a town in order to persuade the civilian population to side with them. Representatives of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Internal Affairs had to negotiate the withdrawal of the civilian population from the dangerous perimeter. And in case the separatists did not agree with the terms of surrender – the 19th mechanised brigade had to block and mop up the town.

The 120th mechanised brigade was ordered to establish checkpoints and secure the state border from infiltration and sabotage by illegal armed groups. The 6th mechanised brigade conducted several reconnaissance raids in order to destroy them.

The 103th special operation forces brigade had to block and release an airfield captured by illegal armed groups. The 38th special operation forces brigade was in charge of securing and defending critical oil infrastructure objects from sabotage groups.

Message to the Kremlin

All these formations of the Belarusian Armed Forces were assisted by heavy artillery and Air Forces, which indicates that they were preparing for confrontation with illegal armed formations and separatist groups backed by the armed forces of a hypothetical foreign state.

The same situation can be seen in Donbass where the illegal armed formations DNR and LNR are operating with the military support of at least 15 tactical battalion battle groups from the Russian Armed Forces.

By conducting such military drills Minsk is expressing its concerns over the economic, political and military pressure on Belarus from Russia and demonstrating its readiness for any scenario, including a coercive one.

Arseni Sivitski

Arseni is the Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies based in Minsk and military officer in reserve of the Belarusian Armed Forces.

Brothers in arms: Russia in Belarus’s new military doctrine

On 20 July 2016 Belarus’s new military doctrine came into force. Although there was lively discussion about the contents of the new doctrine earlier this year, its text was not then public.

Early speculation focused on officials’ references to new threats including “hybrid warfare.” Even Jane’s Defence Weekly, a highly credible source of military information and analysis, interpreted this as a reference to Russia.

However, contrary to the expectations of some Western commentators, the new doctrine consolidates Belarus’s alliance with Ru­ssia and its obligations under the Collective Security Treaty.

Although the doctrine proceeds from the claim “that no one state (or coalition of states) presents itself to Belarus as an adversary,” we can infer that the main threats identified are NATO expansion and prospective regime change in Belarus.

The two may go hand-in-hand, and we should understand references to hybrid war (the term itself does not appear in the text of the doctrine) – an admixture of traditional and non-traditional methods – in this context.

There is no significant change about the origins of security threats in the new doctrine; the claimed expansion of “the spectrum of sources of military threat” is a vague formulation that signifies little. It is the nature of the threats that is perceived differently from in the past.

As Stanislaŭ Zaś, State Secretary of the Security Council, told CTV in January: “emphasis … is more on information warfare. This is one of the components of present-day hostilities.”

A more complicated security environment

the original military doctrine of 1992 advocated “armed neutrality”

This is Belarus’s third such doctrine, and it complements the military doctrine of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Sources at the time said that the original military doctrine of 1992 advocated “armed neutrality,” the policy of not participating in any alliance during wartime. Belarus under Lukashenka never seriously contemplated armed neutrality, despite occasional remarks that Belarus will not commit troops outside its borders.

The doctrine adopted in 2002 was more compatible with Belarus’s membership since 1994 of a military alliance (the Collective Security Treaty Organisation), and its ostensible integration into a Union State with Russia. However, the European security environment changed significantly after the previous version came into force.

These changes necessitated a new doctrine. First, NATO’s 2004 enlargement brought the three Baltic states – two of which have borders with Belarus – into its fold. Secondly, Belarus’s leaders watched the “colour revolutions” in former Soviet states nervously.

the doctrine does not solely respond to recent events in Ukraine

Accordingly, work on the new doctrine was announced long before the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. On the one hand, the doctrine does not solely respond to recent events in Ukraine. On the other hand, regional instability gave impetus to work on the doctrine. References to “illegal armed groups,” “non-state subjects,” and “private military formations” in its pages are reactions to events in the Middle East as well as Ukraine.

The Russian threat

This does not mean no threat is perceived as originating from Russia. Despite tight military cooperation between the two states, Belarus’s military would be acting responsibly if it considers the possibility of Russian moves against Belarus.

Russia’s persistent refusal to provide Belarus with requested military equipment is consistent with efforts to minimise Belarus’s autonomy

The Belarusians do not know what discussions go on in the Kremlin; for example, details of Russia’s operation in Crimea were probably not shared with Belarus. Russia’s persistent refusal to provide Belarus with requested military equipment is consistent with efforts to minimise Belarus’s autonomy, and has left Belarus dependent on Soviet-era stock.

Moreover, in the event of a war between NATO member states and Russia, a land corridor between Russia and the semi-enclave of Kaliningrad becomes a vital strategic interest to Russia. Russia will want to ensure reliable supply lines to its military facilities in Kaliningrad. Belarus needs to think through the implications of such a conflict.

Security policy inevitably demands speculation about threats. As Viktar Šadurski, Dean of the International Relations faculty at the Belarusian State University, remarked recently: “I don’t think NATO is a direct threat to Belarus, but I could not think that Russia was a direct threat to Ukraine a few years ago.”

Whose hybrid war?

Certain Western analysts mistakenly think that all references to “hybrid warfare” imply Russia. For sure, the term hybrid warfare gained currency in the Western press against the backdrop of Ukraine, which link the concept to Russia.

However, hybrid warfare has more pedigree than this acknowledges. Debates in military circles date to at least the early 2000s. Russia has used cyber warfare and proxies in Ukraine, and is as capable (if not more so) than Western states of bringing about regime change in Belarus. However, in the Russian literature, which the Belarusian elites read, references to hybrid warfare methods are shorthand for perceived US-led tactics to bring about regime change. Hybrid warfare thus refers to the “colour revolutions” that brought down governments in the mid-2000s.

A little ambiguity in the doctrine – it does not name an enemy – serves Belarus well in this respect

A little ambiguity in the doctrine – it does not name an enemy – serves Belarus well in this respect. It is a mistake, though, to think that Belarus is doing anything other than consolidating its military alliance with Russia. The process of consolidation includes establishing the limits of alliance commitments, and the doctrine is part of a process of ongoing negotiations with Russia.

The focus on NATO appears elsewhere in the doctrine. Although declaring that any military-political alliances ambitions for “global functions” threaten world order, this is primarily a reaction to mission creep within NATO. The relevant Article confirms this by invoking as its subject military-political organisations “to which Belarus does not belong.” Meanwhile, Belarus strives “to strengthen the status of the CSTO in the international arena.”

The Union State framework

Earlier this year Russian sources announced revisions to the military doctrine of the Union State. This will take into account and nest with both Belarus and Russia’s (December 2014) new doctrines. Both states’ national doctrines underscore the concept of strategic deterrence or containment (strategicheskoe sderzhivanie), which suggests some coordination. Indeed, Andras Racz at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs says it would be “scandalous” if Russia was not consulted on the draft.

Belarus will continue to trust Russia knowing it cannot defend itself against an attack by its ally. Russia spends more of its GDP on defence than any other major state; 5.42% in 2015 according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance. In absolute terms this is far less than the USA spends (3.27% of GDP), but a comparison of total expenditure does not tell us very much of interest; the USA’s distant location limits the direct military threat.

No choice?

The leadership in Belarus thinks it has no alternative to alliance with Russia, because Russia would not consent to Belarus’s neutrality. The coming-into-force of an integrated air defence system covering Belarus and Russia reminds us that a break with Russia is neither imminent nor likely in the medium term.

The revised military doctrine is part of a process of consolidation and negotiation of the two states’ alliance, and reflects a security environment that greatly changed over the past fifteen years.

Paul Hansbury

Paul has degrees from the University of London and the University of Oxford. He is currently a doctoral candidate in International Relations, also at the University of Oxford.

John Silver: A New Political Prisoner in Belarus?

In June the Investigatory Committee of Belarus confirmed that Eduard Paĺčys, the editor of the website 1863x.com, was extradited from Russia and is undergoing criminal investigation.

The website was known for its critical position towards Russian and Belarusian authorities, and its author had remained anonymous until his arrest.

Political activists have already recognised him as a political prisoner, while human rights groups are waiting for more evidence.

A new political prisoner is in the interests of neither the European Union nor the Belarusian government, as a warming of relations continues to be important for the bilateral agenda. However, Belarusian authorities may use the case of Eduard Paĺčys to demonstrate that any activity inspiring national conflict, including anti-Russian discourse, will be stopped immediately.

1863x.com as a reaction to Russian aggression

The website 1863x.com first appeared about two years ago at the start of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. It became known for for publishing political texts, often with acute criticism of Belarusian and Russian authorities. The editor of the website remained strictly anonymous and worked under the pseudonym John Silver.

In November 2015 John Silver announced that half a year ago special police had detained him and he was sent to mental hospital for a month. At the same time, the authorities initiated two criminal investigations against him, and in October 2015 he decided to leave Belarus.

The story of the arrest

On 25 January 2016, 1863x.com announced that John Silver had been arrested in Russia. Since that day the website has ceased updates. The Russian nationalist resource “Sputnik i pogrom” later published an article alleging that John Silver was kept in Bryansk Prison, his real name was Eduard Paĺčšys and he originated from the western Belarusian city of Lida. He attempted to obtain political asylum in Ukraine, but later decided to go to Russia, where he was detained while crossing the Russia-Ukraine border.

On 22 June the head of the Investigative Committee of Belarus Ivan Naskievič confirmed that John Silver had been extradited to Belarus and indeed appeared to be Eduard Paĺčys. The authorities charged Eduard with two criminal offences: inciting hatred on grounds of race, nationality, religion, language, or other social affiliation, and manufacturing and distributing pornographic materials.

Editor of Naša Niva newspaper Andrej Dyńko argues that the Eduard's publications only contained criticism of Russian aggression in Ukraine. As for pornographic materials, Eduard's girlfriend later revealed that someone had indeed sent him such materials. However, they depicted an insult to Belarusian nationality and national symbols, so Eduard decided to publish a critical article about this “art." These became the grounds for accusations.

Will Paĺčys become a new political prisoner?

On 23 June around 50 political activists held a peaceful demonstration in which they sent postcards to Eduard at the central post office in Minsk. According to Zmicier Daškievič, a former leader of oppositional organisation Youth Front, people in the street were reluctant to take part in the demonstration as they did not know who Eduard Paĺčys was.

Political activists including Mikalaj Statkievič, representatives from Belarusian Christian Democracy, Youth Front, and others consider Eduard a new political prisoner and are calling on international actors to recognise him as such and assist in his immediate release. However, human rights activists have yet to publish any statements on this case and are awaiting more information.

As human rights activist Valiancin Stefanovič explained to Naviny.by, the publications need to be analysed by specialists to understand whether authorities are persecuting Eduard for expressing his views or if he really was inciting hatred.

Is Russia Involved?

Some experts claim that the authorities initiated the case against Eduard to demonstrate loyalty to Russia: harsh critics of Putin are not tolerated in Belarus. However, expert at Belarus Security Blog Andrej Parotnikaŭ stated to the news agency BelaPAN that “there are a lot of critics of the Kremlin in Belarus, including famous journalists, but they do not face any pressure”. Instead, he sees anonymous criticism of Belarusian authorities as a more likely reason for his arrest.

Indeed, Belarusian authorities barely tolerate any participation in anti-governmental actions, as they established full control over the opposition long ago. Anonymous activists with radical ideas immediately become a target for special services. Cases of repression against anarchists and football ultras amply demonstrates this. On the other hand, Russian could have possibly facilitated a criminal case against Eduard simply by pointing out the significance of this case for bilateral relations.

Belarusian authorities, it seems, try to prevent anyone from playing the "Russian card" and giving Russia grounds for accusing Belarus of Russophobia and nationalism. They may use Eduard's case as a warning to those considering organising political actions.

Foreign governments and human rights groups have so far remained silent on this case and are apparently waiting for more information and evidence. However, the appearance of a new political prisoner looks highly undesirable for both the Belarusian government and the the EU .

No one wants political prisoners in Belarus

Belarusian authorities hope to hold a smooth electoral campaign with a democratic facade and thus facilitate further rapprochement with the west without any real political change. This will require absence of repression of the opposition, a free electoral campaign, cosmetic improvements in electoral law, and most importantly, absence of political prisoners.

The issue of political prisoners has long been the greatest obstacle for unfreezing Belarus-EU relations. The release of the last of them in August 2015, along with peaceful presidential elections, led to the lifting of EU sanctions against Belarus and a warming of relations. The authorities will hardly risk putting another person in jail for political reasons and must have solid evidence of his guilt to present to the west.

The EU also has no desire to initiate another round of sanctions against Belarus due to an aggravation of the human rights situation in the country. Every rapprochement in bilateral relations is a long and tiresome process, and the massive EU decision-making machine hardly wishes to start this cycle over again. The fact that regional security is a new European priority makes any conflict with bordering states undesirable, and Europe tends to wait for clear facts before formulating any critical statements on Belarus.

Belarusian authorities are unlikely to sentence Eduard Paĺčys to a serious prison term and he may end up with a fine or suspended sentence. The European Union has no appetite for escalating the tension either. However, the case of John Silver will become a warning sign for those intending to take radical action in Belarus: any activism involving the Russia-Ukraine conflict will be punished severely.

Belarus-Ukraine: Time for Strategic Cooperation

On 8 June Belarusian ambassador to Ukraine Valiancin Vialička reiterated that Belarus supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

He emphasised that Belarus will never pose a threat to Ukraine or allow third parties to attack Kyiv from its territory. He spoke at the presentation of 'Foreign Policy Audit: Ukraine-Belarus', a discussion paper prepared by the Institute of World Policy in cooperation with Belarusian experts.

Belarusians have recently produced a number of analytical materials discussing current Belarus-Ukraine relations as well as their potential, and offering recommendations for their enhancement. This article summarises three of them.

Foreign policy audit: Ukraine-Belarus

On 8 June, the Institute of World Policy presented the discussion paper 'Foreign Policy Audit: Ukraine-Belarus'.The research was conducted by Olena Betliy, Research Fellow at the Institute of World Policy, and Yauheni Preiherman, Head of the Minsk Dialogue Track-II Initiative; Chairman of Board of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club.

The authors argue that Russian aggression has reinforced the main foreign policy priority for both Ukraine and Belarus, which is to ensure the national security of each state. In addition, it has highlighted the fact that bilateral relations between the two countries are underpinned by specific common interests, despite being based on different values.

The authors identify five such areas: military cooperation, border, trade, regional projects and people to people dialogue. The description of developments in these areas is followed by recommendations:

  • It is important for Ukraine to maintain the neutral status of Belarus in the conflict with Russia.To this end, Ukraine needs to enlist the support of not only the Belarusian authorities but also Belarusian society. This can be achieved only by developing a distinct communication campaign to bring information about the situation in Ukraine to Belarusians.
  • In the conditions of an unstable geopolitical situation and continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, it is in the interests of both countries to rapidly complete border demarcation.
  • Kyiv, Brussels, and other capitals, especially those of the CEE countries, needs to maintain the neutral status of Belarus and prevent a Russian airbase and other military facilities from being set up in its territory.
  • Kyiv and Minsk can join efforts to provide cybersecurity and counteract misinformation, which will increase the capacity of both countries in confronting “hybrid warfare”.
  • The governments must move away from protectionist policies and abandon “trade wars” as a means of solving contentious economic issues.
  • In order to bring Belarusian tourists and businessmen back to Ukraine and support those Belarusian citizens who have moved to Ukraine for residence, it is advisable to change migration policy on Belarusians.
  • Ukraine should encourage cooperation between NGOs and participate in discussion expert forums on the topical issues of bilateral relations.
  • Academic exchanges of students and researchers should become another platform for long-term cooperation.
  • Both countries have a good chance of using Chinese investment for infrastructure development and better optimisation of their transit capacity.
  • Ukraine should not delay the appointment of a new ambassador to Belarus.

Belarus and Ukraine: time for reforms

At the presentation of the above paper in Kyiv, Ukraine-based analyst of Belarusian origin Ihar Tyškievič presented a report called 'Belarus and Ukraine: time for reforms', in which he compared the situation in the two countries, showed their strengths and weaknesses in a number of areas, and analysed their reform strategies.

He starts with the observation that both Belarus and Ukraine are currently undergoing periods of reform. In the coming years the countries can transform into knowledge economies, yet there are a number of obstacles complicating this:

  • Turning into commodity economies
  • High level of energy consumption in economy
  • Dependence on the resources of neighbouring states
  • Widening gap between the two countries and developed world in terms of development of science and the availability of technology for production of new products
  • Post-Soviet system of decision-making, varying from oligarchic consensus to the lack of structured groups of influence.
  • Shortage of personnel. Restrictions in the social mobility and the weak capacity of the old elite
  • Depopulation problems

The two countries have employed opposite strategies for reform. Ukraine pursues changes in state decision-making and personnel mobility, which hopefully will lead to changes in the economy. In Belarus, the authorities will not risk political change, but understand the irrelevance of the post-Soviet model and agree with the need for economic reform, which can subsequently lead to political change. Tyškievič substantiates this thesis by analyzing the number of reformists in key areas of government, and finds them mostly in the economic sphere.

To tackle the problem of personnel quality, Belarus has already taken a number of steps, such as the Belarus-EU project MOST, introducing business education to bureaucrats, engaging independent experts in discussion of reforms, and reforming local government. He notes that concentration of power in the hands of Lukashenka has allowed him to implement a number of unpopular measures, such as abolition of many social guarantees and raising the pension age.

Belarus is also changing its approach to economic development, evidenced by the prioritising of knowledge economy, introduction of land market, transition from directive to indicative planning, demonopolisation of energy and communal services sectors and other steps detailed in the new government plan for 2016-2020.

He concludes that Belarus and Ukraine have completely different export structures and therefore can effectively complement each other and develop regional cooperation rather than compete.

Towards strategic cooperation in Belarus and Ukraine: benefits and challenges

In an analysis of Belarus-Ukraine relations called 'Towards a Strategic Cooperation of Belarus and Ukraine: Benefits and Challenges', Andrej Skryba argues that this is the best time for a new stage of Belarus-Ukraine cooperation, as it has been stimulated by the recent developments in the region. The author suggests five incentives that could foster Belarus-Ukraine dialogue:

  • While the rapprochement should be led from a high political level, the politicians from both sides remain rather passive. The expert community can become the main generator of ideas and develop new agendas through special sites, such as Yalta European Strategy and Minsk dialogue.
  • Rapprochement should move gradually to the grassroots: industrial and business cooperation, trade and economic cooperation, free environment for trade and investment. Special working groups with representatives of both countries can be created in the relevant areas of cooperation.
  • Political rapprochement should promptly resolve current problems. This requires institutionalisation, or at least the creation of an appropriate interactive format. The Belarusian-Ukrainian Advisory Council of Business Cooperation could be the first step in this direction.
  • Minsk-Kiev dialogue should not provoke further tensions in the region and be directed against a third party. Potential convergence of foreign policy positions should seek win-win solutions and models of relations with other states.
  • Belarus-Ukraine co-operation should be as inclusive as possible, particularly with regard to post-Soviet states and EU Eastern European members. Belarus and Ukraine should be included in a wide range of regional and integration processes, such as the EU-EEU convergence and Silk Road Economic Belt. The two countries should avoid becoming consumers and hostages of external and often competing regional projects, and instead offer their own new models of regional cooperation.

Despite a varying focus of their studies, all experts agree that the current moment presents a window of opportunity for establishing a strategic cooperation between the two countries, developing bilateral relations and common regional frameworks. Hopefully, decision makers from Ukraine and Belarus will understand that too.

Ostro.by, Nations in Transit 2016, Turkey, Karabakh – Ostrogorski Centre Digest

In April analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre focused on Belarus’ continuing attempts to establish relations with a variety of external actors while further formalising its relations with Russia.

By signing the agreement on the Single Air Defence System with Russia, Belarus is not deepening military integration but rather formalising the opaque military structures that have existed since Soviet times.

Minsk is seeking to normalise relations with its western neighbour, Poland, although the two sides still disagree on more issues than they agree on.

The authorities claim that they will take under strict control both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian fighters in the Donbass conflict on their return home, but so far they have repressed only those supporting Ukraine. This could lead to the strengthening of pro-Russian groups in Belarus.

Freedom House published its report on the political transition in Belarus, prepared by Director of the Ostrogorski Centre Yarik Kryvoi. According to the Nations in Transit 2016 methodology, the reports are written by country experts and country ratings are determined by Freedom House.​ The report noted several improvements but no major changes in the political climate of Belarus.

Siarhei Bohdan analysed the agreement on the establishment of a Single Air Defence System between Belarus and Russia. Since the core elements of the system have already been in place for years, the agreement is not a step forward in integration but rather the transformation of the last remnants of messy post-Soviet military structures into a clear bilateral intergovernmental mechanism.

Minsk and Moscow are moving further away from the baseline of Belarusian-Russian relations established in the 1990s, a situation in which the Belarusian and Russian militaries were effectively one body, like the Soviet army.

Ryhor Astapenia highlighted the recent visit of the Polish foreign minister to Minsk and warming of Belarus-Poland relations. Despite the friendly atmosphere, the visit showed that the two countries still disagree on many issues and significant changes are unlikely to happen in these areas. However, both countries want to agree to disagree and are taking steps towards better relations.

Vadzim Smok discussed recent amendments to the law on extremism and mercenaries, and the trials of pro-Ukraine Donbass fighters. The analyst concludes that the Belarusian government seems to be taking a rather unbalanced approach, repressing only supporters of the Ukrainian side. By doing so Minsk risks creating a strong pro-Russian force inside the country, capable of overthrowing an increasingly independent President Alexander Lukashenka at the Kremlin's order.

Conference ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’

On 23-24 March the Ostrogorski Centre organised the Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century conference and the Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies in cooperation with University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. It served as a multidisciplinary forum of Belarusian studies, a rare networking opportunity for researchers of Belarus in the West.

The conference brought together around 20 speakers from the United Kingdom, Germany, United States, Canada, Poland and France. The conference panels focused on Belarusian history, politics, foreign policy and political science. Selected papers will appear in the new issue of the The Journal of Belarusian Studies.

Launch of ostro.by

The Ostrogorski Centre launched its new analytical project – Ostro.by. The website focuses on the issues of foreign policy, security and society in Belarus. It publishes translations of Belarus Digest articles into the Belarusian language, as well as articles specially prepared for Ostro.by and blogs written by the Centre’s analysts.

The authors seek to show the complex issues of Belarusian politics in a simple and understandable form. At the same time, the articles follow high standards of analysis, and provide a balanced and evidence-based view of the political reality. Ostro.by welcomes reprints of its materials with reference to the original source (for online media – active hyperlink).

Comments in the media

Siarhei Bohdan explained to the TUT.by media portal the reasons why Alexander Lukashenka took part in the Istanbul summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Minsk continues to consolidate its ties with the block of conservative Middle Eastern regimes associated with the West. By doing this Belarus is seeking to establish contacts with new economic partners.

Yaraslau Kryvoi explained to TUT.by why Belarus improved its democracy score in Freedom House's Nations in Transit 2015 report for the first time in six years. The interview with Kryvoi was the main news of the day.

Website of Belarus-related research thinktanks.by published an interview with the Minsk coordinator of the Ostrogorski Center Vadzim Smok about the new project of the Centre – ostro.by. According to Smok, ostro.by can contribute to improving the quality of the Belarusian media by offering a quality analysis in the form accessible to a wide audience.

Ryhor Astapenia commented on Polish radio about the position of Belarus in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the result of 20 years of Belarus-Russia integration, the future of economic relations with the European Union, as well as trends in the field of Belarusian NGOs.

Siarhei Bohdan in an interview with TUT.by also commented on the position of Minsk in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to his analysis, Minsk is sticking to neutrality and does not want to get involved in any conflicts in the framework of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. At the same time Belarus is leaning towards Azerbaijan, which has more weight in bilateral relations.

Ryhor Astapenia talked on Polish Radio about the growing role of Minsk and decline of the regions in Belarus. According to the expert, the authorities should develop regional economies with tax, investment and institutional instruments and see it as a policy priority.

In an interview with Polish Radio, Yarik Kryvoi commented on the new EBRD strategy in Belarus. The bank will boost investments in Belarus, but only on the condition that the government demonstrates real economic reform rather than its imitation.

Ryhor Astapenia summed up the 20th anniversary of Belarus-Russia union at Belsat TV. According to him, Belarus has failed to use the opportunity that two decades of integration offered, as Belarus has not invest money from Russian subsidies in the development of the economy and high technologies.

Ryhor Astapenia took part in the panel discussion titled “Belarus: from last dictatorship to World of Tanks”. Astapenia noted that Belarus is undergoing gradual change in many spheres despite the remaining authoritarian regime, and seeing particular potential in development of the IT sector. The discussion was held at the European College in Warsaw.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Any partner organisation of BelarusPolicy.com can submit its research for inclusion onto the database by completing this form.

The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.

Belarus Cracks Down on Pro-Ukraine Donbass Fighters

On 18 April the Belarusian authorities launched the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, a fighter from the Right Sector battalion who participated in the Ukraine conflict.

Earlier this month they introduced amendments to legislation which allow prison sentences for those fighting in foreign conflicts for ideological, not just mercenary, reasons.

However, the government seems to be taking a rather unbalanced approach, repressing only supporters of the Ukrainian side. By doing so Minsk risks creating a strong pro-Russian force inside the country, capable of overthrowing disobedient President Alexander Lukashenka at the Kremlin's order.

Authorities introduce anti-extremist policies

On 4 April the Belarusian parliament approved amendments to the law “On counteracting extremism” proposed by the KGB, Belarus' state security agency. The amendments introduce criminal liability for extremism, which previously was only an administrative offence. The law will target individuals who “create an extremist group, or head it or its branches”. It will punish those convicted with extremist activity with three to seven years in prison, and in case of a repeated offence six to ten years.

Not long before the amendments were introduced, police started a raid against football ultras and radical supporters of the Ukrainian side in the Donbass conflict.

Before 2014 Belarusian ultras rarely expressed political attitudes. However, since Euromaidan and the start of the Ukrainian conflict they have repeatedly declared support for Ukraine.

The police feel that youngsters from ultras groups, who have been inspired by the example of Ukrainian protesters at Maidan, are one of the major groups capable of actually carrying out and supporting street protests in Belarus.

Anonymous ultras told Novy Čas newspaper that the football fan movement in Belarus has been practically destroyed in recent years, regardless of the ideological views of particular firms. The police search ultras' homes and question their relatives about connections between those fighting in Ukraine and and ultras based in Belarus.

Fighting for ideas will become a crime

The same parliamentary session also approved amendments to the law on “Incitement to action against external security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security”. They introduce liability for fighting in foreign conflicts without mercenary intentions. Now Belarus citizens fighting for ideological reasons will face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Previously the Criminal Code contained only punishment for mercenary activity, as well as recruitment, training, financing and using of mercenary. However, the authorities faced difficulties when charging Belarusian fighters in Ukraine. Police could not gather proof of their receiving remuneration for the service.

On 25 March senior police official Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ revealed to Zviazda newspaper that the police had already filed criminal cases against 135 Belarusians fighting abroad. The police gather intelligence on Belarusians in Ukraine from various sources and also undoubtedly receive information from their Russian colleagues.

The Belarusian authorities seriously fear trained fighters returning home. They could become a dangerous element in the opposition to Lukashenka’s rule. As the economic situation in Belarus gets worse and poverty among the population grows, the risk of internal instability is becoming even higher.

The first trials take place

This April the Belarusian authorities are holding the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, allegedly a fighter from Right Sector, a radical nationalist Ukrainian organisation. He was detained in November 2015 at Minsk railway station in possession of a gun and a self-made grenade. He had a document which confirmed his participation in the Ukraine conflict in the Right Sector battalion, but the organisation has denied these allegations.

In the middle of April police detained another fighter nicknamed “Terror Machine”, this time allegedly from the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion, on charges of hooliganism dating back to 2013 and alleged mercenary. Although both fighters are charged with crimes other than mercenary, the authorities will also investigate their involvement in the conflict.

Meanwhile, cases of combatants fighting for the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk being on trial remain unknown in Belarus. Only one person from that side of the conflict has been detained, in January 2016, and that was on other charges; he only later revealed his participation in the conflict.

A number of DNR fighters freely gave interviews to Belarusian and Russian media while staying in Belarus and apparently did not fear persecution.

Pro-Russian fighters to remain free?

Independent commentators claim that this is the result of close relations between pro-Russian fighters and the Belarusian security forces, with the support of Russia. For example, a number of pro-Russian combatants revealed that they had previously served in an elite special force group in Marjina Horka. Many of the Belarusian security structures sympathise with Russia and its policy in Ukraine, as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.

An anonymous DNR fighter from Mahilioŭ in an interview with gazeta.ru said that he got involved in the conflict through Russia-backed Belarusian cossacks when he worked in an Orthodox patriotic club.

Many from Eastern Belarus had a similar path. Since the start of Euromaidan pro-Russian groups have become more active in Belarus. They train youth in the ideology of the "Russian World" and maintain close links with the Russian military.

If the Belarusian authorities have indeed decided to tolerate pro-Russian fighters to please Russia, they risk seeing what they fear most coming true. Trained combatants who respect the Russian world more than Belarus independence would probably take Russia's side in case of intervention in Belarus. Meanwhile, pro-Ukraine fighters who value Belarusian independence are mostly taken for radical opposition and repressed. This is obviously a very short-sighted view.

But the Belarusian authorities should also pay serious attention to the reasons why Belarusians go to fight for breakaway republics.

As one Belarusian DNR fighter put it in an interview with the Russian Planet website:

We went there neither for ideas nor for money. People going to war were those who could not realise themselves here (in Belarus). Their future was to become alcoholics, marry ugly women and give birth to children who would face the same fate. None of the Belarusians I met there came from Minsk, because people from the capital have a different mentality and opportunities.

This vivid citation points to the deep social problems that lead Belarusians from the periphery to leave their homes and head for war. Desperate from unemployment, with no hope for a better life and heated with aggressive Russian propaganda, they become easy prey for Russia’s military plans.

Through turning a blind eye to pro-Russian groups in Belarus, failing to counterbalance the Russian media and maintaining a poor regional policy, the authorities have generated a threat that they apparently refuse to deal with. However, it may become a fatal mistake one day.