The Russian Opposition and Putin: Do They Differ When It Comes to Belarus?
The idea that democracy will come to Belarus from Russia and with Russian help has been prevalent in the West almost as long as Lukashenka has ruled the country.
In fact the current Russian leadership has little regard for either Belarusian democracy or Belarusian independence. After all, Putin once proposed that Belarus join Russia to form one federal entity or as six provinces. Do the other political forces in Russia hold different views?
This week, the Belarusian media widely discussed a blog post of the rising star of the Russian democratic opposition, Alexei Navalny. Writing in 2008, Navalny described the Belarusian language in openly derisory terms. Belarus as a separate nation apparently remains for him a not very serious reality. When the post caused a scandal on the Belarusian web, Navalny simply deleted the text. No explanation or apology followed.
Navalny is known for his nationalist past, and according to some commentators, the statement probably has more to do with his past than his present. But other Russian opposition figures also appear not to be very supportive of a democratic and independent Belarus. The Russian opposition nowadays encompasses all possible political forces, so their attitudes towards Belarus differ, yet usually ends in some kind of revanshist stance.
The Kremlin’s court opposition – the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) – consistently use imperialist rhetoric. Its leader Vladimir Zhirinovski proposed last year to integrate Belarus into Russia so that: “Now we [Russia] will have eight federal districts. Let’s have the ninth one – Minsk federal district […]” And for the time being he urged: “Stop feeding Belarus.” Anyway, he noted, “Belarus would not go anywhere – nobody needs it in Europe.”
Interestingly enough, Zhirinovski was probably the only mainstream Russian politician who very vocally decried the election fraud during the last presidential elections in Belarus in 2010.
Another key oppositional movement in Russia is the Communist Party. Its leader Gennadi Zyuganov regularly meets Lukashenka and usually supports him when Minsk has a falling out with the Kremlin in some new dispute. The Russian Communist leader took the side of Belarus in the recent Belaruskali and Uralkali scandal as well.
Zyuganov calle the unification [obyedinenie] of Belarus and Russia “the major task.” With all his nostalgia for the Soviet Union, Zyuganov prefers not Soviet internationalist slogans but chauvinist Tsarist-times rhetoric. “For me, Russians [russkie] are the Great Russians, Little Russians [Ukrainians] and White Russians [belorossy – sic!]. I believe that the greatest tragedy of our peoples is the rift that took place [in 1991] – that divide is unnatural, abnormal, immoral and – to a significant extent – criminal.”
The average Russian communist supports not Belarus as a nation but something which he sees as a good political and socioeconomic model built by Lukashenka. In 2011, Zyuganov declared in Strasbourg that an “improved USSR has been maintained in Belarus.”
Zyuganov declared in Strasbourg that the “improved USSR has been maintained in Belarus.” Read more
A famous supporter of Russian communists, Noble Prize in physics laureate and Belarus-born Zhores Alferov publicly defended Belarusian sovereignty after Putin’s 2002 proposal to annex Belarus to form of one or six provinces. Alferov, who is proud of his Belarusian origins, said unification should take place along the lines defined by Lukashenka and Yeltsin.
The leader of major Russian social democratic party Just Russia Sergei Mironov has also met Lukashenka many times. During the 2012 presidential elections in Russia, Mironov proclaimed as his aim, “creat[ion of] a confederation of Slavic states including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus.” Moreover, in the past Mironov accused the Belarusian leadership of avoiding the implementation of integration agreements with Russia and a lack of interest in said integration.
New rising political stars express very similar attitudes towards Belarus. Sergei Udaltsov entered politics as leader of Communist youth organisation Vanguard of Red Youth (AKM) and is currently leader of the Left Front. The Left Front, according to its program, aims at the “revival and development of a united federative state in the post-Soviet space”. The AKM activists last year carried out propagandist activity in Kurapaty – where victims of political repressions in the USSR in 1930s were shot. They brought with them leaflets entitled Stalin Was Right.
The liberal political forces have become rather marginalised in Russia over the past decade. Lukashenka accused Anatoly Chubais – a central figure among Russian liberals – of being “an enemy of integration.” Yet such accusations levelled against the former Russian Deputy Prime Minister are first and foremost related to the history of the 1990s.
Chubais then stepped in at the last minute to stop Lukashenka’s plot to take over power in Russia by making an ailing Yeltsin sign an integration treaty. Still, Chubais in a public debate with Lukashenka has sworn that “unification of our nations is absolutely unavoidable,” and expressed his regret that “politicians have lost their way” with the integration initiatives.
Moreover, it was Chubais – actually born in Belarus – who in 2003 proposed the idea of building a Russian “liberal empire.” He is not an exception in his dismissal of Belarusian statehood. Another major intellectual figure of the Russian liberal movement, Nikolai Svanidze, openly called Western Belarus “Eastern Poland” when discussing Soviet history.
You have a better chance to become democratic since Russia has an imperial complex, you are in the middle of Europe and you do not have the “Caucasian” factor” Read more
On the other hand, as early as 2002 leading Russian liberal politician Boris Nemtsov tried to convince the Kremlin to negotiate with the pro-independence Belarusian opposition. In July, he signed an agreement with United Civic Party of Belarus about collaboration and emphasised, “If you become a free country, Russia will also have a such chance. You have a better chance to become democratic since Russia has an imperial complex, you are in the middle of Europe and you do not have the “Caucasian” factor.” Unlike most other Russian politicians Nemtsov does not oppose Belarusian statehood in principle.
Who Shall Democratise Whom?
Such a widespread dismissive attitude on the part of most Russian politicians is based on a similar mood that prevails in Russian society, one which has nostalgia for a Great Russia, if not of Soviet then of Tsarist kind. Thus, according to a survey by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), 61 per cent of Russians are willing to support a revival of the Soviet Union.
The first attempts to democratise Belarus through Russia date back to the late 1990s. After the last presidential elections in Belarus, the idea of democratisation through Russia once again came up. A member of the German Bundestag, Marieluise Beck, called for the EU and Russia to fight together for democracy in Belarus. Some former Western diplomats also supported this idea.
Who can fight with the West against the Belarusian regime on the Russian front? The majority of both the ruling and opposition political forces have doubts even about Belarusian statehood. Only marginalised groups with minimal political clout display any interest in a free and independent Belarus.
Of course, Moscow can topple Lukashenka at short notice. But instead of cultivating democracy, Russia will only replace Lukashenka with someone less stubborn who would better suit Russia’s geopolitical vision – one which does not include Belarus as a separate nation.
National Security and Defence Situation in August – Belarus Security Digest
Belarus Digests in cooperation with Belarus Security Blog is launching a new series of publications – Belarus Security Digest. The new series will cover issues relevant to security in Belarus, particularly to the military, special services and national security of Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities continue with a policy of developing the domestic defence industry, consider the exports of defence products as a promising source of foreign currency. However, there is no imminent breakthrough in sight. Belarus is trying to penetrate the markets of Third World countries with its products and services.
The resounding resignation of General Lieanid Dziedkau, Deputy Chairman of the KGB, confirms the seriousness of the situation of accusations of treason in the KGB.
Defence cooperation with Russia is developing in contradictory fashion. On the one hand, the setting-up of the joint air defence force has already been concluded. On the other hand, uncertainty remains about the prospects of setting up a Russian air base which may indicate that official Minsk has doubts about the need for any additional Russian military presence.
The setting-up of a joint Belarusian and Russian air defence system is complete. The suspense around appointment of the Commander-in-Chief of the Joint regional air defence system of Belarus and Russia (hereinafter JRADS) is now over: Major General Alieh Dzvihaliou, Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force and Air Defence Force of Belarus, was appointed to this position. For many years the setting-up of the JRADS was a bargaining chip between Minsk and Moscow.
On 13 February 2012, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, by his Edict No. 65, approved the Agreement between the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation on the joint protection of the external borders of the Union State in airspace and setting-up of the Joint regional air defence system of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation. The agreement was signed by the defence ministers of the two countries on 3 February 2009 already, but it was not approved by the Belarusian party.
The job description of the Commander-in-Chief of the JRADS in peacetime seems rather modest: coordination of the parties’ air defence activities, drafting of proposals on the development of the JRADS, and the development of plans for the use of the forces in combat. In wartime, he has the authority to command the JRADS directly.
The agreement on the JRADS formalizes and streamlines the relationship between the air defence forces of the two countries which have existed since Soviet times. The terms of the Agreement do not provide for transfer of the national components of the JRADS under the joint command in peacetime.
In itself, the appointment of the Commander-in-Chief signifies a logical outcome of the multi-year process. Moreover, the agreement on the JRADS was de facto already in effect in most aspects even before its approval on 13 February 2012. It is not appropriate to characterise this as a deepening of Belarus’ dependence from Russia on the basis of the joint military and technical policy: both parties have the same source of weapons — the arsenals of the Soviet Army. Besides, all fundamental decisions on the functioning of the JRADS are taken by consensus only.
It is a fixed-term agreement concluded for a period of five years. Thus, Minsk will periodically have one more point of pressure to use with Moscow, namely the prolongation of the document.
Belarus and Myanmar are developing military and technical cooperation. Belarus continues to penetrate the markets for military products and defence services in South-East Asian countries. The 6th meeting of the Belarusian-Myanmar joint commission on military and technical cooperation was held from 12 to 16 August. One should take note of the duration of the Commission’s session (five days) and the fact that there is no specific information in the public domain about the outcome of the previous meetings.
Myanmar looks to be a promising market but any goals of real cooperation could be disappointing for the Belarusian side.
Firstly, Myanmar remains a fiefdom of the Chinese military and industrial complex. Myanmar holds a relatively small number of Soviet weapons. Thus, the need for their modernisation (and the number of Belarusian enterprises specialise in this domain) also appears negligible.
Secondly, Belarus also hopes to increase its military cooperation with Bangladesh which has territorial disputes with neighbouring Myanmar. Besides this, tension exists on religious grounds as Bangladesh supports a Muslim minority in Myanmar.
One should not assume that the Belarusian defence industry has the opportunity at this point to take a significant stake in Myanmar. The product portfolio of the Belarusian military and industrial complex is rather small and includes mostly high-tech products and services. Myanmar, for its part, needs mostly mass-production items which can be mastered by staff with a low level of general and professional education and training. Still, Belarusian motor vehicles, anti-tank systems, optics and communication systems, radar systems and electronic warfare systems may have some export prospects. The providing of educational services and training in particular in the field of law enforcement and training for security forces, may also interest Myanmar.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka had a meeting with the generals. On 20 August 2013, a meeting took place which was dedicated to building and the development of the Armed Forces of Belarus. Aliaksandr Lukashenka made three remarkable statements:
– A comment about the need to sell unused and obsolete weapons from the arsenals of the national Army. Earlier, Belarus was actively selling military equipment inherited from the USSR. Now, this stockpile has almost dried up. Only the air defence systems and the multiple launch rocket systems “Smerch” have significant value but they are needed for the country’s own self-defence.
– A comment about a reduction in staff numbers in the military. In general, it should be noted that there is almost nothing left to cut there. Perhaps, some vacant posts could be abolished and some officer positions in auxiliary services (financial managers, lawyers, psychologists etc.) could be converted to non-military positions.
– A comment about the prioritisation of the Air Force and Air Defence Force which confirms the strategy adopted already in early 2000s. The sentence about the beginning of practical implementation of defence agreements with Russia can have a vaguely liberal interpretation.
Prospects for the creation of a Russian military base remain murky. On 28 August 2013, the Belarusian Defence Minister Jury Zhadobin said that the first Russian fighter jets could appear in Belarus by the end of the current year. One should note that the General spoke tentatively about the issue and had difficulty in describing the scale of the expected presence at the first stage (“… a flight or a small unit”).
Belarusian officials have remained silent on the issue of the deployment of the Russian air base. Only informal information circulates, and Russian servicemen are its main source. Thus, the Russian party appears ready to consider not only the question of the deployment of a permanent air base in Lida but also of placing Russian fighter jets on active duty at other Belarusian air bases (first of all, in Baranavichy) on a rotational basis. The rotations will be done from air bases situated on the territory of the Russian Federation, most likely from Lipetsk.
At the same time, the Belarusian authorities have been challenged by the problem of a large (4 to 5 times larger) difference in the allowances of servicemen from the two countries. In this regard, from the point of view of Belarusian generals, a joint stationing of servicemen in the same airfield remains undesirable for political and ideological reasons. The military is considering the possibility of using the air base in Babrovichy as an option. However, it is still unclear whose servicemen – Russian or Belarusian – will be stationed there.
In any case, the Russian military personnel will consist of unarmed flight and maintenance personnel only. There will be about four or five hundred servicemen.
Speaking about the prospects for the creation of a Russian air base, Yury Zhadobin said that after the deployment of the first group of Russian servicemen, the regulatory framework would be prepared and then preparation of the military sites would continue. Such an approach should strike one as surprising. It may have been nothing more than the minister’s slip of tongue or an indication of the fact that the matter of development of the Russian military presence in Belarus has not been completely resolved and the bargaining continues.
Resounding resignation in the KGB. An uncertain situation persists around the statement made by Aliaksandr Lukashenka in July about treason being committed in the KGB. According to the Belarusian leader, an agent of the secret service handed over to a foreign country information which, most likely, concerned officers of the Belarusian foreign intelligence service who work abroad.
So far, there have been no formal announcements about any personnel changes in the top management of the KGB. However, Major General Lieanid Dziedkau has disappeared from the list of Deputy Chairmen of the KGB. This may be an indirect indication of his resignation. General Dziedkau supervised matters of foreign intelligence in the secret service.
Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.