Afghanistan Veterans in Belarus: Soldiers of Forgotten War
Few people from the West know that tens of thousands of Belarusians fought in Afghanistan.
The war has long been over, but its legacy remains. The Afghan war brought not only death, physical disabilities and material losses. It also made drug addiction a widespread occurrence in the former USSR.
On 15 February, the Belarusian warrior-internationalists celebrated their professional holiday. 24 years ago, on 15 February 1989, the Soviet troops left Afghanistan for good.
During 10 years of the war, the Belarusian military enlistment offices sent nearly 30,000 people to Afghanistan. Two-thirds of them still live in Belarus. In everyday life, these people are called Afgantsy, a Russian word for those who participated in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
The Afgantsy in Belarus have strained relations with the authorities. Although the Belarusian government has deprived the veterans of almost all benefits, some remain loyal to the authorities. Others openly oppose the regime, for example, political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich and human rights defender Aleh Vouchak.
Belarusian society never looks back on those events that transpired, and any moral estimations of that war are rare in the public sphere. Only the independent community’s representatives openly speak about the shame of particpating in the war for Belarus.
Afgantsy in Belarus
The war in Afghanistan still causes pain in Belarusians' memories. This war remains the last in which they took part in and in which the Belarusian military involvement was very prominent. According to the number of human losses, Belarus is fourth after Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
The Afghan Memory Foundation provides information that the Soviet authorities sent 28,832 Belarusians to Afghanistan during the war. 732 of them died, nearly as much were maimed and are now disabled. 12 Belarusians are still missing, three received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, two of them – posthumously. On average, the Afgantsy did not live long after the war – making it only to their 45th birthdays. More than half of the military casualties were under 20.
According to Radio Liberty about 21,000 participants of the Afghan war live in Belarus today. Approximately half of the Belarusian Afgantsy became members of the Belarusian Union of Afghan war veterans. A more specialised organisation – Association of People Disabled in the Afghan War is helping these warrior-internationalists. These kinds of organisations exist all over the former USSR.
There are certain separations in the relations between the Belarusian Afghan veterans. First of all, between those soldiers who were located at a base, the political ideologists and those who played the part of “cannon fodder” during the Soviet invasion. Children of high-ranking communist officials did not go to war, while the military actions were conducted at the expense of young soldiers from ordinary families.
The current discussion in the Afghan soldiers’ circles often comes to defining who are the real Afgantsy. Moreover, the veterans also are become divided by their attitude to the current Belarusian regime.
Why Do the Afgantsy Have Bad Relations with the Regime?
People who witnessed deaths of their 18-year-old friends have less fear towards the present authorities than ordinary Belarusians. However, not many Afghans are interested in the fight for their rights.
The Belarusian authorities’ attitude to the Afgantsy grows colder and colder. The regime deprived them of benefits, leaving only an opportunity to apply for “targeted aid”. Some Afgantsy never applied for help. They think it will be a strike against their dignity.
In 2009, the Afghan war veterans human rights defender Aleh Vouchak, retired Lieutenant Colonel Alyaksandr Kamarouski and political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich sent a letter to Lukashenka, in which they declined to accept their awards dedicated to the 20th anniversary of withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the territory of Afghanistan. Many veterans supported their initiative and handed in their medals for participation in that war.
In addition, Vouchak and Kamarouski managed to defend free travel in the public transport for the veterans. Kamarouski says that the former soldiers “have nothing else”, except this meager benefit.
The Belarusian authorities dislike the most active Afgantsy for the support they have rendered to one of the persons who signed that famous letter – Mikalaj Autukhovich. The Supreme Court sentenced Autukhovich to five years and two months of imprisonment for the illegal storage of gun cartridges. Belarusian and foreign human rights defenders considered Autukhovich a political prisoner.
Many Afghan veterans think that all accusations against Autukhovich were nothing more than “empty words”, and his arrest looked like an attempt to discredit the whole movement of the Afghan war veterans.
Previously, the Belarusian Afgantsy had several small businesses, and they forwarded their incomes to the activity of the organisation and to support for their fellow veterans who are unemployed, disabled, or even for their funerals. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Kamarouski said, "there soon started claims being filed for no reason, and as a result three directors ran off, and the businesses became bankrupt”.
What Was the War for Belarus?
The war in Afghanistan brought not only numerous deaths and disabilities to Belarusians, but after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 1979 drug addiction in the Soviet Union grew enormously. Soviet soldiers en masse became drug addicts — and they brought this habit back home with them.
Although drugs were produced in some Asian republics of the Soviet Union, like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, the mass addiction came to Belarus and other former USSR countries from Afghanistan. Afghanistan still remains to this day the biggest illicit drug exporter to Europe.
For many people, that Soviet invasion was a point of shame and disgrace. Many former soldiers refused to accept medals as they consider the war to be alien to Belarus as a nation.
Famous Belarusian artist Ales Pushkin, who served a year and a half in Afghanistan, says that “they forced Belarus to send its sons to defend the imperial interests of the Soviet Union, and we should never forget – we were occupiers there”.
Many of the Afgantsy agree with these words, but the members of the veteran organisations still do not speak up whether the war was just. The Soviet war in Afghanistan is rarely discussed in public. The freezing of all civil and political processes in the country may partially explain this. However, even the Afgantsy themselves do not care about remembering the war itself or bringing it into the public spotlight. For them helping their former comrades-in-arms is more important that thinking about the reasons that the war happened.
Belarus Sends Confusing Messages to Investors
Last year net foreign direct investments into the real sector of Belarusian economy dropped by 75 per cent compared to 2011, according to recently release figures of the Belarusian Statistics Committee.
The pretext for sentimental patriots to moan is another reason for state authorities to rack their brains. They have eased tax burden, extended territories with privileged regimes, and achieved impressive results in the World Bank's Doing Business ranking.
But investors ignore the country with qualified, quite cheap and hard-working employees with opens access to the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union with its market of 170 mln people. Big foreign businesses may secure unique privileges and cordial greeting, but then expose themselves to significant risks.
Small enterprises risk less, but are to go through all thickets of Belarusian bureaucracy, which is often unbearable even for local dwellers. Bad image in the Western media and political unpredictability also add to investors' unwillingness to invest.
Still, these factors can hardly explain the 75 per cent fall of net foreign investments.
Belarus’ underperformance at attraction of foreign investments is no news. Even compared to other states of the Commonwealth of Independent States its achievements are poor.
With this gloomy background, the 75 per cent fall of net foreign direct investments within a single year surprises even more.
More specific figures help to ease the astonishment. The $3,974 mln of net foreign direct investments in 2011 were unprecedented for Belarus and mainly appeared from one big deal.
Russian giant Gazprom purchased Beltransgaz’s stock for $2,500 mln. Without this transaction, the index’ decrease would be more modest.
In 2012 Belarus failed to privatise any big state company. Or, perhaps, it did not really need it. As Belarusian economist, Leanid Zaika, explained to Deutche Welle, “the use of grey schemes in “solvents business” has brought to Minsk about $ 2,500 m, which has fully replaced foreign investments”.
Thanks to the solvents scheme, Belarus could continue behaving like a picky girl, or sooner Lukashenka – acting like her austere father. To please him foreign investors should bring significant resources, latest technologies, and welcome state’s representatives at their company’s Advisory Board. But such investors are rare, if not unreal.
However pleasant the process of being choosy can be, Lukashenka will probably have to give up this privilege. In 2013, Belarus is supposed to say goodbye to another $3 bn for covering its external debt.
The solvents business has stopped. Chances for cheap foreign credits for the debt’s covering have lowered. The need for investments is growing.
Spartak, Kommunarka, Luch. What Is Next?
The government failed to attract enough investments to Belarus in 2012, it has also damaged the country’s investment climate. Last November the conflict between Lukashenka and a foreign investor – Marat Novikov – resulted in more than two times’ increase of the state’s shares in Kommunarka and in Spartak, dissolution of both companies’ Advisory Boards and assigning state officials as their sole directors.
But Belarus did not stop there. On 28 December 2012 an extraordinary general shareholders meeting of OJSC “Luch” voted for transfer of 5.4 per cent of the company’s stock to the state. Before that, the state’s share constituted only 0.18 per cent of stock.
It was the state’s representative in the Advisory Board of Luch, who initiated such voting. Initially, the representative spoke about increase of the share up to 25 per cent. But further steps of the state with regard to the company’s stock are still unclear.
Reaction to these facts was quick. The terms nationalisation and “reprivatisation” seem to be the most popular among investment analysts and potential investors, when they speak about Belarus now. In such environment Lukashenka’s words during entrance speech at the 7th Belarus Investment Forum that “we guarantee the best conditions for doing business to investors” sound like an empty promise.
Peculiar Attractors for Investment
Still the Belarusian government is trying to attract foreign investments. Belarusian lawyers are working on perfection of laws on investments, concessions and public-private partnership. The complicated tax system is becoming simpler. Investment forums are growing both in scale and in number. Belarus’ rating in Doing Business is rising.
Belarus has also been providing the most wanted foreign investors with privileges and benefits on a case-by-case basis. Among the newest appeals is the creation of Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park – today the most favourable place to do business in Belarus.
While trying to get investors interested in entering the Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park, the state uses again its probably most effective novelty in terms of investments over recent years: High-Technology Park’s tax privileges. In the Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park, the taxes are even lower.
Investments' attraction through diplomatic cooperation is another tool. Recently, Lukashenka has assigned the special task of each Belarus’ foreign ambassador to attract investments. Traditionally, the assignment looked more like an order and the ambassadors are now responsible for the tasks received.
Lukashenka himself also is active in cooperation with selected foreign ambassadors. Last December he had a very friendly meeting with the Iranian ambassador Seyyed Abdollah Hosseini. Lukashenka’s warm attitude to the ambassador is quite explicable. During four years of his stay in Belarus Iranian investments in Belarusian economy rose from $6m to $960m.
However tough are the efforts, friendly political relations and privileged tax treatment are not enough to satisfy Belarus’ financial hunger. Not so many countries in which state authorities dispose of investments instead of private parties still exist. And capital from Russia, Venezuela, Azerbaijan and Iran make only a small part of the world’s investments.
Businessmen from most other countries want the host state of their investments to have stable economy, predictable legislation and trustworthy government. Belarus makes different efforts for investments’ attraction, but among the most important factors, it still does not have much to offer.