Anarchists, the avangarde of social protests in Belarus
On 15 March, Belarusian authorities detained dozens of citizens protesting against the social parasite decree. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police.
Anarchists in Belarus, who have a long history, tend to participate only in particular political events. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests.
The regime has put considerable effort into diminishing the influence of any uncontrollable and integrated group of dissidents, including anarchists. Independence Day on 25 March will show whether the anarchist movement in Belarus is ready for social and political protest or whether it will continue to operate mostly underground.
The anarchist movement in Belarus
Belarusian anarchism has a long history, dating back to 1905-1907 when anarchist movements appeared in Smarhon, Kouna, Hrodna, and Minsk. In Soviet times, anarchists focused their efforts resisting the upper class. In 1992, Belarusian anarchists formed a ‘Federation of Belarusian Anarchists'. However, it soon disappeared because of problems with coordination. In 1999 anarchists published their first newspaper, Navinki, but it was shut down by the government four years later.
In the 2000s anarchist activism became restricted due to continued confrontation with the government. In 2003, anarchists created a group called Revolutionary Movement which, however, failed to unite Belarusian anarchists under one umbrella organisation. Repression against anarchists has created additional obstacles to their activity. Political prisoners such as anarchists Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, and Aliaksandr Franskievich spent five years in prison for torching a vehicle at the Russian Embassy yard and throwing smoke grenades into the Ministry of Defence building.
There exist several main groups of anarchists, such as Pramien and Revolutionary action, but most of them are local and somewhat notorious. Their activities remain hidden and highly conspiratorial, and their membership is quite marginal. The anarchist movement over the last few years became more visible due to participation in particular events, such as Charnobylski Shliah (Charnobyl movement) or small-scale protests. In 2015, anarchists in Minsk protested against police and KGB brutality after a rock-concert at a club called Pirates.
Belarusian anarchists criticise not only the government but also the opposition for their desire for power and money. At the same time, they sometimes tend to support democratic ideas of the opposition by participating in social protests. During the 'anti-parasite decree' protests, anarchists were noted for their integration and social-oriented messages, such as 'The government is robbing the people, or 'Officials are the main social parasite'.
In an interview with Kyky.org, anarchist Dzmitry Palienka stated: 'People actively support our slogans because they were social and thematic…People have less and less trust, both to the authorities and to the opposition leaders. This, obviously, makes us happy'.
Uniting the protests
Anarchist became one of the most active groups fighting against the ‘social parasites’ decree. The march of angry Belarusians demanded the abolishment of the decree, which obliges unemployed citizens to pay an annual tax of €220. During recent protests, anarchists appeared right at the front of crowds and encouraged the demonstrators to maintain a spirit of protest.
Brest has become a hot-spot for 'anti-decree' protests. The demonstration on 5 March gathered between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Anarchists occupied leading positions in the protests’ columns. Although during the marches the authorities did not employ force, violent actions started soon after.
Authorities blocked web-pages, such as revbel.org or groups on VK.com, a popular social media platform. Dozens of anarchists reported being beaten, detained or sentenced to short-term imprisonment after the demonstrations on 15 March.
This was the first time in a long period that so many Belarusian anarchists participated in social protests. Authorities aim to decrease public protest by putting a stop to a main source of protest messages – anarchists. At the same time, oppositional forces might be using anarchists to increase their support and heighten the chances of regime change.
Anarchists as scapegoats for the state?
Belarusian anarchists have draw the public's attention only in special cases related to anti-governmental protests or due to particular small-scale actions, such as the graffiti protest. However, in February and March during the 'social parasites' protests they appeared to be organised and attracted the attention of both citizens and the police.
The regime attempts to discredit anarchists and sees them as a threat. On 6 March, Belarusian national TV broadcasted a programme comparing the symbols and ideas of anarchism to those present during the protests in the former Yugoslavia and Ukrainian Maidan, which ‘led to the war’. Today, in order to maintain an atmosphere of fear, authorities are repressing more than just the opposition, unlike previous protests. The state is detaining anarchists who appear strong, united, and leading.
In the words of anarchist Stas Pachobut to Radyjo Svaboda 'secret services have developed a system which is able to restrict political movements. And it does not work with the anarchist movement. Therefore, it was impossible to stop anarchists during the social marches against the 'social parasites' decree'.
Although the social parasites tax was postponed, authorities might be preparing the political arena before Independence Day and large anti-decree protests, which are to be held on 25 March. On 11 March, the authorities sentenced oppositional leaders Anatoĺ Liabiedźka, Juryj Hubarevič, Vital Rymašeŭski , and Volha Kavalkova to 15 days of detention. The day after, police detained politician Paviel Seviaryniec and five independent journalists.
Anarchists have demonstrated that they are well-organised and, at the same time, not controlled by governmental structures since they have no legal status and rarely act in public. The regime draws an analogy between anarchists and the football fans in Ukraine who strongly resisted the government during Maidan. Recent harsh punishments of six football fans, who were sentenced to 4-12 years on 10th March, is evidence of this attitude.
Demonstrations on 25 March will become a test for the anarchist movement and show whether they are able to become a strong protesting power. Otherwise, anarchist activity could go underground until the next occasion triggers them to make an appearance on the political arena.
Can Belarus keep a strong position on the global arms markets?
In 2012, Belarus became 18th out of the world's 20 leading arms exporters, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published last month.
Despite this achievement, the situation of national arms industries remains precarious. Belarusian arms producers are increasingly loosing sway on the post-Soviet market. Since 2007, The Kremlin has pursued a policy of substituting Belarusian products with Russian ones.
Under these circumstances, Minsk is focusing on traditional Soviet-era markets (such as China and Vietnam) and cooperation with conservative regimes in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. For example, Belarusian firms are currently seeking a contract on modernisation of Malaysian MiG-29s. At the end of February, Belarusian officials signed new agreements with a major defence company from the United Arab Emirates.
Top-20 for the last time?
In 2012-16, Belarus sold $625m worth of arms. In comparison, neighbouring Ukraine sold $3.7bn worth of weapons over the same time period and managed to keep its place among the top-10 global arms exporters.
According to SIPRI, Minsk received the most revenue from aircraft sales – $312m, and air defence systems – $195m. The export of armoured combat vehicles brought in $96m. Most of these arms were remnants of the Soviet military, although they were usually modernised before sale. At the same time, the share of products of Belarus's own firms is rising, e.g., radars, optics, and electronics. Belarus has recently focused on developing complete weapons systems, such as the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system. However, it has yet to export them.
Even a cursory analysis of SIPRI's figures shows that this could be the last time Minsk manages to get into the top-20 global arms suppliers. Given the share of aircraft in its exports and the fact that Belarus effectively no longer has aircraft to sell, Belarus will face a significant decline in its revenues from arms exports.
This can be avoided only if it decommissions the Su-25, a close air-support aircraft of the Belarusian armed forces, and sells them. Such plans have in fact been articulated repeatedly in recent years. Another possible option – the sale of some of the Belarusian military's MiG-29s – is improbable, as this would undermine Minsk's commitments to the Single Air Defence System with Moscow.
The three largest importers of Belarusian arms in 2012-2016 were China ($170m), Vietnam ($150m), and Sudan ($113m). China and Vietnam have been traditional Belarusian partners in the defence sphere since Soviet times. Export to Sudan became possible when certain conservative Arab regimes, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE, bankrolled the Sudanese.
Belarusian arms in the Middle East and Southeast Asia
Cooperation with Western-allied Arab regimes continues. On 21 February, Belarus's State Military-Industrial Committee and the UAE's Tawazun Economic Council – the UAE's national agency dealing with defence equipment procurements – signed an undisclosed agreement.
While the Russian media described the document merely as a 'memorandum of understanding,' an IHS Jane's Defence Industry analysis insisted that Belarus and the UAE had signed a 'defence technology transfer agreement.'
The agreement followed another weapons deal concluded between Belarus and the UAE just days before. According to the $14.37m deal, the Emirati military contracted the Belarusian defence firm Beltech Export to supply spares and provide repair services and technical support for the BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles of the UAE armed forces.
Meanwhile, Belarusian defence industries are also actively working in Southeast Asia. In 2016, Belarusian firms concluded two major arms deals there by delivering surface-to-air missile systems and radars worth $51m and $30m to Myanmar and Vietnam respectively.
Currently, the Belarusian 558th Aircraft repair plant is struggling to get a contract on modernisation of Malaysian MiG-29s. It has a chance: the speaker of the lower chamber of the Malaysian parliament Pandikar Amin Mulia visited the plant in December.
Is the Kremlin spending tens of millions to undercut Belarusian partners?
Belarusian defence industries are still mostly oriented towards post-Soviet nations. Yet fundamental changes are afoot. Without much publicity, Russian defence industries are consistently undercutting Belarusian suppliers. Russian government agencies are planning to replace Belarusian-manufactured components – alongside Ukrainian and Western-supplied defence equipment parts – with Russian state programmes.
Russian officials openly boast about their successes in substituting Belarusian imports with Russian products and services. A case in point is the company Remdizel, a unit of KamAZ corporation, which separated from the latter and took KamAZ's military projects with it.
Initially, Remdizel repaired and overhauled KamAZ chassis and trucks. However, in an interview recently published by Russian the defence review Eksport Vooruzhenii, Faiz Hafizov, director general of Remdizel, announced an expansion. His enterprise will now provide maintenance and overhaul services for Belarusian MAZ-543 and prepares to do the same for Belarusian MZKT-7930. The Russian army widely uses both to carry missiles.
This squeezing out of MAZ and MZKT from the Russian market is not a private initiative of Remdizel, as proven by respective agreements it has concluded with the Russian defence ministry and its departments. The director of Remdizel expects that in 2017 the revenue his firm gets from maintenance and overhaul of MAZ and MZKT of only military types can increase by at least 8-9%. This means a corresponding decrease in revenues of Belarusian firms.
Can Russia live without MZKT?
The sixth issue of the review Russia in Global Affairs last year featured an article summarising the achievements of the Russian defence industries in substituting imports. Belarusian supplies were listed among foreign imports to be replaced by Russian analogues. Furthermore, the author, Russian defence analyst Andrei Frolov, admitted that although the Kremlin started adopting defence imports substitution programmes in 2013-2014, the Russian government had begun to get rid of post-Soviet partners years before.
For instance, the Russian Zavod Spetsialnykh Avtomobilei, based in Naberezhnye Chelny, since 2010 has been developing a series of chassis to replace the Belarusian MZKT analogues as prospective arms platforms. Moreover, Putin signed an order on respective R&D works as early as 2007.
This is only the beginning. In July 2016, the local daily Biznes Online revealed that the project in Naberezhnye Chelny had failed, and now Russia is launching a second large-scale programme to substitute Belarusian-manufactured chassis. The costs already amount to tens of millions of US dollars, but the Kremlin seems intent on getting rid of Belarusian MZKT at any cost.
Other Belarusian defence exports to Russia will be affected as well. For instance, the same Russia in Global Affairs review announced the 'production of [Russian] night vision sight matrices instead of French and Belarusian products' as another major achievement of Russia's defence industry. Given that Belarusian firms traditionally supplied sights and other optics for Russian-made tanks and armoured vehicles, it seems that the Kremlin is making no exceptions for Belarus in its drive towards autarchy.
Belarusian defence industries are undergoing arduous but relatively successful transformations. On the one hand, they are forced to develop new products, as their Soviet legacy has already been sold. On the other hand, Putin's policies have left Minsk with no choice in the long-term perspective: it must survive with less support from Russia. As the SIPRI report has shown, Minsk is so far surviving. Minsk's marketing efforts pursue a consistent and fastidious strategy by focusing on solvent customers, including certain former Soviet allies, conservative regimes in the Middle East, and beyond.