Belarus and Russia Prepare for the West – 2013 Military Drill
The planned Belarusian-Russian joint military drill, “West 2013”, has stirred up NATO member countries. The armed forces of both countries will hold the drill in the autumn, while some Polish and Lithuanian politicians have already discussed the threat of war.
Alexander Lukashenka said on 21 February that “Belarus and Russia are not going to threaten anyone”. This time he is telling the truth. A war in the centre of Europe remains beyond contemporary perception of reality, while the mentioned military drills seem to be an attempt to satisfy Russia’s imperial complex. The Belarusian regime uses intensive military cooperation as a pretext for getting more financial aid from the Kremlin.
Most likely, West 2013 will be similar to the previous drill that took place in 2009. That one was grand from the point of view of the size of the manpower employed and technical equipment involved.
The systems of defence of Belarus and Russia remain tightly interconnected. Specifically, the Kremlin is trying to make Belarusian defence an integral part of the Russian one. Today, Russia has great influence over Belarus' air defence system and has two military bases on the territory of Belarus: the Volga radar station near Baranavichy and the Antey long-range radar centre near Vilejka.
War Rehearsal in the West
Last month, the former Minister of National Defence of Poland Romuald Szeremietiew made a statement that Belarus and Russia were preparing for a future war with Poland, in connection with the upcoming drill.
In his opinion, West 2013 will resemble the previous military drills, held back in 2009, in its scope. West 2009 became the greatest military drill to happen on the territory of the former Soviet Union since its downfall. 12,500 people took part, with both the Belarusian and the Russian sides providing an approximately equal number of soldiers.
The armed forces involved 63 planes and 40 helicopters, 470 armoured vehicles, 228 tanks, 234 artillery cannons, mortars and multiple artillery rocket systems. Naturally, NATO was alarmed by the drill. Neighbouring Lithuania does not have a single tank.
This autumn, Belarus plans to broadly use its territorial defence troops, while the Collective Forces of Operative Reaction of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation will take part in the military drill in Belarus for the first time. The Kremlin created this organisation as a follower-up to the Warsaw Pact and is essentially the contemporary anti-NATO organisation of Russia.
In 2009, Dmitri Medvedev and Alexander Lukashenka watched the drill, while state propaganda used the mutual Russian-Belarusian preparations to show the might of the Belarusian military. This differed quite drastically from the teddy bear stunt that happened several years later.
Unity, or Russian Control over the Belarusian Army?
Despite the declarations of the military unity of the allies, Belarus and Russia have contradictory interests. On the one hand, Russia wants to obtain total control over the Belarusian army. On the other hand, Belarus is slowing down this process in order to preserve its independence in the military sphere and use it to obtain Russian energy resources at low prices.
The Russians have achieved their goal: by creating the United Regional System of Air Defence they have gained full control over the Belarusian air force. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Russia failed to create an effective air defence system at its Western border so Belarus became a very important asset.
Unofficially, Belarus has been under strong Russian influence in this sphere for quite a long time already, and has earned rent from the scheme. In 2006, the Belarusian regime got four long range surface-to-air missile systems (the S-300) for $13,000,000 each. The market price of such a rocket division is about 14 times more expensive in reality – or approximately $180,000,000.
The importance of Russian military bases on the territory of Belarus deteriorates as the Russian authorities are building up their radars in the Leningrad and Kaliningrad regions. However, the Russians will never leave their bases in Belarus voluntarily, even if only for ideological reasons.
Belarus and Russia conduct common military drills and joint sessions at military headquarters, and Belarusian military men often get their education in Russia. Over quite a long period of time Belarus has been re-exporting Russian weapons to Africa and the Middle East. Belarus remains an outpost of defence for the Russian generals and they will hold on to it.
Contradictions in the Allies’ Camp
Vladimir Putin outlined the development of the Russian army as one of the priorities of his third presidential term. The military-industrial complex will benefit the most from such a policy. The Belarusian weapons manufacturers would have been happy about this decision by the Kremlin if the Russian armed forces had not chosen the path of independence from Belarusian importers.
Starting in 2014, Russia will not order or receive Belarusian military trucks. The Volat truck transports the Jars and Avangard mobile strategic rocket systems today. Besides, the Russians, have no analogues to the Volat, and this means that the case appears to be entirely politically motivated. This seems a strong blow to the Belarusian military-industrial complex. The Russian authorities will strive to obtain further control over the Belarusian army and its industrial complex.
For a long time, military cooperation remained the “sacred cow” of the Belarusian-Russian relationship. Despite the conflicts of political or economic character, military cooperation looked stable. However, now Russia is trying to show Belarus its proper place.
The Kremlin binds Belarus with organisational and legal instruments in order to take away its sovereignty in the military arena. Nevertheless, Lukashenka's regime will never give up independence entirely. Sovereignty remains its only good as well as its only guarantee before Russia. Ironically, Lukashenka is not only a danger to Belarusian independence, but also its main defender.
Should the Belarusian Opposition Turn to the “New Majority”?
On 15 February 2013, Juriy Zisser, founder of the most popular Belarusian website TUT.by, and Natalya Radina, the chief-editor of popular oppositional website Charter97.org, publicly quarrelled in Vienna. This incident revealed a much deeper split in Belarusian society than many in the West think.
A substantial part of the population appears to be equally averse to both the ruling regime and to the radical opposition. But Lukashenka's opponents show little capacity to attract these people.
New Political Borderlines
The conflict occurred on 15 February 2013 during the OSCE Conference on Internet freedom in Vienna. The delegates from Belarus included Natalya Radina (from the opposition media), Juriy Zisser (from civil society) and Vladimir Ryabovolov (from the Presidential Administration).
Everybody was waiting for a huge wrangle between the governmental envoy and other participants, but really the combatants turned out to be the non-government delegates. They burst out into allegations of corruption and threats of imprisonment against each other.
Another conflict of this kind had been stirred up on the Belarusian internet just two days before. The founder of another top-rated independent Belarusian website called Onliner.by, Denis Blishch, in his twitter feed rudely insulted all the radical oppositional activists who are sometimes deprecatingly called "zmahary" (Bel. – "fighters”).
It was a reaction to a story told by one of such activists, Dmitry Galko, in his blog about Blishch refusing him a journalist job because of his political activity. The website owner insisted that he is outside of politics and that true journalists must also be above political disputes.
These conflicts reflect much deeper divisions in Belarusian society. Both founders of the two popular websites – Blishch and Zisser – are famous entrepreneurs, who made their start-ups super-profitable. They are the representatives of the modern IT-elite, well-educated and critical of the Belarusian government.
At the same time, these successful and independent businessmen not only refuse to associate themselves with the political opposition, but instead actively criticise and even resist it.
Moderates and Radicals
This relative divide between "moderates" and "radicals" also exists in other separate spheres of social life: among NGOs and journalists.
Around 50 Belarusian NGOs, gathered under the aegis of Civil Forum of the EU Eastern Partnership, have recently united in an association called The National Platform of Civil Society. The drafting of its basic guiding document – the Concept – resulted in a series of disagreements amongst its members.
The draft proposed by several organisations implied the fostering of the centralisation of civil society groups and enlarging the powers of the National Platform. Some experts and NGOs were afraid of rising politicisation of civil society which seemed unacceptable to them. The reason was rather plain: NGOs must be independent and not bound by anyone’s decisions.
Hence, they tried to oppose the proposed draft Concept, though the majority of the National Platform members backed it. This split has been echoed in numerous online quarrels and resulted in a certain amount of damage to the National Platform's reputation. As a consequence, one of the most famous NGOs, the For Freedom movement, postponed joining the Platform.
The same split has become evident amongst independent journalists. They disagree whether a professional journalist must be truly independent and unprejudiced or must fight for his ideals using the media as an instrument.
Some opposition media, such as Charter97, predominantly promote the latter view. Others, who disagree with the usage of independent media as counter-propaganda, even launched a web-project: mediakritika.by. They set as their goal the promotion of standards of pure professional journalism without propaganda.
Opinion Polls Show Distrust
A December 2012 opinion poll held by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) indicated several figures and trends that should become a wake-up call for the political opposition. Although the support rate for the Belarusian ruler has been stuck at 30 per cent, the level of trust towards his opponents is far lower.
For instance, the two most popular oppositional leaders, Vladimir Neklyaev and Andrey Sannikov, have support rates of 4.6 per cent and 4.8 per cent respectively. The overall level of trust for the opposition is 20 per cent, while 55.8 per cent of the respondents distrust it altogether.
The same concerns the endorsement of the radical methods of political resistance. Only 3.1 per cent think that the opposition should resort to an "armed uprising or revolution", while the most popular answer is "to propose a dialogue with the government" (35 per cent of respondents). And 20 per cent think that the Belarusian opposition should fight for the abolition of western sanctions instead of lobbying for them.
Meanwhile, 46.1 per cent are sure that the country is developing in the wrong direction, and 49.1 per cent do not trust Alexander Lukashenka. Half of the respondents consider the concentration of power in one individual's hands to be harmful for the country’s future.
All in all, sociologists drew the conclusion that besides Lukashenka supporters (30 per cent) and his firm opponents (20-25 per cent) there is a significant social group (between 25-40 per cent according to different assessments) who are critical of both the government and the opposition. They stand for evolutionary reforms and dialogue instead of political confrontation and revolutions.
Some commentators have already called this group "the new majority".
Hard Task for the Opposition
Apparently, "the new majority" can play a crucial role in the future democratisation of the country. The opposition, in order to succeed, should bet on attracting these people instead of confronting them.
"The new majority" seeks a constructive, ready-to-compromise force, a real alternative to the existing government. Therefore all the relative radicalism being carried out by the current political opposition is a direct obstacle on he path of uniting all dissatisfied Belarusians.
Some farsighted politicians seem to understand this need for change. Soon after the conflict between the opposition figure Dmitry Galko and the owner of a popular website, Denis Blishch, a wide discussion about this fight broke out. One regional political activist, Piotr Kuznetsou, proposed the following abruptly-arrived-at conclusion: "the opposition must please people like Blishch".
Kuznetsou explained that successful businessmen, who are disappointed with the current situation, are the most desirable target group for the opposition. It means that such people are modern, pro-democratic, open-minded, entrepreneurial and active. Therefore, if the opposition cannot attract even them, it is doomed on a wider scale, concluded Kuznetsou.
Giving up certain ideas such as rejecting a dialogue with the regime until political prisoners are released or calling for sanctions against human rights violators, may be morally difficult for many in the opposition. But without some tactical concessions and flexibility, the opposition's rate of support in a divided Belarusian society will hardly increase.