Belarus and Zimbabwe Aim at “Mega Deals”
Belarus steps up its cooperation with Zimbabwe in sectors ranging from agriculture to mining.
In mid-November, The Herald, a government-owned leading Zimbabwean daily, triumphantly reported the “nod” granted by the country’s President Robert Mugabe to a number of investment deals with Belarus after his meeting with Viktor Sheiman, Lukashenka’s chief property manager.
However, Zimbabwe's failing economy and international isolation, as well as the chequered history of cooperation between the two countries, cast serious doubt on the prospects of these "mega deals”.
Lukashenka’s Grey Eminence Closes “Mega Deals”
Viktor Sheiman arrived in Harare on 15 November as a personal envoy of the Belarusian president. On 18 November, he met the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. Mugabe gave the green light to cooperation between the two countries in delivery of mining and agricultural equipment to Zimbabwe, as well as in agriculture.
Mugabe and Sheiman also discussed cooperation in the field of electricity, construction of roads, houses and bridges, and teaching of Zimbabwean students in Belarus. “We are going to big scale bilateral cooperation and this is very optimistic,” said Sheiman.
In Harare, Viktor Sheiman also signed a joint venture agreement for the extraction of gold and other precious minerals with the Zimbabwean mining minister and the Reserve Bank’s governor.
According to the mining minister, “this agreement seeks to provide a framework for us to access capital equipment and technical know-how from Belarus particularly as it relates to mining on rivers”. It is worth noting that Belarus has not been previously known to have any particular experience in river mining.
The servile Zimbabwean government media has described the recent agreements with Belarus exclusively in terms of “mega deals”, which are supposed to bring prosperity to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean officials, such as finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and Mugabe’s wife Grace, have been boasting about deliveries of equipment from Belarus at their meetings with businessmen and the local population.
Surprisingly, the Belarusian government-run media, usually overly enthusiastic in their reporting of breakthrough projects with foreign governments, has kept total silence on Sheiman’s trip to Zimbabwe.
Europe's and Africa's “Outposts of Tyranny”
Belarus and Zimbabwe retain many similarities in domestic politics and international standing. Both countries have very high inflation and irremovable presidents who remain in power through oppression of the opposition and rigged elections. Robert Mugabe has been steering his country since 1987 and is now in his sixth term; Alexander Lukashenka has been in power since 1994 and is in his fifth presidential term.
In January 2005, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing for the future US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice specifically identified Belarus and Zimbabwe (alongside Myanmar, Cuba, Iran and North Korea) as the “outposts of tyranny”. Zimbabwe has always obligingly supported Belarus when the latter has been targeted by critical reports of human rights bodies.
Both countries are currently under the US and EU visa and economic sanctions (though most sanctions against Belarus have recently been suspended). However, Zimbabwe faces less criticism than Belarus from international human rights bodies.
Long History of Dampened Expectations
Belarus and Zimbabwe established diplomatic relations in April 1992. Since 2001, the two countries have begun exchanging visits of governmental delegations, initially at the level of ministers. Vice-presidents of Zimbabwe, John Nkomo and Emmerson Mnangagwa, visited Minsk in 2011 and 2015 respectively.
Over all these years, the two countries’ relationship followed a predictable pattern. Every Zimbabwean delegation, having visited a dozen Belarusian manufacturers, expressed admiration for Belarus’ industrial capabilities and know-how, and showed a great deal of enthusiasm for the prospect of bilateral trade. The Belarusian leader received each such delegation and talked about major contracts and a great future.
However, over this time, these well-publicised trips have had little effect on bilateral trade.
A relative breakthrough happened in 2014 when BelAZ, a Belarusian manufacture of quarry machinery, supplied 17 units of its equipment (dump trucks, loaders and bulldozers) to Hwange Colliery coal mine in Zimbabwe. The machinery was supplied through a vendor financing scheme secured by the regional PTA Bank.
In November 2009, Belarus submitted draft agreements on trade and economic cooperation, as well as on promotion and mutual protection of investments, to the Zimbabwean authorities for consideration. To date, the first and only fully-fledged legal agreement between the two countries remains a memorandum of understanding between the ministries of justice of Belarus and Zimbabwe signed in Minsk on 22 July 2015.
Risky Business with a Failed Partner
Viktor Sheiman’s trip to Harare followed directly after Vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s visit to Minsk in July 2015. The Zimbabwean dignitary then visited a dozen Belarusian manufacturers and met a wide range of personalities, from President Alexander Lukashenka to the Belarusian equivalent of Santa Claus.
At that time, Belarus and Zimbabwe reportedly signed a memorandum to supply $150m worth of agricultural, mining, dam and road construction equipment to the southern African nation.
Alexander Lukashenka, welcoming his Zimbabwean guest, also suggested that they set up a vehicle maintenance centre in Zimbabwe that could establish Belarus’ entry into Africa. Lukashenka sees Zimbabwe as Belarus’ “trade hub in Africa”.
Belarus agreed to finance the supplies of its equipment to Zimbabwe. Signing the agreement with Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov, Emmerson Mnangagwa pointed out that Zimbabwe’s financial institutions guaranteed the entire volume of financing.
According to the agreed timelines, Zimbabwe will start receiving machinery and equipment in the first quarter of 2016. In particular, MAZ, a Belarusian truck manufacturer, has plans to supply at least 100 trucks with right-hand steering to Zimbabwe.
However, independent media in Zimbabwe has pointed out that previous such “mega deals”, including those which Zimbabwe signed with Russia and China, remain mere statements of intent. Zimbabwe has failed to repay loans provided by China totaling about $1.5bn.
The same fate may await the deals signed this year between Minsk and Harare. Belarus has ventured into a very risky business with a kindred regime notorious for its permanent financial and economic failures.
Another concern about these "mega deals" stems from the kind of personalities involved in their conception and implementation. Emmerson Mnangagwa is Zimbabwe's wealthiest individual who has already faced many allegations of corruption.
Viktor Sheiman usually serves Lukashenka in fostering deals where extreme discretion is required. These factors and the lack of transparency in the financing of these projects cast doubts on the true nature of this cooperation.
New Military Doctrine in Belarus
On 15 November, Belarusian Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ appeared on Belarusian Television to discuss a new military doctrine, which he attributed to the arms buildup in neighbouring NATO states surrounding Belarus.
This article explores the background and content — insofar as it is known — of this doctrine and the preparedness of Belarus to meet future contingencies, including the potential development of a “hybrid war.”
Working with Russia
The series of exercises with the Russian Army that began with ZAPAD 2009, were in anticipation of a NATO threat to the territory of Russia and Belarus that would require a military response. Specifically, the Russia-Belarus operation targeted Poland and Lithuania, and Russian missile carriers TU-95 and TU-160 bombed mock objects in those countries.
Such an approach anticipated the close cooperation of the two armies against the common enemy of NATO. Essentially that approach did not change drastically in the current year, as a joint exercise named “Union Shield 2015” in Kaliningrad in September preceded training sessions with the rapid response forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation in Tajikistan.
pursuit of a common military doctrine with Russia has become a liability to the Belarusian government Read more
Another link is that one of the leading figures on military decisions, Stanislaŭ Zaś, confirmed as Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus on 5 November (earlier he served four months as Acting Secretary), holds the rank of Professor at the Russian Academy of Military Sciences.
Yet the pursuit of a common military doctrine with Russia has become a liability to the Belarusian government. At a mundane level, the two armies remain vastly different, not least in salary. Whereas a Russian captain can expect to receive a monthly salary of just over $2,000, his Belarusian counterpart brings home a salary of less than $150 — following a rise in salary from around $100.
But more important the goals of the two states are no longer in harmony. Belarus fears becoming embroiled in a hybrid war, particularly on its southern border with Ukraine. The Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea in February-March 2014 marked the decisive turning point in Lukashenka’s decision to introduce a new military doctrine.
In the number of tanks, armoured vehicles and guns per 1,000 troops, Belarus currently ranks first in Europe Read more
In theory, Belarus possessed ample weaponry after its declaration of independence in August 1991. As military expert Aliaksandr Alesin has noted: “We don’t have many troops but we have a lot of weapons,” most of which were inherited from the former USSR. In the number of tanks, armoured vehicles and guns per 1,000 troops, Belarus currently ranks first in Europe. But in July 2012 it suffered the embarrassment of the intrusion of its airspace by planes from Lithuania piloted by Swedes, which dropped teddy bears bearing pro-democracy messages over Minsk and other areas, including directly over the residence of the president.
Belarusian Army: Capacity And Its Role in the Region Belarus successfully formed its own national army in 1992 while making use of favourable premises already available to them after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Read more
Understandably the Belarusian authorities reacted furiously, but more important, the event served as a psychological blow to the president and sparked fears—largely unjustified—that Belarus appeared vulnerable to an attack from the air.
Foundations of the New Doctrine: “The Polonaise”
Following his reelection, the president held three meetings with military leaders on 30 October, 3 November, and 6 November 2015. The third was largely ceremonial coming during Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony as troops swore the oath of loyalty to the president and country.
On 30 October, Lukashenka reported that a new military doctrine would be introduced in 2016. It would entail a gradual reduction of the size of the regular army from 250,000 to 65,000, along with the restructuring of administrative and support personnel. On 3 November, while visiting an electro-mechanical factory in Dzerzhinsk, the president announced the task of introducing a new generation of modern rocketry. This latter revelation requires some explanatory background.
Its origins lie not in military links with Russia, but with China. Belarus has created a new rocket complex called “Polonez” (Polonaise), a means to inflict “unacceptable damage” on an attacking enemy. The rockets in question have a range of 200 kilometres (about 120 miles), meaning that they could strike the capitals of all neighbouring states, though they could not reach Moscow. Within range would be military objects of NATO countries: the Baltic States and Poland. China, which produces the missiles, financed the project whereas Belarus’ role is to manufacture the trucks and missile launchers.
Interestingly, however, Belarus will produce and control the missile targeting system. In this way, Belarus has bypassed Russia, which had expressed scepticism about the ability of the smaller state to produce such advanced weaponry. The Polonaise’ local base is the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant MZKT 7390 “Astrology,” and the rockets could deliver a simultaneous strike on eight targets at the 200 kilometre range.
In addition Belarus also intends to produce its own drones, the formation of its own rapid respond force—in addition to that of the CSTO—and the formation of an army of local self-defence. In all aspects the doctrine emphasises a form of aggressive defence and even a preemptive attack on an enemy about to strike Belarusian territory.
In addition to the new concept, the full details of which are unknown outside presidential circles, Belarus must re-equip its existing weaponry though it lacks the finances to do so. Reliance on Russia to subsidise and replenish the Belarusian military fleet backfired when Russia opted to construct its own air base near Babruisk.
The establishment of the new military doctrine runs counter to Russian plans and also appears to undermine CSTO unity because the course being pursued by Lukashenka is one of neutrality, especially in the conflict between its two neighbours Russia and Ukraine. Yet the fundamental alliance between Belarus and Russia remains and military exercises continue.
Thus the limits of Belarus’ military independence appear obvious. Lukashenka seeks a national deterrent free from Russian control. Simultaneously his country remains an integral part of Russian strategic space and needs Russian help for its homeland defence. Lastly, Belarus remains in the Russian-dominated alliance CSTO, as well as the Russia-Belarus Union.
David Marples and Uladzimir Padhol
David Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta.
Uladzimir Padhol is Belarusian political scientist and journalist, editor and publisher of Narodnyi televisor. Tsitaty i baiki A.G. Lukashenko [People’s Television: Citations and Stories of A.G. Lukashenko], which is now in its thirtieth edition.