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Belarus As a New Yugoslavia on the Global Arms Market?

Opposition politicians regularly accuse Belarusian government of dubious arms dealings. The recent sanctions of the European Union imposed against Beltechexport, the largest Belarusian arms exporter, are also based on the same premises. Is Belarus really a serious player on...


Opposition politicians regularly accuse Belarusian government of dubious arms dealings. The recent sanctions of the European Union imposed against Beltechexport, the largest Belarusian arms exporter, are also based on the same premises. Is Belarus really a serious player on the global market of weapons?

Detailed information on trade in weapons is difficult to obtain inside the country, and only the UN Register on Trade in Conventional Arms yearly publishes information on these arms deals. This publication contains no information on the contracts’ sums. According to the UN data, in 2010, Minsk sold Yemen sixty six tanks T-80, Sudan – one Su-25, Nigeria — two attack helicopters Мі-24, Uganda — one Мі-24, Azerbaijan — one Su-25 and 30 122-mm towed howitzers D-30.

Nearly all arms sold this year as well by Belarus have been produced in the Soviet Union or Russia. Therefore, Belarus hardly has any chance of becoming what earlier Eastern Germany or Yugoslavia were in global arms and ammunition markets – sources of cheap but good arms and ammunition – small arms as well as tanks and artillery. Belarus cannot replicate their model for a simple reason, it does not produce any self-sufficient products, and everything ‘made in Belarus’ has to be installed on or used with Russian- or Ukrainian-made arms.

Getting rid of old weapons

When the country had Soviet arms stocks and they were relatively modern, it could supply diverse products to the arms markets in 1990s and early 2000s. For a couple of years Belarus was in the top-10 global arms exporters. Yet, the government did not modernize national economy, and military industry was no exception. Old stocks are empty, new production lines – non-existent.

No wonder, the geography of Belarusian foreign relations in military dimension has been restricted by its capacities. The country has sustainable military cooperation only with Communist China and Vietnam. In case of China up to 1/4 of all official contacts involve military matters.

Recent attempts – since mid-2000s – to conquer new weapons markets in the Persian Gulf thus far remained not very successful – it is not easy to sell the products based on Soviet technical standards in Arab countries of the Gulf, especially if one is limited in his negotiating capacities in particular with kickbacks to local officials. There are anecdotal evidences that it is the case.

No evidence of misconduct

Of course, much is hidden behind the official data. Secrecy is a major feature of military equipment and arms markets throughout the world and the Belarusian government is too famous for withdrawing any possible information. There are regular unproven speculations on its alleged breaking some rules or dealings with some rogue regimes.

Almost every year the Jerusalem Post reports on Belarus selling anti-aircraft systems S-300 to Iran, and every time the news turned out to be false. This February, the UN made a statement on alleged illegal arms shipments of Belarusian weapons to former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, and took it back in some days.

In any event, there is no hard evidence on Belarusian arms or military-related services in violation of international embargoes or sanctions to any country whatsoever. Lukashenka has been careful in his arms dealings so far. For example, Belarusian military and civilian officials only rarely contacted Iranian military officials, knowing US sensitivities in this regard, and almost certainly they do not have any actually sensitive technologies or products to share with enemies of the US.

However, while the Belarusian regime as a whole can hardly be accused of arming any state or non-state actors it is not supposed to, some regime's insiders may be really involved in such business. Yet if for them and their clans such business can indeed bring huge profits, for the country it brings next to nothing due to the volumes traded and the fact that all the income goes to the private pockets. The same situation is with military specialists – if there are some facts they concern private initiatives.

Nevertheless, recently, the behavior of Belarusian government may become more risky. Under the financial pressure it is seeking money and having experience with trading weapons it may attempt to sell now more products and services illegally. First signs of this trend might be the rumors of Belarusian mercenaries in Libya supporting Gadhafi regime. They are plausible, as in the past Belarusian firms for years unsuccessfully tried to get contracts to sell weapons and modernize air defense system in this country.

In these circumstances the future behavior of Minsk will to a large degree depend on how much attention the Western countries pay to its risky deals. And sometimes they neglect the issue. For example, bombing of a French military base in Côte d'Ivoire by Belarusian mercenaries in 2006 caused no major consequences for the Belarusian government.

If Belarus help to Gadhafi or other rogue regimes goes unnoticed today, Minsk may move towards more extensive dealings of this kind. However, it is highly improbable that it will pursue any strategic plan in extending such trade or own arms industry. Lukashenka is not a visionary leader building up any ideological project, he is opportunistic politician using whatever is available at its hand at the moment to stay in power.

Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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