Belarus authorities uncover a ‘putsch’ to deter mass protests
On 22 March, Alexander Lukashenka revealed an extraordinary discovery – the authorities had arrested armed fighters who were planning to overthrow the government on 25 March, the day when the Belarusian opposition traditionally celebrates Freedom Day with mass rallies.
The fighters allegedly had training camps inside Belarus and in neighbouring countries. The official media also reported on a series of related incidents, such as gunmen in a car attempting to force their way through a border checkpoint in Ukraine. This all comes in a context of mass arrests of oppositional activists protesting the ‘social parasites decree’.
While some observers claim that the threats were fabrications from a pro-Russian party within the Belarusian security services and Lukashenka had been a victim of disinformation, others say he is simply wary of mass protests and is using the tale to justify renewed repression.
Meanwhile, external actors – namely the West and Russia – are silently observing the developments, waiting to see what happens on 25 March.
All of a sudden, armed fighters inside Belarus
Everything started on 19 March when someone hacked the Facebook account of Miraslaŭ Lazoŭski, the former leader of youth patriotic organisation Biely Liehijon (White Legion), and posted a call 'to take arms and show the authorities who is the real boss in the country. Our friends from Russia and Ukraine have already arrived'.
The next day, the official media reported that a car of armed men in possession of an explosive had attempted to break through a Belarusian border checkpoint from Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities responded that no such car had crossed the Ukrainian border. On 21 March, Lukashenka announced another 'sensation' – the authorities had arrested dozens of fighters who were training in camps inside Belarus, as well as Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland.
On 21-22 March, the KGB arrested at least 17 people, some of whom were serving in Belarusian security bodies while participating in the military and nationally-oriented Patriot Club based in Babrujsk. The club has existed since 2003. Notably, not only was it officially registered, it also had a 'curator' from the security apparatus. Currently the detainees are charged with 'training, preparing or financing mass riots'. The KGB has not revealed any details but says it will 'soon make them available'.
Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, a former leader of Biely Liehijon, informed Euroradio that security services had filmed 'Patriot's' entire summer camp in 2016. Apparently, the authorities planned to use these materials in case of emergency to fabricate compromising evidence on the opposition.
These accusations come just at the right time – 250 people have so far been arrested around Belarus, including many oppositional leaders and activists, following protests against the ‘social parasite tax’.
Who initiated the crackdown?
It beggars belief that these Ukrainian fighters and military camps have anything to do with reality. However, opinions vary as to the initiators and motives of this provocation.
Some experts, such as Jury Caryk from the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, believe this drastic method of protest deterrence was launched by a pro-Russian group from within the Belarusian security forces. According to this version, siloviki gave Lukashenka false reports on extremist groups who were planning to turn protests violent and provoke a Belarusian Maidan.
Others, such as Aliaksandr Fiaduta, the former head of the information office of the Presidential Administration, argue that Lukashenka is not so stupid as to trust his appointees' every word and would have verified the information from various sources.
The crackdown resulted from Lukashenka’s own fears of growing protests coupled with economic pressure from Russia and the West’s reluctance to offer unconditional financial support. Belarusian authorities cannot find any way of pacifying growing social discontent, and have thus returned to their favourite tool – repression of the political opposition.
The opposition's plans and the people’s mood ahead of 25 March
Opposition leaders, as usual, had been disputing the details of the march for a long time, but finally agreed that it should start at 14:00 near the Akademija Navuk metro station and move along Niezaliežnasci Avenue to Kastryčnickaja Square. Mikalaj Statkievič insisted that the march should proceed further to Niezaliežnasci Square, taking all responsibility for the march upon himself.
Many people in Belarus seem to be frightened by the authorities' coming crackdown on 25 March. Popular blogger Anton Matoĺka asked his readership on Facebook why they do not plan to join the protests on 26 March; many admitted that they are afraid of being beaten, arrested or losing their jobs. Others stated that they consider oppositional leaders generally untrustworthy and incapable of organising a safe protest. Nevertheless, many activists are ready to join the Freedom Day celebration and say no to repression.
Meanwhile, the authorities use a variety of tricks to reduce the number of potential protesters on Freedom Day. Many schools and companies are organising compulsory events at the same time as the protests.
The pro-government Federation of Trade Unions has invited citizens to come together and clean up Kurapaty – the location of mass executions during the Stalin regime, which was also the subject of a recent protest action. Moreover, the authorities have permitted Freedom Day meetings in regional centres around Belarus – apparently to prevent locals from joining the main action in Minsk.
The reaction abroad: still watching and waiting
Russia seems to be biding its time and observing from the side, at least publicly. It has not made any statements regarding the protests or repressions. Notably, a Belarusian delegation is currently in Moscow for another round of negotiations on oil and gas agreements, over which the sides have failed to reach an agreement for over a year now.
The authorities' return to mass repression of the opposition has provoked a muted reaction from Western democracies. An EU external action spokesman released a careful statement demanding that 'Recently detained peaceful protesters, including journalists covering the events, be immediately released.' Obviously, the EU is reluctant to revert to confrontation mode with Minsk after several years of normalisation.
However, if repressions continue, the West will be pressured to take a clear position. Russia, it seems, would be happy to see a renewed cooling cycle between Belarus and the EU, which would probably result in more influence over the country from the Kremlin and broader support for Russia’s foreign policy on behalf of Belarus.
According to Kamil Kłysiński from the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, a window of opportunity still remains, and European diplomats hope that a sane approach to foreign and domestic policy will prevail in Belarus.
This might yet prove to be the case – with the bulk of opposition leadership and activists in jail, the authorities can let the crowd march freely on 25 March and release activists shortly after. However, if a feeling of insecurity persists within the leadership, Belarus may see a backslide to December 2010-style crackdowns with many sad consequences.
The West-2017 Belarus-Russian military exercise: smaller than anticipated
During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded 'absolute transparency' at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.
These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises 'aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.'
Moscow would apparently like to increase the fog of uncertainty surrounding its military moves. The Russian military previously published the numbers of railway wagons needed for troop movement. In the absence of proper explanations, this created a threatening impression. Yet it is now clear that the exercises on Belarusian territory will be smaller than in 2009.
Minsk avoids confrontation with the West
As Lukashenka elaborated, 'I demand that this event [West-2017] on the territory of our country [sic!] be transparent and all its components be accessible not only to our friends in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also to NATO members.'
However, the Belarusian and Russian media framed Lukashenka's words in remarkably different ways. The Belarusian media, such as TUT.by, simply mentioned the quote as part of more general reports. Meanwhile, the Russian media, such as Lenta.ru, used the quote as a headline and expressly underlined Lukashenka's 'demand' to admit NATO observers to the exercise, thus creating an impression that he was openly defying Moscow.
Moscow is prone to militant statements and ambiguous threats. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, commenting on West-2017, said that his government had been forced to take preparatory defensive measures: 'The US and other NATO members are actively building up their offensive potential at the western borders of the Union State [of Belarus and Russia].'
Needless to say, his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Raukou describes West-2017 only in general terms, highlighting the necessity to practise defensive measures and continue cooperation with Russia. He also emphasised that Belarus would invite Western observers and that 'the requirements of Western partners would be met.'
West-2017 smaller than West-2009
Belarus and Russia have been holding 'West' (Zakhad, Zapad) joint strategic exercises every four years since 2009: on Belarusian and Russian territory in turn. As part of the West-2017 military exercise, on 14-20 September Belarusian and Russian troops will exercise on a territory spanning from the extreme North of Russia to Belarus. In Belarus, a 'Regional Group' of Russian and Belarusian troops will train on seven different sites. The Regional Group includes Belarusian armed forces and the First Tank Army of Russia.
Moscow means for these exercises to seem impressive. Nevertheless, Belarusian defence minister Raukou revealed that the activities of the exercise on Belarusian territory would be of a rather limited nature. Around 3,000 Russian personnel and 280 items of equipment will arrive in Belarus to participate in the drills. In comparison, in 2009 more than 6,000 Russian troops participated in the drills on Belarusian territory.
Raukou's revelations put an end to lively discussions regarding the scale of the forthcoming West-2017 exercise which began last November. At that point, Ukrainian websites such as Inform Napalm and Apostrophe had discovered that the Russian defence ministry had announced an official tender for 4,162 railway wagons for shipments to and from Belarus in 2017.
The Russian military did not explain its need for so many wagons, and no data for similar purchases during previous West exercises were available at the time. Thus, all kinds of hypotheses attempting to explain the number of wagons were set forth, including a forthcoming annexation of Belarus by Russian forces, which would come to the country under the guise of military exercises.
It took the Russian military two months to finally comment on the tender for more than 4,000 wagons. Upon the request of the Moscow-based liberal daily Novaya Gazeta, the Russian military explained itself in just four sentences.
First, it clarified that the declared amount of wagons were meant for transportation to and from Belarus, i.e., 2,000 wagons in each direction. Second, the Russian military disclosed never-before-published information on military shipments to and from Belarusian territory from previous joint exercises. During West-2009, these shipments required over 6,000 wagons, and during West-2013, almost 2,500 wagons.
Defence cooperation as a 'red line' for the Kremlin
Given that the Belarusian government wishes to limit the potentially negative repercussions of the exercise on Minsk's relations with its neighbours and the West, it is exercising caution with regard to military cooperation with Russia. Bilateral relations with Russia are also suffering from several unresolved problems. Nevertheless, on 20 March, Lukashenka had to say that Minsk 'was not going to reduce military cooperation with Russia because of disagreements which had emerged in other areas'.
On one hand, the Belarusian government maintains a critical attitude towards the defence cooperation with Russia. Hence, Lukashenka told Raukou that he wants the Belarusian defence ministry 'to conduct a general assessment of the efficiency of bilateral military cooperation with Russia.' This could be important because of a 'possible' meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, at which time the Belarusian leader would like to raise relevant issues with his Russian counterparts.
On the other hand, the Belarusian leader realises the sensitivity of defence cooperation issues for Moscow given the vital role of Belarus in providing security to Russia's core region around Moscow. Therefore, at the same conference, Lukashenka together with the defence minister announced: 'As far as security issues and defence of our common borders are concerned, they could never under any circumstances be taken lightly.'
In a word, Minsk and Moscow differ in their attitudes towards the West-2017 exercises. Minsk downplays the confrontational aspects of the exercise. Moscow, on the contrary, is working to make the drills non-transparent and thus more threatening than they really are.
The leakage of the previously unrevealed and confusing numbers of Russian military shipments via Belarusian railways, along with the intentionally late explanation, are aspects of Russia's information warfare.
The Belarusian government has tried to neutralise the negative consequences of this 'fog of war' by making the drills more transparent. This divergence with regard to transparency started years ago. A case in point is the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Minsk consistently adheres to the CFE, which rests on principles of transparency, while Moscow suspended its cooperation in 2007 and renounced it altogether in 2015.
Minsk continues military cooperation with Russia knowing that this is a 'red line' for Moscow. Yet the Belarusian government shapes the conditions and scale of its cooperation. It does not plan to participate in Putin's intimidation of NATO and its allies.