Belarus-Russia Military Drills, Tajikistan, CSTO – Belarus Security Digest
Belarus shows its adherence to a defence alliance with Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). In September, already two joint exercises took place in the country.
However, the ability of the post-Soviet military alliances (CSTO and the bilateral alliance between Belarus and Russia) to ensure independently stability inside their borders remains questionable. Suffice to say that during almost the entire period of its existence, the CSTO is trying to engage with NATO on issues of mutual interest such as Afghanistan and terrorism.
The financial crisis forced the Belarusian authorities to soberly assess their ability to create an adequate system of territorial defence. Previously voiced strong statements do not correspond to the real advances made in this area. The authorities have to recognise that their initial plans regarding the composition and number of the main component of its territorial defence – ground troops – have been virtually still-born.
Belarusian-Russian Military Exercises West-2013
The West-2013 exercises went according to a pre-planned scenario and without any major incidents. At times it looked more like an exhibition performance preceded by rehearsals. However, there were several moments that are worth paying attention to.
For the first time ever, the Belarusian military gained experience with a sealift. A detachment of the 103rd mobile brigade crossed the sea from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad on an assault ship. The Russian navy had to involve landing craft from three fleets (Baltic, North and Black Sea) for transfer of a small Belarusian contingent with military hardware and weaponary.
The Belarusian landing in East Prussia was more of a symbolic nature. It demonstrates parity and equal participation in West-2013: a Russian military contingent arrived in Belarus, and a Belarusian contingent was sent to Russia.
The Belarusian military-industrial complex used the exercises to study the potential of new weapons systems in a simulated combat situation. The findings of West-2013 will be taken into account when adjusting the military and technical policy of Belarus until 2025. For the first time ever, heavy MRLS "Smerch" and the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) "Grif" were deployed as a part of a unified system.
The multifunctional remote surveillance helicopter INDELA-I. N.SKY were also used in the excercises, which has the capability to deliver small-sized goods. And what is more important, its ability to engage targets was made public for the first time ever.
The UAS "Berkut-2" which is manufactured jointly by Belarus and Russia and the Belarusian UAS "Burevestnik" with a range of 290 km were also exhibited during West-2013. The latter is more of a demo unit, and its engineering follow-up requires further considerable effort to make it fully functional.
Despite alarmist sentiment in neighbouring countries, the West-2013 exercises that were held within Belarus had purely defensive nature. As for the proposed scenario, they simulated the possibility of a local inter-state armed conflict erupting which was limited in scope and in the objectives of the opposing sides. The use of the term "terrorists" and "illegal armed groups" to designate the simulated enemy was dictated by political correctness. In fact, the scenario assumed the participation of military units from a neighbouring state and not groups of insurgents.
The way the UAS "Grif" was utilized during West-2013 suggests that the system has reached the level of operational readiness. The UAS "Grif" with the tail number 07 demonstrated its capabilities during the exercises.
CSTO Exercises Interaction-2013
The planned joint exercises of the Collective Rapid Response Forces of CSTO Interaction-2013 took place almost simultaneously with West-2013. During these exercises, they simulated the use of military contingents of participating countries in the Eastern European region. These exercises have only propagandistic significance, as in fact they were a battalion-level training event: only about 600 people from six countries took part in them.
The scenario of the exercises were based on a storyline of how the military and political situation would unfold in the case of the penetration of extremist groups into the territory of a member state of the CSTO with an objective to carry out terrorist attacks.
Elements of surprise and variability in the proposed scenario were not to be found anywhere in its design. Both CSTO forces and the "terrorists" acted according to a pre-planned scenario. Thus, the exercises were more like an exhibition performance than the real combat training of the alliance troops.
The Belarusian side used Interaction-2013 to demonstrate the capabilities of its domestically produced new weapons and military hardware. The following equipment was tested successfully: electronic warfare equipment used for radio interception and the suppression of radio communications; optical and electronic equipment used for search, detection and the liquidation of an enemy; an automated system for tactical control; an automated remotely controlled surveillance and firing complex "Adunok" mounted on self-propelled units and automobiles.
If one omits the propaganda hype around the Interaction-2013, it is too early to talk about any plausible prospects of it strengthening the operational capacity of CSTO. Their level of operation remains rather low and in fact, it is determined only by Moscow's readiness and ability to act in a crisis situation.
Belarusian Border Guards May Appear in Tajikistan
The Council of Commanders of Border Troops of the CIS countries discussed in Baku on 9 September measures to improve security of external borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. They discussed a possible mechanism of setting up an inter-state grouping of the border agencies of the CIS countries that could be used in a crisis situation on the external borders of the Commonwealth.
Obviously negotiations covered primarily the border of the CIS with Afghanistan. During the meeting in Baku they also discussed providing emergency assistance to Tajikistan to strengthen the border security on the Tajik-Afghan border. The decisions taken on these issues remain confidential.
Taking into account the financial constraints, one can expect that the possible assistance of Belarus in strengthening security on the Tajik-Afghan border will be limited to sending a small group of advisors and experts from the Belarusian State Border Committee and supplying equipment withdrawn from operational use of the Belarusian army but still in usable condition. These could be the BTR-70, BMP-1 and artillery systems. However, it can happen not before Moscow fulfils its promises to render military and technical support to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
As is traditional for all post-Soviet integration unions, there is a probability that neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan will get any real assistance in the framework of the CSTO as the decision will be buried in endless reconciliations and clarifications.
Reorganisation of the Territorial defence system
A reorganisation of the territorial defence system has been announced in September. The defined priorities include:
- optimisation of the structure and number of territorial troops;
- improving the mobilisation preparedness of the management of the territorial defence for the formation of the territorial troops;
- increasing the efficiency of the management system, quality of training of officials of state and local government and reservists for the territorial troop force.
In fact, by taking this step the authorities acknowledge the existence of problematic points in the territorial defence system which were earlier identified by independent analysts but fiercely rejected by the top management of the Ministry of Defence.
First, the declared number of 120 thousand people in the territorial troops is obviously unrealistic. It would take 6 to 8 years to train this number of combatants in a continuous loop from the ranks of all four mechanised brigades. Besides, the cost of maintaining the structure of the territorial troops on the basis of their planned quantity will be much too high.
Second, the mobilisation of 120 thousand people in the territorial troops in time of war would be problematic. Experience shows that about 50% of all drafted reservists come to the recruiting stations for the reserve training sessions.
Third, the 120-thousand strong territorial troops require a peace-time permanent staff of about 1,800 – 6,000 people composed of career officers and small unit leaders. It is simply impossible to provide them taking into account the chronic under-staffing of the Ministry of Defence. To train them from civil officials would take time and be very costly. Besides, there are different requirements for the professional and personal characteristics of civil officials and officers.
Having faced the excessive demands of Alexandr Lukashenka regarding the creation of the territorial defence in 2011, the Ministry of Defence, two years later, became aware of the real possibilities and began the gradual movement towards a more realistic image of the territorial defence force with regards to its organisation and the number of territorial troops it can maintain.
Andrei is the head of Belarus Security Blog analytical project.
Political Prisoner Cut His Abdomen Protesting against Administration Abuse
On 19 September, human rights organisation “Innovation Platform” announced that political prisoner Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič cut his abdomen in protest to the abuse suffered by the prison administration.
Shortly after that he published a letter in Narodnaja Volia newspaper where he explained why he had to employ such dangerous tactics of protest. The letter reveals the widespread violations of human rights and technical, sanitary and other norms of prison operation in Belarus.
The Belarusian corrections system remains completely unreformed since Soviet times. The judiciary tends to impose custodial sentences on offenders rather than fine them or put them on probation. As a result, Belarus occupies one of the leading positions in Europe in its per capita rate of prisoners.
Meanwhile, no effective system of social adaptation for former convicts exists in the country. Coupled with the poor conditions of life in prison, the system constitutes a truly serious social problem for modern Belarus.
The Old Enemy of the Regime
Mikalai Aŭtuchovič is now serving his second term in prison. A veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, after completing his service in army he started a business in his native town of Vaŭkavysk. In 2006 he was accused of tax evasion and put to jail. Human rights activists have called his case made up, as the prosecution showed no clear evidence and held a non-transparent investigation.
It remains unclear who inspired the case against Aŭtuchovič and whether their motives were political or economic, or whether it was only the local authorities or primarily the central government that were involved.
In 2009, authorities had to release Aŭtuchovič under pressure from western sanctions. Shortly thereafter, however, they forged another case charging him with property damage, attempted terrorism and the illegal possession of weapons. Finally, the prosecution accused Aŭtuchovič of possessing a rifle and five cartridges for which he received five years in prison.
Since his sentencing Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič has become one of the most well-known Belarusian political prisoners. He actively communicated with the media trying to reveal the unlawful reality that exists in Belarusian prisons. Because of his efforts to reach out, he has experienced constant pressure from the administration which fears garnering the widespread attention of the public.
Aŭtuchovič is also well-known for his radical methods of protest to the authorities' abuse in Belarusian prisons. He has held several hunger strikes that have lasted up to three months. In 2012, he cut his veins and recently in September he cut his abdomen. Shortly after the accident he published a letter that explained his actions. The letter reveals the inhumane conditions of life in prisons and widespread violation of law hidden by prison administration.
The Reality of Belarusian Prisons
The main reason for Mikalaj cutting himself was the systematic violation of his rights throughout his imprisonment. He wrote applications to visit the doctor and a lawyer but all too often his applications disappeared and no one was informed about it. In 2013 he received notice that the prison administration considered him a persistent troublemaker, though he received no prior warning. These accusations were made in order to prevent him from early release from prison.
Both in 2012 and 2013 he received such warnings right before the slated annulment of his previous violations. Finally, Mikalaj decided that there was no other effective way to protest against these schemes by the authorities and turned to radical measures to draw attention to the problem.
Since 2005, the first year Mikalaj appeared in prison, the situation with prisoner rights has been deteriorating, according to his opinion. No state bodies outside the prisons observe what happens inside them. Prisoners know that the more they try to defend their rights, the worse they will be treated by the prison administration. Sometimes it is impossible to file a complaint as the administration do not simply let them get sent out.
Mikalaj acquired several serious illnesses, but prison doctors have never done any analysis on him and or for many other prisoners. He asked for medical help 40 times over the span of a year and in only six instances did the doctors respond, only to say they could not help him. “It is easier to file your death than to treat you”, was one of their responses. Other prisoners sometimes do not get even basic medical care. As Mikalaj said, in Hrodna prison there was no dentist for a whole year.
The daily food allowance of a prisoner does not match the norm provided by the law. Sometimes the food that is cooked is impossible to eat. At times the “purée” has been put in containers for 20 people. In another case, the prisoners detected worms in the fish and then found the boxes where the fish was preserved. The labels on the boxes said “for feeding fur-bearing animals”.
Aŭtuchovič concludes that these violations present the result of businesses that exist in Belarusian prisons and where high ranked officials are involved. Meanwhile, prisoners can receive a parcel from their relatives only once a year. Moreover, it is sometimes impossible to buy vegetables in prison store. For 20 month in Hrodna prison, Aŭtuchovič saw onions only three times.
Another major problem is tied to personal care products, which the prisoners can not possess. According to Mikalaj, in his prison 500 people had access to and used only one pair of scissors. Administrators in some prisons allow this unofficially, yet if an issue arises, they can use it as an evidence of violation of prison norms. Only in 2013 did prisoners received disposable razors and soap, and they have not received any toilet paper since 2005.
According to Aŭtuchovič, in his prison 500 people had access to and used only one pair of scissors. Read more
Aŭtuchovič also notes the poor quality of clothes and linen, as well as constant lack of basic infrastructure like electricity, heating and lamps. Often prisoners have to renovate the facilities from their own funds, which sounds like nonsense but is the sad reality they face. These kinds of situations could be brought up by many convicts, convicts who have no possibility of reporting it due to pressure from the prison administration and intimidation.
A Massive Social Problem
Although the population of prisons in Belarus has been decreasing over the last decade, it remains very high in an European context. According to the data from International Centre for Prison Studies, Belarus stands at third place among European and former USSR countries, coming in after Russia and Azerbaijan with 335 convicts per 100,000 citizens. The Belarusian judiciary still tends to impose custodial sentences instead of fines or probation.
The cases Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič described demonstrate the general state of the correction system in Belarus. It has hardly seen any reforms after those carried out during Soviet times and remains an institution that is very much closed to the public. Both its physical premises and methods of managing the system, including the prevention of recidivism, rehabilitation and programs for social adaptation for former convicts remain very poor.
The government continues to neglect the problem and tries to avoid discussions about it. Yet society too has by and large not changed their attitude towards convicts and sees them as criminals that deserve punishment rather than human beings who made a mistake and have the right to fair treatment and rehabilitation.
Only a few NGOs have tried to shed light on the problem and put it on the public's agenda, though without any success. A great deal of effort from both the government and society is needed to overcome this sad legacy, and so far no one is showing the will to do so.