Belarus-Turkey Rapprochement: Minsk Refuses to Fight for Kremlin and its Allies
On 14-15 April Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka took part in the Istanbul summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
This trip triggered another wave of derisory criticism in the Russian media. Even Kommersant, the liberal Russian daily, wrote about the 'demonstrative rapprochement of Ankara and Minsk' against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between Belarus and Russia.
No wonder Lukashenka while in Istanbul met Turkish President Erdogan, whose relations with Moscow remain hostile after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet late last year. The Belarusian president even invited Erdogan to visit Belarus. Belarus' recent refusal to support another Russian ally, Armenia, in its conflict with Azerbaijan makes Lukashenka look disloyal to the Kremlin.
Moscow refuses to accept anything but total support for its policies. Anything else, in the Kremlin's view, is treason and enmity. And Minsk refuses to deal in such black and white categories.
Minsk approaching Erdogan and his friends
Minsk is much more interested in cooperation with Turkey than vice versa. Commenting on recent contact between the Belarusian and Turkish leaders, Kommersant argued that Turkish President Erdogan 'is getting a chance to play the "Belarusian card" in relations with Russia.'
So far, however, Erdogan has displayed no interest in doing that. First, his meeting with Lukashenka was just one of a series of meetings he held with participants of the OIC summit of a comparable level.
Minsk is simply consolidating its ties with the block of conservative Middle Eastern regimes associated with the West Read more
Secondly, Turkish officials made no statements to indicate their intention of playing a 'Belarusian card', nor did the Turkish media display any interest in Lukashenka's visit, only mentioning it on the sidelines.
Joining the OIC as an observer, Minsk is simply consolidating its ties with the block of conservative Middle Eastern regimes associated with the West, like the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Turkey or Pakistan. It is this block that dominates in the OIC. This foreign policy orientation of Minsk is evident from the meetings Lukashenka had in Istanbul with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain.
Just before that, President Lukashenka's son, Viktar, on 29-31 March visited Qatar, another country that has tense relations with Russia and its allies. Viktar openly met high-level officials of that country.
That demonstrative contact contrasted with Minsk sending to Russia's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, just a delegation of the Belarusian Communist party, a marginal political force. The Belarusian communists brought Assad a message from the Belarusian leadership and a painting with the ambiguous title Victory Day.
Armenia angry with Belarusian government
Certainly, only few experts noticed these eloquent details of Belarusian foreign policy in the Middle East. Other moves by Minsk, however, attracted the attention of many Belarusian and foreign media outlets, namely its position on the revived conflict around Karabakh.
First, on 2 April the Belarusian foreign ministry responded to the beginning of a new round of hostilities in Karabakh with a statement which underlined the inviolability of international borders and territorial integrity. It irritated Armenia because in that context it meant supporting Azerbaijan, which demands recovery of all the territories that belonged to Soviet Azerbaijan.
Despite a harsh reaction from Yerevan, Minsk on 4 April issued a second statement which implied that Belarusian troops could not be sent to participate in foreign conflicts. That meant a blow to the structure of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) which Yerevan had hoped to involve in its conflict with Azerbaijan.
Minsk then drew the final line as the Belarusian parliament adopted – also on 4 April – the new national military doctrine. The norm of not sending Belarusian troops to conflict zones abroad has existed in Belarusian legislation since 1991 and the new doctrine merely reiterated it.
But in a tense atmosphere, as Yerevan tried to use the CSTO in its confrontation with Baku, Minsk's adoption of the new doctrine was interpreted differently. The Armenian media, such as News.am, saw the rapid adoption of the Belarusian military doctrine as Minsk's response to the new outburst of hostilities in Karabakh.
At any rate, the doctrine indicated Belarusian unwillingness to side with Armenia and undermined the coherence of the CSTO. On 15 April Deputy Foreign minister of Armenia Shavarsh Kocharyan publicly announced that the new Belarusian military doctrine was causing concern for Armenia as a CSTO member. Yet Minsk also knew perfectly well that its moves with regards to Karabakh would also irritate Moscow.
Swimming away from Putin's Titanic?
Moscow, as usual, smells treason, but Minsk is just struggling to find a middle way between Russia and its numerous opponents in the West, former Soviet Union or Middle East. It recognises some interests of Russia which the Belarusian government considers legitimate, and, for instance, continues to participate in the Single air defence system.
At the same time, Belarus is demonstrating that it refuses to follow those of Putin's policies which have already entangled Russia in political and military confrontation with numerous countries. But Minsk resists these Kremlin policies not on ethical or moral grounds.
The Belarusian leadership apparently believes that these Kremlin policies are doomed and based on shaky grounds. Lukashenka knowingly made fun of Russia's 'historic' claims to Crimea, suggesting that it might mean the transfer of most of Eurasia, including Russia, to Mongol administration, since historically Mongols owned these lands.
According to Belarusian political commentator Valer Karbalevich, after Russia fell out with Turkey last November, “Russia, which had been a source of support [for the Belarusian government], turned into a source of problems. It is time to swim away from [drowning Putin's] Titanic.”
That would be a difficult task given the irreplaceable role played by Russia in the Belarusian economy. Nevertheless, Minsk has already succeeded in distancing itself from risky Russian and other countries' endeavours in international politics by referring to international law.
Belarus has denied legitimacy to a variety of different political projects, including the secession of Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea (though with reservations) and now Karabakh.
It has also consistently refused to support major Russian foreign policy moves: not only in some faraway places like the Middle East but also in Eastern Europe where Minsk struggles to maintain good relations with Ukraine and repair relations with the West.
The recent Belarusian moves on Karabakh and its relations with the OIC demonstrate that Belarus continues to move in the same direction.
Belarus Cracks Down on Pro-Ukraine Donbass Fighters
On 18 April the Belarusian authorities launched the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, a fighter from the Right Sector battalion who participated in the Ukraine conflict.
Earlier this month they introduced amendments to legislation which allow prison sentences for those fighting in foreign conflicts for ideological, not just mercenary, reasons.
However, the government seems to be taking a rather unbalanced approach, repressing only supporters of the Ukrainian side. By doing so Minsk risks creating a strong pro-Russian force inside the country, capable of overthrowing disobedient President Alexander Lukashenka at the Kremlin's order.
Authorities introduce anti-extremist policies
On 4 April the Belarusian parliament approved amendments to the law “On counteracting extremism” proposed by the KGB, Belarus' state security agency. The amendments introduce criminal liability for extremism, which previously was only an administrative offence. The law will target individuals who “create an extremist group, or head it or its branches”. It will punish those convicted with extremist activity with three to seven years in prison, and in case of a repeated offence six to ten years.
Not long before the amendments were introduced, police started a raid against football ultras and radical supporters of the Ukrainian side in the Donbass conflict.
Before 2014 Belarusian ultras rarely expressed political attitudes. However, since Euromaidan and the start of the Ukrainian conflict they have repeatedly declared support for Ukraine.
The police feel that youngsters from ultras groups, who have been inspired by the example of Ukrainian protesters at Maidan, are one of the major groups capable of actually carrying out and supporting street protests in Belarus.
Anonymous ultras told Novy Čas newspaper that the football fan movement in Belarus has been practically destroyed in recent years, regardless of the ideological views of particular firms. The police search ultras' homes and question their relatives about connections between those fighting in Ukraine and and ultras based in Belarus.
Fighting for ideas will become a crime
The same parliamentary session also approved amendments to the law on “Incitement to action against external security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security”. They introduce liability for fighting in foreign conflicts without mercenary intentions. Now Belarus citizens fighting for ideological reasons will face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Previously the Criminal Code contained only punishment for mercenary activity, as well as recruitment, training, financing and using of mercenary. However, the authorities faced difficulties when charging Belarusian fighters in Ukraine. Police could not gather proof of their receiving remuneration for the service.
On 25 March senior police official Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ revealed to Zviazda newspaper that the police had already filed criminal cases against 135 Belarusians fighting abroad. The police gather intelligence on Belarusians in Ukraine from various sources and also undoubtedly receive information from their Russian colleagues.
The Belarusian authorities seriously fear trained fighters returning home. They could become a dangerous element in the opposition to Lukashenka’s rule. As the economic situation in Belarus gets worse and poverty among the population grows, the risk of internal instability is becoming even higher.
The first trials take place
This April the Belarusian authorities are holding the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, allegedly a fighter from Right Sector, a radical nationalist Ukrainian organisation. He was detained in November 2015 at Minsk railway station in possession of a gun and a self-made grenade. He had a document which confirmed his participation in the Ukraine conflict in the Right Sector battalion, but the organisation has denied these allegations.
In the middle of April police detained another fighter nicknamed “Terror Machine”, this time allegedly from the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion, on charges of hooliganism dating back to 2013 and alleged mercenary. Although both fighters are charged with crimes other than mercenary, the authorities will also investigate their involvement in the conflict.
Meanwhile, cases of combatants fighting for the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk being on trial remain unknown in Belarus. Only one person from that side of the conflict has been detained, in January 2016, and that was on other charges; he only later revealed his participation in the conflict.
A number of DNR fighters freely gave interviews to Belarusian and Russian media while staying in Belarus and apparently did not fear persecution.
Pro-Russian fighters to remain free?
Independent commentators claim that this is the result of close relations between pro-Russian fighters and the Belarusian security forces, with the support of Russia. For example, a number of pro-Russian combatants revealed that they had previously served in an elite special force group in Marjina Horka. Many of the Belarusian security structures sympathise with Russia and its policy in Ukraine, as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.
An anonymous DNR fighter from Mahilioŭ in an interview with gazeta.ru said that he got involved in the conflict through Russia-backed Belarusian cossacks when he worked in an Orthodox patriotic club.
Many from Eastern Belarus had a similar path. Since the start of Euromaidan pro-Russian groups have become more active in Belarus. They train youth in the ideology of the "Russian World" and maintain close links with the Russian military.
If the Belarusian authorities have indeed decided to tolerate pro-Russian fighters to please Russia, they risk seeing what they fear most coming true. Trained combatants who respect the Russian world more than Belarus independence would probably take Russia's side in case of intervention in Belarus. Meanwhile, pro-Ukraine fighters who value Belarusian independence are mostly taken for radical opposition and repressed. This is obviously a very short-sighted view.
But the Belarusian authorities should also pay serious attention to the reasons why Belarusians go to fight for breakaway republics.
As one Belarusian DNR fighter put it in an interview with the Russian Planet website:
We went there neither for ideas nor for money. People going to war were those who could not realise themselves here (in Belarus). Their future was to become alcoholics, marry ugly women and give birth to children who would face the same fate. None of the Belarusians I met there came from Minsk, because people from the capital have a different mentality and opportunities.
This vivid citation points to the deep social problems that lead Belarusians from the periphery to leave their homes and head for war. Desperate from unemployment, with no hope for a better life and heated with aggressive Russian propaganda, they become easy prey for Russia’s military plans.
Through turning a blind eye to pro-Russian groups in Belarus, failing to counterbalance the Russian media and maintaining a poor regional policy, the authorities have generated a threat that they apparently refuse to deal with. However, it may become a fatal mistake one day.