Belarus – Turkmenistan: the end of a success story?
On 30-31 March, talks were held in Ashgabat between Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenka.
The launch of the $1bn Garlyk potash fertiliser plant which Belarus built in the country differentiated this encounter from other such annual meetings between Turkmenistan and Belaurs.
The economic cooperation and training of Turkmen students in Belarus remains the only thing keeping the two countries' relationship afloat. Will it survive the end of a huge construction project and the continuing fall in trade turnover?
‘Belarus's most strategically important partner’
In Ashgabat, Alexander Lukashenka has traditionally tried to sell Belarus as a ‘reliable foothold… in the centre of Europe'. However, his Turkmen host has shown little enthusiasm for this generous offer.
During the visit, Belarus and Turkmenistan signed a number of non-essential documents, mostly on cooperation in education. The leaders of the two countries also inaugurated a complex of Belarus embassy buildings in Ashgabat.
According to Alieh Tabaniukhou, Belarus’s ambassador in Ashgabat, his country sees Turkmenistan as the ‘most promising market… and Belarus's most strategically important partner in Central Asia’. This is quite an intriguing statement, as Turkmenistan does not even belong to the Eurasian Economic Union, unlike two other Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Relations ‘on hold’ during the Niyazov era
Belarus and Turkmenistan, despite having been 'sister republics' in the former USSR, established their diplomatic relations only in 1993, more than a year after the break-up of the Soviet empire.
During the first fifteen years of the two countries’ independence, their relationship remained limited and occasionally strained. Lukashenka visited Turkmenistan only once, in 2002. Turkmenistan’s president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov failed to show up in Minsk on a bilateral visit.
It took Belarus eleven years to open its embassy in Ashgabat. Belarusian citizen Ilya Veljanov, an ethnic Turkmen with virtually no ties to his country of origin, served as Turkmenistan’s ambassador to Minsk in 1994 – 2007.
Only after Niyazov’s death in 2006 did bilateral relations begin to improve more steadily. Since 2009, Lukashenka and his new Turkmen counterpart Berdimuhamedov have established an extremely regular pattern of meetings. The Belarusian leader comes to Ashgabat on every odd year and hosts his Turkmen counterpart in Minsk on every even year.
Trade and training: two pillars of relations
Relations with Turkmenistan are of little value to Belarus when it comes to political, security, or cultural issues. Thus, Minsk has focused heavily on trade and economic cooperation with the fast-developing Central Asian nation, which also boasts the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves.
During the last seven years of Niyazov’s rule, the bilateral turnover fluctuated between $3.6m and $46m per year. A steady growth began in 2009, the year of Lukashenka’s first post-Niyazov visit to Ashgabat, before attaining the peak in 2013, $320m.
Belarusian officials tend to blame the abrupt fall of Belarusian exports in 2014-2016 on Turkmenistan’s decreased gas revenues. However, during these crisis years the Turkmen economy remained among the fastest-growing in the world, with 10.3% growth in 2014 and 6.5% in 2015.
Meanwhile, the sales of Belarusian trucks to Turkmenistan dropped from 1031 units in 2013 to 203 units in 2015, tractor sales fell from 500 to 437 units, and special purpose motor vehicles from 589 to 33 units. The loss of export revenue for these three positions only amounted to $126m.
Sales of ethyl alcohol, road and agricultural machines, trailers, and some construction equipment and materials also suffered greatly. Belarusian exports continued to fall in early 2017.
Imports of Turkmen goods to Belarus remain quasi-nonexistent. They largely comprise cotton and cotton products, petroleum products, and preserved tomatoes.
Another major source of profit from cooperation with Turkmenistan is the education of its youth in Belarusian universities. Currently, 7,911 Turkmen students (a 5% decrease from the peak academic year of 2014/2015) are pursuing higher education in Belarus – over half of the total number of foreign students in the country.
Belarusian universities and technical colleges often turn a blind eye to the inadequate preparedness of many Turkmen students for higher education, caused by the desolate state of the country's schools. During each exchange of highest-level visits, the universities sign several new partnership agreements.
Major construction project finally over
Lukashenka and Berdimuhamedov attended the launch of the Garlyk potash fertiliser plant built by the Belarusian consortium Belhorkhimpram as the prime contractor.
Some Belarusian pundits had criticised the government’s decision to build a potash fertiliser plant in Turkmenistan, arguing that Belarus was creating a competitor for itself in fertiliser sales. On the top of everything, Turkmenistan is situated much closer to India and China, Belarus’s main markets for potash.
However, Berdimuhamedov confirmed during his talks with Lukashenka that Turkmenistan was ready to become a partner to Belarus in supplying its new commodity. Besides, if Belarus would have refused to build the plant, another contractor would have happily snapped up this lucrative construction project.
The plant, which is worth over $1bn, and is capable of producing up to 1.4m tonnes of fertiliser per year, has become the flagship project for Belarusian-Turkmen cooperation.
The two leaders laid the plant’s foundation stone on 19 June 2009, during Lukashenka’s first post-Niyazov visit to Turkmenistan. The parties signed the formal contract in early 2010. However, actual construction work started only in late 2011.
‘Despite all the drawbacks, I think we have not let down the Turkmen people,’ Lukashenka said during the opening ceremony, without elaborating on their nature. Indeed, the plant was launched two years later than the original deadline.
In September 2016, disagreements between the contracting parties went public. Belarus said that Turkmenistan had failed to honour its financial obligations under the project. Turkmenistan accused Belarus of seriously lagging behind the construction schedule and failing to supply the remaining equipment.
Berdimuhamedov told Lukashenka about his plans to build two more potash plants in the country. However, Turkmenistan’s reluctance to immediately attribute these contracts to Belarus may be a sign that the Central Asian nation was not fully satisfied with Belarus’s performance in the Garlyk project.
In 2014, Mikhail Miasnikovich, the then prime minister of Belarus, set an objective of achieving a $1bn turnover with Turkmenistan within the next three to five years. The latest developments in bilateral trade make this figure look utterly unrealistic.
The Belarusian government needs to obtain new large-scale construction contracts and reverse the negative trend in the sale of machinery to Turkmenistan. Otherwise, the turnover risks declining to negligible figures, which is the case for Belarus's trade turnover with Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. The solidarity of the two autocratic presidents-for-life will not be of any help there.
Was the White Legion really planning an armed attack?
On 11 April, the official Belarusian media launched a massive propaganda campaign. They aimed at revealing the alleged plans of a group called White Legion to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The White Legion is a patriotic sports and military-style organisation which ceased to exist in the early 2000s.
At the moment, 35 people remain under investigation on charges of organising mass riots and creating an illegal armed group. However, independent experts have revealed numerous facts that prove the official evidence false.
The authorities seem to have reanimated the White Legion to create a fabricated threat and discredit the wave of protests sparked by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The authorities are also attempting to sell the threat of a Maidan scenario, complete with anti-Russian armed groups, to the Kremlin.
A secret organisation with terrorist plans uncovered
On 11 April, Belarus Segodnia, the largest official newspaper in Belarus, published a lead article describing a 'journalist investigation' of the preparation of mass riots set for 25 March, 'Freedom Day' in Belarus. According to the article, 35 people are currently under investigation. 17 detainees have already been charged, while the rest remain suspects.
20 people also face charges on another criminal case – creation of an illegal armed group. This is unprecedented in Belarusian history. The newspaper gave a detailed report on the White Legion group, including their training and plans for 25 March, along with evidence from the investigation.
The piece explains that although the White Legion was officially dissolved in the early 2000s, this was really a cover for a more elaborate conspiracy and an attempt to outwit security services. The group supposedly preserved its links and continued training, avoiding publicity and oppositional communities.
According to the investigation, the group also took part in the Ukrainian Maidan and the following military conflict in Eastern Ukraine to gain experience. The article maintained that White Legion fighters were preparing to topple the political regime in Belarus and using patriotic training as a cover. They possessed illegal weapons and had assembled a cachet of iron rods to attack the police. According to the state media, the White Legion was closely associated with former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, and backed his political endeavours.
Security services revealed to the main state-run daily newspaper Belarus Segodnia that they had received information about the planned mass riots on 25 March from a German woman with Belarusian roots, called Frau A. She heard about the plot from a friend acquainted with Belarusian oppositional activists in Poland. She immediately rushed to the Belarusian embassy in Germany to write a letter to the President Lukashenka, asking him to take immediate action.
On 12 April, an even harsher propaganda film, 'White Legion with Black Souls' was aired on the TV channel Belarus 1. The film accused the White Legion of Nazism, links with the Islamic State, plans to commit terror attacks in the Moscow metro, training children to become suicide bombers, and similar ludicrous claims. Moreover, the film cast Belarusian singer Anatoli Jarmolenka and actor Uladzimir Hasciuchin as 'experts'. Observers were quick to characterise the film as very poor-quality propaganda.
How true is the official version?
Even without the accusations of White Legion links to ISIS and Nazism, the investigation's 'evidence' appears mostly false. Belsat published an article which analysed photos of the weapon cache and concluded that they were either replicas of real arms or legally-sold airguns and airsoft guns.
Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, former head of the White Legion, who has been living in Ukraine over the last years, denies the article's accusations. In an interview with Euroradio, he stated that he would be honoured to be responsible for the creation of a deeply secret organisation, but in really the group had ceased all activity long ago. It was simply impossible to function legally in Belarus.
People close to former White Legion members informed the newspaper Naša Niva that although the organisation ceased to exist ages ago, its former associates still retain links and engage in training and cultural activities, including youth education in a Patriot Club near Babrujsk. They also admitted that they were ready to become the backbone of a volunteer battalion in case of Russian aggression, but had no plans for toppling the Lukashenka regime.
Mikalaj Statkievič also called the article a lie – he was not acquainted with any of the detainees, and the last time he met Čyslaŭ was ten years ago. Many other facts also prove the criminal cases to be a politically-motivated fabrication. For instance, Frau A., who speaks Russian with a strong accent in the propaganda film aired on the Belarusian television, somehow managed to write a letter without a single typo and used technical phrases commonly found only within security agencies.
Pro-Russian organisations not perceived as a threat
With exception of a single case when Russian nationalist publicists from the news website Regnum were arrested in December 2016, most pro-Russian groups face no serious pressure in Belarus.
Various Belarusian pro-Russian Cossack groups perform openly on a much larger scale the same activities of which the Patriot Club and former White Legion are accused. They regularly conduct military drills with replica guns, train children, and cooperate with their Russian colleagues, who took an active part in the war in Eastern Ukraine on the pro-Russian side.
What's more, real pro-Russian combatants of Belarusian origin who fought in Ukraine freely visit Belarus and face only 'preventive talks' with security officers. Many of them admit in interviews that Belarusian siloviki sympathise with them and 'express support', as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.
Let's invent a threat as a distraction from the economic crisis
The case of the White Legion seems to aim at discrediting the wave of protests triggered by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The majority of the population is experiencing economic hardship and is losing faith in the government. The authorities are trying to destroy any group which could even theoretically be capable of organising resistance.
As Siarhiej Čyslaŭ puts it, it is important for the authorities that protestors be framed as fighters and terrorists, rather than political prisoners, thus avoiding new confrontation with the West.
The West, frightened by the Ukraine crisis, fears similar developments in Belarus and is inclined to trust the Belarusian government. At the same time, the authorities are trying to represent the crackdown on 25 March as an operation to save citizens from a terror attack.
Finally, the authorities are also apparently attempting to sell the threat of Maidan and anti-Russian armed groups to the Kremlin in order to achieve better oil and gas prices and other subsidies.
The White Legion case shows that in a difficult situation, the authorities prefer to rely on brutal force and illegal methods rather than open dialogue with the opposition and civil society. However, by destroying patriotic communities, they make themselves and the Belarusian statehood even more vulnerable to threats from Russia.