Belarusian Army: Capacity and its Role in the Region
Without any loud political rhetoric to bolster the Belarusian army, it has nonetheless gradually developed from an appendage cut off of the huge Soviet military into an army more adapted to the needs and capacities of a 9.5-million nation.
Belarus has been spending little on its armed forces yet has consistently used them to promote better and closer relations with Russia. Despite their close ties, Russia has not shown interest in taking over Belarus’ armed forces or integrating them into their own.
These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarusian Army: Its Capacities and Role in the Region released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.
Does Belarus Have a Proper Army?
After the fallout from the Soviet Union’s collapse had begun to settle, Minsk’s future armed forces emerged under rather favourable conditions. Belarus was able to transform the well-armed, trained and supplied military units of the Belarusian Military District of Soviet times into their own armed forces.
Part of this successful transromation hinged on the fact that there were more than enough ethnic Belarusians – officers and specialists in the Soviet army – to help build a full-fledged army for the young independent nation.
Since gaining independence, Belarus has had a history of spending the bare minimum on its armed forces. Although it has more soldiers than many European countries, this does not strictly stem from its military ambitions or needs. It can partially be attributed to the Belarusian leadership’s aspirations to use the army to promote civic consciousness among Belarusians.
The Belarusian army continues to possess advanced arms and equipment, but its condition has deteriorated over time as the government has purchased no new arms since gaining independence.
In recent years, Russia has effectively renounced its policy of delivering arms to Belarus at symbolic prices, delivering a serious blow to its ability to rearm itself.
The Belarusian Army: Between Russia and NATO
In addition to fulfilling the traditional security-related tasks of every army, Belarus’ armed forces play an important role in Belarus-Russian relations. Belarus is located in the vicinity of Russia’s heartland.
Given Minsk’s alliance with Moscow, a major function of the Belarusian army is its role in securing the area immediately adjacent to the main political, economic and military centres of Russia. Thanks to its geopolitical strategic importance, the Belarusian government is able to use its armed forces to get favours from Moscow in other arenas.
While the Belarusian army’ defence capacity remains relatively strong, its offensive potential is very limited. Much of its role in the region has been shaped and determined by Belarus’ foreign policy.
The government seeks to find balance in its alliance with Russia and also create a place for itself between the West and Russia. One of the most important functions of the Belarusian armed forces is to strengthen the government’s position in its dealings with Moscow.
So far, Belarusian collaboration with Russia remains limited and is more reactive than proactive in nature. Moreover, since the mid-2000s Belarus has increased its level of cooperation with NATO. This cooperation has been a long-term and relatively successful enterprise, one that continues to this day without much publicity.
Military cooperation between Belarus with Russia, however, has recently been undermined by Moscow. The Belarusian military has suffered for years from minimal funding and supplies. Recently Russia has renounced its previous generous policy of providing Belarusian military with modern equipment at low prices, a move that leaves Belarus with growing stockpiles of obsolete equipment.
Moreover, the Kremlin does not really see Belarus as an ally. Russia seeks to take direct control over components of Belarus’ national defence system, specifically those that are of the greatest importance to Russia (such as air defence).
Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising then that Belarus is very pragmatic in its cooperation with Russia and considers itself free to look for other strategic military partners besides Russia (NATO, China).
The Belarusian army, despite its travails and pressure from its neighbour to the east, remains a distinct entity and has not been incorporated into Russia’s forces. Although the air defence systems of Belarus and Russia are now formally united, Minsk retains effective operational control over the Belarusian units and has been holding its ground at the highest levels of their cooperation by pushing for the appointment of a Belarusian commander for their united air defence system.
The rest of the Belarusian army has no direct official ties with Russia and functions under a Belarusian command, with Moscow exerting no control over it. Belarusian dependence on Russia for equipment and some specialised and advanced training is not at all unusual for a country of Belarus’ size and geopolitical situation (neighboring key regions in Russia).
Does Belarus Need an Army?
Neighbouring states and the wider Western community should recognise the security concerns of Belarus. It would be wrong to dismiss the current Belarusian state as a marionette of Russia.
On the other hand, harsh reactions and criticism levelled at ordinary military exercises in Belarus, or the promotion of flights dropping pro-democracy literature on Belarusian territory, may cause a more extensive Russian military presence in Belarus.
Such actions present a real threat to the gradual transformation of the country and its integration into the region. Simply put, Belarus is not a threat to anybody in the region, or beyond it. Responsible Western politicians and media should avoid helping the Belarusian regime by overstating their concerns about military related issues.
There are few, if any, real reasons for considering a repetition of the Crimean scenario unfolding in Belarus in the short- or mid-term. Firstly, the Russian military presence is restricted to two highly specialised technical facilities and a planned air force base. Moscow has no ‘stand-by’ military forces on the ground. Secondly, Russia has no comparable strategic interest in Belarus as it had in Crimea.
The Russian military facilities in Belarus, whilst valuable, do not hold the same level of the importance as the Crimean naval base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The Kremlin is also quite satisfied with the Belarusian regime and would hardly risk throwing it over in today’s climate.
There is only one plausible scenario in which Russia would intervene militarily in Belarus. It is – in the very distant future – a radical pro-Western takeover of power in Minsk with an anti-Russian programme pushing for closer ties with the US and joining NATO. Even under this scenario, Moscow will have more difficulties in Belarus than it currently has in Ukraine.
In the end, the Belarusian army can be seen as a guarantee that there will not be any Ukrainian-style conflict from taking place, although in order to better fulfil its role, it needs better funding and modernisation.
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Analytical Paper: Belarusian Identity – The Impact of Lukashenka’s Rule
The regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka rejected the ethno-national model of state suggested by his predecessors in the early 1990s.Instead, he restored a soviet style “statist nation” with a centralised bureaucratic machine at its core.
These are the conclusions reached in a new analytical paper "Belarusian Identity: The Impact of Lukashenka's Rule" released by the Centre for Transition Studies today.
Identity issues, particularly those surrounding language and historical narrative, formed the foundation of the persisting cleavage between the authoritarian regime and the democratic opposition in Belarus since 1994. The population of the country, although not nearly as divided with regard to its identity as Ukraine, also has not produced a consensual version of self-determination.
The paper presents an analysis of the processes in Belarusian national identity, particularly with regards to its language, historical narratives and self-contextualisation in an international setting since its independence, especially under the rule of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
Based on a number of empirical studies, it attempts to trace a detailed picture of the impact of the political regime and its major political and economic interests in the formulation of Belarus’ national identity.
Lukashenka’s Identity Policy
Shortly after his election in 1994, Aliaksandr Lukashenka launched a policy of russification. The rationale behind it seemed clear – Lukashenka chose Russia as a strategic priority for Belarus’ foreign relations, hoping to quickly recover from the economic crisis through re-establishing Soviet economic ties. The other reason for the pro-Russian politics of the regime stemmed from the anti-Russian discourse of opposition. Although ideologically diverse, it was associated with the right wing Belarusian People’s Front and state propaganda labelled it with radical nationalist ideas.
In 1995, Lukashenka initiated a referendum to introduce Russian as a second official language in Belarus. 83.3% of voters supported the initiative. From this point on the Belarusian language has suffered a major decline. Although the Constitution of Belarus declares the equal status of both languages, Russian de facto dominates all spheres of life. The Law on Languages of 1990 does not set strict rules on the use of both languages in the day-to-day operations of the state, and public organisations and officials usually use Russian.
Since the early 2000s all major Belarus-based media broadcasts in Russian, leaving Belarusian only a small quota in cultural sphere. Apart from Minsk, not a single fully Belarusian school currently functions in any other major cities in Belarus. In higher education, the picture is rather similar – an all-Belarusian language university does not exist in Belarus.
The paper notes that most of the population take a more pragmatic stance towards the language issue and follow the example established by the ruling elite. The only actor that has made any serious attempts to revive the Belarusian language and introduce it into public life is civil society.
Trends in Language Use: a Russian-speaking Belarusian Nation
As the data on identity and language use from recent decades show, the proportion of those who identify themselves as Belarusians is increasing, but the use of Belarusian has dramatically declined, leading to the formation of a Russian-speaking Belarusian nation.
Only a quarter of Belarusians speak Belarusian at home, which roughly equals the number of the total rural population. In Minsk, the number of people who indicated Belarusian as their native language has decreased almost two-fold over 1999-2009. In general, only a little more than 10 per cent of the urban population of Belarus speaks Belarusian at home, and in its largest cities this number is much smaller.
The region with the highest percentage of Belarusian-speakers is the one to the northwest of Minsk on the Lithuanian border. Interestingly, this particular region historically correlates with the most the pro-democratic and anti-Lukashenka voting area.
Politics of History and Self-Awarenes: Soviet Glory with a Mediaeval Flavour
Lukashenka’s narrative of history, however, managed to reconcile the nationalist version of history of the pre-Soviet period with its own modern conception of Belarusian history. They both agree that Belarusian statehood has a long tradition of independent existence and is valued by all Belarusians.
Also, unlike the Soviet version of Belarusian history, which involved class struggle and Russia-centrism in every period of Belarusian history, the official narrative does not pay much attention to the class-based approach nor does it seek to prove the ancient roots of Belarus' friendship with Russia. Still, the period of independence (since the early 1990s) remains the most ideologically charged and distorted issue, as it involves the rule of Lukashenka himself.
The self-awareness of Belarusians experienced massive influence from the Lukashenka regime's ideological discourse. It presents a mix of both nationalist and Soviet concepts and therefore creates the same mixed view in the minds of people, who know their roots are to be found somewhere in a mediaeval European context, but at the same time respect Soviet symbols.
When asked “What unites you with other people of your nationality?”, Belarusians most often refer to territory and state, rather than culture and language. Political unity based on the state serves the core idea of the official ideology of the Lukashenka regime.
Belarusians see the origin of Belarusian statehood in mediaeval Polack and Turaŭ princedoms and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, not in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Yet at the same time they have already accepted the symbols that the Lukashenka regime introduced in the 1990s, such as national holidays and the red-green flag.
Geopolitical Choice of Belarusians: Pragmatism without Soviet Sentimentalism
The studies reviewed in preparing the analytical paper showed that the geopolitical views of Belarusians express a purely utilitarian understanding of foreign relations and are ready to join that integration project which will offer them the most economic benefits.
These views, in many ways, resemble the opportunistic foreign policy of Lukashenka’s regime, which seeks momentary benefits without any concrete strategic approach.
A large number of Belarusians express isolationist views, while others are divided in deciding between the east and the west. No consensus on this matter exists in Belarusian society and Belarus truly remains a place where civilisations clash.
Although Belarusians are often considered a Soviet-style nation that persists in holding onto the USSR’s legacy, and contrary to popular thought, the people actually do not want to witness the restoration of Soviet power.
- Download the full text of Belarusian Identity: The Impact of Lukashenka's Rule.