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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Thin Wallets, Fat Bodies: Why Belarus Leads Europe on Female Obesity
Only eight McDonalds restaurants operate in Belarus, and fast food remains a rare treat for most residents.
Obesity, however, is on the rise. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Belarus leads Europe in the share of obese and overweight women.
Belarusians’ diet to a large extent accounts for their expanding waistlines.
Even as Belarusians spend most of their money on food, they eat unhealthy meals due to a combination of the lack of knowledge about nutrition. High food prices contribute to the problem.
Tellingly, Belarus leads the world in per capita potato consumption. As more cheap, fast food restaurants open throughout the country, Belarusians' girths will continue to expand.
Obesity is a Growing Problem
WHO relies on information from body mass index (BMI) tests, defined as a weight-to-height ratio, to measure excessive weight. A BMI of 25 means overweight; a BMI of 30 means obese.
By this measure, nearly 70% of Belarusian women over the age of 15 carry too much weight. Obesity is slightly less prevalent among Belarusian men: “only” 63.7% of men suffer from excess weight, according to WHO.
Alarmingly, Belarus leads all other East and West European states in female obesity. “Only” 49% of Ukrainian and only 44% of Polish women are obese or overweight.
Female obesity rates in the United States are 6% higher than in Belarus.
The problem is not only affecting adults, but also children. Over the last ten years, the share of overweight or obese children and teenagers has grown twofold.
Today, every fourth child suffers from excess weight.
Unhealthy Diet: We are What We Eat?
What accounts for this worrisome trend? One arguably positive consequence of Belarus’ isolation has been the scarcity of Western fast food restaurant chains. Furthermore, due to low incomes, most Belarusians do not frequent cafes, bars, and restaurants.
Instead, a homemade unhealthy diet has contributed the prevalence of obesity in Belarus. The diet of a typical Belarusian centres around fatty dairy and meat products. Belarusians also eat large amounts of potatoes and bread.
Belarusians pride themselves when serving the traditional meal of draniki, or pancakes made from grated potatoes, with machanka, a high-calorie sauce made with pork, sausage, sliced onion, sour cream and flour.
In fact, Belarus leads not only in obesity among women, but also in potato consumption. In 2005, Belarusians consumed 181 kg of potatoes per capita.
For comparison, even their closest neighbours eat differently: Ukrainians consume “only” 136 kg per capita, and Poles and Russians – only “131” kg per capita, according to the data provided by Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO).
An unhealthy diet affects not only Belarusians’ weight, but also their overall health and even their longevity. According to the Ministry of Health of Belarus, Belarusians die from diseases of the digestive organs twice as often as other Europeans.
Do Thinner Wallets Lead to Fatter Waistlines?
While eating their unhealthy meals, Belarusians spend a substantial part of their income on food. According to the household survey conducted by the Belarusian National Statistics Committee in the first quarter of 2014, food accounts for 41.4% of all expenditures of a typical Belarusian household. Belarusians spend one third of this amount on meat.
A 2013 survey conducted by the Institute of Sociology of National Academy of Sciences in 15 small towns presents a far more worrisome picture.
According to this survey, every fifth household spends 70-90% of its income on food and every third household spends 50-70% of household income on food.
Not surprisingly, the survey also indicates that two thirds of the respondents worry about food prices.
A 2012 RIA rating, compiled by the RIA Novosti rating agency using data provided by the statistics committees of 40 countries in Europe, allows us to see how Belarus stacks up against other European states.
Post-Soviet states all cluster at the very bottom of RIA rating, as their citizens spend the greatest share of their income on food. Wealthy western European states ranked highest because they spend far smaller shares of income on food.
RIA rating suggests that the share of income spent on food is roughly inversely proportional to the level of income. A reverse trend describes the expenditures on alcohol and tobacco. These items tend to be disproportionately cheap in countries with low-income levels.
Fast Food Forward
Growing incomes will not improve Belarusians’ health in the short run. Instead, the Belarusian diet may further deteriorate in the coming years as they discover the pleasures of eating out.
Today, about 12,500 catering establishments operate in Belarus. About 2,000 of them are in Minsk. Food service is one of the sectors of the economy that is wide open to private entrepreneurs. In the last decade, domestic private ownership has steadily overtaken state ownership.
Currently, there are about 790 Belarusians per one catering establishment. In the US, there are about 150 people per one catering establishment.
In Europe – 300 people per one catering establishment. In other words, the food service market in Belarus has room to grow. Its growth may also expand Belarusians' waistlines.
In 2012, Belarus had only 43 fast-food restaurants. This will change, however, as a growing number of international fast food companies are seeking entry in the Belarusian market. Among them is the well-known fast-food franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, which has already opened about 250 restaurants in the CIS region.
Russian Embargo and the Belarusian Food Market
Last week, Russia imposed an embargo on food products from the EU and the US, reacting to Western sanctions over its policies in Ukraine.
Moscow banned imports on beef, pork, fruit and vegetable produce, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and dairy products from the European Union, United States, Australia, Canada and Norway.
Belarusian officials seemed to rejoice at the news, vowing to increase exports of Belarusian foodstuffs to Russia and likening this opportunity to 19th century gold-rush in Klondike, Canada.
While Belarusian producers will benefit from the growing demand for Belarusian food in Russia, Belarusian consumers may suffer.
A sharp rise in Belarusian exports will raise the food prices in the internal food market. Since most of Belarusian produce already make their way to Russia, the fastest way to increase exports is by reducing the supply of Belarusian produce at home.
If the food prices rise or incomes fall, no amount of nutrition education will wean Belarusians off their bread-and-potato diet.