Belarusian Espionage: Abroad and at Home
On 10 November the General Prosecutor’s Office of Lithuania reported that a Vilnius court will try a Lithuanian citizen on espionage charges. The Lithuanian authorities claim that he cooperated with Belarusian security services.
As other cases from recent years prove, Belarusian intelligence is quite interested in its immediate neighbours – Poland and Lithuania. Belarusians usually seek military intelligence and generally probe opportunities to advance Belarusian economic interest in these countries.
Belarus's EU neighbours regard Belarusian intelligence as being, more or less, on par with its Russian counterpart. However, despite close ties since Soviet times and cooperation agreements, Belarusians may have a separate agenda, as Lukashenka's attempts to pursue a more independent foreign policy.
Inside Belarus, recent public spying cases have involved only local citizens. As either Andrej Hajdukoŭ's or priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar's cases show, the authorities can use espionage charges to intimidate the opposition or independent institutions.
A Spy with Belarusian Roots
A former worker of Oro Navigacija, a Lithuanian air traffic control agency, is suspected of committing espionage against Lithuania for Belarus's security services. He may receive up to 15 years in prison as a result. A Vilnius circuit court will hold his trial in January. At the moment the suspect's name remains unknown.
The investigators claims that the suspect secretly photographed documents in his office, including various objects tied to Lithuania's military and civilian infrastructure, and then proceeded to hand them to the General Staff of the Belarusian armed forces. “He gathered and passed on to Belarus information on the Lithuanian armed forces, its state enterprises, objects of strategic importance for national security in Lithuania”, stated a press release from the General Prosecutor's Office.
The Chief of Lithuania's Security Department Gediminas Grina noted that Russia could also use this information, because Belarus and Russia have a military alliance and share intelligence data.
Having Belarusian roots, the suspect visited Belarus a couple of times a year to see his relatives and friends. His two sons have business partners in Russia, and regularly go there on to tend to their affairs. These facts could easily become rounds for Lithuania's own security services to become interested in him.
However, espionage scandals more often than not arise Belarus's other neighbour – Poland. In recent years several incidents have occurred with Belarus citizens being charged with spying.
Belarus Intelligence: Poland in its Sights
The Polish Agency of Internal Security in its annual 2013 report noted that Russian and Belarusian spies have shown the highest level of activity in Poland. Russians are interested mostly in the energy sector, such as liquid gas and nuclear power, as well as EU and NATO's eastern policy.
For Belarus, the report says, Poland is a priority country for intelligence gathering. Belarusian spies search for markets to sell Belarusian goods, firms that can invest in Belarus, possibilities of becoming beneficiaries for EU assistance programmes and assess the nation's military capacity.
In March 2014 the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the Polish Internal Security Agency detained two Belarus citizens with charges of spying for Russia. One of them, a Military Attache of Belarus in Poland Dzmitry Žukaŭ, took pictures of a NATO training centre in Bydgoszcz. Another Polish newspaper, Gazeta Prawna, added that he sought contacts with veteran societies, retired soldiers, and youth scout groups and often visited their gatherings and events.
A few month before this episode, Polish counter-intelligence detained a Hrodna resident named Jury, who also took pictures of military-related objects.
Another Belarus citizen, known as Aliaksandr, remains in Polish custody for already two years now. He apparently cooperated with officers from the shuttered Polish Military Information Service.
They regarded him as a source in the Belarus security services and paid him $300,000 for his assistance. But a subsequent investigation proved that he was misinforming the Poles and carrying out the orders of his bosses in Minsk.
Spies inside Belarus
In 2011 the Belarusian KGB reported that it had terminated the activity of 23 agents of its foreign security service. However, there was never ever any concrete cases data that appeared in the media. The people whom the authorities publicly charged with espionage or treason were all Belarusian citizens.
In 2012, the Belarusian KGB published information on two Belarus citizens, Aliaksandr Fenzeliaŭ and Jaŭhien Kačura, who were allegedly spying for Lithuania. The KGB detained a Lithuanian intelligence officer and two Belarusians who passed to him secret information about something related to the military. The agency was able to prove their case by gathering information and, later on, the suspects confirmed their guilt during trial. The court found them guilty and imposed a 10 and 8 year sentence on them, respectively.
Another case to surface was that of Andrej Hajdukoŭ, one that appears to be politically motivated. Opposition activist and leader of the youth organisation “Union of Young Intellectuals”, he was detained in Viciebsk by the KGB in November 2012 and faced charges of treason.
When taking a look at the KGB's official position on Hajdukoŭ, his tactics look rather ridiculous in an era of digital technology. For one, he allegedly hid secret information for foreign agents in a mail drop box. Nevertheless, he was tried and sentenced to 1.5 years in prison on a less serious charge – an attempt to establish contacts with a foreign agency, or in his case, with the US embassy.
In July of this year Lukashenka revealed information that one of the officers serving in Belarusian security agency, “was connected to foreign states via a Catholic Church representative. He not only passed information on to them, but alo caused trouble for our people who were working abroad”.
Soon, information appeared that the KGB had arrested the catholic priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar on charges of state treason. After spending half a year under investigation, he was released due to the prosecutor’s inability to prove his case.
As these cases show, the charges mounted against individuals by the Belarusian authorities sometimes appear to be more an issue of exerting political pressure on the opposition or independent institutions (like Catholic Church). Real instances of the apprehension of foreign spies remain unknown to the public, although the KGB continues to boast about its achievements in this arena.
According to the words of Polish and Lithuanian officials, these countries (and perhaps the whole west) regard Belarusian intelligence as being one and the same as Russian intelligence. They continue to work in close cooperation and are committed to sharing any and all needed information. Indeed, such agreements have legally existed since the early 1990s, and these close ties have continued to exist since soviet times, when they were originally established..
However, as the retired KGB lieutenant-colonel Valer Kostka said in an interview to Charter97.org web site, "if there is a common goal, the special services make a deal over it, no matter if it is CIA, Russian FSB or Belarusian KGB. It is a complicated hidden mechanism. If a certain interest exists, Lukashenka will make an agreement with Putin, so Belarusian intelligence will cooperate with Russians, and vice versa".
This means that Belarusian intelligence and special services may have their own agenda separate from Russia's, with which Lukashenka can attempt to pursue a more independent foreign policy.
Fixing Housing and Communal Services in Belarus: A New Minister is Not Enough
As of 17 November, the Ministry of Housing and Communal Services has a new head – Aliaksandr Cierachaŭ. However, this new appointment will unlikely fix the serious problems which the sector is facing.
Housing and communal services swallows up 8% of the Belarusian budget and remains a hotbed of corruption. Over the past half year, the police have identified more than 100 crimes in this sector.
The authorities want to reform the sector to make public utilities more effective. Yet, they are concentrating more on punishing corrupt officials and implementing patchwork fixes instead of reforming the entire system of housing and communal services.
A Little Known Hotbed of Trouble
On 17 November, Aliaksandr Lukašenka appointed a new minister of housing and communal services. Thirty-six-year-old Aliaksandr Cierachaŭ, former first deputy minister, will manage one of the most corrupt wings of the Belarusian state. On 14 May, Aliaksandr Jakabson, an aide to the President, stated that 10% of the expenditures of the Ministry of Housing and Communal Services are criminal in nature.
The expenditures on housing and communal services remain enormous, running up a bill of about $3.5 bn –– the equivalent of 8% of the consolidated budget of Belarus. Even according to the official Belarusian Economy magazine, established by the Council of Ministers, "the Belarusian housing and public utilities sector needs to be streamlined its management structure and performance standards like its man-hours and number of employees." In other words, the authors of the article are calling for firing people whose jobs are redundant.
Moreover, a chunk of the state's tax revenues has a tendency to disappear inside the ministry. Last month, Independent Belarusian television Belsat covered a low-level corruption scheme, exposing just one of many similar schemes. Residents of Slonim, a town in western Belarus, decided to privatise a housing building in which they had lived for a long time. However, the price they were asking for the building appeared grossly exaggerated by the local officials.
The building's residents learned that, according to the available documents, the government had spent $60,000 on renovations for the building. The money they had used on the renovations, however, had mysteriously vanished, and the actual repairs done to the property were minimal.
Furthermore, local officials forged documents showing that the its residents refused to instal boilers and plumbing at the expense of the state. These facts would have remained unknown if the people had not appealed the decision with the police demanding to see all of the available documentation.
Currently, the police and the Committee of the State Security (KGB) are investigating the case. At the same time, the authorities intend to fine Belsat journalist Aleś Zalieŭski, who broke the story, for working without the required press accreditation.
A System That Promotes Corruption and Inefficiency
There are three main factors that make Belarus' housing and communal services system susceptible to corruption: its a state monopoly, the absence of public oversight over its expenditures, and chronic mismanagement.
The state remains a monopolist in the housing and communal services industry and serves 95% of all apartments in Belarus. This lack of competition leads to a lower quality services, overpricing and a lackluster performance by many municipal workers.
Andrej Tyčyna, a democratic activist from Salihorsk, explained to Belarus Digest that the renovation of his apartment building's entrance –– which required a the walls to be painted and replacing windows and a door –– went on for six months.
The lack of public oversight over its expenditures only makes matters worse. This is partly due to the fact that Belarusians formally pay directly, according to Naviny.by web-site, 31% of the total cost of the housing and communal services. Taxes cover the rest. The recent piece by Belsat revealed that people may simply not know how much is officially being spent to repair their buildings.
Poor management, in this case, is a natural consequence of the state's monopoly in this sector, to say nothing of the lack of accountability or the absence of proper incentives. The higher the costs and needs of state monopolies, the more subsidies they receive from the budget. Therefore, local authorities often prefer to carry out long-term or ongoing repairs.
The Authorities Working on Reforms
This year housing and communal services became a priority for the government. In February 2014, Aliaksandr Lukašenka created a working group on the issue headed by Aliaksandr Jakabson.
From February to May the group held 30 meetings. In 2013-2014, law enforcement agencies identified more than 100 crimes in the sector. Officials from the Committee for State Control say more than half of the irregularities led to criminal cases being opened. This peak of interest may have something to do with the economic slowdown, so the authorities have no choice but to combat corruption to stay afloat.
While it appears that the authorities are attempting to fix the system, they still prefer to struggle with the consequences, rather than fixing the root of the problem. On the one hand, the government wants to punish corrupt officials, cut expenses and jobs and get rid of bad assets.
Still housing agencies have to preserve detrimental properties that have nothing to do with communal services. For instance, the Ministry of Housing and Communal Services is currently keeping sunflower-seed frying operation afloat as its owner went bankrupt. Despite its unprofitable nature, the state still wants to keep it open.
Under the reforms being proprosed currently, the state wants to clean up its finances in order to avoid cross-subsidies and to introduce superintendent jobs for housing throughout Belarus. This superintendent will be an electrician, locksmith, plumber, painter and carpenter — and responsible for several buildings. These steps by the government may seem rational, but the regime can do much more if it really wants to improve the situation.
The authorities should allow for more private service providers to work on the housing and communal services market. A public-private partnership, like the one between German company Remondis and Belarusian public enterprises, shows that sharing responsibilities with the private sector has its benefits. Together they created a waste management system in Minsk. Many EU countries forbid housing and communal services companies to engage in supplying gas, water, heat, and electricity all together in order to avoid one firm becoming a monopoly.
Moreover, the state can make the financial system more transparent. The government’s belief that people should pay 100% of the total cost of the housing and communal services actually makes sense if, in return, people receive high quality services for their money. Rather than prosecuting corrupt officials, it would be more efficient to deprive them of their opportunities to steal from the state coffers.