Belarusian Military Cooperation With Developing Nations: Dangerous Yet Legal
On 26 November, unknown militants believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda attacked two Belarusians in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. One was killed, another severely wounded.
The men worked for the Yemeni presidential security service for about a year, as reported by the Reuters news agency, referring to local security sources.
International media and human rights organisations regularly accused the Belarusian regime of collaborating with “extremist” governments and groups around the world.
In 2000s, the Wall Street Journal Europe claimed that Belarus sold arms to Hamas, as well as to a series of countries labelled as sponsors of terrorism. Later on, Belarus was implicated of illicit arms sales to Cot-d'Ivoire and Sudan. However, no firm evidence of illicit deals ever appeared.
The evidence points out another reality – of Belarus doing risky business, though with legitimate governments.
Supporting the Global War on Terror
Commenting on the recent incident in Yemen the Reuters noted, “Citizens of countries in the former Soviet Union are not previously known to have been targets for Yemen's al Qaeda branch or other Islamist militant groups.” Working for the Yemeni presidential security service, the Belarusians clearly joined the Western side of the global war on terror. Lukashenka might be unscrupulous, yet he knows that in the global crusade against terrorism he cannot afford ambiguousness.
The experts killed in Sanaa worked there with the implicit knowledge of the Belarusian government. Chairman of Belarusian Military Industrial Committee Siarhei Hurulyou stated that the Belarusian experts worked on a “Belarusian” contract but declined to say which enterprise concluded the contract.
Belarusians badly need money and are willing to go on the most risky missions in order to make a living. In March 2007, two Belarusian transport aircrafts of Transaviaexport were shot down in Somalia, and eleven pilots and technicians died. The issue was again used in the domestic political struggle inside Belarus. Transaviaexport officially claimed that the first machine was chartered by the UN Security Council to bring cargo for the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Some other commentators claimed that the aircraft participated in illegal arms deliveries for armed African groups. The only evidence they produced were photographs of the first aircraft with military equipment inside. This equipment was not something that itself could be viewed as incriminating, as the peacekeeping mission would have needed this equipment as well. Furthermore, Transaviaexport at that time was registered as an official UN air carrier and transported UN cargo around the world.
Fighting for the Ivorian Government
The most suspicious case of Belarusian military involvement in developing world relates to domestic political confrontation in Cote-d'Ivoire in the early 2000s. In August 2004, the French Defence Minister claimed that nine French soldiers were killed as a French military base there was bombed by the Ivorian government air force. It was Belarusian military specialists that piloted the Ivoirian aircrafts, according to the Defence Minister. Both Ivorian and Belarusian defence ministries refuted the accusations.
In 2010 Wikileaks published a cable from the US embassy in Paris. It reported a conversation with a former Togolese minister which had fled afterwards to France. He said that nine Belarusian military experts were detained in Togo after the raid on the French military base but Paris had displayed no interest in persecuting the Belarusians.
Most of the Belarusian media quite uncritically assessed the words of former Togolese official without reporting that he was in a very specific situation of looking for support as he talked to Americans and it could potentially influence his statements.
Actually, the French might have had good reasons to let the detained Belarusians go back then, as the legal grounds for persecution were weak. After all, the Belarusians worked for the Ivorian government and France was not a party to the convention against mercenaries.
Choppers for Nigerian Special Forces
Belarusians work for the government in Western Africa as well. Belarus-Nigerian cooperation within the military sphere reportedly started in 2003, long before the Belarusian embassy opened in Abuja last year. The two governments reportedly signed an agreement on military technical cooperation in June 2010.
A high-level Nigerian Defence Ministry official told the Belarusian delegation visiting Nigeria in 2011 that relations between the two countries shall not start and end with commerce but they should consider one another "partners in military development".
In 2010, Minsk sold two helicopters Mi-24B to Abuja. Belarusian “Belspeczneshtekhnika” since the early 2010s has been providing maintenance to Nigerian Mi-35 attack helicopters, and Nigeria sent its pilots and engineers to Belarus among other countries to receive training.
Alongside the Belspeczneshtekhnika, the Nigerian air force uses the services of Alenia Aeronautica and AgustaWestland. Belspeczneshtekhnika is responsible for the choppers of the 97th Special Forces Group in Port Harcourt, a main region of oil extraction and the very heart of rebel activity in Nigeria.
Last year, the Belarusian ambassador in Nigeria Vyachaslau Biaskosty stated that his country is willing to render Nigeria technical assistance to tame terrorists threatening the African nation. That includes humanitarian aspects. In 2012, the Nigerian government sent scores of former Niger delta rebels to Belarus (as well as South Africa and Italy) for university studies.
No Deal with the Ethiopian Dictatorship
The Belarusian regime might look unscrupulous, yet it certainly avoids conducting overtly risky deals and has some understanding of humanitarian issues. A case in point is cooperation with Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi.
In early 2000s Belarus hoped to revive old links with Ethiopia as a former Soviet ally. After all, Belarusian MTZ tractors were being assembled there since as far back as 1984. Minsk managed to secure some defence contracts which, according to Ethiopian media, in the early 2000s was worth more than $100m.
In the summer of 2005, this cooperation came to an abrupt halt. In July 2005, after post-election violence in Ethiopia, eight Ethiopian pilots undergoing 6-month training in Belarus applied for political asylum. These pilots, according to some sources, learned to fly the most modern version of the Su-27 fighter jet. This training was extremely important for the Ethiopian regime because this African country had at the moment almost no more pilots trained to fly these Soviet jets.
After the Belarusian authorities rejected their requests, the Ethiopian pilots left for another country. The Belarusian government did not hamper them. The Ethiopian diaspora boasted of bringing the pilots out of Belarus. Yet given the control the Belarusian regime had in the country and effective non-existence of an Ethiopian diaspora in Belarus, it was undoubtedly the Belarusian government which facilitated the escape of the Ethiopian pilots. In a parallel development, fierce pressure by the Ethiopian government resulted in Djibouti returning the dissident pilots to Addis Abeba but failed to produce such results with Minsk.
Belarus paid dearly. Ethiopian ruler Meles Zenawi broke relations and they did not revive them while he was alive. Political contacts resumed instantly after the Ethiopian strongman passed away in August 2012.
The quoted cases show that the Belarusian leadership is not interested in confrontation with the West as such, either on ideological or geopolitical grounds. Belarusians look even for the most risky contracts in developing world for the sake of money, yet Minsk so far has demonstrated that it knows where the redlines set by the West lie.
Essentially, Lukashenka tried to earn money by avoiding confrontation with the West at the same time. This is important to consider in order to understand the opportunistic and non-ideological foreign policy of Belarus over almost the past two decades.
EaP Summit in Vilnius: Weak But Positive Signals on Belarus
On 28-29 November Vilnius hosted the Third Eastern Partnership Summit. Uladzimir Makei, the Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs, took part in the event.
During the summit, Makei said that Belarus would start negotiations on visa regime liberalisation with the EU. It appears that both parties are working out a new vision of their relationship.
The Eastern Partnership’s minor progress in its relations with Belarus is due primarily to Lukashenka`s reluctance to choose a European path of development. In part, this is because the regime remains financially dependent on the Kremlin.
The European Union, for its part, simply cannot propose the same kind of financial support. While it has appropriated about $700m in technical aid to Belarus since 1991 – Russia gave its neighbor 14 times more in 2012 alone.
To acquire more influence in Belarus, the EU needs channels of communication with the authorities. The first bargain could be simple: the EU counterbalances Russian influence in Belarus and Lukashenka`s regime stops repressing the opposition.
This summit was about other Eastern Partnership countries, but during it Belarus and the EU sent several positive signals to one another.
Uladzimir Makei said that Belarus was ready to start negotiations on visa facilitation with the EU. According to him, Lukashenka personally instructed him to proceed with these talks. The Belarusian authorities have for a long time delayed visa liberalisation, because it is perceived by many as a tool for Belarus' democratisation.
Russia, Moldova and Ukraine have progressed much further in their visa liberalisation than Belarus. Belarus so far remains the only country in the region with a long and costly procedure for obtaining Schengen visas.
It seems that the authorities do not want to be the only member in this club, nor be the ones to explain to Belarusians why the situation is what it is. Belarusians, though, should not be too optimistic. The authorities could delay the process for a long period despite their declarations.
The Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski had publicly admitted the existence of double standards in the EU. Read more
Another important development in Vilnius was the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski publicly admitting the existence of double standards in the EU. According to him, Belarus, unlike Azerbaijan, is in Europe, so the EU adhere to the highest standards in their dealings with the Belarusian authorities.
Carl Bildt stated that the EU demands remain the same as always – the release of political prisoners and steps towards democratisation. However, the summit's final declaration stated that the EU and the government of Belarus were working on a new a vision for better cooperation.
The Suit Does Not Fit
The idea of the Eastern Partnership emerged during a dialogue between Lukashenka`s regime and the European Union, which is why it brought so much hope with it. On 19 December 2010 when the authorities launched a new wave of repression against the opposition it became clear that a European suit does not quite fit Lukashenka.
Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to deepen Eurasian integration, at the same time this does not mean that they want to join the EU.The Belarusian authorities do not intend to make Belarus a democracy or a market economy.
It is not only that Lukashenka does not want to integrate with the EU, but it is also that there is no way for him to do so because of the Russia's hostility towards any such moves. According to Dzianis Mieljantsou from the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, through its low prices on oil and gas, the Kremlin has subsidised the regime to the tune of $10bn in 2012.
The Eastern Partnership did not offer the regime any money. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, in the short term, would hurt the Belarusian economy as it began its recalibration. The Belarusian authorities know the painful lessons of European integration for the Baltic countries. Many old Lithuanians appreciate Lukashenka since he did not force his own people through such painful reforms. Generally, the Belarusian authorities like to be paid for integration, rather than pay for it themselves.
The parties involved have forgotten how to trust each other. Western politicians do not hide the fact that they do not like Lukashenka, so logically the Belarusian authorities do not trust the European Union. The authorities remain reluctant to institutionalise their relationship with their western counterparts, as institutional cooperation with Russia has tied their hands. At present, Lukashenka is not in need of a table to talk with the West.
How to Reach an Agreement with Lukashenka
If the EU wants to have an impact on Belarus, it should negotiate with the authorities. During their last dialogue, pro-EU moods in Belarus increased, the authorities released the majority of the political prisoners and the opposition got an opportunity to take what they learned in seminars in Vilnius out to the streets in Belarus.
Western politicians can continue to pursue free elections and the resignation of Lukashenka as their main targets for achieving change. Human rights defenders will definitely appreciate it, but it will hardly seriously change the situation in Belarus. To have an impact here and now the European Union should talk to Lukashenka, who, as it should be noted, is not the worst person with whom the West carries out negotiations. Consider for example Azerbaijan's President Aliyev and his record of human rights violations which appears to be worse than Lukashenka’s.
A deal that the EU will help Lukushenka to avoid being swallowed by Russia, which could be a good starting point. The Belarusian authorities do not want to be vassals of the Kremlin. Lukashenka, for his part, could stop repressing the opposition and the civil society. Seeking free elections from the regime does not make sense, because Lukashenka will never never willingly give up his chair in office. The easier an agreement can be, the better.
Both parties should expand such an agreement gradually under the limitations of Lukashenka`s regime. The main thing that the opposition needs is to get an opportunity to participate in political life: to collect signatures, to hold campaigns and rallies. In the least, this will give Belarusians more opportunities to influence the regime.
Focus on Belarusians
According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies no political force in Belarus has a trust rating of more than 50%. Neither the regime who rigs elections, nor the opposition. A huge number of meetings with representatives of the authorities and the EU over the the course of a year, nor a European dialogue on modernisation means much to ordinary Belarusians.
Less bureaucracy and more people-to-people contacts can be the basic principles of cooperation with Belarus. Even today, the EU offers great educational opportunities for Belarus, for example through the Open Europe scholarship scheme. The EU can also exempt Belarusians from tuition fees in EU universities or at lease let them pay at the rate paid by EU nationals.
Contacts between the people do not only mean 'more Belarusian citizens in the EU', but also vice versa Read more
However, contacts between the people do not only mean 'more Belarusian citizens in the EU', but also vice versa. Lecturers from Western countries could also come to Belarusian universities and teach students that may have never been even in nearby Vilnius. The European Union can organise cultural events in Belarus to support Belarusian artists and to promote its European identity.
The European Union appropriated about $700m in technical assistance for Belarus over the last twenty years, yet Belarusians do not know anythig about this support. The EU Delegation to Belarus devotes little time to disseminating information about their projects.
The European Union should also work with reform-minded people inside the Belarusian regime, in addition to supporting the country’s civil society. More effective technical assistance, reduced bureaucracy and increasing the ease for more people-to-people contacts may become the new pillars of EU policy towards Belarus.