Bombs for Saudis and IIllegal Arms from Ukraine – Belarus Security Digest
On 5 January, Russia declared that Belarusian firms would get direct access to Russia's military procurement orders. It this really happens, it will mean that Russia has completed the process of replacing Belarusian components with Russian ones.
Minsk is looking to diversify its links in the military sphere. Recently, it continued working with China and Pakistan, and may even have made a deal with Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Belarus faces ever bigger repercussions from the war in eastern Ukraine. Minsk is suppressing important information on these consequences. Only recently local authorities revealed the dramatic growth in weapons trafficking in the southern regions of the country.
Continuing cooperation with Pakistan
The Aviation Herald recently reported that on 26 December a plane belonging to the Belarusian company Transaviaekspart loaded with 100 tons of bombs had broken down in Saudi Arabia. The plane reportedly was bringing bombs to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemeni civil war.
This incident corresponds with known facts about Minsk's collaboration with the West and Western-allied powers in the region. These include evidence of Belarusian aviation transporting supplies for the French army, selling bombers to Sudan and engaging in military cooperation with Qatar.
Continuing cooperation with Pakistan also follows this pattern, as Islamabad is a partner of conservative Arab regimes allied with the West. On 11 January, Belarus' Defense Minister Andrei Raukou met Ambassador of Pakistan Masud Khan Raja.
According to official information, the two “reaffirmed the willingness to strengthen [military] cooperation.” Co-operation with Pakistan, which has been actively going on for more than two years, includes a significant military component. It is unclear how Minsk launched such dynamic rapprochement with Islamabad. Not only conservative Arab regimes but also China, a traditional Pakistani ally, might be behind it.
New space project, this time with China
China remains a key partner for Belarus. On 15 January, the Belarus-Chinese satellite Belintersat-1 was released from the Chinese Xichang Space Centre. The Belarusian Military Industrial Committee was in charge of the project from the Belarusian side, while Great Wall Industrial Corporation carried out the project from the Chinese side. Officially, the new satellite provides only services of a civilian nature.
The launch is the latest in a series of cooperation projects with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which owns Great Wall Corporation. Last year, Belarus demonstrated a new multiple launch rocket system called Palanez and established a production line to manufactures its rockets. That apparently took place with the assistance of another company belonging to CASC, Sichuan Space Industry Corporation.
It is noteworthy that this is the first time that Minsk has resorted to Chinese services to launch a satellite. Belarus previously implemented its space projects with Russian help.
Belarus and the war in Ukraine
On 14 January, the Secretary of Ukraine's National Security Council Oleksandr Turchynov announced that Russia had deployed its military units to the Belarusian airbase in Babruysk. Moscow allegedly sent Su-27 fighter jets, attack helicopters and military transport aircraft to the airfield. According to Turchinov, that is part of a large-scale deployment of Russian forces along Ukrainian borders. Belarus' Defence Ministry denied these claims. The media did not produce any evidence to support the accusations, either.
Belarus also faces ever more frequent repercussions from the conflict in eastern Ukraine on a local level. On 11 January, Belarusian police detained a man from the southern Brest Province who had fought on the side of the rebels in Ukraine's Donbas and Luhansk regions. In November, another Belarusian from the northern Vitebsk Province who participated in the conflict on the side of the Ukrainian government was arrested in Minsk.
Commenting on the latest arrest, head of the Brest Regional Department of Internal Affairs Fyodar Baleika said that the man would be prosecuted for participating in the war in eastern Ukraine. He also revealed other previously unknown facts. In Brest Province alone, police registered 78 criminal cases of weapons trafficking in 2015. That is over three times more than in 2014 when just 21 such cases were lodged. For example, when Belarusian police – apparently following a Ukrainian request – searched the flat of a fighter arrested in Ukraine for serious crimes it found grenades. Minsk often avoids publicising these facts.
A major arms exporter sold
In early January, Belarusian media revealed that in December 2015 a management company of Beltech Holding, a defence industry firm, had been sold for about $30m to an unknown buyer. In 2011, more than 500 people worked in Beltech Holding. It includes numerous companies, among them Beltekhekspart, one of the three authorised arms exporters of the country.
After previous owner of the Beltech Holding Uladzimir Peftiev was accused of financially supporting the Belarusian government and was sanctioned by the EU, he sold the holding in 2012 to another businessman, Dmitry Hurynovich. Last October, the EU suspended sanctions against Beltech Holding. Hurynovich immediately sold the company.
Russian markets for Belarusian defence industry
On 5 January the Russian government took a decision to grant member states of the Eurasian Economic Union a “national regime” in trade. Their firms dealing with goods and services which are not exempted from that rule can now work in Russia on equal terms with Russian businesses. It means that Belarusian firms can now freely sell their military products in Russia, emphasised Russia's TASS news agency.
Moscow for years has promised to let Belarusians directly participate in its military procurement tenders. But as late as 2 October the Chairman of Belarus' State Military Industrial Committee Siarhei Huruloyu complained that Belarusian firms still had not received such an opportunity. He suggested it might be because Russians distrust Belarusian firms. It remains unclear whether this time the situation will really change.
Russian officials since the early 2010s have repeatedly declared their intention to replace all foreign, including Belarusian, components and items of military equipment with Russian analogues. This policy seems to be failing. A case in point are the chassis produced by Minsk's MZKT factory. For five years Russian firms, like KamAZ, have been working to develop replacements for MZKT products, without success.
Last autumn, media published illustrative facts showing how Russia still needs MZKT. In September, specialist periodical Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier quoted an anonymous Russian official as saying that Russian producers were going to continue installing their state-of-the-art ballistic missile system Iskander on Belarusian chassis. In October, the Russian firm Start signed a new contract with MZKT to supply semi-trailers needed for S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. The Russian government's decision might mean official approval of continuing use of Belarusian defence products.
Belarus Learns to Absorb Tens of Thousands Ukrainians
On 15 January 2016, the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka commented on the refugee crisis in the EU, noting that the latter is “drowning in the streams of migrants, accompanied with terror and criminality.”
The numbers of the asylum seekers from the Middle East in Belarus remains rather modest, as Belarus is difficult to reach and is not a particularly wealthy country. On the other hand, Belarus remains an attractive option for Ukrainians, who can easily integrate into the Belarusian society. As a result, Belarus was able to boast a controlled and regulated migration process.
Belarusian legislation tries to keep up with adapting to the possible new challenges, unifying procedures and regulations for handling refugees and migrants. However, recent statements by the Belarusian officials also indicate that rising security concerns might dominate the refugee politics agenda in 2016.
Growing Ukrainian minority in Belarus
With the highest numbers of Ukrainian migrants per capita in 2015, Belarus had to adapt to the new migration trends in the region. Ukrainian citizens from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions enjoyed preferential treatment from the Belarusian state. Simplified procedures for temporary and permanent residence applications helped to expedite formalities for migrants from eastern Ukraine.
The overall number of Ukrainians who came to Belarus since the start of the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine lies at around 150,000 persons. This figure includes refugees, economic migrants, and people with family ties in Belarus, who potentially could soon apply for citizenship. This category of migrants demonstrates high degrees of adaptability and integration due to cultural and linguistic closeness.
As of December 2015, 46,000 Ukrainians have already secured permanent resident status in Belarus. Overall, by the end of 2015, 180,000 foreign nationals (making up less than 2% of the total population of the country) held Belarusian permanent residence status.
Refugee quotas and exemplary Syrians
Nearly 1,200 persons applied for refugee or complementary protection status in Belarus in 2015. Ukrainians accounted for the majority of the refugee status applicants (75%), while the number of applications submitted by the Syrian citizens remained below 10%.
According to the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior, the country saw a sharp rise in the number of refugee applicants in 2014 and 2015, even though it is not the preferred destination for displaced people seeking better life. Ukrainian migrants tend to choose the path of becoming temporary or permanent residents, rather than applying for asylum.
While Belarusian authorities continue to prioritise Ukrainian migration, they do not exclude the possibility of the growing number of refugees of other nationalities. Yet according to BelTA, only 20 Syrians received refugee status in Belarus between 2013 – 2015. By September 2015 this number grew, and about 40 Syrians held complementary protection status in Belarus.
The UNHCR Representative in Belarus, Jean-Yves Bouchardy, does not expect millions of Syrians coming to Belarus. He suggests that numbers will continue to grow steadily, yet within the current Belarusian trends.
In 2016 the authorities plan to grant refugee status in Belarus to 1,200 persons, to be settled across various regions of the country. “Our competent organs check every person, who is admitted to Belarus. Families are our priority,” said the Belarusian president.
For instance, the Ministry of the Interior and the UN sponsored three Syrian families' arrival and accommodation in Belarus. Reports in the media tend to focus on a few Syrians, currently residing in Belarus. On the one hand, they target to create a positive and competent image of the state policies, while on the other hand, they also emphasise expected integration of the newcomers.
“Regulating negative moments”
Similarly to the European societies, Belarus has the problem of an ageing population. Belarusian president admitted that migration appears to be the natural solution of the demographic issues. At the same time, he also noted that sudden unregulated influx of migrants can potentially result in growing security risks and discontent among the local population. “We are not about to start playing democratic games in these issues,” the president stated resolutely.
Recent migration-related tensions in Germany made Belarusian authorities acutely aware of the dangers of the insufficient control over who is allowed into the country. “We should take into account experiences and issues, which the EU states face currently,” noted deputy Interior Minister Mikalaj Mielčanka.
In terms of security concerns Mielčanka warned about the possible liabilities in the unguarded large section of the state border to Russia. However, according to the Belarusian Department of Citizenship and Migration, annual numbers of illegal migrants detained in Belarus keep steady between 500 and 1,000 persons.
Changing legislation to accommodate refugees
The Belarusian Parliament recently discussed several amendments to the law on forced migration to facilitate the process of applying for refugee status, asylum, and complementary protection. Designed to decrease the application processing times from 18 to 6 months, new regulations aim to limit the time that foreign nationals spend in Belarus and make use of its social system, while awaiting the decision on their cases.
Further, amendments foresee situations of the mass arrival of refugees to Belarus, incorporating the European experiences. They specify which state institutions are in charge of compulsory fingerprint registration, medical exams, and identification of the persons.
In all likelihood, global security concerns will define and dominate the refugee agenda in Belarus in 2016. Internally, recent amendments of the legislation assure Belarusians that the authorities have possible increases of the migration streams under control.
On the other hand, strict refugee quotas, the existing visa regime, and its geographical location, placing Belarus on the periphery of the main routes to the more prosperous EU, suggest that it should not fear mass arrivals of asylum-seekers.