EU considers Lifting Sanctions, Putin’s Proposed Airbase – Western Press Digest
Putin’s announcement of a Russian air base in Belarus dominated western media in September. Western media see the declaration as further support of Russian expansion.
Other significant news: The EU might lift sanctions after Lukashenka freed 6 political prisoners. A decision may lift Lukashenka’s travel ban and allow some Belarusian companies to trade with the EU.
Upon returning to Belarus former presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich was briefly arrested for alleged provocations after the 2010 presidential elections. Another former presidential candidate, Mikalaj Statkievich, held an unauthorised rally in central Minsk denouncing the upcoming election as a “circus”. All of this and much more in this September edition of the Western Press Digest.
Russia moves to establish air base in Belarus – Deutsche Welle reported that Putin stated recently ordering the Defence Ministry to begin negotiations with Minsk over a Russian air base. Minsk stated it would not welcome the base. However, it is reliant on Russian energy, credit and already has Russian military facilities. This makes it unlikely Minsk will deny its building.
With the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin estimates it needs to bind Belarus closer. Yet, for Valery Karbalevich “against the background of the Ukrainian crisis, the stationing of a permanent Russian military contingent in Belarus will upset the balances of forces and facilitate an increase in tension in the whole region”.
The air base, according to EurasiaNet, has caused consternation among Belarusian elites. The Russian government has pushed the issue. It published a document alleging an agreement. It will be built near Babruysk in 2016. According to the agreement, Minsk cannot monitor the base, receive money for staging the base and Russia can put any weaponry on the base’s territory.
Sections of the western media believe that Minsk's delay could herald Russian intervention similar to Ukraine.
European Union considers removing Sanctions on Belarusian Elites and Companies – An article published by Reuters contended that with the release of 6 political prisoners; the EU is considering reducing sanctions on Minsk. EU diplomats are contemplating ways to reduce asset freezes and visa bans on Belarusian elites. Reuters contends that diplomats are planning freezing sanction renewal for a year. These could extend to Lukashenka. Diplomats are considering lifting trade restrictions on 25 Belarusian companies. However, the EU will retain sanctions on military elites and companies.
The Eurasian Union Contemplates Potential new Eurasian currency – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty raised the issue of a new Eurasian currency. Although it remains unlikely the Belarusian rouble will disappear soon, the new Eurasian currency story did the rounds this month in the western press. It first appeared in March. But it is only now the name Altyn has appeared. The Eurasian Union has called to stop using the Euro and the dollar in foreign trade. Now it looks to create a common currency. The idea of creating the Altyn emphasises further Eurasian integration.
In other economic news, according to Reuters, the network provider Turkcell has stated that its Belarusian unit, Belarusian Telecommunication Network (BEST) is now debt free.
Ales Mikhalevich Arrested upon return to Belarus – Deutsche Welle published an article that border guafrds arrested Ales Mikhalevich. He was an opposition figure who stood at the 2010 presidential elections. After a 5 year exile in the Czech Republic he decided to return due to the release of political prisoners “I want to live in Belarus, in my homeland. I want to be with my family. I always said that when all political prisoners are freed…I will return immediately”.
Yet on his return, border guards quickly arrested him at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. They released him, but told him not to leave Minsk. This is all the more bizarre as another opposition activist returned, but was not arrested. Vyacheslau Siuchyk has vocally stated he will compete in the elections. Yet, unlike Mikhalevich he has not been arrested.
300 Opposition Activists Call to boycott the October Presidential Elections – A group of 300 demonstrators protested in central Minsk according to the Washington Post. They called for an election boycott. Mikalaj Statkievich, an opposition activist, held an unauthorised rally. Statkievich was only released from prison last month. But he called on Belarusians to boycott the upcoming presidential elections. Other opposition activists, Anatol Liabiedzka and Uladzimir Niakliajeu called for a united opposition.
Lukashenka Publishes $31,000 Income Statement – Bloomberg published an article stating that for the upcoming elections Lukashenka submitted an income statement of only $31,000 per annum. The statement does not mention houses or cars.
In other electoral news, 3 candidates other than Lukashenka registered with the central electoral commission on the final day of registration. Bloomberg contends that the Belarusian regime hopes this will create a veneer of democracy and appease the west.
Minsk Residents defend a Blind Man – An article and video posted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shows police dragging a blind man down some steps and banging his head on metal railings. Passersby intervened on the man's behalf. But police arrested him for being 'unkempt' and 'violent'.
Russian Airbase in Belarus: A Long Story With No End in Sight?
This month, the Kremlin intensified pressure on Belarus to agree to a Russian airbase on its territory. Last Saturday President Putin asked his Defence and Foreign Ministries to negotiate and sign the agreement on an airbase with Minsk.
The Financial Times noted that "Russia is moving ahead with plans to establish a military air base in Belarus." Yet Moscow still needs to hammer out a deal with Minsk.
While the airbase does not change the regional military balance, it changes the relationship between Belarus and Russia. Minsk risks losing leverage over Moscow and will no longer look as a neutral party in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Minsk tries to delay the deal on the airbase and to change its terms. So far Moscow has only two technical facilities in Belarus, and the joint Belarus-Russian air defence system was only established after many years of delays and Russia having to take Minsk's demands into account.
Some Time, Somewhere, Something…
On 2 September the Russian government sent President Putin a draft agreement on the Russian airbase in Belarus.The week after, the draft was published. However, it left out some significant details. These include the location of the base and which military units are to be deployed there. Previously the two sides had only discussed stationing a regiment of heavy fighter jets near the Eastern Belarusian city of Babruysk.
An airbase agreement would ally it closer to Russia and strip it of much of its foreign policy autonomy. Read more
Asked when the agreement would be signed earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev said that the signing “should be comfortable for both the Belarusian and Russian sides.” This could prove difficult. Minsk does all it can to avoid signing the agreement at a sensitive time of confrontation in Ukraine. An airbase agreement would ally it closer to Russia and strip it of much of its foreign policy autonomy.
Moscow however is determined to integrate Belarus closer. It is tired of Minsk's refusal to support the Kremlin's policies in the former Soviet Union and of Lukashenka's deals with the West. So Moscow tries to place the Belarusian president in a bind, or as Foreign Policy put it, "Putin clips Lukashenko’s wings with air base in Belarus."
Therefore, Minsk wants to sign the document either as late as possible, or preferably not at all. Moscow wants to sign it now.
No Change in Regional Military Balance
Dmitry Medvedev claimed that idea of establishing an airbase in Belarus began in 2009. “Back then we signed the documents on the joint protection of the borders of Belarus and Russia and the joint air defence system. In fact, the agreement [on the airbase] implements those agreements.”
That is an exaggeration. Those documents say nothing about a permanent Russian base in Belarus. Moscow decided to enhance its military presence in Belarus only in early 2013. In April 2013, it publicly announced plans to station its own airforce in the country. Back then, revealed details of official talks and expert comments indicated that the reason for such plans was the weakened Belarusian airforce.
Indeed, by that time Moscow had doubts about Minsk's ability to protect the joint air border as agreed. Minsk which had inherited an impressive fleet of Soviet state-of-the-art military aircraft did not buy newer planes after independence.
The situation with obsolete Belarusian aircraft worsened in the 2010s because of financial constraints. By that time Minsk had no functioning heavy Sukhoi fighter jets at all. Earlier, in the mid-2000s, the Belarusian government due to a lack of funds had halted the modernisation programme of MiG-29 light fighter jets for ten years. This programme started again only in late 2013 after Minsk realised that Russia would not give it newer aircraft.
A decade ago Minsk still had its own regiment of Sukhoi heavy fighter jets Read more
Now Russia is going to send its fighter jets to Belarus. In terms of the regional military balance it means return to the situation of a decade ago. Back then Minsk still had a regiment of Sukhoi heavy fighter jets. Now Russia wishes to send its own regiment (of the same modernised Sukhoi airplanes) to Belarus.
Nevertheless, in the current tense atmosphere of Eastern Europe, Minsk will anyway face a possible backlash over the possible establishment of a Russian airbase. On Tuesday, Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas warned that a prospective Russian airbase in Belarus would harm Minsk's relations with Lithuania, the EU and NATO.
How to Destabilise the Country?
The base will dramatically change relations between Belarus and Russia. It is, however, unlikely to create a threat of the “Crimea Scenario.” One regiment of fighter jets lacks any means to prepare a Crimean-style intervention. In addition, according to the draft agreement the regiment shall be a part of the Single System of Air Defence between Belarus and Russia, hence Russian planes cannot operate without Minsk's consent.
Belarus is losing its military value for Moscow Read more
But something more terrible than a “Crimean Scenario” threatens Minsk. Belarus is losing its military value for Moscow. Earlier, Minsk could boast of its protecting Moscow and ask for money. Now, Moscow is going to provide its security itself, without its Belarusian ally.
The Belarusian government loses a major bargaining chip in negotiations with Moscow. In the future, for its financial support the Kremlin can demand from Minsk more assets and concessions. It already started to do so in the case of the airbase.
According to the military analyst Alexander Alesin, it was not a coincidence that Russia published the draft agreement on the airbase just as the Russia-controlled Eurasian Stabilisation and Growth Fund announced a possible loan for Belarus until the end of this year.
The airbase is a payment which the existing regime owes Russia for the right to keep dominating and ruling our territory Read more
Of course, not everything is about money. Belarusian politician Yuras' Hubarevich insists, "Russian leaders indirectly help Lukashenka get reelected. The airbase is a payment which the existing regime owes Russia for the right to keep dominating and ruling our territory."
Meanwhile, Minsk faces another related problem too. Moscow wants Lukashenka to renounce his policy of seeking balance or even a neutral position in relations with Russia, Ukraine and western states.
Clearly siding with any side in the current confrontation between Russia, Ukraine and the West will mean for the Belarusian state reduced opportunities for foreign policy manuevering, further deterioration of foreign trade and increasing loss of international legitimacy. It potentially also means possible destabilisation inside the country too.
The government understands the risks and tries to postpone and reshape the airbase agreement. After all, it succeeded in postponing for years the establishment of the Single System of Air Defence between Belarus and Russia and managed to make it more convenient for Belarus.
The agreement on the airbase was also prepared already by October 2013 yet Minsk successfully procrastinated on it. The end of the airbase story remains uncertain, because Belarus' relations with the West are improving, resulting in the diminishing of Russia's opportunities to put pressure on Minsk.