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Have Belarus’s neighbours convinced its military to open up?

Minsk continues to face fall–out from the West-2017 military exercises. Earlier this month, Russian media outlets, such as Nezavisimaya gazeta, criticised Belarus for “excessive openness” in allowing foreigners to observe its military drills. Remarkably, this openness in regards to military drills...

Minsk continues to face fallout from the West-2017 military exercises. Earlier this month, Russian media outlets, such as Nezavisimaya gazeta, criticised Belarus for “excessive openness” in allowing foreigners to observe its military drills. Remarkably, this openness in regards to military drills corresponds with signs of increasing openness inside Belarus itself.

On 1 November, Tatsyana Karatkevich and Andrei Dzmitryeu, leaders of the Tell the Truth social movement, met a group of leading Belarusian military officials to put forward proposals to solve various issues facing the national army. Even the Chief of General Staff, Aleh Belakoneu, was at the meeting. Top military officials meeting with opposition activists is unprecedented in Belarus.

Indeed, the 1 November meeting is the latest in a series of moves by the Belarusian government, which seems to be cautiously taking steps to make the Belarusian military more transparent. Now, officials in Minsk are responding to negative incidents not simply by meting out punishment against perpetrators. It appears the army leadership want to enable soldiers to communicate more freely with the world outside the barracks, promising open investigations and installing new technology to help prevent abuse.

Generals swear to reveal details of investigation into the death of a soldier

On 3 October, a soldier in Barysau most probably committed suicide, because of mistreatment. The army, and even Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, responded to the incident with more attention than in previous cases. The reaction may go to improve transparency and responsibility in the army. On the one hand, Lukashenka fired the head and other officers at the facility where the victim had served. In fact, the army began checks of all local commissioned and non-commissioned officers at the facility. So far, a dozen military personnel have been detained.

Image: ONT.by

On the other hand, the Defence Ministry is expressing a willingness to keep the public informed. On 25 October, the Defence Ministry issued a statement in which it offered guarantees that the public would get all the details of the Barysau investigation. Never before have the Belarusian armed forces seemed to care so much about public opinion.

Likewise, on 8 November, the media reported that henceforth soldiers serving at the Barysau military facility would be allowed to carry mobile phones with them at all times. Previously, soldiers were allowed to use mobile phones, however, their phones were stored in specially designated areas, which meant they were inaccessible most of the time. The Defence Ministry praised the decision by Barysau facility’s commander and, thereby, appears to support introducing this more liberal regime at similar military facilities.

Earlier on 4 November, answering questions online, Defence Minister Andrej Raukou said that ICTV cameras would be installed in barracks to help prevent mistreatment and abuse. The minister’s decision to communicate with citizens directly online also appears to be a response to the tragic events that took place in October.

Is the Belarusian army about to open up to NATO?

In a similar vein, the Belarusian government has for some years struggled to demonstrate its peaceful intentions. On 3 November, Moscow-based newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta criticised the “exaggerated openness at the West-2017” military exercises. Indeed, Minsk made a point of pursuing its own policy with regards to the exercises. Unlike Moscow, people were invited to view Belarusian maneuvers: it invited more than 80 diplomats and admitted almost 280 foreign journalists to watch Belarusian parts of the exercises, in which about 10,000 soldiers participated.

Image: vsr.mil.by

Speaking to Verdens Gang, a Norwegian daily, Ragnhild Valle Hustad, Chief of the Army Control Office at Norway’s Defense Ministry, said her office considers Minsk’s invitation “as a kind of reciprocation after we had invited Belarusians to observe the Cold Response exercises in Norway two years ago.

The Belarusian government believes this level of openness has paid off. OSCE observers from Norway and Sweden on 20 September told Verdens Gangwhich otherwise reported on the joint BelarusRussia military exercises in a highly critical tone—that they had not found anything to condemn in Belarus’s own exercises. Indeed, Colonel Lieutenant Thomas Möller, sent by the Swedish Defence Ministry, called the question of whether neighbouring states have reasons to be wary of Minsk and Moscow “a political question.” That is, Minsk managed to secure relatively positive assessments of its drills from military professionals of influential Western countries.

Successful confidence-building with Ukraine

Minsk can see increasing military transparency as not just some abstract norm, but as an effective means of increasing mutual trust with its neighbours. The increased openness of the West military drills have, perhaps, helped produce a positive development in military relations with Ukraine. Kyiv invited two Belarusian military observers to watch the active phase of the Ukrainian-American Rapid Trident2017 drills in September near Lviv.

The invitation was not only remarkable, but unprecedented. After all, in June, speaking at Ostrogorski Forum, Ukrainian Ambassador Ihor Kyzym accused the Belarusian government of lacking transparency in its military drills. Belarusian foreign ministry responded by pointing out that

At our invitation, the military observers of Ukraine, as well as other neighbouring states, observed the active phases of all the main military exercises—beginning with Nyoman-2001 to West-2013… [While] Ukraine, within the framework of the Vienna documents in this period, has never invited military observers from Belarus to monitor the largest military activities conducted on Ukraine’s territory. [Even] the representatives of the Belarusian military attaché apparatus in Ukraine since 2013 have not been invited to any military multinational or national exercise conducted on Ukraine’s territory.

Image: BelTA news agency

The dispute between Minsk and Kyiv over observing each other’s military preparations continued as Ukrainian military observers in September fiercely criticised Minsk after watching the West drills. According to them, the exercise had been only “conditionally open” and offensive in character. Therefore, Belarusians observing Rapid Trident2017 has become a major move to further improve bilateral relations.

The examples cited above prove that the Belarusian state is transforming. Even the army is choosing to admit its shortcomings and deal with them. Some of these reform decisions have been taken because of tragic events, like the death of the soldier in Barysau on 3 October.

Other decisions have been taken by officials perhaps after learning of positive practices in other Europeans countries. The Belarusian military’s decision to open up the West-2017 exercises after earlier seeing military drills in NATO countries supports this idea. Greater openness and responsibility will help to solve a host of problems. Inside Belarus, this can assist the army not only to become more efficient, but also to been seen as more professional and secure by citizens. Carrying on this sort of behaviour with other states, Minsk can so reduce tensions in the region.

Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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