Is Belarus a European North Korea? – Top Three Myths about Belarus in Western Media
Describing Belarus as the "last European dictatorship" in Western media has become a tradition. In many cases it is justified by real human rights abuses and the absence of any real democracy in the country.
However, often authors and journalists go far beyond objective analysis or describing the true situation in Belarus. They prefer to portray the country as a big concentration camp in the middle of Europe.
Typical myths about Belarus include the complete absence of free expression in the country, total governmental control and repressive terror for disobedience, and people being unable to leave the country or, occasionally, they turn to reports of Belarusians’ readiness to rebel.
Belarus Digest presents an overview of the most popular myths about Belarus in Western media and a short guide on how to avoid taking up this mythology when covering it.
Myth No 1: European North Korea
The image of Belarus as a totalitarian dictatorship in the centre of Europe occasionally circulates some Western media.
"Mr. Lukashenko has steadily turned Belarus into something akin to a prison colony", – writes a journalist from The New York Times. The title of the French Le Figaro speaks for itself: "In Belarus it is better to be silent in order to stay alive."
These and other numerous exaggerated assessments certainly contribute a lot to general misunderstanding of the Belarusian political reality in the West.
In fact Belarus lives under an authoritarian personality-cult style political regime. According to human rights organisations, eleven political prisoners are serving time in jail. No elections since 1994 have been recognised as fair or transparent by Western observers.
The political opposition remains completely marginalised and has no legal instruments for influencing governmental policy. Police and the secret service keep track of political activists and prevent or disrupt almost every and any public political event.
However, the killings or indefinite imprisonment of political opponents is not a practice common to the Belarusian regime. Several cases of mysterious disappearances of notable politicians and a journalist in the late 1990s did take place, however nothing similar has happened since.
Administrative arrest (up to 15 days) or fines for "hooliganism" remain the usual punishment for "political offenders." The authorities resort to real criminal imprisonment very seldomly, especially in comparison to other post-Soviet states. Russia – about 65 political prisoners (according to Memorial NGO) or Azerbaijan – about 140 political prisoners (according to local human rights NGOs). As mentioned above, Belarus currently has eleven political prisoners.
Expressing one’s critical opinion of the government, membership in an oppositional political party or movement alone is almost never used as grounds for persecution. Only persistent political activism can get people in trouble.
Freedom of speech is restricted but has been not abolished. Read more
Freedom of speech is restricted but has been not abolished. Many reporters from unregistered media outlets indeed are subjected to serious pressure. However, several independent newspapers (Narodnaya Volia, Nasha Niva, BelGazeta, Belorusy i Rynok etc.), news agency BelaPAN, and other numerous oppositional and independent web-sites legally work within the country. Journalists from these media outlets get invitations to most public events including Lukashenka’s regularly held press conferences.
Therefore, the widely used nickname for Belarus – "the last European dictatorship" – seems quite dubious. The Belarusian political regime may be the toughest in Europe in many ways, but it is sufficiently softer than nearly any other regime in the world that has received the "dictatorship" label: North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Syria etc.
Myth No 2: Belarusians Cannot Travel Freely
"The youth in this country, closed off from most of the world, cannot speak their minds freely and in the open", – states the EUobserver, promoting one of the most ludicrous myths about Belarus, namely, the existence of an iron curtain at the Belarus-EU border.
Belarusians can not only travel to Western countries, indeed they are some of the most active travellers. Since 2010 Belarus has held 1st place in the world for the number of Schengen visas issued per capita. In 2012 this number exceeded 700,000 (or more than 7.3% of the population). Some soon-to-be published data from 2013 will show even higher figures.
Belarusians can not only travel to Western countries, indeed they are some of the most active travellers Read more
Nearly 1,400 students of EHU (a Belarusian university in exile in Vilnius) are Belarusian citizens, which means frequent crossing of the border for many of them as well as for many lecturers from Belarus.
Even key oppositional figures can (with extremely rare exceptions), freely travel to Europe and meet with Western politicians. Some experts even say that they spend too much time abroad while being passive inside the country.
Shopping-tourism to neighbouring countries has become so widespread that Alexander Lukashenka had to propose a rather unpopular and, yet not adopted measure, of a $100 exit-fee, in order to stop the vast currency outflow.
Myth No 3: Belarusians Strive For Freedom and Ready to Rebel
In a recent article to Washington Post one ex-candidate for Belarusian presidency argued that in Belarus "it is not a question of if but when Belarusians will rid themselves of Europe’s last dictatorship".
The December 2012 IISEPS (Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies) poll showed that only 3% of Belarusians support the idea of a revolution.
A survey done by the NOVAK Laboratory in January 2010 indicated that 62% consider themselves free, while 57% say they live in a free country. Even after the latest 2012 parliamentary elections 47.5% of Belarusians called them "free and fair" and only 25.5% disagreed with this statement (IISEPS).
In a June 2013 poll IISEPS that asked respondents what would they prefer: to sacrifice a certain amount of freedom for economic well-being or to sacrifice their well-being to be free, 46% appeared to prefer well-being over freedom, while only 38% value freedom more.
in reality the majority of Belarusians still prefer stability and prosperity to democracy Read more
Finally, in a September 2013 IISEPS poll 28% said that Belarusians "sometimes (e.g. now) need a firm hand to rule them" and 26% believe "Belarusians always need a firm hand rule" (54% combined). Only 38% said it dangerous to concentrate all power in one individuals' hands.
Although the latest polls show that Belarusian society is slowly maturing, in reality the majority of Belarusians still prefer stability and prosperity to democracy. "Liberals" compose about 30-40% of the population, and the idea of any sort of revolution remains highly unpopular.
How to Avoid Mythology When Covering Belarus?
The author of this article, himself a journalist, completely understands his colleagues’ desire to come up with sharp titles and shocking descriptions of a poorly-covered, politically odd and almost exotic country, such as Belarus.
At the same time, the audience of serious periodicals expects facts and decent analysis rather than fantasies.
Here are several tips on how to properly cover Belarus from the outside:
Rely more on news agencies that have their own reporters in Belarus (Bloomberg, Reuters, AP).
Avoid portraying politics as something important to Belarusians. Most of them have little interest in them and are not facing the "dictatorship" in their everyday lives.
The Belarusian opposition is seriously divided, never trust anyone who claims to be "the leader of Belarusian democratic forces".
Double check all the information from political exiles with the help of activists based in Belarus.
Understand your responsibility. Belarus has little proper coverage abroad. By propagating catchy myths you disorient decision-makers who fail to work out effective policies and thus contribute to strengthening of authoritarian rule in Belarus.
New Chief of General Staff, Modernisation of Air Force, S-300 – Belarus Security Digest
Aliaksandr Lukashenka made a good personnel decision by appointing a new Chief of General Staff.
Security agencies suffer from underfunding. It forces them to adopt austerity measures and negatively impacts the number of those who want to choose to serve in the military.
Unable to procure new combat aircraft, the Belarusian authorities have decided to modernise their existing fleet.
The delivery of new armaments from Russia has been postponed once again. The Kremlin may use its military and technical assistance to Belarus as leverage against Minsk.
A New Chief of General Staff Appointed
On 11 January 2014, Major General Alieh Bielakonieu, previously in command of the Special Operations Forces, was appointed the Chief of General Staff. He belongs to a group of operational commanders. He is considered to be aware of the real situation in the Belarusian Army and the has necessary business skills to run it: energetic, prone to innovation and not afflicted with Soviet dogmatism.
He is not afraid of assuming responsibility, which is unusual today for the Belarusian leadership. He has demonstrated the qualities of an efficient lobbyist, which helped to meet the needs of the Special Operations Forces in financial and material resources even under the conditions of budget cuts. He has also devoted a great deal of time to the welfare of his subordinates, spending a lot of time among troops.
The Army Has to Cut Down Expenses
The practise of minimum spending being spent on the needs of the Army will continue in the coming years. For this reason the Ministry of Defence seeks to find money internally to maintain its capabilities and ration its costs. The most sophisticated systems are available to the Air Force and the Air Defence Forces of Belarus, which are have been the main priority for more than ten years already.
So, all the repairs and modernisation of weapons and equipment will be performed by Belarusian enterprises. Repair units have been set up for anti-aircraft missiles and radar, with troops performing routine maintenance and repairs. These measures will help to save money by not employing specialists from the manufacturers of combat weapon systems.
No Money, Shortage of Staff
Performance in staffing the Armed Forces in 2013 was analysed and its goals for 2014 were readjusted. The past year was marked with better staffing of the officer corps in comparison to 2012. It was achieved by implementing a set of measures. First, this was done by enlisting new graduates of military colleges. Second, by retraining warrant officers with their promotion to a military officer with the rank of lieutenant. Also, officer ranks were given to female military staff who were already serving in officer positions.
the Ministry of Emergency Situations this agency allowed its employees to hold second jobs in their spare time Read more
In the state budget for 2014 the clothing allowance of the Army is only financed at 40% of assessed need. In other security agencies the overall situation is similar. At the end of January, it became known that the Ministry of Emergency Situations suspended payments of bonuses to its rank-and-file and junior command personnel, bonuses that which amounted to between 250,000 – 270,000 Belarusian roubles. To take cool the situation down a little, due to the low wages of servicemen, the Ministry of Emergency Situations this agency allowed its employees to hold second jobs in their spare time.
The Novelty of the Belarusian Defence Industry on Combat Duty
The new domestic radar station "Vostok-D" went was launched for combat duty for air defence in the 49th Radar Brigade. The station was created in accordance with the State Armament Programme and is of an original design. The manufacturer of the station is the company "Radar Systems." The main activities of the company's branches are design and industrial-scale manufacturing of air defence systems, radars, radio navigation systems and means of electronic warfare and their modernisation.
The technical specifications of the station allow it to replace several obsolete medium and long range radar stations at once. The station has a high detection range (up to 360 kilometres) and mobility; it is capable of efficiently tracking small targets and objects manufactured with stealth technology.
Operational Readiness of Troops Tested
Operational readiness test of the Armed Forces that was promised by Aliaksandr Lukashenka started in January. The main burden was placed on the Air Force and the Air Defence Force as well as the Special Operations Forces. Aircraft were dispersed with their relocation to alternate airfields in Luniniets and Babrujsk. The units that were protecting the airfields had to operate under attacks from sabotteurs and reconnaissance groups of the enemy.
Plans to modernise the Air Force
On 30 January 2014, Deputy Minister of Defence for armaments Major General Ihar Latsienkou announced the decision to carry out the overhaul and modernisation of MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft, was set to begin in early 2014. The first 10 aircraft are already in the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranavichy. It is still unclear if all aircraft will be modernised or only some of them.
Besides, in the nearest future the military and industrial complex of Belarus may carry out the comprehensive modernisation of Su-27 fighters. Their fate was extremely confusing. On 28 August, Minister of Defence Jury Zhadobin said that the Su-27 fighters were not decommissioned but their operation was discontinued.
Jury Zhadobin said that the Su-27 fighters were not decommissioned but their operation was discontinued Read more
On 14 November 2013, Commander of the Air Force and Air Defence Force of Belarus Alieh Dzvihaliou said that the Su-27 had been removed from operational use because their operation was expensive. And he added immediately that the Su-30, which are an upgraded version of the Su-27, were considered as potential replacement fighters for the national Air Force. And on 18 November 2013, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, while visiting the air base in Baranavichy, said that withdrawal of the Su-27 aircraft from the Air Force of Belarus was premature.
It all looks like an attempt to patch a hole that appeared after the decommissioning of two dozens heavy Su fighters. The only thing is that the aircraft have not been operational since 2011. And the Belarusian authorities became especially concerned with this problem only after facing the prospects of receiving a Russian air base on their own territory.
Delivery of S-300 Postponed Again
The Ministry of Defence is pinning its main hope on 2015, when they expect (and for now that is all they do — expect) the delivery of four battalions of air defence missile systems S-300 as well as radar equipment and trainer aircraft Yak-130 from Russia that they were promised three years ago. Belarus should then focus on their plans to get four battalions of air defence missile systems S-300 from Russia; they are seen as a kind of bonus for the planned deployment of a Russian air base in Belarus.
If in the past, the transfer of these weapon systems was planned for this year, now the question is whether or not they will arrive in 2015. It should be emphasised that these four battalions have been scheduled for delivery since 2011 already. In July 2012, it was announced that the delivery would take place in the near future. Now, this 'near future' appears to be 2015. With this in mind, the outlook for rearming of the 377th air defence missile regiment and changing over from the S-200 to S-300 air defence system looks rather dim.
Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.