Lessons from Montenegro: is a coup possible in Belarus?
On 6 November 2016 Milivoje Katnich, the Chief Special Prosecutor of Montenegro, gave a statement regarding the failed coup attempt in Podgorica during the Parliamentary elections on 16 October 2016.
According to him, several groups of Russian and Russian-backed Serbian nationalists were behind the coup; they were hoping to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO and the EU.
The fact that the Kremlin was able to plan such an operation in Montenegro leaves no doubts as to its capabilities to launch a similar plot in Belarus. Analysing last year's joint Belarusian and Russian military exercises, which were developed by the Russian General Staff, also arouses suspicions.
The case of Montenegro
Several groups of Russian and Serbian nationalists had planned to open fire on the pro-Russian opposition rally wearing Montenegrin police uniforms. The rally took place in front of the Parliament to protest against Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. This ploy was intended to provoke massive bloodshed by assaulting the protesters near the Parliament. The plan also included the elimination of the prime minister, calling to mind the situation in Kiev during Maidan in February 2014.
Fortunately, Montenegrin and Serbian security services were able to prevent the coup attempt and arrest several participants. Meanwhile, Belgrade quietly deported several Russians suspected of coordinating the coup after Nikolai Patrushev, the Head of the Russian Security Council, flew to Belgrade on 26 October 2016 in an apparent attempt to diffuse the scandal and evacuate his compatriots.
According to officials in Podgorica, the sabotage groups wanted to destabilise the political situation in the country and prevent Montenegro from further integrating with the EU and NATO. It is clear that Montenegro, along with other countries in the Balkan region aspiring to draw closer to the EU and NATO, are highly at risk of destabilisation.
The Kremlin’s networks in Serbia and Belarus
According to our Serbian sources, pro-Russian forces are carrying out subversive activities in Serbia as well. Unfortunately, it seems that Belarusians are also involved in these plots.
Vencislav Buyich, director of the SEAS Foundation (Belgrade), stated in an interview that he had met with Sergey Lushch, a representative of the pro-Kremlin organisation “Rus molodaya” (Minsk), in Belgrade in Spring 2016. The latter apparently spoke quite openly about his plans to destabilise Serbia.
Specifically, Sergey Lushch spoke of the need to have his own people in every Serbian city with a population of over 20,000 people. The main task of these people and organisations would be to gain the trust of the locals, mostly through civic activities. These activists ought never to outwardly demonstrate their pro-Russian orientation, nor should they speak out publicly against pro-Western developments in the country.
Without a doubt, pro-Kremlin organisations are creating their own network of “sleeping agents" Read more
Without a doubt, pro-Kremlin organisations are creating their own network of “sleeping agents". According to Sergei Lushch, at any given moment they could begin anti-Western uprisings in several countries. Unfortunately, the Kremlin has already proved the efficacy of this technique in Ukraine.
“Rus molodaya” is not a well-known or popular NGO in Belarus. Nevertheless, it does enjoy the support of the Russian Embassy in Minsk as well as “Rossotrudnichestvo", the Russian Federal Agency responsible for foreign "civilian aid". Certain Belarusian officials with explicitly pro-Kremlin views participate frequently in their events, one example is Vadzim Hihin, former chief editor of the magazine Belaruskaja Dumka, a mouthpiece of the Presidential Administration.
The fact that the Kremlin has managed to involve Belarusians in destabilising activities in Serbia is deeply worrying. This proves that the Kremlin has been working to create a network of "agents" in Belarus as well. Several pro-Russian groups, such as the Cossacks and Orthodox organisations, have indeed become more active since the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
The plan for Belarus
Unfortunately, like other post-Soviet states, Belarus is a hostage to the Kremlin's perception of international relations as a zero-sum game. It is clear from statements by Aliaksandr Lukashenka that the Belarusian leadership has no intention of normalising relations with the West at the expense of its strategic obligations to Russia or Eurasian integration. Despite this fact, the Kremlin persists in treating any hint of normalisation between the West and Belarus as a threat to its influence.
The Kremlin has also considered the possibility of deploying troops to “stabilise the situation and restore the constitutional order” in Belarus Read more
Some evidence points to the fact that Moscow has already developed a contingency plan for Belarus should it lose influence there. Last year, Belarusian and Russian joint military drills (“Interaction – 2015” and “Slavonic brotherhood – 2015”) demonstrated that Russia is preparing for a possible destabilisation of the military-political situation in Belarus. The Kremlin has also considered the possibility of deploying troops to “stabilise the situation and restore the constitutional order” in Belarus.
According to the scenario of these military drills, which were developed by the Russian General Staff, illegal irregular armed groups (far right radicals) destabilise the military and political situation in Belarus. They practise capturing critical state and military facilities, eliminating political and military leadership, carrying out terrorist attacks, and provoking protests.
In the scenario, the Belarusian government is unable to stabilise the situation on its own and requests military help from the Kremlin. Moscow decides to send troops in to conduct a joint anti-terrorist operation, prevent unrest, and “restore constitutional order”. Incidentally, the 76th Air Assault Division of the Russian Armed Forces and recently deployed mechanised brigades, which are stationed close to the Belarusian border, are very well suited for such hypothetical anti-terrorist operations.
Obviously, such a scenario is a clear exaggeration of the real internal and external situation in Belarus. Such drills, along with a Kremlin-backed media campaign attempting to convey the possibility of Belarus becoming a “russophobic” state, are seemingly intended to prepare the Russian population for a possible crisis with Belarus. Propaganda featuring similar rhetoric could also be seen before and during the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Such assessments by military and civilian analysts illustrate the Kremlin’s willingness to destabilise Belarus and take advantage of the ensuing disorder in order to project its military power, rather than improving the security situation.
The Montenegrin case also demonstrates how easily the Kremlin can initiate a coup with the help of sabotage groups Read more
The Montenegrin case also demonstrates how easily the Kremlin can initiate a coup with the help of sabotage groups (potentially even disguised as Belarusian nationalists) and subversive tactics. Given the Kremlin's influence on Belarusian security services, the bureaucracy apparatus, and even certain NGOs and oppositional groups, it could certainly pull off such a coup in Belarus.
Consequences and implications
Without doubt, the ultimate goal of such destabilisation and military power projection would be a regime change resulting in fully pro-Kremlin political leadership in Minsk. Moscow needs to be sure that it has full access to the territory of Belarus in the case of a large-scale military conflict with NATO.
Theoretically, Moscow intends to transform Belarus into a Cold War outpost in order to generate conventional and hybrid threats to NATO member states and Ukraine. This remains difficult to accomplish as long as the Belarusian state is strong and Aliaksandr Lukashenka attempts to maintain neutrality by refusing to host Russian military bases on Belarusian territory.
Belarus needs to expect increasing pressure from the Kremlin, which wants to gain more political and military control in the near future. However, if Aliaksandr Lukashenka resists such pressure, a coup remains a highly likely scenario in Belarus-Russia relations.
The upcoming meeting between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming month will be indicative of further developments. Belarus Digest will be monitoring them closely.
Arseni is the Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies based in Minsk and military officer in reserve of the Belarusian Armed Forces.
No compromise between Belarus and Lithuania on Astraviec NPP
On 15 November, Lithuanian Energy Minister Rokas Masiulis presented his country's new energy strategy. Although it is not stated directly, the strategy strongly implies that Lithuania will not buy electricity from the Belarusian nuclear power plant, which will begin operating in 2019.
In recent years, the issue of the Belarusian NPP has stifled bilateral relations and it seems that a compromise remains beyond the pale of possibility. Lithuania exaggerates the lack of transparency surrounding the Nuclear Power Plant's construction. It also sees the NPP as an obstacle to its goal of connecting with electricity transmission grids in Western Europe.
A nuclear power plant provokes strong feelings
Several years ago, Lithuania looked to be a major advocate for dialogue with the Belarusian authorities. Even in 2013, when sanctions were still in place, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited a Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forum in Lithuania. Moreover, although few remember it, at the same time the Lithuanian MEP Justas Paleckis had prepared a report encouraging dialogue between Belarus and the EU.
But it now seems that Lithuania has made a U-turn. Despite the thaw in Belarusian-European relations, Belarus and Lithuania have yet to warm up to each other. For example, Minsk is now more likely to host Polish official delegations, which had previously been known for their tough attitude towards Alexander Lukashenka, than Lithuanian ones.
Lithuanian politicians are spending their time creating an international coalition against the Belarusian nuclear power plant. In doing so, they aim to ban the purchase of electricity from the plant to the European Union. The station, which Belarus began to build 55 km from Vilnius in 2013, has become a major stumbling block for bilateral relations.
So far, the only result of Lithuanian diplomacy are reflected in the words of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who recently declared that 'in Astraviec, there is clearly a problem if all the costs, including environmental costs and risks, are not internalised into the price scheme. In that case Europe should not accept such energy on its market.'
Meanwhile, Poland, the beneficiary of a long standing offer to purchase electricity from the Astraviec NPP, has kept silent, as have other European Union countries. On 23 September, the State Secretary of Latvian MFA Andrejs Pildegovičs told the TUT.by news portal that Latvia sees 'The NPP's construction as a sovereign right of the Belarusian government', and he 'will not judge, condemn or question the reasonableness of the project.'
Why does Lithuania dislike the Belarusian power plant?
Most Lithuanian politicians stress that the safety of the construction is dubious. This is actually true, taking into the account the poor reputation of Belarusian official transparency. On 10 July, the reactor casing, weighing over 330 tonnes, fell to the ground from a height of two to four metres. The wider public became aware of this disaster only on 25 July thanks to pressure from public opinion.
So far, the construction site has seen about 10 incidents, leaving three workers dead. This came to light thanks to pressure from the Lithuanian MFA. As Deputy Energy Minister of Belarus Mikhail Mihadziuk stated in September, 'this is an acceptable figure given that the construction site employs more than five thousand people.'
Moreover, the Lithuanian government emphasises the proximity of the Belarusian nuclear power plant to its border – should there be an accident, Lithuania would have to evacuate Vilnius.
However, Lithuanian authorities are exaggerating some issues. Despite the Belarusian regime's problems with transparency, the government has proved willing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In October, the IAEA mission spent 12 days in Belarus, eventually concluding that 'Belarus is committed to nuclear safety'. Previously, while visiting Belarus in April, IAEA Director Yukiya Amano had stated that 'Belarus is one of the most advanced nuclear newcomer countries.'
The Lithuanian authorities dislike the Belarusian NPP not only for safety reasons, but also because it undermines Lithuania's energy strategy, which aims to 'connect the Lithuanian power transmission system (jointly with the Latvian and Estonian systems) to the grids of Europe for synchronous operation by 2025.' So far, Lithuania remains strongly connected to the electricity transmission grids in Belarus and Russia, a dependence it wants to overcome.
Lithuanian officials see NPP construction as a Russian project aimed at preventing that. On 15 November, Lithuanian Minister of Energy Rokas Masiulis said in a statement introducing a new strategy that 'the state will not be safe until the power transmission system affects managers sitting in Moscow.' One month earlier, at the Lithuanian Energy Conference, Masiulis had announced that 'if Belarus proceeds with the Astraviec Nuclear Plant, we will put electricity links with Belarus out of operation'.
The Energy Strategy of Lithuania seems likely to come to fruition, despite the fact that the IAEA praised the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, and the Belarusian authorities have begun to behave more transparently and responsibly. On 16 November, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka announced that Belarus would postpone launching the nuclear plant due to security concerns.
It seems that Lithuania's approach to the Belarusian nuclear power plant is already a foregone conclusion. The issue has become so politicised that Lithuanian politicians are even competing to speak against the NPP in Astraviec more sharply. Recently, Vytautas Landsbergis, one of the best-known Lithuanian politicians, called the construction of the NPP an atomic bomb against Vilnius.
The Union of Peasants and Greens, which won the elections in Lithuania last month, seems to see Astraviec in a similar way. Its politicians spoke out against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus even before their election. Compromise, it seems, may prove impossible.