Military Cooperation for Sale
According to Tacciana Manionak, an independent energy expert, the Lukashenka regime will get $2.2bn in subsidies from Russia thanks to discounted natural gas prices in 2012 and at least $700m thanks to the refinement of Russian crude oil. Independent economic expert Leanid Zaika estimates the volume of Russian oil and gas subsidies in 2012 at about $ 4bn. Russia was guided by political motives when it paid generously for Beltransgaz. Then more loans were received from Russia. This permitted raising of the volume of gold and foreign currencies reserves of Belarus to $ 79bn.
The level of Russian subsidies is impressive. But Lukashenka stated repeatedly that the discounted prices for gas and crude oil and all the advantages of the economic cooperation with Russia were the price Russia paid for the union and for the great service Belarus renders to Russia.According to him, if one calculates what Belarus does for Russia, it turns out that Russia owes more to Belarus than Belarus owes to Russia.
Military Cooperation as Justification of Economic Subsidies
In all cases when Lukashenka calculated what Russia should pay Belarus for, he puts the military component of cooperation first. He often emphasises the role of the Belarusian army as a shield for the central part of Russia from NATO and the importance of the Belarusian air defence and Russian military bases.
Only afterwards does he speak about cheap transit, ten millions of Russians employed at businesses linked by technology to Belarusian companies, and communication between Russia and its Kaliningrad enclave and its supply. In extreme cases, during his most bitter disputes with Russian leaders, he lays out his other trumps on the table: he speaks about participation of Belarus in Russia's strategic integration projects and dependence of the Russian ally from the stable functioning of high-technology enterprises of the military and industrial complex in Belarus.
In late April 2010, commenting on the agreement concluded between Russia and Ukraine extending the stay of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, Lukashenka said that Russia had paid about $40bn to Ukraine for the sites which had less importance for Russia than the missile attack warning centre near Hantsavichy (Brest region) and the nuclear submarines communication centre near Vilejka (Minsk region).
The talks between the United States and Russia about conditions of deployment of joint missile defence facilities in the territory of eastern members of NATO failed. In late November 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a special television address that they were not able to come to an agreement with the United States and NATO. Russia cannot accept weakening of the Russian deterrent capability and has to take special measures.
Deployment of Iskander Missile Systems
Also in November, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing a source in the Kremlin, that if the talks with the United States on missile defence failed, Russia could deploy missile systems Iskander in the territory of Belarus as well.
In the first week of February 2012, several web sites, citing a source in the Presidential Administration of Belarus, published information that the issue of deployment of missile systems Iskander in the territory of Belarus had been discussed during the visit of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin to Minsk on 30-31 January 2012.
On 8 February, answering questions from journalists regarding the topics of conversation between Head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimir Makiej and Foreign Minister Siarhiej Martynau and the Russian envoy, Head of the Foreign Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration Maksim Ryzhankou said that the outcome of the talks between Russia and the United States on missile defence had been discussed among other matters for which "it was important for Russia to enlist support of its like-minded friends".
On 6 February, Lukashenka met with State Secretary of the Security Council Leanid Maltsau and Minister of Defence Jury Zhadobin. Lukashenka said: "I sent a letter to Medvedev about the necessity to look for additional funds for the Belarusian military… The two countries have basically a single army and similar tasks that they are facing".
On 9 February the mass media spread around Zhadobin’s explanations of Lukashenka’s opinion: “Actually, it was underscored that military cooperation between our countries could become one of arguments for getting preferences in economic matters, e.g., regarding oil and gas supplies, which could be used to increase the national budget funds and augment our military men’s money allowances.”
It is hardly probable that Russia will dare deploy the Iskander missile systems in Belarus. Lukashenka will not agree to deploy Russian military detachments on the territory of Belarus, except for the military bases near Hantsavichy and Vileyka. Also, Russia will not entrust Lukashenka with efficient offensive weapons, let alone the missile systems. Some Russian generals believe that Lukashenka is not consistent enough as an ally. They do not have any guarantees that the supplied Iskanders be turned to the East.
Anti-Western Rhetoric in Common Interest
However, Russia and Lukashenka’s regime share common interests of convincing the West in the reality of deploying the offensive armaments, including Iskander missiles systems on the territory of Belarus. It is a constituent part of Russia’s plan of reaction to deployment of the US Anti-missile defence system in Europe.
Lukashenka treats the mere update of the Iskander deployment talks, as a counteraction to the United States and NATO, as a sufficient means of putting pressure on Russia’s policy. He will urge Russia to pay for the mere statements about the targeting of NATO military facilities, located close to the Belarusian border.
According to Zhadobin’s statement, which was clearly authorised by Lukashenka, the Belarusian government intends to coerce Russia into introducing more beneficial conditions of economic cooperation for their Belarusian ally. Particularly, it concerns the issue of energy carrier supplies.
In the least, the Belarusian government would like to force Russia to restructure the Belarus’ foreign debt to its eastern neighbour, including the country’s financial obligations to the Anti-crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community.
Andrei Liakhovich is a contributing author. He directs the Center for Political Education in Minsk.
Lukashenka’s Sport Diplomacy
As the new diplomatic war between Belarus and the European Union unfolds, Belarus may lose its right to host the World Ice Hockey Championship in 2014. Because of problems with democracy and human rights The Congress of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) may reconsider its decision taken three years ago.
According to IIHF Communications Director Szymon Szemberg, the reason is numerous demands from human rights groups and Western governmental organisations. IIHF President Rene Fasel stated in the past that sports had nothing to do with politics. But in Belarus sports are much more than just sports. It is one of the ideological pillars of Aleksandr Lukashenka’s politics.
Sport As a National Idea
For 20th century totalitarian regimes, sport became a tool of mass indoctrination and propaganda. ‘Sport constructs the culture of optimism and cheerfulness,’ stated a Bolshevik ideologist Anatoly Lunacharsky. Not surprisingly, Soviet authorities maintained a widespread system of state sport associations, clubs and competitions. During the most terrible period of political repressions in 1930s, Joseph Stalin enjoyed watching pompous mass marches of Soviet athletes and football matches at the Red Square in Moscow.
Alexander Lukashenka, elected as the first President of Belarus in 1994, loves massive parades too.
In the late 1990s, after the break-down of Belarus-Western relations, it was Lukashenka who proclaimed that ‘our athletes are the best diplomats,’ and their performance showed the front of the country. When his ideologists failed to produce a coherent state ideology based on the the Soviet period of Belarusian history rather than on national traditions or democratic values, sport was promoted as a national ideal for the state. To demonstrate his serious intentions, Lukashenka appointed top security figures (siloviki) to the key sport federations’ positions.
Since 1997, Lukashenka himself has been the president of the Belarus National Olympic Committee. All major sport events and appointments to the national team take place with his approval. Every two years the ruler assigns the number of medals Belarusian athletes must win in Summer and Winter Olympics.
Sport as the Ruler’s Plaything
Being a huge ice hockey fan, Lukashenka decided to start promoting this particular sport in Belarus. Ice hockey requires immense infrastructure and investments. An average Belarusian has to pay his full monthly salary to buy ice hockey equipment for just one 10-year-old boy.
As the first step, Lukashenka ordered construction of new ice hockey venues across the country. In 1994 there were only three indoor arenas, today there are 23, and 23 more are under construction. Belarus’ leader does not care that most of the venues are too expensive for Belarus and will not pay off in the near future.
Lukashenka visited the Olympic Games at least twice – in 1998 in Nagano and in 2008 in Beijing. However, world ice hockey tournaments usually take place in Western countries closed for ‘the last dictator in Europe’ because of visa sanctions. To fix the problem official Minsk applied to host a World championships several times. Finally, the Congress of the IIHF supported Belarus’ tender in May 2009.
Then Lukashenka wished to have a super ice hockey club in Minsk. Within a few years, over 60 foreign players have appeared on the roster of Dinamo Minsk and participate in the Continental Hockey League. This star team costs tens of millions of dollars a year, and it is not entirely clear who sponsors the club. Experts point to the state-owned JSC Belaruskali – one of the world's biggest producers of potash mineral fertilisers and its affiliates. Like in the USSR, Belarusian sports is not commercial and almost entirely depends upon state subsidies.
Easier to Buy Than to Train
The need to carry out the president's orders for medals and to challenge the developed Western states makes Belarusian sports an important tool for the regime’s propaganda. Instead of investing state money into the nation’s healthcare, or the promotion of junior and college sports, Belarusian functionaries ‘buy’ trained athletes abroad – mostly in Russia. While these ‘Vikings’ receive all the amenities immediately, many young Belarusian athletes stay unwanted and leave the sport in the early stages of competition.
For instance, more than 120 foreign ice hockey players (mostly Russians) received Belarusian citizenship in recent years. The entire sports system in Belarus witnesses the same trend.
Officials say that the huge financial spending such as those for ice hockey is justified because people enjoy the show. Around 14,000 spectators usually attend home games of Dynamo Minsk. That is a lot. All authoritarian regimes follow these tactics: to give its people bread and circuses distracting their attention from politics and real life problems.
Why There Is No National Sport in Belarus
Still, ice hockey cannot be regarded as a national sport in Belarus. It will never become like basketball in neighbouring Lithuania. There is a basketball ring in every Lithuanian courtyard, and the whole nation plays it. As a result, with only 3 million inhabitants Lithuania regularly wins medals at the major international forums.
Sports are a part of the Lithuanian market system and by contrast to Belarus, Lithuania’s authorities do not aim to send its representatives for half of the Olympics’ program events. Instead, the state supports one national sport – basketball, and a real cult of sport reigns in the country. Young Lithuanians find it patriotic, fashionable, attractive and accessible to go into sports.
Belarusians do not have such a feeling. Of course, they rejoiced when Belarus hockey team managed to beat Sweden in the quarterfinal of the 2002 Olympics or Belarus gained 19 Olympic medals in 2008. However there is no one national sport which would be accessible to everyone in Belarus. In fact, Belarusians do not have the cult of a sports at all.
Whatever the decision of the Congress of the IIHF regarding Minsk as the host city for the 2014 championship will be, one thing is clear. For the country where seven out of nine opposition candidates can be imprisoned right after the presidential elections, and the permanent ruler manages its National Olympic Committee, sports are an important tool for internal ideology and external propaganda.
Kanstantsin is a contributing author. He is a Belarusian journalist currently doing an MA in International Politics at City University in London.