Russia Plays War in Belarus
On 12 March, Minsk and Moscow agreed that Russia will deploy 15 fighters jets in Belarus in reaction to NATO's drills on the border between Poland and Belarus.
However, Belarus remains reluctant to support Russia in the Crimean conflict either politically or militarily. Lukashenka`s regime wants to simply show its loyalty and get its hands on some new equipment.
Belarusian military dependence on Russia remains critical. Belarus conducts only small drills on its own, and many Belarusian officers have received their training in Russia.
Purchases of Russian-made arms at discounted rates remains almost the only opportunity for Belarus to update its own arm supplies, though the country’s military industry maintains strong ties with Russian companies.
Belarus' military dependence on Russia is the result of a deliberate policy continuously implemented by Lukashenka. Belarusian authorities are well aware of the fact that the Kremlin will always financially support Belarus, because it views Belarus as a buffer zone for Russia.
Belarusian Army Will not be a Party to the Crimean Conflict
Although Belarus remains officially a neutral country the Kremlin likes to play war with the West within its borders. The decision to have 15 fighters jets relocated shows that Lukashenka has made a concession to the Kremlin, but this does not mean that Belarus is going to fight for Russia.
It seems that regime wants to testify to its loyalty to the Kremlin after its recent refusal to support Russia in the Crimean conflict. Belarus, it cannot be forgotten, has a strong desire to acquire new military equipment as well.
On 13 March, six Russian Su-27s and three military transport planes landed in Belarus. The same day, Lukashenka said that the redeployment took place at Russia's request. Also on 13 March, the Ukrainian MFA expressed its concern about Russia`s attempts to involve Belarus in Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
For many outsiders, Lukashenka looks like the Kremlin’s vassal and the Belarusian army like a division of Russia's armed forces. However, the Belarusian authorities have refused to support the actions of Russia in the Crimea and Belarusian troops continue to remain within the country’s borders.
As a member country of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Belarus can refuse to support any Russian offensive. According to the Charter of the CSTO, Belarus should support other members only during defensive actions. Furthermore, Putin has so far failed to publicly admit that Russian troops have entered Ukraine. Belarus cannot support these troops so long as they remain officially unrecognised.
Belarusian obligations to Russia within the framework of the Union State remain limited to real warfare. Military expert Alexander Alesin explains that "the only way that Belarus will participate in Crimea is to go there with a peacekeeping mission with a UN mandate and at the consent of Ukraine."
Belarusian Military Dependence on Russia
Although Belarus has neither politically nor militarily supported Russia in the Crimean conflict, the Belarusian army remains deeply dependent on Russia.
After the creation of the United Regional System of Air Defense, Russia has effectively gained full control over the Belarusian air force. In the near future, the first Russian military air base in Belarus will begin to operate. This facility is the first of its kind that was personally authorised by Lukashenka. The Belarusian authorities have inherited two other Russian military sites from their predecessors.
Belarusian troops effectively subordinate to Russia. Belarus lacks even its own ground force command. Read more
Military cooperation has always been the sacred cow of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Even during periods of crises between the countries, military collaboration has continued unphased. The existence of a regional army group for the Union State make Belarusian troops effectively subordinate to Russia. Belarus lacks even its own ground force command.
Belarus conducts only small-scale training excercises on its own and operational drills with Russia every two years. The so-called “West” drills have repeatedly made Belarus' relations with Lithuania and Poland very tense. However, some experts argue that Warsaw and Minsk have found that by speculating on an imaginary threat emanating from each other, Poland and Belarus can get money from their own allies in Moscow and Washington, respectively.
Belarus lacks the opportunity to acquire new weapons at market prices and is therefore condemned to begging for them from Russia. In 2012, the Belarusian ruler caused outrage by asking Russia to finance his country's military. Russia gives great discounts on their wares, but regularly delays the delivery of military supplies. Belarus is still waiting for four Yak-130s and several S-300s to replace their old S-200s.
On 19 February, the Belarusian Ambassador to Russia announced that Belarus will receive Yak-130s in 2015. Previously, Lukashenka said that Russia would support and deliver several military aircraft, but none of this has come into fruition. Russia requires real money from its western partner, not just loyalty.
Many of Belarus men-in-arms continue to receive their military education in Russia. Read more
Many of Belarus men-in-arms continue to receive their military education in Russia. The Secretary of the Security Council Aliaksandr Miazhueu, the Chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee Siarhei Huruliou, the Chairman of the State Border Committee Leanid Maltsau and the Minister of Defence Iuryi Zhadobin, all studied in Russia.
According to the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, “in 2012, fewer than 800 people began officer training in Belarus, while as many as 600 individuals attended courses in Russian military schools.” However, it is noteworthy, that Belarusian officers study in Belarus also in civilian universities. It seems that Centre for Eastern Studies missed this data.
The Belarusian military-industrial complex continues to work primarily with Russia. Even when Belarus fulfils arms contracts with other countries, it still requires components that are produced in Russia. Moreover, Russia keeps pushing for the sale of the MZKT, a Belarusian manufacturer that produces a chassis of world-renowned quality, something that some have speculated could even happen this year.
Conscious Policy of the Regime
The military dependence of Belarus on Russia is the result not only of the Kremlin’s efforts, but also the policy of Lukashenka’s regime. Belarus remains reluctant to pay for its own army. The authorities have never afforded the nation's armed more than 2% of the GDP. In the 2000s, the spending was regularly at a level of approximately 1.5% of the nation's GDP.
At the moment, it seems that Russia has also become reluctant to pay – because Belarus is losing its role as the main military ally of Russia. In 2014, Russia is set to start supplying five battalions with the air defence missile system S-300PS to Kazakhstan — free of charge.
In the case of Belarus, Russia requires payment for weapons, albeit with discounts. While there are only three Russian military sites in Belarus, Kazakhstan hosts eleven Russian military sites. The total space they occupy is about the half of Belarus.
However, Belarus will remain an important Russian ally, since it is situated to the west of Russia's heart. Given this, Russia will have to continue to dole out funding, although it will do so in a more and more humiliating manner. The Kremlin will continue to increase its influence, but this does not necessarily mean that the Belarusian army will be a tool of Russian foreign policy.
Public Protests in Belarus: The Opposition is Changing Tactics
While in Ukraine large scale political demonstrations are just a regular instrument used to influence the authorities, democratic activists in Belarus are prosecuted for nearly any kind of public political action. Trying to adapt to the current conditions, the opposition is changing its protest tactics.
Evidence of these new tactics has been described in a new analytical paper “Protest activity in Belarus in 2013: manifestations, political performance and social conflicts." The Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” published this report at the end of February. The report shows that individual picketing and flash mobs have become the most common forms of political protest in Belarus.
Political protests have been seriously affected by open repression of democratic activists, a process which has steadily intensified after the political activism of 2010-2011. Most political protests end with arrests and fines, regardless if they are officially sanctioned or not.
Meanwhile, the participants in social protests rarely face any reprisals. Moreover, entrepreneur strikes, as well as housing and labour conflicts very often conclude with positive outcomes for the protesters.
Out of 64 political protests that have occurred, only 24 have successfully been carried out without the Belarusian authorities going after protesters.
To penalise activists, the police typically employ arrests and fines as their primary means of dealing with protesters, though they have also been known to turn to violence and beating activists to disperse them.
The police have not shied away from using repressive measures at sanctioned demonstrations such as Chernobyl Way or Freedom Day – the anniversary of Belarusian National Republic establishment.
political organisations have switched to organising political performances and individual pickets Read more
To minimise the likelihood of repressive measures being used against them, political organisations have abandoned traditional forms of protest and more often than not organise political performances and individual pickets. These tactics help them to achieve the primary goal of having a protest – to attract the attention of media and the wider world. At the same time, it is a rather pragmatic approach, as it results in fewer activists facing the risk of being arrested.
The Belarusian Christian Democrats and Belarusian National Front parties have been the most active in organising protests. It should not, then, be surprising that most of political protests in the country have been tied to historical issues – the proclamation of Belarusian independence, Stalinist repression, the anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy etc. While these issues remain prominent, another reason for protest has also been popular – solidarity rallies with political prisoners.
Most protests in Belarus have taken place in the capital, Minsk. The Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” report, through monitoring political protests, has revealed a very small number of political protests in other large Belarusian cities. In Hrodna – a sizeable city near the border of Poland, protests have not occurred at all in recent years.
The report documented 39 instances of social protests. Mainly these protests come as reaction to housing policy conflicts, or labour and entrepreneur-led strikes. Assemblies, walkouts, hunger strikes, and the collection of signatures were reported to be the most widespread forms of social protest utilised.
Unlike political activists, participants in social protests very seldom faced any kind of repression. In their report, the Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” took note of only a few episodes where protesters were suppressed. Moreover, more than half of social protests that were carried out can be viewed as successful insofar as they achieved some or, occasionally, all of their goals.
Protestors have often been successful in getting their demands met: from enterprises have been able to eliminate wage arrears to entrepreneurs have managed to achieve postponing of the introduction of new trade regulations that would effect their operating costs.
Unlike political actions, social protests have not exclusively taken place in Minsk, but in different regions throughout the country. Minsk has led social protests in one area, however. It leads the nation in the number of housing issues that citizens have had with the authorities. All other forms of conflict that have led to protests have unfolded mostly outside of the capital.
Protesters often prefer not to attract journalists or media to their demonstrations, since they feel it can only end up being a source of interference and not allow them to achieve their goals.
In contrast to typical labourers, small business owners willingly communicate with the media and are interested in articulating their interests publicly. At this point in time small entrepreneurs represent the most highly organised group in Belarus that is able to carry out a strike and protect their own interests.
Just two protest demonstrations with over 500 participants took place in 2013 in Belarus. This figure is significantly lower than in Ukraine where in 2012 a documented 131 demonstrations occurred with 1,000 or more participants attending each.
Just two protest demonstrations with over 500 participants took place in 2013 in Belarus. Read more
The largest political protests in Belarus occur during presidential elections. Even taking into account the fact that there were no elections in 2013, a total of only two large scale demonstrations is a significantly small number. Between the 2006 and 2010 election campaigns, 6 to 8 large scale demonstrations were taking place every year.
Political repression, it would appear, is the culprit in the diminishing level of political protests in Belarus. Clearly, in the intervening years the level of repression used against democratic activists grown and its nature has become more intense.
After the demonstrations that occurred between 2010 and 2011 the authorities took a hard line against demonstrations and any form of protest. For that reason small pickets have become a substitute for large demonstratoins. This phenomenon has led Tatiana Chyzhova to call 2013 the year of individual protests.
In most cases individual protesters hold membership in a political party or an NGO, and frequently their protests are planned in advance. Using the tactics of individual picketing, the protest actions of political organisations will maintain their current strategy in the lead up to the presidential election campaign of 2015, when it should be expected that an increase in protest activity will occur.
The growth of grassroots initiatives against construction projects in Minsk was also a notable trend in 2013. Most likely the number of protests related to housing will not see a noticeable decrease in 2014. Housing and retail space construction in Minsk continues to be carrying on at an intense pace.
Labour strikes have seen an increase following the country's steady economic deterioration, beginning back in 2011. Due to Belarus' poor economy, it is quite likely that the number of conflicts related to labour disputes will keep growing.
A contentious issue, however, is buzzing in the air: will the revolution in Ukraine influence potential protests in Belarus? Confidently, it can be predicted that the reaction of the Belarusian authorities to any protests will be unforgiving.
Tatiana Czyzhova admits that it is very likely that over the next few years the level of repression against participants in political protests will intensify. According to her, any kind of political protests on the streets of Belarusian cities may soon become completely prohibited.