Russia provokes religious conflict in Belarus?
On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the visit to follow on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Vilnius.
Some see this as the latest in a series of efforts by Russia to provoke religious conflict in Belarus. Russia’s actions earlier this year can be seen in the same light.
Metropolitan Pavel’ harsh rhetoric
A resonant interview given by Metropolitan Pavel on 29 January 2018 attracted the attention of society and the media. Pavel asserted that the Orthodox and the Uniates have “different gods”: “The task of the Uniates is to say that we have one God. Sorry, we do not have one God, my friends. You have your own God because you believe in God in another way.”
He then likened the Uniates to “a sectarian organization”: “The Pagans also have an idol – a god. But for us, the Orthodox, this is a bauble. The Uniates are like that.” The Uniates, members of the Eastern church that are in union with the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledge the Roman pope as supreme in matters of faith but maintain their own liturgy, discipline and rite. The Russian Empire violently dissolved the Uniate church, which had been established in 1596 and became the most popular religion in Belarus, after it occupied the territories of Belarus. Then, in 1839, the Russian Orthodox Church incorporated the Uniates into its ranks by force, causing social unrest and uprisings. At the moment, around 10,000 Uniates live in Belarus.
In Belarus, society knows Metropolitan Pavel for his harsh rhetoric. The Metropolitan has no Belarusian passport or roots, does not speak Belarusian and visited Belarus only twice in his life before his appointment. On 3 November 2017, he compared the idea of creating a national Belarusian Orthodox church (separate from the Moscow Patriarchate) with the temptation of the devil. More notoriously, Pavel stated that Russia “can open the Chernobyl plug” in response to “Western aggression”. This earned the Metropolitan the nickname “Plug” among even the deeply believing Orthodox and parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
Finally, on 20 March, Pavel announced the visit of Patriarch Kirill to Minsk, scheduled to follow shortly after the visit of Pope Francis to Vilnius:
The arrival is expected on 13 October 2018. While the plan is not approved, perhaps, on 15 October 2018 a meeting of the Holy Synod will happen
said Pavel, stressing that this will be the first-ever meeting of the Synod of Belarus. Many people saw this as an act of “revenge” on the part of ROC because many Belarusian Catholics will be in Vilnius to meet the Pope on 22-23 September.
According to sources in the Belarusian ROC, Pavel finds serving in Minsk stressful. He long served in Ryazan (Russia), an area without any Catholics or Protestants, and where he did not face the great influence of other religions and the need to be a diplomat. Consequently, Minsk has been hard on him. The Pope’s visit compounded his stress. Pavel fears that tens of thousands of Belarusians will go to Lithuania and, as he understands it, organising a similar event with the Patriarch became imperative. He hopes that a larger number of Belarusian believers will meet the Patriarch than will go to meet the Pope.
Other sources state that Pavel has big plans regarding Belarus, though a large part of the Belarusian clergy opposes these plans. Thus, Pavel also wants to strengthen his position with the visit of the Patriarch and to win his support in some personnel decisions. “Although holding the Russian Synod in Belarus is nonsense, we also have a Synod” – states the representative of Belarusian ROC.
“Cossacks” in action
Direct actions by pro-Russian provocateurs accompany the actions of Metropolitan Pavel. On 31 January 2018, next to the wooden church near the village of Kolbavichy (Baranavichy district, Brest region), local activists noticed a cross with a tablet proclaiming a provocative anti-Uniate message. The text on the tablet was praising the forced incorporation of Belarusian Uniates into the Orthodox Church by the Russian Empire in 1839. This act of violence was described as “peaceful union.”
The most widespread version of the story claims that the so-called “Cossacks” installed the cross. The Cossacks, a pro-Russian military club of historical reenactors, proclaim themselves the bearers of Cossack traditions from the Russian Empire. However, no one specifically took responsibility for these illegal actions. A priest in the church who personally consecrated this cross when asked by the media said that he had not even a suspicion about the provocative character of the message on the cross.
After media drew attention to the event, the local authorities decided to remove the tablet from the cross but made no attempts to punish the perpetrators. The Baranavichy region boasts a relatively large Uniate community.
No unity among Orthodox clergy
Russia and its lobbyists in Belarus try to throw-in new challenges for the Belarusian authorities in order to test their reaction to unknown threats. At the moment the Belarusian authorities’ reaction shows the absence of will to act quickly and firmly against pro-Kremlin provocateurs.
The Belarusian media reacted harshly both to speeches by Metropolitan Pavel on the Uniates and to the provocative tablet on the cross in Kolbavichy; even pro-government journalists underlined the unacceptability of such behaviour by the ROC representatives. Pro-Kremlin sources started to promote the idea that the Belarusian government and independent media provoke a religious conflict in Belarus. The independent media’s sin? It draws attention to the illegal activities of ROC representatives.
At the same time, the Belarusian Orthodox Church cannot presently demonstrate a united position and agreement about the pronouncements of its Metropolitan. For example, the press-attaché of the Belarusian Orthodox Church took part in the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic where he delivered an official speech in the Belarusian language. He stated the importance of the proclamation of Belarusian People’s Republic, spoke about the unity of Christians in the country and finished his speech by the words “Glory to Jesus Christ! Long live Belarus!”
This occurred a couple of days after Metropolitan Pavel stated that the Belarusian Orthodox Church will not hold any events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic and “generally opposes the attempts to politicise prayer.”
Russia attempts to foster religious conflict in Belarus but faces strong resistance from local society, famous for its religious tolerance throughout history.
Even the Belarusian Orthodox Church, accused of being staunchly pro-Kremlin, shows different positions and approaches to the same issues. Meanwhile, Russia’s use of religion to destabilise the situation in Belarus is likely to continue.
How many divisions does Lukashenka have?
On 18 February President Alexander Lukashenka offered to deploy a 10,000-strong Belarusian contingent as peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. This represents a rather large commitment for the Belarusian army comprising in total 46,000 military personnel.
Minsk pays increasing attention to its military and has even raised its spending on armed forces by a fifth. But the Belarusian army still faces problems, which go beyond the acquisition of expensive weaponry. It also has fewer conscripts than it would like. Consequently it employs additional professional soldiers and relies ever more on reservists. In this way the army adjusts to the needs of the country.
Arms or soldiers? Minsk’s spending dilemma
This year Belarusian government spending on the national army amounted to $576m; about a fifth more than last year. This remains a small figure, as even its neighbours with considerably smaller armies manage to spend more (see Table 1). To be sure, one has to take into account that the Baltic states pay a lot for Western equipment, while Minsk still has Soviet stores and national defence industries producing some equipment at affordable prices.
As Belarus increased its army budget, initially it looked as if it had allocated more funds in order to purchase costly new fighter jets from Russia. With time it appears that the decision relates to more than equipment. First, the deal on aircraft, according to recent news, is not yet finalised. Second, the growth in spending may partly stem from personnel costs. In 2017 the government raised salaries of all military personnel three times, and wages of civil personnel – twice.
In addition, for several years the Belarusian armed forces have been increasing the share of professionals — so-called contracted soldiers. Defence minister Andreij Raukou, in an interview for BelTA news agency on 23 February, revealed that, whereas in 2014 professional servicemen and women made up 16 per cent of all soldiers and sergeants, this figure has now reached 20%. The remainder comprises conscripts and regularly called up reservists. While Belarusian government officials firmly insist that the army will never be entirely professional, the share of professional contracted soldiers grows.
Poorly qualified soldiers and sergeants
The figures hide the occasionally difficult reality concerning the quality of even professional Belarusian military personnel. After a conscript’s suicide at the 72nd Combined Training Centre because of hazing, the control bodies also re-examined all sergeants dealing with trainees at the centre. The results, as reported by Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta on 15 December, shock: about 30 % of sergeants failed to prove they held appropriate qualifications, leading to their dismissal from the facility.
The situation with ordinary soldiers is no better. In recent decades the Belarusian draft system involves conscription of less than a fifth of the whole age group. In the autumn 2017 draft campaign, more than seven-and-a-half thousand men have been called up for compulsory 18 or 12-month military service, and more than one-and-a-half thousand men for service as reservists.
In the news conference on 14 February minister Raukou lamented that about five per cent of conscripts from the latest draft had past criminal convictions. As recently as the early 2000s such people would not be admitted to the army. The minister added that almost two thirds of the conscripts had been detained by police for administrative offences, while the police had 12 per cent under constant observation because of recurrent offences.
No wonder that the army shifts its priorities away from conscripted recruits towards the hiring of professional soldiers, and also towards the deployment of more reservists. The latter mostly have better education than current recruits, and serve in the army for several shorter stints during two years (if they have a university degree) to gain some military qualification. Later on, they can be called up for refresher courses and participation in exercises.
The Belarusian army boasts success in training reservists. On 7 February the official Belarusian military daily, Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta, run a story about the 51st Guards’ Artillery Brigade in which reservists make up ninety per cent of its personnel. They deal with sophisticated systems like the multiple-launch missile system (MLRS) Uragan, the towed 152.4 mm howitzer Msta-B, or the 152 mm self-propelled gun Giatsint-S. Apparently they cope with the task; in 2015–2017 the brigade’s units were acknowledged as the best artillery divisions in the Belarusian army.
Belarus has enough officers
The situation with officers looks better. Speaking at an official event on 18 January, the defence minister, Raukou, said: “The staffing of the posts of officers for some years has been growing in a fairly stable way and has presently reached the highest level for the entire period of the Belarusian army’s existence.”
Most officers receive their education in Belarus. The head of military education department in the defence ministry, Ihar Slutski, told Belarusian military media on 20 December that 277 officers and 1,114 reserve officers graduated from Belarusian colleges in 2017.
Traditionally, a significant number of Belarusian officers train in Russia. Mostly they study there to gain rarer qualifications or because they have interest in higher levels of military education. Official sources provide only general data for this, according to which at present almost 440 Belarusians are being trained in 56 specialities in Russian military colleges. In other words, the ratio of Belarusian officers being educated inside Belarus today and in Russia last year equated to approximately three to one.
Readjustments and cuts
The Belarusian army transforms not only in terms of its equipment where it “selectively” rearms. As described above, the government also reforms military personnel and the general structure.
Most probably, Minsk will further, although not dramatically, reduce the size of its standing army. That follows not only from officials’ statements about problems with conscripts, but also from the evident lack of funds to properly maintain the existing army.
The defence ministry begins to get rid of unnecessary material assets which may indicate the intent to subsequently reduce the number of personnel. At a press conference on 14 February, Raukou announced plans to get rid of 25 per cent of the stored arms, equipment and other military material.
Belarus’s military pursues similar policies with regard to its civil personnel. On 21 December, the head of support services department in the defence ministry, Dzmitry Strashynski, told the official military media that in 2017 they reduced the civilian personnel providing security for military bases by 346 men thanks to the installation of electronic equipment.
Of course, Minsk will not simply cut its military. It also buys the equipment it needs and readjusts the structure of the national armed forces. A case in point provided by the establishment of a new air defence regiment in December. The new unit, located in the city of Baranavichy, operates the modern surface–to–air missile systems Tor–M2. That is, Minsk cares about its air defence capacities because of its commitments vis–a–vis Russia.
For its own needs, Minsk prioritises special operations forces and missile capabilities. Other parts of the military probably will be reduced.
Whatever problems the Belarusian army encounters in terms of equipment and personnel, the government looks for ways to solve them. Above all, by readjusting the army to make it suit Belarus’s own needs and opportunities. Although Minsk carefully takes into account some Russian sensitivities in the defence sphere, say, by maintaining massive air defence components in its armed forces, it sets limits. Otherwise, the Belarusian government decides for itself and pays for itself in respect of military issues. Doing so, it can develop a robust army without fomenting destabilisation in the region.