Russia Takes Over a Part of Belarusian Army
Last week, President Lukashenka approved an agreement with Russia to establish the Single Regional System of Air Defence. The defence ministers of the two nations already signed the controversial treaty three years ago. Russian and Belarusian presidents will jointly appoint the commander of the air defence system. This effectively means that a portion of the Belarusian armed forces will be brought under Russian command.
Earlier this month, Lukashenka asked Russia to help finance the Belarusian army. The statement provoked controversy, prompting Defence Minister Yury Zhadobin to explain that the words of his commander-in-chief were intended as an invitation to increase bilateral cooperation. The German magazine Spiegel commented that Belarus is "losing its autonomy step by step.” In reality, Belarus does not need to maintain such a large, well-armed military in the first place – the only reason it does so is to serve Moscow.
Armed for Moscow
Referring to the recent unrest in North Africa, Syria, and Iran, Defence Minister Zhadobin declared on Tuesday that "external factors are drawing our attention to the military dimensions of state security." Zhadobin may have implied that Belarus should be vigilant because its neighbours were willing to teach it "how to live." But hardly anyone in the Belarusian army could imagine a war against NATO. Perhaps Zhadobin was referring to the external threats faced by another state – Russia?
Military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin and other experts believe that Belarus itself does not need such a formidable military in the first place. Yet as Russia's staunch ally, Belarus needs its armed forces to qualify as a valuable asset to Russia's national defence. Indeed, only 300 km separate the Belarusian border from the Kremlin. National defence is a trump card for the Belarusian government in its negotiations with Russia.
However, as with many other assets of the Belarusian regime, the real value of this trump card is hard to measure. Officially, Belarus still has a lot of military equipment but lacks the funding to modernise it. According to former Defence Minister Paval Kazlouski, only four or five of the 30 fighter planes in each of Belarus's air force regiments were actually combat-ready in 2010.
Since the summer of 2009, the Belarusian armed forces have lost seven pilots and four fighter jets and helicopters. Radio Liberty quoted a Belarusian air force pilot as saying: “We still use Soviet machines that are twenty to thirty – and in some cases even forty – years old. The government has no money to renovate military equipment, so we intimidate [enemies] with what we have”.
Underpaid Belarusian Soldiers
There are also questions concerning the human resources of the Belarusian military. In the 2000s, then Defence Minister Malcau began implementing a new system of brigades in the army that he had studied in Germany. This finally brought Belarus on par with the level of brigade organisation common throughout Europe. Russia had undertaken this reform years earlier.
The salaries of Belarusian soldiers remain discouragingly low. Presently, a lieutenant receives about BYR 2-2.5 million (up to US$ 280) per month – six to seven times less than his counterpart in the Russian army. Regime insiders also acknowledge that it is impossible to have a successful career by rising up the ranks in the army, since high official positions are reserved for people from state security agencies (mostly KGB) or the Presidential Security Service. Indeed, those who have served as a bodyguard to Lukashenka are almost guaranteed a rank of colonel or higher.
As a result, the most coveted places in the Military Academy are for the training of internal security troops – there are twice as many applicants as for the air force faculty. That seems remarkable given that internal troops are used to guard prisons, patrol the streets, and carry out policing. But these internal troops are treated better than the army because they are more vital to the regime.
Many specialists go east to serve as contractors in the Russian army. That makes the task of maintaining Belarusian armed forces in good shape even more difficult. Hence it is no wonder that, as Putin steps up military spending, the Belarusian leadership wants to get its share. Minsk knows that the Kremlin is in greater need of the Belarusian army than Belarus itself. In previous years, Belarus received indirect support for its military from Russia through generous oil subsidies that could be recycled into defence spending.
But now that Russian subsidies have been reduced, Russia needs to find other ways to keep the Belarusian army afloat. Belarusian and Russian officials like to compare such financial aid to the Belarusian army with US aid to Israeli and Egyptian militaries.
Inch by Inch towards NATO
Close military relations with Russia are not indicative of Lukashenka's goodwill toward his eastern neighbour. As in other spheres, Lukashenka is pursuing an opportunistic policy that makes the best of Belarus's vulnerabilities. According to Dzyanis Melyantsou of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, Lukashenka has also gradually developed military ties with NATO.
As one might expect, the Belarusian media has downplayed this cooperation with the West. While state officials like to make much fuss about military links with countries as far afield as China, they have kept silent on the cooperation with NATO. Relations have always been very practical, with minimal legal frameworks and few ceremonies.
But NATO has increasingly developed links with the Belarusian military. Under NATO's “Partnership for Peace”, Belarus has reduced arms. In 2004, Minsk joined NATO's Planning and Review Process, effectively requiring the Belarusian military to meet NATO standards in preparation for joint operations. The following year, Belarusian soldiers began to take part regularly in NATO exercises.
Belarus has yet to sign an agreement with NATO on sharing classified information, and it prevents Belarus from participation in some programmes. But the two sides were already cooperating in 24 different thematic areas in 2010-2011. In 2006, the government set a goal of adopting NATO weapons standards. In the past couple of years, Minsk has allowed NATO to transport cargo for its troops in Afghanistan through Belarus.
As a result of this hedging strategy, the Belarusian military may now compare its equipment, working conditions, and salaries not only to Russia, but also to NATO. It is too early to say whether Belarus is a reliable NATO partner – its army depends on Russia for equipment, spare parts, and training. But the engagement is evident – if Belarus democratises, current efforts will expedite the transformation of armed forces in accordance with the role that an army usually plays in a European nation.
Unlike the security agencies or police, the army itself is not Lukashenka's best ally. The government values security agencies and the internal troops under the Internal Ministry because they are necessary to keep a grip on power. But its distrust of the army means that it never uses army units to crush protests. The army is unlikely to play a role in a political transition and it has never done so. But its personnel are an untapped source of support for change.
Political Prisoners as Part of Belarus Electoral Process
Belarusian opposition activist Siarhei Kavalenka may soon die as a result of a 59-day hunger strike against his criminal prosecution. He and other 14 opposition and civil society activists remain in prisons for their political views. US and EU officials, including Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton, repeatedly called for a release of all political prisoners before any negotiations with Belarus on improvement of bilateral relations. However, Belarusian authorities are not keen to listen after Russia agreed to supply them oil and gas on extremely beneficial terms.
Like other authoritarian rulers, Alexander Lukashenka tries to isolate potential leaders from different social backgrounds who might be dangerous for his grip on power. Authorities initiate administrative prosecution to suppress everyday activities and criminal cases usually target the most influential activists or organisations. The idea is that it would also deter others from attempts to damage the regime. Imprisonment and release of political prisoners seems to be linked to the election cycle in Belarus and Russia's economic subsidies.
Since late 1990s imprisonment for political reasons has been a characteristic feature of the Belarusian authoritarian regime. Several people lost their freedom before and after the presidential election in 2006, including former Minister of Foreign Economic Affairs Mikhail Marinich, former Belarusian State University rector and presidential candidate Aliaksandr Kazulin, several opposition leaders, former members of Parliament, businessmen and young activists. Nevertheless, authorities released all of them before the 2008 parliamentary election as a result of Belarus-EU negotiations. It let Belarus join the EU Eastern Partnership and, among other benefits, get an IMF loan of $3.46bn.
There were no political prisoners between August 2008 and December 2010 when the EU pursued an engagement policy towards Belarus. Nobody thought that the history would repeat after the 2010 presidential election. Unexpectedly for all observers, up to 700 opposition activists were arrested and at least 57 persons were charged or prosecuted, including seven of the ten presidential candidates. Later Belarusian courts sentenced 29 of them to prison terms despite objections of international organisations and Belarusian human rights groups.
Prisoners as Part of the Electoral Process
There is a certain pattern in how political prisoners re-appear depending on the Belarusian election cycle. New people go to prisons after each presidential election as a reaction of authorities to excessive politicisation of the population. This way Lukashenka wants to demonstrate Belarusians that they should abstain from politics, with the exception of election months. Then authorities use parliamentary elections in order to release the majority of political prisoners and improve the relations with the West before the next presidential election.
The reason of "showing an example" was especially adequate for the regime in 2011 when Belarus faced the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trade unions, businessmen associations and groups of workers were reluctant to actively protest against the deterioration of the economic situation when they saw what the potential consequences personally for them.
From Presidential Candidates to Anarchists
Only four of those who were criminally prosecuted after the recent election still remain in prison. They are former presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich and prominent opposition figures Dmitry Bandarenka and Pavel Sevyarynets.
Another criminal case that attracted much international attention was against the head of the human rights group Viasna Ales Bialiatski. Bialiatski defended and supported victims of political repressions rights in Belarus for a very long time with support from international donors. Belarusian court found him guilty of "tax evasion" of the donor's money that he used for his activities.
Young activists Zmicier Dashkevich and Eduard Lobov were sentenced to two and four years prison terms correspondingly for allegeded involvment in an act of "malicious hooliganism". Authorities also imprisoned a regional businessman Mikalai Autukhovich for "illegal possession" of five bullets for a hunting gun. Vitsebsk opposition activist Siarhei Kavalenka was sentenced to three years of personal restraint after he hung out an old national flag on the New Year tree at the Victory square in Vitebsk. He is keeping a hunger-strike against his criminal prosecution since 20 December 2011 and may soon die as a result of it.
Recently several young anarchists were also criminally prosecuted, but not all Belarusian and international organisations recognise them as political prisoners. One of the most respected human rights organisation Viasna consider only Mikalai Dziadok, Igor Olinevich and Aliaksandr Franzkevich as proper political prisoners. At the same time it regards cases of Eugene Vaskovich, Artem Prokopenko and Pavel Syromolotov as properly criminal, but whose punishment is disproportionate to their guilt and thus is politically motivated. In October 2010 they threw petrol bombs into KGB headquarters in a small Belarusian town Bobruisk and then were sentenced to seven years in a penal colony.
Political Prisoners or Just Criminals?
Belarusian authorities try to be innovative in the ways of political repression. They want political activists to look like dangerous criminals whose persecution is justified even in European countries. For example, in 2008 Hramada civil organisation activist Zmicier Lisienko was sentenced to 10 years in prison for illegal possession of drugs, and no human rights group in Belarus wanted to deal with this case in order not to be accused of helping drug criminals.
Finally, freshly-created group of human rights activists Za Voliu! claims that Aliaksanr Kruty and Aliaksandr Malchanau are also political prisoners in addition to above-mentioned 15 people. The former is accused of hooliganism against a doctor in Minsk and the latter is accused of a scrap metal theft. It appears that sometimes independent media portray usual crimes as politically motivated if a person has some link with the opposition. However, in most cases after careful consideration of facts human rights associations deny the political nature of such crimes.
Hostages in the Geopolitical Game
Many predict that the Belarus-EU "cold war" has to end, because it is not in the interests of either side. When Bulgarian foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov visited Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk at the beginning of September, it seemed as just another step towards the rapprochement scenario. As a result of it 21 political prisoners became free in August-October 2011, but then the process reached a deadlock once again.
A number of experts blame the new round of generous Russian subsidies which make dialogue with the West and release of political prisoners a less urgent task. Belarusian authorities can afford waiting for really beneficial offers from the EU and United States.
The authorities still need good relations with Western countries to lessen their dependence upon Russia, improve their image in the world and attract foreign investments. There is room for bargaining and hope for prisoners’ relatives, but unfortunately it is difficult to expect quick improvements.