Seviarynets Free, Belarus Free Theatre Praised, Rosneft Invests in Belarus – Western Press Digest
After three years of imprisonment with hard labour, notable political prisoner Paval Seviarynets is free. Jailed civil rights activist Ales Byalyatski has been awarded the first ever Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize. Russian giant Rosneft making inroads into Belarus, while the Belarus-Russia potash scandal continues.
Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip and famous British playwright Tom Stoppard were the co-recipients of the 2013 PEN/Pinter Prize. Belarus Free Theatre continues to receive media coverage and positive reviews in the west.
The European Commission denied recent reports that it had improperly provided aid to Belarusian security forces. All this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Belarusian journalist receives prestigious PEN prize – Iryna Khalip, a journalist who spoke out and demonstrated against the 2010 presidential elections, received the PEN/Pinter Prize with British Playwright Tom Stoppard. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty notes that Khalip, a journalist for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, was beaten and briefly imprisoned before being given a two-year suspended sentence for her participation in the 2010 protests.
The PEN/Pinter prize is annually awarded to a British writer and, as RFE/RL notes, a writer that has faced persecution. According to the Guardian, Tom Stoppard, who nominated Khalip in consultation with English PEN, stated that, “I salute her courage and her example; she is the reporter I wanted to be.” The PEN/Pinter Prize was created in memory of playwright and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter.
Activist Paval Seviarynets released after 3 years in a labour camp – Leader of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, who was arrested for participating in a protest against the December 2010 presidential elections, was released from jail. Seviarynets was arrested and imprisoned on his way to the protests. The Agence France-Presse coverage states that this was Seviarnynets’ second time working in a forced labor camp. He previously endured a two-year sentence in 2005 for protesting the passage of a law that eliminated terms limits for Lukashenka.
Despite his many run-ins with law enforcement agencies and his two stints in labor camps, the activist is said to have told reporters that he considers his work now to, “prepare for a moral revolution.” Seviarynets was detained in 2010 along side other prominent opposition figures, some of whom still remain in detention.
Human Rights Activist Byalyatski receives Havel Human Rights Prize – RFE/RL reports that Ales Byalyatski became the first recepient of the Vaclav Havel Human Rights prize. Byalyatski, who is serving a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence on tax evasion charges, received the honour from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for his “. . . daily struggle against violations of human rights, injustice, arbitrariness and authoritarianism . . .”
These accounts, the authorities alleged, were used to receive funding from international donors. Ales Byalyatski’s wife, Natallya Pinchuk, accepted the honor on his behalf in Strasbourg and made a brief statement before PACE that she accepts the award as a symbol of appreciation for his many years of hard work on behalf of Belarusians. The Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, named after the famous Czech playwright and former president, is a new annual prize that PACE will give to individuals or groups who defend human rights.
Belarus Free Theatre receives warm welcome and positive reviews – The Belarus Free Theatre troupe, traveling with their performance of Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker by Vladimir Shcherban, has garnered praise. The Herald-Tribune describes the origins of the Belarus Free Theatre project as a group of performers living in exile from their native Belarus due to the persecution they faced at home. The publication notes that several of them have been arrested in the past for their performances.
The Herald-Tribute reports that the piece largely discusses issues faced under the Lukashenka regime through the lens of several short acts dealing with sexual repression. Each publication covering the performances stated that Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker is not a straightforward political commentary, but more about the desire to return and live normal lives in Belarus.
Swede selling teddy bear drop plane, suggests Lukashenka buys it – The plane used in the now infamous teddy bear drop is up for sale on eBay, with the proceeds reportedly to be used to support democracy in Belarus. The BBC reports that Tomas Mazetti recently put up the plane used to drop teddy bears with pro-democracy slogans on eBay. The report also alleges that Mazetti sent an open letter to Belarusian ruler Aleksandr Lukashenka offering him to purchase it in order to help better train Belarus’ air defence systems.
European Commission denies it supports Belarusian police – In response to a recent report in U.K. daily the Telegraph, the European Commission has refuted claims made that British and EU member-state funds inappropriately went to support Belarusian police and border guards. RFE/RL states that while the European Commission did finance the purchasing of new equipment for Belarusian border guards, the funds were used to protect EU borders. New vehicles and night-vision equipment were purchased to stop the smuggling of goods and people across the EU-Belarus border, but the funds reportedly do not help to “enhance the regime.”
Rosneft looks to purchase Belarusian oil refinery – Russian petroleum giant Rosneft has expressed its interest in purchasing the state’s stake in the Belarusian Mozyr oil refinery. In combination with its shares from the Rosneft and Gazpromneft co-owned Slavneft, the Russian companies would have a controlling share. According to the Reuters report, Rosneft head and long-time Putin ally Igor Sechin stated that talks have been underway, but the right deal has not been reached. Sechin has opposed any cuts in whole exports to Belarus in the past, making him an ally of Lukashenka.
The primary reason for the sale of such a lucrative asset is to help boost a troubled Belarusian economy. With Belarus’ coffers running dry, it needs to raise tax revenue to be able to pay its outstanding international debts. Privatisation plans between Russia and Belarus have had a rocky history, but according to the Financial Times Rosneft’s Sechin appears to be providing enough guarantees to Lukashenka to make the sale possible.
Belarusian leadership seeks a respectable exit from potash scandal. The ongoing conflict between Belarus and Russia over the Belarusian Potash Company has seen new developments recently. Lukashenka continues to seek the removal of Uralkali’s major stakeholder and owner, oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, from the company. However, Bloomberg news reports that the charges against CEO Vladislav Baumgertner have been changed from abuse of power to “probably” embezzlement.
The possibility of Russia extraditing Baumgertner would help Lukashenka “save face” according to the New York Times. Still, Lukashenka presses his agenda of restoring the Belarus Potash Company and the resignation or removal of Kerimov from Russian potash producer Uralkali.
Moscow-Minsk Military Axis
On 16 October, the High Command of the Belarusian military conducted a detailed analysis of West-2013 exercise, which played out in Belarus in late September. The event became the largest show of force by the Union State of Russia and Belarus in four years.
Second in scope only to the controversial West-2009 exercise, West-2013 has become another milestone in the Russia-driven military integration in the post-Soviet space. Whether the exercise helped the Belarusian leader to strike non-military bargains with Kremlin remains to be seen.
Russian-Belarusian Integration: Guns for Butter
Pro-regime commentators in Belarus often compare the Union State of Belarus and Russia with the European Union. While regular economic “wars” and top-level spats make the comparison hollow, in one area the Union project has probably achieved more success than its European counterpart. The area is military integration.
The roots of the close cooperation between the two militaries lie in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not affect the military ties between the two countries as much as their economic and political trajectories. In the early 1990s, the transitional Communist-dominated government ensured the conservation of the Belarusian military-industrial complex, which was created to serve the needs of the Soviet military.
After the 1994 presidential elections, Alexander Lukashenka reinforced this trend. On the one hand, he turned the conservative Belarusian military, which was nostalgic of the Soviet military might, into his loyal base during the power struggle of the mid-1990s. On the other, his policy of generous military allowances made servicemen and military retirees Lukashenka’s core constituency.
Moscow-Minsk Military Axis: 1990s to 2000s
Empty political declarations and still-born agreements of the 1990s aside, effective cooperation between the two militaries originated from within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The year 1998 saw the launching of yearly air defence exercises of CIS member-states' Combat Community. The exercises enabled Moscow to maintain control over the air defence capabilities of the former Soviet republics, particularly its Central Asia states. However, by 2013 the Combat Community was reduced to little more than pre-sales testing of advanced Russian air defence technology.
The early 2000s marked a time of maturation for the Belarusian military. Three major military exercises took place within a three-year period – a defensive Nioman-2001, a counter-offensive Biarezina-2002 and a comprehensive air force and air defence exercise “Clear Sky-2003”. The latter became the first instance of major Russian military involvement in Belarus.
On 13 October 2003, in a statement summarising the outcome of Clear Sky-2003, President Lukashenka claimed that the exercise reflected the lessons learned from the NATO campaigns in Yugoslavia and Iraq and aimed to counter an identical scenario in Belarus.
The first truly joint military exercise Union Shield-2006 took place three years later. The pivotal points of this staff-centred exercise were air defence and the coordination of the newly created Joint Military Force, which comprised the military forces of Belarus and the Russian 20th Army.
West-2009: a Milestone
In 2009, the militaries of Russia and Belarus conducted their first full-scale joint field exercise West-2009, which became the largest field exercise in the region since the dissolution of the USSR. It came as a surprise to Belarus' Western neighbours and caused significant angst in the Baltic republic and Poland.
West-2009 lasted for two weeks and played out across several locations, including the Kaliningrad enclave and Belarus. The exercise imitated a full-blown military conflict, involving strategic bombing, airborne and seaborne landings and a tank attack spread over a large front. The scenario of West-2009 leaves no doubt that the exercise had a distinct offensive character.
The following major Union State military exercise Union Shield-2011 received little attention in the West, largely due to the fact that it was conducted far from the borders of the EU. Thus, Poland and the Baltic states saw the return of a large joint Russian-Belarusian military force to their borders in 2013 as a repetition of the 2009 scenario.
West-2013: Who Benefits
However, the similarities between the two West exercises are only superficial. While comparable in scope and the number of military personnel involved, the exercises differed significantly in the composition of their forces and set objectives. The official exercise plan of West-2013 foresaw the neutralising of a group of terrorists invading the Union State.
Most military analysts rightly qualified the choice of Belarus and Kaliningrad region for a large-scale anti-terrorist operation as misguided. However, the absence of ground operations over a large front or a serious air component de facto limited the exercise to a number of intense tactical operations completed by elite task forces.
This exercise did not display any clear defensive or offensive characteristics. Rather, it was reminiscent of a coordinated anti-insurgency mission. The skills trained during such an exercise would prove useful in a conflict similar to the current situation in Syria or in a potential political breakdown scenario in a Central Asian republic.
Coupled with the absence of heated anti-Western rhetoric in the state-controlled media, which marked West-2009, it appears unlikely that Lukashenka prepared West-2013 as an opportunity to flex his muscles in the face of his Western critics.
In 2009, the impending elections and Russia’s economic backing allowed him to reap the fruits of publicly defying the West with impunity. However, in the late 2013 the Belarusian leader finds himself making cautious advances towards the EU and IMF in the face of a looming currency crisis in Belarus. An aggressive military move simply would go against President Lukashenka’s current game.
On a different note, the exercise provided Alexander Lukashenka a rare opportunity to hold circumstantial negotiations with President Putin. Lukashenka used the traditional joint inspection of the troops to raise the issues on Uralkali and extending new credit lines to Minsk. The coming weeks will show whether these talks yielded any practical results.
Quite predictably, the exercises ended with enthusiastic reports from both the Russian and Belarusian military commands. In contrast to West-2009 and Union Shield-2011, the planners of West-2013 indeed managed to avoid both international incidents and any highly embarrassing loss of life.
However, an implausible legend and the secrecy around the event cast doubts about whether its planners had clarity about the ultimate purpose of the exercise. In the wake of West-2013, it appears that its only clear consequence is the further consolidation of Moscow’s hold over the Belarusian military. However, this alone might as well be considered by the Russian military strategists to constitute a success.
This article won a best article prize in a recent Belarus Digest contest.