Latvian support, 2018 local elections, new media policy, China-friendly tourism – Belarus state press digest

Alexander Lukashenka thanks Latvia for advocating the lifting of EU sanctions and its attitude towards the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP). New heads of the leading state media outlets appointed to modernise media policy, make media more competitive and introduce more local content. Lukashenka admits to defence ministry failures in information and ideological work.

Belarus works to make its tourist infrastructure China-friendly. The authorities plan to create the traditional festive atmosphere during the local elections on 18 February. However, local councils in Belarus remain little more than voluntary social work and attract little competition.

This and more in the latest Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy and security

Lukashenka thanks Latvia for advocating the lifting of sanctions and its attitude towards the Belarusian NPP. The Belarusian president described the arrival of Latvian prime minister, Māris Kučinskis, to Minsk as ‘a very welcome and meaningful visit’ according to Belarus Segodnia. However, he took the opportunity to tell his guest: ‘You just need to get rid of the feeling that we are too dependent on our brotherly Russia and are not able to take any steps independently. We adhere to the policy of not creating problems for our neighbours. We never reproached you for joining the EU. On the contrary, we try to benefit from this… And we will never ally with any country against Russia, as well as against Latvia.’

Lukashenka also expressed his gratitude to the Latvian Prime Minister for Latvia’s active promotion of the lifting of sanctions against Belarus, including during its presidency of the EU Council. Now Riga looks equally constructive in its approach to the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, he noted.

Lukashenka admits to the failures of the defence ministry in information policy. On 13 February, the Security Council held its first meeting dedicated to summing up the work of the military and security agencies in 2017. The meeting particularly considered the problems and achievements in the military sphere, writes Belarus Segodnia.  Lukashenka mentioned that some ‘unexpected statements’ came from foreign partners regarding the Minsk agreements, but it is obvious to everyone that no real alternative exists today.

Security Council meeting. Photo: sb.by

The Belarusian leader noted that the Russian leadership lacks understanding of the need to jointly strengthen the national armed forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. He also demanded that the Ministry of Defense immediately strengthen its ideological work, including information policy. He admitted that the ministry failed in its responsibilities in this sphere and, in particular, ‘the coverage of the West-2017 military exercise in the media was badly organised.’

Domestic policies

New heads of the leading media tasked to modernise media policy. The president appointed new leadership to three national official media organs, reports Belarus Segodnia. Ivan Ejsmant became the chairman of Belteleradiocompany, Dzmitry Žuk – editor-in-chief of the newspaper Belarus Segodnia, and Ihar Lucki – general director of the STV television channel. Lukashenka said the main mass media in Belarus require changes and urged them to adopt the best foreign practices, especially noting the quality of Russian television. The new leaders each told Belarus Segodnia what the president expects from them.

Dzmitry Žuk explained: ‘The task is to show fairly how the country lives. Do not fool people, but give [them] the most objective information.’ According to Ivan Ejsmant: ‘The head of state asked us to modernise our television – both in terms of picture and content. To make it watchable and competitive compared to the TV channels of neighbouring countries.’ While Ihar Lucki added: ‘The most important thing is the development of national content. The share of Belarusian programs should increase. It is important to have new faces and new content.’

Belarus works to make its tourist infrastructure China-friendly. In December 2017, the prime ministers of Belarus and China during the Council of Heads of Government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation declared 2018 the Year of Tourism of Belarus in China. In 2017, Belarus received about 20,000 Chinese tourists, but this figure could be higher, says the deputy minister for sport and tourism, Michail Partnoj. To attract more Chinese travellers, the country has to resolve a couple of basic problems: ensure visa-free entry and introduce more convenient logistics. For example, today flights from Beijing to Kiev and Moscow cost at least 250-300 dollars less than flights to Minsk, informs Respublika.

At the moment, Belarus has trained 15 Chinese-speaking guides, introduced Chinese information in the arrivals hall of Minsk National Airport, produced Chinese audio guides for the main tourist sites, and made some other steps to make Belarus China-friendly. Chinese visitors take most interest in the communist legacy in Belarus, particularly related to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and World War II.

2018 local elections

Local councils in Belarus remain a kind of voluntary social work. While in most of the Minsk city constituencies five or more candidates compete for a council seat, in the countryside the competition remains scarce, reports Narodnaja Hazieta. Even at the level of regional councils many constituencies go uncontested. Political analyst Aliaksandr Špakoŭski explains this with a mere fact that the deputies serving on local councils do not receive a salary or any other benefits. Essentially, they perform a kind of social work. Besides, unlike in the parliament, local councils do not make real political decisions.

Фото: Вадим Замировский, TUT.BY

A buffet at a polling station during the 2014 local elections. Photo: tut.by

Špakoŭski calls for a review of the legislation on political parties and to think about creating mechanisms for public funding of parties, including national funds, which will be engaged in the support and development of constructive parties. It is necessary to develop the political space, but the authorities should not grant power to institutions that have no support within the society, that is – the currently weak political parties.

The authorities will create a festive atmosphere during local elections on 18 February. According to Siarhiej Konanaŭ, first deputy chairman of the Žodzina City Executive Committee, retailers and catering facilities will offer their products and services at polling stations. The authorities strive to not only get the people’s votes but offer them entertainment and music, writes Zviazda.

Children will be able to feast with ice cream, biscuits and juice. The neighbouring Smaliavičy district will also create a festive atmosphere with performances of local music bands. On the same day, the holiday of Maslenitsa (Slavic Carnival) will be held on the central square. Residents of the area will be able to enjoy pancakes, as well as participate in games and contests.

The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily convey the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




Ever narrower access to the sea undermines Belarusian sovereignty

On Thursday, Lithuania announced that its Klaipeda port had recorded the highest ever annual volume of shipments. This occurred thanks to Belarusian firms’ growing use of Klaipeda despite Moscow’s pressure which demands of Belarus to boycott the Baltic states’ ports.

Officially, the Belarusian government and businesses report that they start exporting oil products via Russian ports. Yet, while Minsk tells what Moscow it likes to hear, it continues with business as usual.

Minsk giving in to Moscow?

On 20 December, Belarus’s Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka “forecast” that in 2018 Belarus would export up to one million tons of oil products via Russian ports. These exports would be rerouted away from Baltic states’ ports.

Indeed, on 8 December, Ihar Lyashenka the head of Belnaftakhim (BNK), a Belarusian state company that sells oil products, announced that his firm was beginning to export oil products via Russian ports. The first deal on 72,000 tons should have been finalised in December-January. The formal character of his statement was underlined by the fact that his comments were made at the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union state of Belarus and Russia.

The actual volume of the deal is negligible, and even the plans to export one million tons a year via Russia fail to impress. For comparison, last year even after its respective exports had shrunk by about 15 percent – Belarus exported almost a million tons of oil products each month. There is another interesting detail: Russia lacks the technical capacity to reroute even half of these export volumes. The director of commercial issues for the Russian railways, Aleksei Shilo, told TASS news agency on 19 October that his firm can transport about five million tons of Belarusian oil products per year.

The Kremlin’s campaign to impose a blockade on Baltic ports is stalling. Last August, Russian president Putin personally demanded that the transit of Belarusian oil products be rerouted away from the Baltic states to Russian ports. He suggested that this could be done by imposing such logistical demands on Minsk through supply contracts for Russian oil deliveries to Belarus. Previously, beginning in 2016, Moscow had attempted to achieve the same goal by offering Belarus ever bigger discounts on transportation of their export cargo via railways. These efforts failed.

Belarus’s Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka told the media that Minsk had signed all oil contracts with Russia for the period until 2025, and that they cannot be amended.

Image: Vestnik Naftana

At the end of September, however, the acting director of the Belarusian oil company BNK, Siarhei Hryb, announced that Belarus was ready to ship its oil products to foreign customers via Russian ports if it were not for lack of economic feasibility. As TUT.by reported, transhipment operations for one ton of oil products via Baltic states’ ports costs six to eight US dollars, while using Russian ports as suggested by the Kremlin pushes the cost to $12-18.

No business just politics

Minsk may have its own reasons to send some cargo via Russia to make a point in relations with its Baltic neighbours. Belorusy i rynok, the economic daily newspaper, observed that Minsk’s decision to export some products via Russian ports could have not only economic but also political reasons. After all, Lithuania objects to Belarus’s nuclear power plant construction project and works to put pressure on Minsk everywhere.

Belarusian presence at Lithuania’s Klaipeda port provides Minsk with some leverage over Vilnius. Indeed, although for some years Russia has been reducing the volume of cargo it transports via the Baltic states, Klaipeda thrives. Thanks mostly to Belarusian exports of potash and oil products in 2016 its port achieved a record level of cargo transhipment 40.14 million tons, and in 2017 it broke that record again by transporting more than 43 million tons.

The official share of Belarusian cargo in the Klaipeda port, according to Belarus’s ambassador to Vilnius, Alyaksandr Karol, constantly exceeded 30 percent during the past five years. According to other estimates, in particular those published by the Russian news agency Regnum, the share of the cargo linked to Belarusian firms and shipped via Klaipeda might reach 70 percent.

Yet such intensive use of Klaipeda makes Minsk more vulnerable too. In an interview to the Vilnius-based Litovski Kuryer daily on 13 December, Ambassador Karol complained: “We sadly notice the statements of Lithuanian politicians and heads of government agencies on the undesirability of cooperation with Belarus, as well as their recommendations [to Lithuanian firms] regarding ‘more careful choice of business partners and suppliers.’”

Belarusians come as Russians leave

On 5 November, analysing Moscow’s attempts to lure and drive Belarusian firms away from the Baltic states’ ports, the popular Belarusian independent internet portal, TUT.by, interpreted these moves as part of a broader Kremlin reaction to Belarus’s growing presence in Lithuanian and Latvian ports.

General director of Belaruskali Ivan Halavaty shows the firm’s products to the chairman of higher chamber of Belarusian parliament Mikhail Myasnikovich. Image: BelTA

It started with Belaruskali, the national potash company, buying a 30-percent share in a terminal of Klaipeda port in 2013. The firm has kept this ownership share and invested further. Last September, Belaruskali‘s director Ivan Halavaty announced that Belaruskali could now export all products it needed to ship by sea via its own Klaipeda terminal.

Another attempt to improve access to the sea for Belarusian businesses can be seen in Belarusian oil company BNK’s decision to work with the Latvian port in Riga. Yet in 2016, Naftan, the Belarusian oil refinery, signed a contract with BNK to export annually in 2018−2022 of at least one million tons of petroleum distillates via the facilities of the Latvian WT OIL Terminal. Both the Belarusian and Latvian firms involved in the deal kept silent about it, though the information was revealed in one of Naftan‘s annual reports.

Minsk reviews its plans on Ukrainian and Polish ports

Minsk’s efforts to find alternative options for access to the sea via Ukraine and Poland stalled although the reasons remain unclear. On 4 January, the Belarusian government decided to close its consulate in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa. The consulate, opened in March 2011, coincided with Minsk’s efforts to find alternative sources of oil import and decrease dependence on Russia which relied on the use of the port in Odesa. Ironically, it was on his way to a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin, in Odesa in August 2015 that Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makey announced Minsk’s interest in increasing shipments of Belarusian cargo via Ukranian ports.

In a related development, on 18 January, foreign minister Makey revealed Minsk’s plans to close its consulate in the Polish port city of Gdansk. In recent years the Belarusian government has studied the opportunities for using Gdansk port and also by developing an international route via rivers between Black and Baltic seas.

Hence, land-locked Belarus is struggling not only with the Kremlin’s plans to starve Russia’s regional opponents into bankruptcy. There are problems in Belarus’s relations with regional countries which have nothing to do with Russia. As a result, Minsk shelves, for now, its plans concerning Ukrainian and Polish ports, while its cooperation with Latvia and Lithuania on gaining access to sea suffers from instability. Without stable regional cooperation, Belarusian sovereignty remains under threat. It needs diversified trade and communications which can change the political economy of the Belarusian state and balance Minsk’s dependencies on Russia. This will only be possible if Belarus can secure access to the sea via various countries other than Russia.




Putin expects Belarus to boycott ports of Baltic States

On 16 August, at a conference on transportation in Northwest Russia, Russian president Vladimir Putin demanded that Belarus stop exporting its oil products through Latvian and Lithuanian ports. Instead, Moscow wants Belarus to reroute through Russia’s Baltic ports. This way, Putin intends to put even more pressure on the Baltic states.

The next day, the Belarusian stateaffiliated news agency BelTA published an interview with the acting director general of Belarusian Oil Company, Siarhei Hryb. The article made clear that Minsk wishes to continue its cooperation with the Baltic states.

It seems that Russia and Belarus are heading towards another oil dispute just months after ending the previous one. Minsk refuses to blindly follow the Kremlin’s policy of strangling the Baltic states, if only for pragmatic reasons. To survive as a sovereign state, Belarus needs good relations with all its neighbours, not just Russia.

Moscow wants Belarusians to join in a boycott of the Baltic states

Last year, Belarus exported 13m tons of oil products – a significant number for such a small country. In comparison, Russia exported 156m tons in 2016. Traditionally, Minsk has exported its oil products through Lithuanian and Latvian ports due to their geographic proximity. Notably, Belarusian cargo, mostly oil and potash products, made up 36 percent of the total volume of shipments of Lithuanian railways last year.

The Russian Kaliningrad Province. Image: Encyclopedia Britannica

In contrast, Russia has decided to put a complete halt to export of its oil products through the Baltic states by 2018, opting to use its own ports on the Black and Baltic seas instead. The director of Russian Railways, Oleg Belozerov, told Putin at a conference on 16 August that Belarusian firms are refusing to use Russian railways and ports to export goods. Belarus has made this decision despite Russian Railway’s offer to double the standing discount for transporting Belarusian oil products to Russian Baltic Sea ports to 50 percent. According to Belozerov, Belarusians cite their long term contracts with Baltic state ports.

Putin supported the complaints of Russian Railways: ‘Belarusian oil refineries reprocess only our oil, they have no oil from other suppliers… hence we shall offer it [to Belarus] as a package: if they get our oil they use our infrastructure.’

The conference also dealt with a related issue which demonstrates that Moscow is making no distinction between friend and foe in its renewed effort to strangle the region. Russian officials discussed establishing transport routes between Russia’s Kaliningrad Province and the rest of Russia and circumvent foreign states. Moscow aims to develop a direct communication line which would link its exclave to Russia proper and stop transiting through both Lithuania and Belarus.

Two months ago, acting Governor of Kaliningrad Anton Alikhanov announced plans to triple  the capacities of ferry lines between Kaliningrad province and the Ust-Luga port near Saint Petersburg by 2020. In his own words: ‘This is an important step because our dear neighbours – Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Belarus – love to exploit the transportation factor, the isolation of Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia.’

Belarus unlikely to join Putin’s continental blockade

Moscow has so far failed to pressure Belarus into using Russian ports instead of Lithuanian or Latvian ones. Now, both the Belarusian government and the business sector intend to resist Putin’s demands, even at the risk of a new oil dispute.

Even in March, when Russian Railways offered Minsk a 50 percent discount on oil products shipments, Belarusian Transport minister Anatol Sivak outrightly dismissed the offer. Commenting on Putin’s recent initiative, Hryb told BelTA on 17 August that even the high discount offered by Russia would not make much difference. It is still cheaper to send Belarusian oil products through the Baltic states. In addition, the Russian Baltic sea ports have had problems processing oil products and ensuring they remain undamaged by the elements in winter. Hryb maintains that his company offers customers the option of transporting oil products through Russian ports. However, the customers choose ports in the Baltic states.

TUT.by, the largest Belarusian news portal, quoted an anonymous oil trader who brought up the fact that it is not only the transportation tariff that matters, other factors are important too: how much time it takes to transport cargo, which port infrastructure is available, which services are offered, and so forth. The Baltic state ports win out over their Russian competitors in all these regards.

A strategic sector

Purchase and refining of predominantly Russian oil, along with the subsequent export of its products, are a key sector of the Belarusian economy. Talking in June at a government conference, Lukashenka called the oil refining industry ‘strategic.’

Belarusian government holds a conference on oil refining industry. Image: CTV.by

According to calculations by the IPM Research Centre, if in 2018 Russia supplies 23m tons of oil (the standard volume in earlier years when bilateral relations were good), then the Belarusian GDP would grow by 2.7 percent. If the strained situation of 2016 or 2017 is repeated and Moscow cuts supplies (which would then make up just 18m tons) the Belarusian GDP would increase by just 0.5 percent.

TASS news agency quoted several experts as saying that for Belarus, switching to Russian ports would cost up to $150m in financial terms. However, this sum is insignificant in perspective: after all, Minsk currently earns about $1.4bn on cheap oil it gets from Moscow.

Minsk looks for solutions abroad and inside the country

To counter the Kremlin’s repeated oil threats, Minsk is looking for alternative sources of oil by making new attempts to import Azerbaijani and Iranian oil. Out of the 18.6m tons of oil imported by Belarus in 2016, 0.5m tons were imported not from Russia, but most probably from Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, Minsk is working on a strategic long-term modernisation of the Belarusian petrochemical industry. In March, Alyaksandr Dzyamidau, the newly appointed director of Naftan, a Navapolatskbased refinery, explained to the media that Lukashenka had asked him to accelerate the modernisation of Naftan. The aim, according to Dzyamidau, is to make Belarusian refineries capable of processing oil of any brand and from various countries.

Mozyr oil refinery. Image: BelTA

The government is investing huge amounts of money to modernise the two oil refineries, and the process should be complete by 2019. However, in 2011-2015 alone, investments in Naftan development exceeded $1.2bn, and the refinery continues to receive millions to the present day. Another refinery in Mazyr has received $1.47bn for ongoing modernisation.

The Kremlin’s impossible political demands of Belarus threaten to drive it into a corner. Moscow could even endanger the alliance between Minsk and Moscow. However important Russia is for Belarus, Minsk cannot radically reduce its relations with its other neighbours, even if the Kremlin insists.

For Belarus, cutting links to the Baltics would mean significant financial losses and deterioration of political relations with the EU, as well as a return to political isolation. This would also lead to a fatal dependence on Russia and its oligarchic capital, reducing Belarusian statehood to a nominal status like that of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. There is no reasons to believe such a situation would be acceptable for the current Belarusian leadership.




Belarus finally reaps tangible benefits from its neutrality policy

On 18-19 July, Belarus officially welcomed a delegation from the European parliament along with the Latvian foreign minister, who spoke up for Belarus’s policy of neutrality. These developments are signs that Belarus’s rapprochement with the EU and other Western structures continues.

The annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk on 5-7 July was a milestone in this process. Indeed, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka commented that just three years ago he could not imagine a session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk.

The Belarusian government is finally reaping the rewards of its pursuit of neutrality between Russia and its opponents. Although this position has caused consternation in the Russian political establishment, Minsk has so far succeeded in minimising the damage.

No more questions for Belarus?

In a recent interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei announced that his country is now in ‘a qualitatively different situation.’ In particular, he noted: ‘Our independence has been strengthened as a result of our efforts in developing relations … with our European and North American partners.’

Thus, it seems that Belarusian leadership perceives the recent OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk as a success.

The Belarusian authorities wish to build on this triumph: at the event’s opening meeting on 5 July, Lukashenka presented an ambitious idea for holding a major international conference aimed at achieving a détente between ‘Euroatlantic’ and ‘Eurasian’ countries – promoting trust, security, and peace, a so-called ‘Helsinki-2’.

Minsk also has several other achievements under its belt vis–à–vis relations with the EU and European structures. On 19 July, after meeting his Belarusian counterpart, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs announced that Riga no longer had any questions for Minsk concerning the forthcoming West-2017 military exercise.

Rinkēvičs noted that while Latvia is a NATO member and Belarus is participating in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Riga ‘is respecting the choice of [its] neighbours in the field of security.’ At a press conference, Rinkēvičs agreed that Belarus-EU relations in recent years have become more rational and constructive.

Andrejs Mamikins. Image: euroradio.fmOn 18 July in Minsk, for the first time in fourteen years, there was an official meeting between the deputies of the lower chamber of the Belarusian Parliament and members of the European Parliament (EP).

Andrejs Mamikins, an EP member who attended the meeting, described the discussions there as ‘fierce’ but ‘completely friendly and sincere’ on Facebook. The first time in recent years that an EP delegation came to Minsk was in June 2015, but this did not constitute an official meeting.

On the following day, the head of the EU delegation, Bogdan Zdrojewski, underlined that the meeting would not be considered official recognition for the Belarusian parliamentarians as ‘democratically elected’. Nevertheless, he believes it necessary to resume dialogue with Belarus. Moreover, the EP is studying possible ways to invite Belarusian parliamentarians to Euronest Parliamentary Assembly events.

Dzyanis Melyantsou, a senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, commented that ‘The Belarusian parliament is recognised by the EP. Security matters.’

Ambiguous statements about Russia

Meanwhile, Belarusian government officials made ambiguous statements regarding relations with Russia. On 12 July, Lukashenka characterised the recent meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia as unprecedentedly open, sincere, and fruitful. With regard to the prospects of the Union State, he added: ‘To be honest, today there is no reason to be too optimistic. But after all […] the process has started.’

The statement is remarkably not only because of the president’s reservations regarding Belarus-Russia integration. Lukashenka was quoting a well-known Russian phrase coined by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘the process has started’ [protses poshol]. Since Gorbachev used it to comment on developments which later turned out to be out of his control, the phrase in this context has an ironic undertone.

Speaking on 1 July at an official meeting dedicated to Independence Day, Lukashenka also stated that ‘Not everything always goes smoothly in our relations with brotherly Russia.’ Moments later, he went as far as to compare Belarusian-Russian relations with Belarus’s relations with China, saying, ‘It’s just luck that we have established such friendly relations with this great empire … They are practically at the level of our relations with Russia.’

Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei made similar comments: in an interview with El Pais, he criticised the deployment of NATO troops in the region. However, he also mentioned how Minsk refused to host a Russian air base.

We are categorically against the deployment of a NATO contingent in the Baltic countries and Poland because this forces the other party to respond and contributes to an escalation… a new [Russian] foreign military base in Belarus does not make sense, because modern armaments allow Russia to react equally rapidly from its own territory.

‘A second Ukraine’

Minsk’s rapprochement with the EU and Ukraine and its ambiguous attitude towards Russia are causing a reaction in the pro-Kremlin Russian media. One article, entitled ‘The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” Threatens to Turn Belarus Into a “Second Ukraine,’” published on 9 July by Russia’s government-affiliated Sputnik media in English, is a case in point.

The author of this warning to Minsk was Vladimir Lepekhin, a former Russian politician turned political analyst. This is clearly more than his own personal opinion, as the text has been distributed by major Kremlin-affiliated media outlets worldwide. Before it was published by Sputnik in English, the article appeared in Russian on another Kremlin-affiliated website: the news agency RIA Novosti. This pedigree of the Lepekhin’s text made it another obvious black spot sent to Minsk.

Image: mzv.czLepekhin urged Minsk to struggle against ‘the forces of globalism, which can be characterised as modern-day fascism … For many years, Belarus had held out as being among the countries which were most resistant to these forces’ siren call.’

Among the projects pursued by these forces, according to the Russian commentator, is the EU Eastern Partnership programme. Lepekhin also voiced concern over Belarus’s participation in the programme: ‘The transformation of Minsk, following Kiev, into an instrument of anti-Russian forces – this is the real goal of the Eastern Partnership.’

Likewise, Moscow’s steps in the security field show that the Kremlin puts little trust in its Belarusian ally. In his interview for El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Makei complained that Russia and pro-Russian Donbas entities had also rejected Minsk’s offer to deploy Belarusian forces to enforce control on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

In April, Russia also chose to promote an Armenian rather than a Belarusian as the new CSTO Secretary General, after it finally decided to replace Russian general Nikolay Bordyuzha. Bordyuzha had run this largely symbolic organisation, dominated by Russia, since its establishment 14 years ago.

Thus, because of the changed security situation in the region, Minsk has adjusted its external relations to place more of an emphasis on neutrality. For the same reason, it has succeeded in improving its relations with Western and regional countries. At the same time, the Belarusian government continued to assure the Kremlin of its Russia-friendly policies.

Combining these policies is a difficult task, as the regular outcries from Russia prove. Nevertheless, recent developments show that Minsk is already benefiting from this stance without encountering serious consequences. In other words, Belarus can continue to pursue neutrality.




Is Belarus just ‘Greater Russia’? Neighbouring states dismiss Belarusian sovereignty

Despite all of Minsk’s efforts to present itself as a neutral country, some of its neighbours doubt not only its neutrality but even its sovereignty and commitment to peace. On 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described Belarus as a threat to the region; meanwhile, her foreign minister repeatedly alludes to the ‘remnants of Belarusian sovereignty.’

Speaking on 19 June at the Ostrogorski Forum, Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus Ihor Kizima criticised Minsk for refusing to allow foreign observers to monitor a Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise in Belarus near the Ukrainian border earlier this month. Kyiv put its army on higher alert because of the exercise.

Belarus’s neighbours are voicing their concern with Minsk’s foreign policy. On 2 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makey admitted that it is difficult for Belarus to balance between different sides in the current confrontation involving Russia given ‘how far all sides have gone in militant rhetoric and mutual accusations.’

Belarus as part of ‘Greater Russia’

Lithuania has been the source of the harshest criticism of Minsk in recent years. In an interview to LRT Radijo on 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described the main ‘challenge and threat’ to the Baltic states and Poland as:

the presence of Russia and Belarus to our east. Certainly… the militarization we see in Kaliningrad, the use of Belarusian territory for various experimental and aggressive games directed against the West. Including the upcoming military exercise [West-2017].

These controversial statement caused protests in the Belarusian foreign ministry. Vilnius, however, refused to apologise or modify its remarks. Foreign minister Linkevičius only reiterated the words of the president.

Earlier, speaking to the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe on 31 May, Linkevičius voiced his concern over the West-2017 exercise by pointing out: ‘Belarus is completely integrated with Russia. 4,000 train wagons will bring a huge amount of weapons and military equipment to Belarus.’ Moreover, Linkevičius pointed to the length of Lithuania’s borders with Russia and Belarus and stated: ‘that would be almost one thousand kilometres of frontier with ‘greater Russia’ and huge amounts of weapons for this exercise.’ The Lithuanian minister insisted that Russian troops would probably remain in Belarus.

Linkevičius believes that the Belarusian government should realise the dangers of the drills ‘if it wants to preserve a fragment of its sovereignty.’ Earlier this year, Linkevičius had already spoken with Deutsche Welle about ‘Belarusian sovereignty, what remains of it’, causing a harsh reaction from the Belarusian foreign ministry. Nonetheless, he is once again dismissing Belarus’s ability to act autonomously.

This dismissive stance towards Belarusian independence seems to be widespread among the Lithuanian political establishment. On 24 May, former Lithuanian defence minister Rasa Juknevičienė commented on the forthcoming military exercise to Belarusian internet portal TUT.by: ‘I have only one question about this. How much sovereignty does Lukashenka have, how much sovereignty has he kept for himself?’

She added:

I want to say that many experts, not only in Lithuania, believe that Belarus is not a sovereign military force. Personally, I have more hope than representatives of other states who have forgotten that Belarus is sovereign and consider it a part of Russia.

Meanwhile, Vilnius also dismisses the Astravets nuclear power plant project as ‘not Belarusian’. Belarus is building the plant near the Lithuanian border with the participation of the Russian corporation Rosatom. Regarding Astraviets, Lithuanian foreign minister Linkevičius stated on 31 May: ‘We cannot allow them [the Belarusian authorities] to do whatever they wish. It’s not even them, since it is a Russian project, Russian money and technologies.’

On 16 June, an interview was published with Lithuanian environment minister Kęstutis Navickas, who effectively repeated the words of Linkevičius. The Lithuanian officials call the Astraviets NPP ‘a geopolitical weapon’ and the Lithuanian parliament adopted a law earlier this month calling on the Belarusian government to stop the construction of the Astraviets NPP.

Leaving the door open for Minsk

It remains unclear whether Belarus’s other neighbours are equally dismissive of Belarusian neutrality, peacefulness, and sovereignty. However, there are some signs that their approach is milder. Hannes Hanso, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament and former defence minister of Estonia (2015– 2016), visited Minsk recently to discuss the West-2017 exercise.

As he commented to TUT.by: ‘Belarus is effectively our neighbour. I think I can say for sure that none of the Baltic countries feels that a threat comes from Belarus.’ He welcomed Belarus’s willingness to invite NATO observers and doubted the truthfulness of the rumours that Russian troops would stay in Belarus after the exercise.

Likewise, on 31 May, Andis Kudors, executive director of major Latvian think-tank Centre for East European Policy Studies and a member of the Foreign Policy Council of Latvia’s Foreign Ministry, presented a book on Belarusian foreign policy and stated:

The Belarusian authorities have limited opportunities to manoeuvre. It is important for Western countries to be cautious. When Lukashenko is bargaining for energy prices with Moscow, he is looking towards Europe. On one hand, we must keep the doors open, while on the other hand we must not be naive, so as not to become an argument in the game of Minsk and Moscow. I think that now it is not only bargaining.

The first visit of a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state

Minsk is taking measures in the military sphere to make its position credible and remain on the sidelines of the spat between Russia and its opponents. In an article in the Belarusian military daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta on 12 May, the head of the international military cooperation department of the Belarusian Defence ministry, Major General Aleh Voinau, along with his deputy Colonel Valery Ravenka, emphasised the development of cooperation with neighbouring countries and only marginally mentioned the deployment of NATO troops there.

They listed some specific steps which the Belarusian military officials took last year to gain the trust of its neighbours and NATO. Among them were four mutual verification visits conducted by Belarusian and Ukrainian military officials on each other’s territories.

Regarding Lithuania, they mentioned a visit of the former head of staff of the Lithuanian armed forces, Vilmantas Tamošaitis, to Minsk. He met with the head of Belarusian General Staff, Aleh Belakoneu, resulting in ‘a not easy, but open exchange of opinions on the development of the military-political situation.’

Interactions with Latvia proved more successful, according to Voinau and Ravenka. Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou even visited Latvia, which was the first official visit by a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state. In addition, the Belarusian military developed contacts with a key NATO country, the US: on 8 August 2016, the Belarusian defence ministry finally accredited a US defence attaché after a prolonged interruption.

In the current charged atmosphere of confrontation in the region, Minsk does whatever it can to be friends with everybody. As a result, nobody is happy. Belarusian efforts to remain neutral on a number of issues already caused an uproar in the right-wing segment of the Russian political establishment. Evgenii Satanovski, a political commentator close to the Kremlin, named Belarus as a member of an ‘alliance of back-stabbing nations.’

Minsk’s efforts have failed to please at least some of its non-Russian neighbours, too, which would like to see Belarus distance itself more clearly from Moscow. The Belarusian government, however, can hardly pursue a policy other than a very cautious and incremental build-up of neutrality if it wants to survive as an independent state.




How Belarusian oil imports change geopolitics in Eastern Europe

On 31 October, several years after imports of non-Russian oil into Belarus ceased, the first cargo train carrying Azerbaijani oil reached a refinery in the Belarusian city of Mazyr.

Although the Belarusian government has so far imported only a limited amount of alternative oil, Minsk has nevertheless demonstrated to other nations that this is possible. This has changed the geopolitics of the region forever.

Despite Moscow's opposition, Belarus is also trying to involve Ukraine and the Baltic states in its efforts at diversification. Nevertheless, on 10 November, the governments of Belarus and Ukraine discussed how to use modernised Belarusian refineries and Ukrainian ports for each other's interests during a meeting of the Belarus-Ukrainian commission on economic cooperation.

A reaction to reduced oil deliveries

Purchasing Azerbaijani oil involved significant logistical risks. Importing 84,700 tonnes of oil from faraway Azerbaijan to land-locked Belarus requires the use of tankers, Ukrainian ports, and railways. This leads one to question the profitability of such shipments. However, energy security is about more than just direct economic gains.

Belnaftakhim, a Belarusian oil vendor, commented that it is diversifying its sources of oil because Russia has reduced its oil deliveries, causing Belarusian refineries to work under capacity. Indeed, at first glance, importing Azerbaijani oil seems like another of Minsk's gambits in its quarrel with Moscow over oil deliveries. Yet the story behind these reductions is more ambiguous.

In the beginning of 2016, Minsk asked Moscow to lower its price for gas in light of the decline in energy prices worldwide. Moreover, Belarus started paying the price it believed to be fair ($73 rather than $132 per 1,000 cubic metres, as demanded by Gazprom), without Russia's consent. This led to a supposed Belarusian gas debt, which reached $220m by the end of May.

This unimpressive sum, however, triggered a harsh response from Moscow. Citing Belarus's gas debt, Russia reduced its oil deliveries to Minsk in the third quarter of the year to 3.5m tonnes. This dealt a serious blow to the Belarusian economy as export of oil products brings in many millions of dollars in foreign exchange revenues. Minsk responded by raising transit fees for Russian oil.

Moscow retorted by threatening to deliver just 3m tonnes in the fourth quarter. Then, on 10 October, Minsk promised to rescind its decision to raise transit rates for Russian oil and Moscow promised to return to earlier volumes of oil deliveries. Minsk also agreed to pay the gas debt Russia claims, i.e., more than $300m. But did Minsk capitulate or simply back down temporarily – until alternative oil arrives?

Revival of earlier plans

On 7 October, during an address to parliament, Belarusian president Lukashenka announced that Belarus was negotiating oil prices with Iran. He emphasised Iran's willingness to offer lower prices to Belarus. Minsk, on its part, was willing to let Tehran use Belarusian refineries to refine Iranian oil; Iran would then be able to sell the refined products wherever it wants.

Belarus has managed to import alternative, non-Russian oil once before. In 2010-2011, mostly via the port of Odessa, Belarus received almost 1.5 million tonnes of Venezuelan and Azerbaijani oil, including 156.3 thousand tonnes of Azerbaijani oil delivered through an oil swap scheme for Venezuelan oil. Whatever the direct gains, Minsk managed to secure better terms in its oil deals with Moscow using these alternative deliveries as leverage, claimed Vice Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka.

In the same speech in October, Lukashenka even implied that a tanker of Iranian oil was on its way to Odessa. However, upon arrival the tanker turned out to be Azerbaijani.

Minsk buying Iranian petroleum would be surprising for several reasons. First, despite the agreement on its nuclear programme, Iran remains a pariah state and Minsk does not want to antagonise the West. It is also possible that the US and its allies could stop any serious deal with Tehran – they prevented a Belarusian national oil company from working in Iran in 2011.

Second, Minsk has invested a lot of energy in developing relations with Iran's nemeses over the years. President Lukashenka recently visited the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, but not Iran. This policy excludes serious deals with Tehran.

Last but not least, Minsk had already attempted to import Azerbaijani oil, as the best alternative to Russian oil, in the early 2010s. This proved to be a difficult task. Azerbaijan -wary of provoking Russia – has traditionally focused on exporting to areas outside the domain of Russian gas and oil companies, preferring to work in the Balkans and Southern Europe. The oil deal with Baku thus became a major coup: using Venezuelan oil as a pretext, Minsk broke the tacit Russian ban on bringing Azerbaijani oil to Eastern Europe.

Regional cooperation on oil

In the early 2000s, Minsk apparently came to the conclusion that importing oil from non-Russian sources would only succeed if the project became regional. However, neither the Baltic states nor Ukraine joined Belarus in importing non-Russian oil.

Lukashenka announced that Belarus would resume construction of an oil pipeline to the Baltic Sea 

Now, Minsk is not only resuming these imports but also plans to increase them and turn a profit. On 7 October, Lukashenka announced that Belarus would resume construction of an oil pipeline to the Baltic Sea and demanded the modernisation of the Navapolatsk oil refinery in the north of Belarus. This entails investing significant resources in diversifying energy sources through regional cooperation.

Moscow sees this as a threat. On 20 October, Russian Railways – a corporation with extremely close links to the Kremlin – offered a 25% discount to Belarus on the condition that it transport its oil products to the Baltic ports of Russia. Until now, Belarus has exported its oil products mostly from Latvian and Lithuanian ports. For instance, in January-July, the major Belarusian oil company BNK exported 60% of its oil products via Lithuania and Latvia, with the rest going through ports in Estonia and Ukraine. It did not rely on Russian ports at all.

Minsk gave no official reaction to Russia's proposed discount. However, circumstantial evidence indicates that it has hardly given up on its efforts to diversify. In the context of the Russian offer, the Lithuanian company Klaipedos Nafta signed a three-year agreement on shipment of fuel oil with BNK. Later, on 10 November, Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister Henadi Zubko announced that he had discussed in Kyiv how Ukraine can refine its oil at Belarusian enterprises and help export Belarusian products via Ukrainian ports.

Comparison with Ukrainian attempts to pull off a similar scheme helps to comprehend the immensity of Minsk's achievement. Since 1991, various Ukrainian governments have made almost a dozen attempts to bring in alternative, non-Russian oil from the Middle East and Caspian without any success. The Belarusian government managed this for two years in the early 2010s and is about to try again.

Nevertheless, diversification efforts such as these are only viable in the long run if other neighbouring countries cooperate. Such a regional project could change the whole geopolitics of Eastern Europe.




Fencing Off the War in Ukraine: Belarus Strengthens Its Borders

On 4 September, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree establishing security zones alongside the border with Russia.

The measure targets illegal migration, drug trafficking, as well as the illicit movement of goods across the border. Until now, the Belarus-Russia border was unsecured due to the special relationship between Minsk and Moscow.

Russian Gazeta.Ru said the decision was due to Belarus's attempts to “flirt with the EU.” The newspaper speculated that Lukashenka may be opposed to the Eurasian Economic Union. Yet the reason for the change in border policy may be much simpler.

Minsk worries about instability on the borderlands between Ukraine and Russia. The conflict and political instability in Ukraine already involves illicit arms and refugee movements in the neighbouring regions of Ukraine and Russia.

Even once the war ends, unrecognised states teeming with criminal activity and prone to instability are likely to emerge just across the border.

Independence: Time to Build Fences

Establishing border security zones with Russia is a final step in setting firm borders for the country. Independent Belarus inherited from Soviet times only one full-fledged state border – with Poland, established by the Soviet-Polish treaty of 1945. Other borders had existed only as administrative markers and required boundary delimitation and demarcation once the Soviet Union collapsed.

First came borders with the Baltic states. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia needed these borders more than Belarus did due to their aspirationsto join the EU. Belarus's border with Latvia was by far the easiest to establish, in part because it is the shortest of all Belarusian borders. In that case, both countries simply revived the pre-1940 Latvian border with Soviet Belarus and Poland. The delimitation of the Latvia-Belarus border was completed in 1994 and its demarcation in 2006.

Belarus's border with Lithuania was a harder case, and some disputes emerged. First, Belarusian Foreign Minister Piatro Krauchanka made an ambiguous statement interpreted by some, including the New York Times, as a claim to Lithuanian capital and adjoining areas. Later, negotiations suffered from disputes concerning some border railway facilities. Nevertheless, the delimitation was successfully completed in 1995, and the demarcation in 2006.

Russia and the EU Work toward the same Goal

The European Union helped to establish the new borders between Belarus and the Baltic states. Belarus's boundary demarcation with Lithuania and Latvia cost $13.5m, and the EU's TACIS Programme provided a third of that sum.

The money was put to good use. In June, talking on the Belarusian ONT TV channel Maira Mora, the Head of EU Delegation to Belarus, said

The Belarusian border with the EU is one of the safest, best and strongest of the EU's borders. […] If we compare the rates of illegal migration, [whereas] in many other border areas more than 50,000 such cases happen, a mere 1,700 occur at the Belarusian border with the EU.

Maira Mora hailed this as an achievement by Belarusian border guards.

According to a 1995 agreement with Russia, Moscow also began to help Belarus with material and technical supplies for Belarusian border guards, including manufacturing, deployment and repairing arms and equipment. It also shared with Minsk the costs of constructing a border with Lithuania and Latvia – Russia provided almost 80% of the funds.

The borders halted various illicit activities, including the large-scale smuggling of metal, but also limited interaction between citizens of neighbouring countries.

No Money – No Border

The border with Ukraine was next in line. Minsk and Kyiv signed a border agreement in May 1997. However, the border issue became instantly entangled with the problem of Ukraine's indebtedness to Belarus. Minsk demanded the payment on debts from Kyiv, delaying the ratification of the border agreement for thirteen years, until April 2010.

In November 2013, demarcation of the more than 1,000 km long Belarus-Ukrainian border began. It will cost about €10m and will be finished by 2020.

An official of the Belarusian State Border Committee told UNIAN news agency in November 2013 that Belarus and Ukraine hoped for international financial aid to help them demarcate their joint border. “After all, establishing clear boundaries and maintaining control and order on them mean [making] direct investments into the security of the European Union.”

In June, the EU Delegation to Belarus announced that soon Minsk would get €3bn to strengthen its border with Ukraine. This is a difficult task as the border with Ukraine is extremely porous. The EU probably would have given the money regardless of developments in Eastern Ukraine this summer.

Importantly, controlling the Belarus-Ukrainian border will prevent the movement of militants and weapons between Russia and Ukraine via Belarus. Suppressing such activities serves Minsk's own interests.

Is There a Border with Russia?

The border with Russia is a different story. In 1994-95, Belarus and Russia signed three major agreements on border security. Both countries are obliged to guard their external borders and keep each other's border security interests in mind. This means that Belarusian border guards ensure the security of the Russian state border by guarding Belarusian state borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and vice versa.

After this agreement came into effect in May 1995, Belarusians stopped controlling the border with Russia. The delimitation of the Russia-Belarus border never took place. Russian border guards, however, sometimes conduct passport control on Russian-Belarusian border.

They have good reasons to do so. After all, a Belarusian visa – and even a residence permit – does not allow its holder to enter Russia. Yet because the border is largely open, foreiners who have arrived to Belarus can easily travel to Russia.

Some countries (like Georgia) have no visa requirements with Belarus, yet have to obtain a visa to travel to Russia, which creates an opportunity to misuse the open Russia-Belarus border.

Even though Minsk is unlikely to treat the Russia-Belarus border with the same attention as its borders with Poland or the Baltic states, the recent decision to increase border control is nevertheless an important one. Lukashenka has always treated the borderless regime with Russia as a personal achievement. Therefore, his move to increase border control reflects serious concerns about the recent regional developments.

Whatever the reasons, Belarus is an independent country that needs borders. As the instability in the neighbourhood increases, securing state borders is becoming of vital importance.

The EU monetary contributions toward Belarus's boder management can help Belarusians maintain the security of the Belarusian state. As Ukraine's example shows, the absence of a functioning state and porous borders can lead to serious problems.




Belarus Wants New Russian Fighter Jets But Without Russian Pilots

Last week, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu discussed with Alexander Lukashenka establishment of a Russian air force base in Belarus.

A few days later, Lukashenka dismissed the claims that Russia will have a military base in Belarus. The news came as  media of neighbouring countries continue to discuss the significance of Belarus-Russian military drill West-2013 (Zapad-2013) scheduled for autumn.

Belarusian and Russian officials insist that the West-2013 drill does not threaten anyone, and remind that last year NATO conducted a dozen of drills of different scales in neighbouring countries. Despite various speculations in Belarusian and Western media, little evidence exists to support that is Belarus threatening anyone military, together with Russia or on its own. 

Negligible Russian Military Presence

At the moment Russia has two military sites in Belarus. Moscow emphasises that these are not “bases,” just “obyekty,” i.e., sites. In the northwestern town of Vileika since 1964 functions the 43rd Communications Centre of the Russian Navy where reportedly 350 naval commissioned and warrant officers serve. In the southern town of Hantsavichy since 2002 functions an early warning radar of the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces. At this site around 2,000 Russian troops are stationed. The presence of Russian troops in Belarus remains lower than in many other countries of the former Soviet Union, say, in Ukraine, Georgia or Armenia.

Despite loud rhetoric about integration with Russia, Lukashenka so far limited Russian military access to Belarusian territory. Both above mentioned military sites were established by a treaty signed between two states in January 1995 – long before he established his authoritarian rule.

Moreover, the military exercises are also not an invention of his, NATO experts knew, the regular military exercises “Zapad” were held in this region by the Soviet Union since 1973. The only breakthrough Russians had in military integration with Belarus under Lukashenka was delayed by Belarusian leader for many years creation of Single Regional System of Air Defence, which actually Moscow needed more than Minsk.

Against this backdrop, the possible Russian air force base indeed seems like something very new. But the whole talk about it could be more a bargaining chip than a finalised deal. The most important resource of Belarus is its location between Russia and the EU, so contemplating a prospect of establishing more Russia troops in the country the Belarusian leader may collect points in several games, beyond getting more Russian loans or subsidies.

Belarusian S-300 and Polish Patriots

First, avoiding too much Russian military presence is a gesture toward the EU which is not only critical but also dismissive about Lukashenka. Now, he wants to show Brussels how dangerous can be for the Europeans not to take Lukashenka seriously.

Second, both Moscow and Minsk now perceive military balance in the region as worsening for them. The NATO fighter planes are present on duty in Lithuania, Poland since 2006 deployed F-16 fighter jets and since 2010 – Patriot surface-to-air missile systems.

In its military survey, the Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta recently admitted that Belarusian army formations are in a much better shape than Russian army units deployed in Western Russia. Yet, continues the journalist, “while the Russian army – after adopting two years ago the State Armaments Programme – started to receive the newest equipment, it can hardly be said about the Belarusian military.”

In December Belarus took out of service the last functioning Su-27 fighter jet. Belarusian daily Ezhednevnik wrote that it amounted to a “loss of almost a third of fighter fleet of the Belarusian air force.”

The latest statement of the Belarusian ruler himself also supports it. Dismissing the news of a Russian base Lukashenka said that nevertheless “two dozens of modern jets” lack him “as a supreme commander.” According to the Belarusian leader, he definitely discussed with the the Russian Minster of Defence something different than a military base: “We buy Russian jets Su-27, MiG-29 or more modern, in order to guarantee security of air space borders of our state.”

Moreover, some other details undermine the theory of a possible Russian expansion. The military exercise West-2013 will be smaller in troops numbers, although Belarus is planning to deploy its territorial defence units, yet their military significance is minimal.

Polish criticism of deployment of additional S-300s in Belarus sound rather insincere as Warsaw since 2010 deploys Patriot missiles, an American equivalent of S-300, which according to some analysts Patriot actually may be even superior to its Russian counterpart.

Moreover, Belarus wants to get four S-300 batteries, because it has four batteries of S-200  designed in the 1960s as well as some even older S-125 systems which need to be replaced. Making too much noise about additional S-300 in Belarus makes little sense, as Minsk clearly does not exceeds the reasonable needs of its national security.

Playing Enemies For Lukashenka

Unfortunately, the latest military news from Minsk were accompanied by very unhelpful comments in the neighbouring countries which implied that Belarusian government together with Russia is a source of instability in the region. 

Polska daily The Times even speculated that in the autumn military drill Belarus and Russia might even practise preparing for a nuclear strike at Warsaw, referring as argumentation to some aspects of previous West military exercises. The Belarusian obsession was not limited to Poland. This week, the head of the Latvian counterintelligence agency Jānis Kažociņš said, “The military exercises West-2013 are an attempt to cut off the Baltic countries from the EU and NATO help.” He continued to warn of Russian plans to block Baltic Sea with the help of nuclear weapons.

Exactly such rhetoric is very useful for the Belarusian leadership which wants to prove that Belarus is threatened and nothing has changed since times when, say, Poland until 1939 suppressed Western Belarusian population and talked of retaking the Eastern Belarus. Official propaganda in Belarus would be grateful for a chance to discuss troops and missiles with Warsaw, Riga or Vilnius instead of human rights or elections.

These rhetoric from the West also stimulates the Russian leadership to continue supporting the Belarusian regime which in their eyes confronts the West. The image of an anti-Western dictator remains Lukashenka's main selling point for the Russians. 

The Belarusian opposition failed to neutralise these odd speculations, yet mostly chose to support them. On the 1 May festivities a group of oppositional activists in Brest came out with a slogan “Today Russian Base = Tomorrow 22 June,” meaning the day of the beginning of the 1941 German invasion. It is hard to find more unsuitable slogan for the Belarusian society deeply traumatised by the World War II.

The Belarusian service of Radio Liberty on 30 April published on its web-page deliberations on new the Russian base with an even more provocative title: “If it Were not for the Germans, we would not have Survived the War [WWII]”

To become more real and less emotional, it is important to understand that  stability and security in the region requires respecting security of all states, including Belarusian ones. So far, the Belarusian collaboration with Russia remains limited and reactive rather than proactive. Moreover, since mid-2000s Belarus is increasing its cooperation with the NATO. According to the expert of Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies Dzyanis Melyantsou the cooperation is a long-term  and relatively successful which continues without much publicity.

In this context, the rhetoric of military threats should be used by those who like to speculate on it, including Alexander Lukashenka with his pathetic speeches of “the trenches of the Great Patriotic War.” Fortunately enough, this time top officials of the neighbouring countries resist a temptation to lash out at the Belarusian regime for its military policies. Probably for a good reason.