10 most-read stories on Belarus Digest published in 2017

In 2017 Belarus Digest readers particularly interested in our articles on Belarus visa issues, security as well as the relations of Belarus and Russia.

Belarus Digest team wishes its readers a healthy, productive and happy new year!

Here we compiled our top 10 most read stories published in 2017.

1. Visa-free travel and registration in Belarus: not so simple by Yarik Kryvoi.

Starting 12 February, citizens of 80 states, including 39 European countries, will be able to enter Belarus visa-free through the Minsk National Airport. But unlike Kazakhstan, which allows foreigners to stay in the country for up to 30 days, Belarus introduced a much more tricky visa-free regime.

Foreign travellers should be prepared for strict penalties should they fail to understand or abide by the rules. The current practice of registering people with Belarusian visas staying for longer than five days sometimes creates an impression that Belarusian migration authorities view tourists as cash cows.

2. The Belarus-Russia conflict through the lens of the Gerasimov Doctrine by Arseni Sivitski.

The recent visit of Alexander Lukashenka to Sochi on 15 – 26 February 2017, which did not include an audience with Vladimir Putin, casts the relationship between Minsk and the Kremlin in an ever more ambiguous light.

Tensions between Belarus and Russia have been mounting over the past months, as the Kremlin puts more and more pressure on Minsk. The nature of this pressure is perfectly encapsulated by the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine of hybrid warfare. According to the doctrine, Belarus and Russia have entered the ‘pre-crisis’ stage of the conflict.

3. Belarus at the centre of Russia-NATO wargame simulation by Arseni Sivitski.

On 23 – 26 January 2017 a Baltic security wargaming simulation took place in Warsaw. Two defence and security think tanks, the Potomac Foundation and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, hosted the event.

The wargaming initiative focused on the scenario of a Russia-NATO conflict and analysed the nature of the Russian military threat to the Baltic States and Poland. As a result, Belarus was found to be a key contributor to regional security and stability by containing Russia’s aggressive strategy. The author of this piece also took part in the simulation.

4. Putin expects Belarus to boycott ports of the Baltic States by Siarhei Bohdan.

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 state-affiliated 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.

5. Will the Kremlin topple Lukashenka? by Ryhor Astapenia.

On 20 January, Alexander Lukashenka described the reactions of Russian officials to the introduction of the new five-day visa-free regime in Belarus as ‘groans and wails.’

Recently, the rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus.

However, off and on conflict remains a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite the belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin’s interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.

6. The West-2017 Belarus-Russian military exercise: smaller than anticipated by Siarhei Bohdan.

During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded ‘absolute transparency’ at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.

These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises ‘aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.’

Moscow would apparently like to increase the fog of uncertainty surrounding its military moves. The Russian military previously published the numbers of railway wagons needed for troop movement. In the absence of proper explanations, this created a threatening impression. Yet it is now clear that the exercises on Belarusian territory will be smaller than in 2009.

7. Moscow erects border with Belarus, undermines its links with Ukraine and the Baltics by  Siarhei Bohdan.

On 16 February, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, announced that the Kremlin does not plan to introduce a visa regime with Belarus. His statement comes in a context of increasingly harsh measures on behalf of Moscow towards Belarus over the past half year, beginning when Russia decided to partially reinstate its border with Belarus, which had been abolished in 1995.

The Kremlin is also working to undermine economic ties between Belarus and its other neighbours, paying special attention to the energy and transportation sectors. Results have been tangible: Belarus has already decided to stop importing Ukrainian electricity. Moscow is also doing whatever it can to convince Minsk to use Russian ports rather than ones in the Baltic countries.

Russia accuses the West and its allies in the region of undermining links between Eastern European countries. However, its own policies pursue exactly the same aim. Minsk must fight hard to resist these efforts by the Kremlin.

8. Belarus prepares to expand its visa-free zone by Alesia Rudnik.

In October-December 2016, almost 2,000 tourists took advantage of new visa-free regulations to visit Hrodna Region. In response to the increasing amount of foreign tourists, Hrodna Region has started working on two important initiatives: visa-free railway voyages and launching low-cost flights to Hrodna airport.

However, making railway services and the Hrodna airport accessible visa-free will not attract many more tourists if more tourist services are not first developed. Extension of the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus and investment in the development of services would significantly improve the popularity of Belarus for tourists.

9. Anarchists, the avantgarde of social protests in Belarus by Alesia Rudnik.

On 15 March, Belarusian authorities detained dozens of citizens protesting against the social parasite decree. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police.

Anarchists in Belarus, who have a long history, tend to participate only in particular political events. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests.

The regime has put considerable effort into diminishing the influence of any uncontrollable and integrated group of dissidents, including anarchists. Independence Day on 25 March will show whether the anarchist movement in Belarus is ready for social and political protest or whether it will continue to operate mostly underground.

10. Belarus’s new Russian arms: what Minsk has given in exchange by Siarhei Bohdan.

In an interview published on 23 February, Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou announced the forthcoming purchases of state-of-the-art Russian weaponry.

He specifically mentioned the Su-30SM fighter aircraft and 120mm Nona-M1 heavy mortars. Earlier, on 4 February, armament director of the Belarusian armed forces Major General Ihar Latsyankou said that Minsk would purchase these systems this year.

In other words, despite its dependence on Moscow, Minsk has prevailed in its dispute with the Kremlin over defence issues. Moscow initially did not wish to provide Minsk with weapons, intending instead to replace Belarusian with Russian troops. However, it has conceded one position after another. Minsk has thus emerged victorious in this spat.




The Belarusian army: scaled down but better trained and autonomous

Few post-Soviet armies use this ‘high angle fire’ method, said VaenTV.

The news illustrates one of the ways the Belarusian military attempts to compensate for its lack of funds for new equipment. It is intensifying training to make better use of available arms. This approach can be seen at all Belarusian army training levels. Minsk is also reforming its armed forces to address its domestic and regional concerns. New drill scenarios resemble urban conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. To meet all its needs, Minsk has developed its own system of military education autonomous from Russia.

Important drills go unnoticed

The intensity of the present training regime can be seen in the recent activity of the Belarusian Special Operation Forces (SOF). Belarusian army considers the SOF as a key segment of the army. From January to November, the relatively small SOF (three brigades with some minor units numbering five to seven thousand personnel) conducted eight independent battalion-level tactical exercises. Five of these exercises employed live ammunition. In addition, there were five joint battalion-level tactical exercises with Russian troops.

CSTO countries, including Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. It is not clear how the intensity of training has changed in recent years, but SOF Commander Vadzim Dzyanisenka says night-time drills made up 70 per cent of all his troops’ exercises this year. Last year, the figure was just 30 per cent.

The head of Ideology Department of Belarusian army Alyaksandr Hura. Image: CTV.by

West 2017 exercises. At an ideology seminar for Belarusian army officers in November, the Head of Ideology Department Alyaksandr Hura elaborated on these priorities by emphasising the necessity to train troops to fight in urban areas. “The experience of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East shows that after conquering two or three big cities, an aggressor gained full control over the entire country,” said Hura.

Talking to Spetsnaz, a Belarusian military journal, SOF First Deputy Commander Viktar Hulevich on 30 October also said that the defence minister had ordered the SOF to focus on preparing for urban warfare. He referred to Syrian war, yet he could as well recall the nearby conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Recently, a mock-up of a town was constructed at a military training camp near Baranavichy. Not only special forces, but also ordinary units have begun to train for urban warfare there.

Contradictory results of reforms

Image: Vayar news agency

Meanwhile, in 2015, warrant officer (above the rank of sergeant but below the rank of lieutenant) training programmes were shortened from five to three months. Arguably, this hardly helps to improve the skills of these service men and women.

Even more uncertain is the situation in the Belarusian system of military education, although, there are some positive developments. On the one hand, Minsk seems to work on supplying its army with properly-trained personnel. This year, about 800 officers graduated from the Belarusian military academy and military faculties at universities. On the other hand, it remains unclear how many officers stay in the army after completing their obligatory contracts.

Still, Belarus had unquestionable achievements in developing military education in recent years. It has become the sole post-Soviet country to succeed in establishing a national system of military pilot training. Belarus inherited no military pilot schools from the Soviet Union. It bought proper training aircraft only in the mid-2000s. Until 2006, Belarusian military academy pilots went to Russia even for flying practice.

Now Belarus trains its own military pilots. Training has also improved over the years. In 2016, the average pilot graduate completed 220 hours of flight practice. This is almost triple the 80 hours of training pilots on average completed in 2008.

Today, Belarusian army pilots in active service also train more often than even a decade ago. In 2016, Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ announced that average annual flying time of a Belarusian army pilot is 70–75 hours. At first glance, this number seems high. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarusian army pilots seldom flew. Even in the mid- to late 2000s, pilots flew about 30 hours per annum on average. By 2011-2013, the annual average flying time reached 60 to 80 hours per pilot. But then the situation stalled and no further growth in flying time occurred in recent years. Indeed, in Soviet times, a military pilot flew more—as much as 120 hours a year. The Russian air force has more or less returned to this in-air-time intensity.

Have all top Belarus army commanders studied in Moscow?

six in total—illustrates how autonomous has Minsk become in the field of military education.

Council Chairman of the Belarusian Parliament Mikhail Myasnikovich visiting the Military Academy’s General Staff Faculty in May 2017. Image: sovrep.gov.by

our country[‘s needs], taking into account our own national interests and legal framework.”

Andrej Raŭkoŭ, indeed, did graduated from Moscow’s General Staff Academy. However, he did so before its analogue was established in Minsk. General Staff Head Aleh Belakoneu, on the other hand, did graduate from the Belarusian Academy’s General Staff Faculty.

In the past decade, the Belarusian government has paid considerably more attention to training its armed forces. While its policies may contain some contradictions, the army is now more prepared to fulfill combat tasks compared to even a decade ago. Minsk has also succeeded in establishing its own system of military education, which address the particular needs of its domestic context. Moreover, the graduates of this education system already occupy certain key positions in the army.




The Belarusian arms business: new deals and old collisions

On 14 November, key Belarusian arms exporter Beltech Export signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Belarusian firm has agreed to maintain and modernise Emirati radars. This means that Minsk has successfully entered a new market, as it has never sold air defence-related products or services to Arab monarchies before.

This news, along with news of further remarkable international contracts entered into by Minsk this autumn, illustrates the silent evolution of the Belarusian defence industries. They have not only succeeded in developing new products anti-tank weapons, rockets, missiles, armoured vehicles and othersand started selling them. They are also establishing cooperation with major foreign defence firms like the Chinese Long March aerospace corporation or the Turkish Roketsan missile firm. Such actions illustrate a promising development toward building autonomous national military industries and making the Belarusian state more economically viable.

Arms and friendship

The latest Belarusian deal – assessed at $15.7m – with the UAE military at the Dubai Airshow in November was widely seen as a coup for Minsk. The Dubaibased Khaleej Times has even listed it among the major contracts concluded at the Dubai Airshow 2017. After all, Belarus had participated in the airshow for the first time, yet Arab countries of the Persian Gulf were seen reluctantly buying non-Western defence products and services.

Image: Denis Fedutinov via bmpd.livejournal.com

In addition, this February, Beltech Export won a contract worth some $14.4m to supply the Emiratis with spare parts, repair services and technical assistance for its Russian-manufactured BMP-3 armoured vehicles. Minsk not only won the contract over Russian arms firms, but the Belarusian offer has political implications, as well. After all, the UAE would currently prefer to avoid working with Russia yet it needs parts and support for its BMP-3s deployed in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

Belarusian defence firms, and the state agencies responsible for them, have been regularly meeting their Emirati counterparts for around two decades. The latest conference of the defence industry officials from the two countries took place on 1516 October. Belarusian president Lukashenka also paid a visit to the UAE between 25 October and 6 November, ostensibly to promote trade between the two countries, including trade in military equipment.

These contacts seem to have borne fruit. Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that last year Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) successfully received an order for tank transporters without any tender. The delivery was due this year yet no details on the contract have yet been made publicly available. The MZKT has been selling such equipment to the UAE since the early 2000s.

Minsk also relies on arms deals to advance relations with Middle Eastern countries. It therefore came as no surprise that in 201Raman Halouchanka, the deputy chairman of the Belarusian state military industrial committee, was appointed as the Belarusian ambassador to the UAE.

Forthcoming breakthrough in relations with Turkey?

Some unprecedented results have also been achieved in relations with Turkey. Şuay Alpay, Turkey’s deputy defence minister, paid a visit to Belarus from 23 to 26 October. The Belarusian media has kept silent on the content of these negotiations. However, Turkish daily Yeni Ufuk reported that the Turkish defence official had expressed his satisfaction with the cooperation between Turkish and Belarusian companies on “rifle sights, inertial navigation systems for howitzers, electro-optic equipment, avionics, satellite cameras and land vehicles”.

Deputy foreign minister of Belarus Alena Kupchyna talking to then Turkish Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Image: mfa.gov.tr

Indeed, he brought to Belarus a large delegation which included not only state military industries officials, but also managers of leading Turkish arms firms. Among them were Aselsan (radios, defence electronic), Roketsan (rockets, missiles, satellites), BMC (trucks and tactical vehicles), MKEK (ammunition and various weapons systems). Although Minsk and Ankara first signed an agreement on defence industrial cooperation in 1998, their cooperation effectively started in the late 2000s to coincide with Turkish president Erdoğan’s launch of his assertive foreign policy.

At the same time as starting new cooperation projects, the Belarusian government has worked to advance most of its old partnerships, most importantly the partnership with China. The President of China’s leading Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co., Shi Kelu, came to Minsk on 23 October. Minsk has for many years worked with Beijing in the aerospace arena, even choosing to launch its satellite with Chinese and not Russian help. The Belarusian government has also started its missile programme with China’s assistance after being denied new missile systems by the Kremlin.

Belarusian equipment begins to neutralise Russian products

The business and political interests of Minsk and Moscow collide in the most explicit way in former Soviet nations, especially in terms of relations between Belarus and Azerbaijan. On 810 October, Minsk welcomed Azerbaijani defence minister Zakir Hasanov. A military expert close to the Azerbaijani defence ministry Yaşar Aydəmirov told several Azerbaijani media outlets on 13 October that Baku should purchase Belarusian-made Palanez multiple-launch rocket systems. According to him, given Azerbaijan’s specific geographic and other advantages, Palanez systems would serve as an adequate response to Russian-made Iskanders deployed by Armenia.

Belarusian military technical cooperation with Central Asia reveals the same tendencies for entering new markets despite Moscow’s disapproval. A case in point is the recent move towards cooperation with Uzbekistan: a country which severed most of its ties with Belarus in the early 2000s. On 4 October, Moscow-based Kommersant daily revealed that the Belarusian 558th Aircraft repairs plant began the overhaul of four Su-25, close air support aircraft and four MiG29, fighter jets owned by Uzbekistan.

Image: vpk.gov.by

Moreover, there are reports that Belarusian firms are to receive contracts for the overhaul of another eight aeroplanes of this type. The 558th Aircraft repairs plant, based in the Belarusian city of Baranavichy, has signed the contract with Uzbekistan despite the fact that the latter had negotiated with the Russians concerning the overhaul of its aircraft in the spring of this year. Kommersant quoted a source from the Russian defence industries as saying that this deal between Minsk and Tashkent has caused “some consternation” in the Russian arms industry.

Uzbekistan is not the only post-Soviet country which has begun to choose Belarusian firms. From 24 to 26 October, the Commander of the air defence forces of Kyrgyzstan, Kylychbek Aydaraliev, also visited Belarus to discuss the possible overhaul and repairs of Kyrgyzstani aircraft, helicopters and air defence equipment in Belarus.

Minsk has to constantly take into account the Kremlin in doing arms business as Moscow dislikes the recent successes of its ally in diversifying its international contacts. Russian rightwing Regnum news agency published a commentary entitled “Mission impossible: Belarus seeks an alternative to Russia for its defence industries” on 14 November. Therefore, although Minsk hardly considers the development of its defence industries in cooperation with non-Russian partners or sales to new markets as a move aimed against Russia, the Russian establishment now sees such deals in exactly those terms.

Yet the Belarusian government is forced to act in this way in order to survive both politically and economically. Not only because Minsk would become a Russian satellite otherwise, but because the Kremlin is actively substituting Belarusian defence products and continues to insist that Minsk must sell its defence firms to Russia lest they go bankrupt without Russian support. So, Minsk has endeavoured to seek and find its own solutions: the examples above serve as irrefutable proof of that.




Belarus launches new Geely plant and plans for electric cars

On 17 November, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka participated in the opening of the new BelGee automotive plant, which will produce Chinese Geely cars. The venture is the largest passenger car enterprise in Belarusian history. Lukashenka also announced a draft decree to create incentives for Belarusians to buy domestically manufactured cars. In August, local developers presented the first Belarusian electric car. Lukashenka personally advocates the development of domestic electric car manufacturing. Although the market for electric vehicles is still young, it is growing highly competitive—even within the borders of the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Belarus is a member. As the Russian government is gearing up to take unprecedented measures to support its own electric car industry, Belarusian developers will have to make serious, well-thought out efforts to become competitive.

Belarus starts to produce Chinese cars

On 17 November, during his visit to the new automobile plant BelGee, Presdient Lukashenka announced that the government is drafting a decree to encourage Belarusians to buy Geely cars built in Belarus. The Belarusian-Chinese BelGee plant, which produces passenger cars under the Chinese Geely brand, was established in 2011. Lukashenka says the state aims for as many Belarusians as possible to buy domestically produced cars. This is going to be the largest passenger auto project with foreign backing in Belarus’s history.

It should be noted, however, that previous projects have not fared well. For instance, over a five year period, the Iranian company Samand produced about a thousand cars which were mainly sold to state organisations. Ford, which manufactured cars in Belarus in the ’90s, did the same amount of sales in a year. The authorities closed both operations, because the enterprises did not meet sales expectations. For 2018 and 2019, the government expects production and sales to reach 25,000 and 35,000 cars respectively. “But we have [still] another goal—to produce more. We will double capacity. We will sell 60,000 cars and then set a goal of 120,000,” the Belarusian president said.

Александр Лукашенко

President Alexander Lukashenka launches the Geely plant on 17 November. Photo: Belta

To be profitable, the plant has to sell at least 35,000 cars a year. However, the Belarusian market cannot absorb even a small fraction of this volume. According to data from the Association of Belarusian Car Owners, over the past 7 years purchases of new cars peaked in 2014. That year, Belarusians purchased around 50,000 vehicles, of which 20,000 were bought in Russia, where prices were attractive at the time. These figures suggest the absolute maximum domestic dealers can expect to sell is around 30,000 new cars. Moreover, the locally assembled Geely will have to compete with other more reputable, global brands. This seems an almost impossible task for the enterprise, as Geely remains outside even the top 25 most popular car models in Belarus, according to 2016 purchasing statistics published by TUT.BY, an online news portal. BelGee strategists say they are aware of the situation. They claim that 90 per cent of new Geely cars will be exported to Russia. But there, they will face virtually the same problem.

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Will Russians accept the Belarusian Geely?

Chinese automaker Geely plans to make annual global sales of 2 million cars by 2020. It expects to sell 170,000 cars abroad—80,000 of this number in Russia. However, so far Geely sales remain unimpressive. Worryingly, over first 9 months of 2017, Geely’s most negative sales trend expressed itself on the Russian market. Purchases dropped by 55.4 per cent (1,693 Geelys out of a total 1.13 million sales for the total Russian market) compared to the same period in 2016.
Sergey Udalov, the Deputy Head for Autostat, a consultancy, was quoted by Reuters saying the Belarusian plant will not be able to sell 30,000 cars per year. “I think it is possible to increase sales to 10,000, but I do not think they will be able to sell more,” said Udalov.
In fact, it is Russia that supplies Belarus with cars. Russia manufactures a dozen of global brands, including BMW, Kia, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Renault, Volkswagen, Ford, and Hyundai. For example, 90 per cent of cars sold in Belarus are assembled in Russia. How Belarus will compete with these Russian produced, global brands within Eurasian Economic Union markets remains unclear. Indeed, since the 90s, Belarus has failed to establish a single successful foreign car manufacturing venture. Moreover, a strategy to sell cars to Russia is of questionable value in the context of Belarus’s 30-30-30 goal. This goal intends to even-out Belarus’s export volumes between the EU, Russia and Asia in equal shares, and thereby free it form excessive dependence upon the Russian market. If 90 per cent of cars are intended for the Russian market, it appears the 30-30-30 target does not apply to Geely cars.

Is electrification the answer?

Another issue for Belarusian Geely advocates is the global transition towards electric cars. In the coming decade, electric cars may reach prices comparable to their gasoline-powered counterparts and sales are projected conquer a larger share of the global market. For short-term, the production of petrol-engined Geelys can be justified by huge oil reserves and the absence of legislative incentives to sell electric vehicles in both Russia and Belarus. At first glance, Belarus appears to be taking an approach that risks lagging behind global trends in the very near future. But in fact, the Belarusian government is already trying to anticipate the shift to electric vehicles.
In August 2017, President Lukashenka personally tested and praised the latest Tesla electric car model from the US. The president urged Belarusian developers to use Tesla as an example. That same month, the National Academy of Sciences unveiled the first Belarusian electric car. The prototype is based on the Geely SC7 series, which is assembled in Belarus. Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška noted that with the commissioning of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, Belarus will need to increase its consumption of electric energy. According to Siamaška, in the next three to four years, Belarus will mass produce electric cars. (Related material: where to buy Tesla shares in the UK according to stockapps)
However, if Belarusians want to develop their own electric car, they must hurry. In October 2017, the Russian government sent a letter to all key ministries and state institutions calling for unprecedented measures to stimulate demand for electric-powered transport. The letter spoke of subsidy programs, preferential car loans and auto leasing for electric vehicles. Owners of shopping and entertainment centres will be awarded tax incentives for installing electric recharge stations. In particular, support will be provided to manufacturers of electric vehicles—both domestic and foreign enterprises—who localise assembly in Russia. The letter also suggests the government will set minimum purchasing quotas for electric vehicles for various state institutions. Given that many Russian auto producers have already begun work on electric cars, Belarusians will need to invent something truly extraordinary to be competitive.




International support grows for Belarusian peacekeepers in Ukraine

At a press conference on 17 November 2017 in Minsk, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel described his meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, in which they “talked a lot about Ukraine,” in positive terms.

The upbeat summary is a remarkable surprise. On 15 November, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey announced his country’s willingness to dispatch peacekeeping forces to Eastern Ukraine. In addition, for the first time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced Russia’s support for the deployment of Belarusian peacekeepers, which Minsk has repeatedly proposed since 2014.

Thus, Belarus appears to be on its way to secure the support of key international players for an active role in defusing the Ukrainian crisis. The deployment of peacekeepers in Eastern Ukraine offers Belarus a chance to raise its international status.

Minsk finally accepted as a peacekeeper?

Minsk has sought to play a peacemaking role in the Ukraine crisis for years now. A new window of opportunity emerged on 5 September when Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in Eastern Ukraine. On 9 November, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US government—it did not specify what part—suggested the deployment of 20,000 peacekeepers in Eastern Ukraine because it believed Putin might be interested in ending the conflict.

The Belarusian government is undoubtedly involved in horse trading over the Donbass region, home to Ukraine’s two separatist “republics.” On 17 October, President Lukashenka met with the director of Russia’s Foreign intelligence service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin. Without any direct mention of Ukraine, official sources say their meeting dealt with the “coordination of activities and adjustment of directions of joint work aimed at protecting national interests.” These are serious grounds to assume that Lukashenka and Naryshkin discussed Ukraine.

Indeed, as early as in October 2014, at the very beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Lukashenka offered to send Belarusian peacekeepers to the Donbass region. Belarusian officials have continued to cautiously articulate the idea to no avail. As recently as October, the Kremlin still did not support the deployment of Belarusian peacekeepers to Ukraine.

Ukrainian reaction

Фота: Sputnik Беларусь.

Certainly, the position of the most important party to the conflict—Ukraine itself—is unclear. First, Kommersant, a Russian daily newspaper, on 15 November quoted a source within the Ukrainian administration saying Kyiv would prefer Polish and Lithuanian peacekeepers. The same source continued to say that Russia would hardly welcome such an option. As a compromise, Kyiv might instead agree to Belarusian and Kazakh peacekeepers.

Second, relations between Minsk and Kyiv are improving but not ideal. On 15 November, Ukrainian Parliament First Deputy Chairwoman Iryna Herashchenko accused Belarus of “stabbing Ukraine in the back for the second time” after it had voted in the UN General Assembly against a Ukraniansponsored resolution on human rights violations in Crimea. The first time was exactly a year earlier in 2016 when Belarusian representatives voted against a UN resolution on investigating human rights abuses in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. Voting by the Belarusian delegation contradicts loud statements about its neutrality,” Herashchenko said. Minsk, however, insists that it always votes in the UN against “country resolutions.”

Ukrainian radical politicians have attacked the idea of Belarusians helping to restore peace in Eastern Ukraine. On 16 November, a prominent member of the Ukranian parliament, Ihor Mosiychuk, said that Belarusian peacekeepers could become a “Troyan horse.” It would be Russian occupation forces disguised as Belarusians entering the Donbass region. Mosiychuk, who represents a major right-wing radical party, said, “Belarus has behaved not as a neutral state, but as a satellite of the aggressor country, the Russian Federation.” For proof, he cited recent Belarusian voting at the UN, the joint “West” 2017 military exercises with Russia, and “the kidnapping by the [Russian] FSB of a Ukrainian political prisoner, Igor Grib, from Belarusian territory.”

Another wellknown representative of another Ukrainian right-wing party, Ihor Miroshnychenko, on 16 November said Belarus was an “enemy territory,” which has “common military interests” with Russia.

Чальцы беларускага атрада, што ваююць у складзе ўзброеных сіл Украіны на Данбасе. Фота: YouTube

He also urged Ukrainian diplomats to do everything to remove Belarus from the sphere of Russian influence.

“Diplomats [will work to distance Belarus from Russian influence] at their level using various methods. However, we should clearly realise—and I am talking now sincerely and seriously—that we cannot achieve this without forming serious subversion and intelligence groups, and carrying out subversive acts on the territory of Belarus and Russia, including within cyber space.”

It would be somewhat self-defeating if Ukraine did, indeed, pursue such a disruptive policy. Belarus already persecutes citizens who support separatists in Eastern Ukraine. As recently as 16 November, a court in the southern Belarusian city of Rechytsa sentenced another Belarusian, Vitali Mitrafanau, on grounds of fighting for the selfproclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine. He had been detained by police in July. In September, a Vitebsk court in the north of Belarus convicted a Belarusian for the very same reason. The former was sentenced to two years of hard labour, the latter for two years of restricted freedoms.

Many Ukrainian politicians speculate on Belarus’s role in the conflict. However, they often ignore the special circumstances that limit Belarus from taking a definite position. All the same, the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko so far have demonstrated a willingness to accept Minsk as a partner.

However, powerful forces in and outside Ukraine work to sabotage Belarusian participation in the peace process. In addition to the calls of radical parliamentarians quoted above, other odd incidents occur regularly, which threaten to derail bilateral relations. On 25 October, for example, Minsk detained a Ukrainian citizen, Pavel Sharoiko, for espionage. Sharoiko is officially a journalist. However, until 2009 he openly served with Ukrainian military intelligence. Belarusian authorities have tried to downplay the incident, keeping quiet on the issue until Ukrainian activists on 17 November revealed the story, which is now generating tensions between Minsk and Kyiv.

Minsk has Ukraine’s best interests in mind

Despite Russia’s hesitancy and Ukraine’s concerns, Minsk has shown its primary interest to bring it to an end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Minsk has ignored other opportunities for joint military operations with the Kremlin. For instance, in recent years, international media have speculated on Belarus’s participation, together with other member states of Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), in ensuring peace in Syria. However, that scenario has never materialised. On 27 October, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced there are no plans to discuss the sending of CSTO member state troops on a peacekeeping mission to Syria.

Belarusian airborne troops. Image: Vayar news agency.

In the 1990s, Russia also tried to convince Minsk to send Belarusian airborne troops as peacekeepers to Transnistria. Belarus did no such thing. Its participation in peacekeeping operations has so far been limited to deploying a symbolic number of Belarusian military personnel as part of UN operations, in particular in Lebanon. Indeed, this is in stark contrast to many of Belarus’s neighbours, all of whom have participated in one international operation abroad or another.

Since 2014, the Belarusian government’s offer of peacekeeping services to Ukraine has to do with the transformation of Belarus and its neighbourhood. Minsk wishes to find a new, international niche for itself through engaging in conflict resolutions. A central goal is to break out from the tired “last European dictatorship” epithet. At the same time, the volatility of the region has pushed Belarus along this course of action. Russian support is uncertain and increasingly limited. Thus, the Belarusian government has tried both to defuse at least some tensions around Ukraine and to gain more international respect.

Until now, Minsk’s efforts to become more neutral have appeared problematic. Moscow, in general, has never appreciated these attempts. The West has been unsure of Belarusian claims of neutrality. However, if Belarus does deploy peacekeepers, then arguably Russia, the West and other neighbouring states would, in effect, be validating Belarus’s right not to choose sides.




Forsaking Private Korzhych: how hazing kills Belarusian soldiers

On 3 October 2017, a soldier from a military base located in Pechy, a town northeast of Minsk, died. The day after, fellow servicemen found Aleksandr Korzhych, a 21-year-old Belarusian, lynched in a noose made from trouser material. His wrists were tied with shoelaces and a sleeveless shirt covered his head and face. The public, along with Korzhych’s parents, believe Korzhych had been the victim of bullying and murder.

In the days following the discovery of the soldier’s body, more than 10 thousand Belarusians signed a petition calling for an official investigation and for the dismissal of the Minister of Defence, Andrei Raukou.

Public solidarity has forced the authorities, who initially insisted the soldier’s death had been suicide, to change their position on the issue. They are now promising a thorough investigation.

These unhappy events have demonstrated, once again, Belarusian authorities seem only respond to pressure. However, they still try to maintain a balance between displays of power and attempts to soothe public opinion.

What happened in Pechy?

On 4 October, military personnel found Korzhych’s body in the basement of an army base in the town of Pechy. The first investigative committee decided the cause of death was suicide by hanging. Korzhych’s parents claim their son’s body was heavily bruised and showed signs of beatings.

Alexandr Korzhych. Source: svaboda.org

Aleksandr’s parents believed their son was murdered. They sent photos of their son’s body to Radio Liberty, where traces of trauma and violence were clearly visible.

It emerged that the soldier’s whereabouts from 26 September to 3 October were unknown. These facts, among others,  prompted Aleksandr’s parents to demand a fair investigation.

Some facts indicate that Korzhych became the victim of extortion. Aleksandr himself admitted to his parents he had to pay €7 a-day to stop other soldiers from beating and bullying him.

Along with the money, which he asked his parents to send, his expensive phone also disappeared. Korzhych complained the hazing and extortion originated from the base’s commanding officers. Evidence has recently emerged that an officer at the base had withdrawn money from Korzhych’s bank card.

A strong public reaction to hazing

As more details of Korzhych’s death came to light, many citizens actively expressed their outrage. More than 10 thousand signatures were collected calling for the resignation of Defence Minister Andrei Raukou. Shortly after, the webpage collecting the signatures was shutdown at the request of the Defence Ministry. The petition, officials complained, was an attempt to discredit the Ministry of Defence.

The Defence Ministry then took the time to send letters to those who had signed the petition, asking them to confirm whether they had, indeed, signed it. On 26 October, The ministry issued an official statement in reaction to numerous electronic appeals, while at the same time ignoring the demands for Raukou’s resignation.

Ivan Shyla during his military service. Source: nn.by

Some well-known young Belarusians, such as Frantsishak Viachorka and Ivan Shyla, shared their military service experiences on their Facebook pages.

Despite the buzz around the death of Korzhych, his ordeal does not appear to be the first of its kind. In March, Private Arciom Baysciuk apparently committed suicide after complaining to his family of extreme hazing and bullying. An investigation into his death has produced few results.

Baysciuk’s parents suspect their son’s death was closely linked to hazing. Human rights activists believe a culture of hazing remains the most negative aspect of the Belarusian military.

The authorities remain reluctant to take real responsibility

At first, the authorities were slow to react. On 12 October, the Defence Ministry promised an investigation into the death of Korzhych and punishment for the perpetrators. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka gave his condolences to Korzhych’s family ten days after the soldier’s death. So far, five officers, including the army base’s head, have been suspended. In addition, the investigative committee has initiated eight criminal cases against sergeants at the base. After this slew of indictments, the authorities’ response seems somewhat overzealous.

However, the Defence Ministry’s and investigative committee’s reactions are arguably defensive in nature. On 5 October, they called the soldier’s untimely death “a suicide.” As more facts emerged and the public became incredulous, the cause of death switched to acts of hazing and bullying. Indeed, the government fired several high-ranking officials at the military base without any investigation. By 25 October, as the public’s attention appeared to be starting to shift, the investigative committee stated that besides the lacerations from the noose, Korzhych’s bruises appeared after his death. This appears to be a stratagem to calm the public, rather than an effort to solve a case. 

Photo by Siarhei Hudzilin who served in Barysau. Source: nn.by

Belarusian authorities tend to respond to public concern when it touches upon sensitive issues, especially if it involves many people connected to the state. For example, when the Kurapaty campaign was accompanied by protests and online-petitions, it pushed the authorities to cancel the construction project atop the historical site. And again, it was the protests of angry Belarusians that caused the suspension of the hated unemployment tax.

While the authorities may be willing to compromise on socio-economic issues, they continue to violate the rights citizens in other areas. Recently, authorities have put pressure on anarchists.

On 31 October 2017, the KGB, Belarus’s national intelligence agency, arrested activist Mikalai Statkevich for the sixth time this year. His arrest comes a week after his participation in street protests against Belarusian social and economic policies. At the demonstrations, the hazing of Belarusian soldiers became one of the central issues raised. It appears involvement in politics is still the most arrestable offence for a Belarusian citizen.

What kind of future for the Belarusian army?

Military service remains compulsory for young Belarusians. However, because of the frequent cases of physical and psychological abuse, many young men shun military service. The case of Private Korzhych has added resonance to this point.

Circumstances around Korzhych’s death have forced both the Belarusian president and the Defence Ministry to react. However, the authorities’ tradition of offering a few conciliatory words are not enough this time around. Belarusian human rights groups, the media, and local activists are keeping the public’s attention focused on the issue.

Even under an authoritarian regime, the government still finds it necessary to respond to the appeals of more than 10 thousand Belarusians.

Officials have already taken a few steps to respond to public concerns about hazing, for example reopening the investigation and firing army commanders. However, this merely appears to be an attempt to deflect public anger and attention away from the root causes and existing problems surrounding arm hazings. A substantive change to the conditions of military service would likely demand constant pressure from civil society, until the authorities feel pressure to react.




Will Azerbaijan help Belarus to become more independent?

On 8 October 2017, Defence Minister of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Colonel-General Zakir Hasanov, visited Minsk. The visit lasted until 10 October. During the visit, Hasanov held meetings with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka as well as with all the senior military leadership of the country.

The Azerbaijani guest probably made an agreement with his Belarusian counterparts on widening military industrial cooperation and supplying Baku with “Polonaise” multiple launch rocket systems. Azerbaijan deems the new weapons necessary to balance an Armenian military build-up.

“Iskander” vs “Polonaise”

One should definitely pay attention to the structure of the visit. First, Colonel-General Hasanov met with President Lukashenka. The Belarusian leader’s words during the meeting were vague yet revealing. “I do not want to make excuses about the nature of our cooperation. I just want to say that our relationship does not in any case violate any international treaties or resolutions of the UN Security Council. We are sovereign independent states, and we are entitled to identify the areas of cooperation which correspond to the time and the needs of our countries,” stated Lukashenka.

“Iskander-E” in Armenia. Source: azatutyun.am

Such statements hint at serious intentions of military-technical cooperation, particularly in the supply of Belarusian “Polonaise” multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Azerbaijan. The arrangements have a certain logic: Armenia’s deployment of Russian “Iskander-E” tactical missile complexes on its territory has forced Baku to look for a symmetrical response.

The “Iskander-E” tactical missile complex can reach targets up to 280 km away. Armenia thus has a missile range that covers almost all of Azerbaijan. With the latest modifications, the Belarusian “Polonaise” system is capable of shooting to 300 km. This modification was presented during the ADEX-2016 military exhibition in Baku last year. Azerbaijan has also shown interest in Belarusian developments in areas of electronic warfare, radar systems, wheel chassis and anti-aircraft missile systems.

Belarusian weapons for Azerbaijani oil

Having discussed the main issues of military cooperation with President Lukashenka, Colonel-General Hasanov spoke on more technical questions to the country’s top military leadership. On 10 October, the Azerbaijani Defence Minister signed a military cooperation plan for 2018 together with his Belarusian counterpart Andrej Raŭkoŭ. As is usual in such cases, the details of the plan remain unknown to the public.

On the same day, Colonel-General Hasanov met with Belarusian State Military-Industrial Committee Chairman Alieh Dvihalioŭ. In addition, Hasanov visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant and the “Belspetsvneshtechnika” state enterprise, which, among other things, deals in arms exports. The Azerbaijani defence minister familiarized himself with the latest modifications to the MLRS “Polonaise,” as well as with air defence and electronic warfare means. At the final stage of his visit to Belarus, Hasanov held a discussion with Belarus Security Council Secretary Stanislaŭ Zaś.

It is also important to note that Secretary Zaś met with the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, during his visit to Baku on 27 September 2017. Once again, military and industrial cooperation represented the main topic of the meeting. Supposedly, the Belarusian security council secretary came with a proposition to Baku and discussed the details with President Aliyev. The following step was Zakirov’s visit to Minsk in order to present Azerbaijan’s answer and sign the documents.

Zakir Hasanov near MLRS “Polonaise”. Source: bsblog.info

While Baku mainly orients itself around military cooperation, Minsk is also hoping for the growth of economic relations between the two states. There is an assumption that the Belarusian military industrial complex might get financial support from Azerbaijan to develop and produce new weapons. With the economic slowdown Belarus is experiencing at the moment, such collaboration seems optimal for both states.

At the same time, Belarusian authorities are working to diversify the inflow of energy resources to Belarus. Previous deals to supply Belarusian refineries with Azerbaijani oil have been successful. Widening such cooperation is essential for Minsk against a background of continually worsening relations with Russia.

On the subject of propitious Belarusian-Azerbaijani projects in various spheres, one should remember that Lukashenka and Aliyev are on good personal relations. The Belarusian leader visits Azerbaijan as often as Russia and China, which means places high importance on ties with Azerbaijan.

Loud Yerevan, silent Moscow

The character of Belarusian-Azerbaijani relations raises serious questions in Armenia and Russia, who are Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members along with Belarus. This situation becomes even more complex when the Belarus-Armenia relationship is taken into account. On the same day Colonel-General Hasanov began his tour of Minsk, Belarusian Special Operations Forces completed their maneuvers as part of the CSTO “Search-2017” military exercises, which took place on Armenian territory. This can serve as a canonical example of the Belarusian authorities’ much-touted “multi-vector foreign policy.”

But in terms of the Azerbaijan-Belarus relationship, one can expect harsh rhetoric from Yerevan. It is important to remember that at one time Armenia proposed to exclude Belarus from the CSTO. From the end of 2016 to the beginning of 2017, Belarus and Kazakhstan both attempted to block the appointment of an Armenian representative to the position of CSTO head. Supplying strategic weapons to Baku will definitely not make relations between Minsk and Yerevan any better.

Alexander Lukashenka and Ilham Aliyev. Source: kp.by

One can’t expect Russia to publicly show its disapproval of Belarusian-Azerbaijani cooperation. Moscow’s options are to try to contain their partnership or to pressure Belarus. The reason for Russia’s indirect reaction is clear: Russia itself is the largest weapons supplier to Baku. But Armenian authorities seem to have ignored this fact. They can blame Belarus for destabilizing the region and undermining the national security of a CSTO member-state, but Yerevan will never make the same claims of the Kremlin. Indeed, especially not after having deployed Russian strategic weapons on its own territory.

The development of cooperation with Azerbaijan plays extremely important role for Belarus in the light of the latest Belarusian security agenda. After the failure to carry out an information and public relations campaign during the “West-2017” military exercises and a number of provocations from Russia, Belarus is trying to restore its image as an independent actor.

Thus, working together with Baku on strategically important projects should prove to the international community, including close neighbours, that Minsk is a true sovereign player on the international stage and a stable partner in the security sphere. Arguably, this is even more valuable at present than temporary economic benefits for Belarus.




Helsinki-2, friendship with Venezuela, Sberbank advancement, boosting IT sector – Belarus state press digest

The Saudi King’s deals with Russia will benefit Belarus, believe experts. The Belarusian peace building initiative, Helsinki-2, receives positive feedback in the EU. Belarus and Venezuela work to restore former levels of cooperation.

The Belarusian oil industry is losing its hold in Russia’s market. Russian state-owned banking and financial services company Sberbank plans to increase its presence in Belarus. The government is working on a package of revolutionary laws to help boost the IT sector.

This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy

King Salman’s deals with Russia will benefit Belarus. Belarus Segodnia has published an analysis of the recent visit of the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to Moscow and its impact on Belarus. For Minsk, it is certainly a positive development. Belarus is interested both in the growth of prices for oil products, which it produces and exports, and in the overall restoration of the Russian market, which consumes the bulk of Belarusian goods. The growing influence of Russia, Belarus’s key ally, in the Middle East also seems important.

World media and leaders discuss the Belarusian Helsinki-2 initiative. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s initiative for Europeans to abandon their geopolitical rivalries will occupy an important place on the European agenda in the coming year. Helsinki-2 derives its name from the Helsinki Process, a series of debates and dialogues initiated by Soviet Leaders in the early 70s, which culminated in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. If Belarus becomes a global discussion site, the whole of Europe will win. The German newspaper Die Zeit believes the need for such an initiative is long overdue and complains that Western diplomacy has played little or no part in bringing the initiative about.

Christine Muttonen, the chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, sees Helsinki-2 as a good way to solve the problems that have accumulated in the region. This summer, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano set out Italy’s priorities for the OSCE Council chairmanship in 2018. He made it clear that his country will fully support Helsinki-2, writes Belarus Segodnia.

Belarus and Venezuela eager to restore former levels of cooperation. On 5 October, President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro paid an official visit to Belarus and held talks with president Lukashenka, reports Zviazda. Belarus and Venezuela developed good economic ties in the past. They created several joint ventures in the production of cars and tractors, oil extraction, gas networks, construction and other areas.

In recent years, trade between the countries has declined due to the combined strain of economic and political woes in Venezuela and the world economic crisis. As Maduro said, “We’ve passed the time of wars and battles, and we strengthened in these battles. We are now at the recovery stage, and we’d like to restore former levels of cooperation.” Alexander Lukashenka stated both sides are currently elaborating a new road map for cooperation.

Economy

A branch of BPS-Sberbank in Minsk. Photo: sb.by

Russian Sberbank plans to increase its presence in the Belarusian market. According to the Russian, state-run Sberbank Head German Gref, the bank is planning to curtail its operations in a number of European countries and Ukraine. Sanctions against Russia have made work in these countries “extremely difficult,” reports Souyz. Belarus, on the other hand, has entered the list of the most promising markets for the bank, along with Turkey and other CIS countries.

Now Sberbank has 59 branches in Belarus, 15 of them in Minsk. Last year, the bank’s Belarusian subsidiary, BPS-Sberbank, retained third place among banks operating in Belarus for individual deposits, accounting for 7.3 per cent. The bank’s number of individual customers grew by 11,000 and has reached almost 1.58 million. BPS-Sberbank’s customers keep 61 per cent of their deposits in US dollars. Only 21 per cent of account holders keep their savings in solely Belarusian rubles.

Belarusian oil industry faces new challenges. The Belarusian oil industry faces two serious challenges: intensifying oil processing and capitalising upon new, premium markets, writes Respublika. According to Siarhei Hryb, General Director of the Belarusian Oil Company, Belarusian gasoline will soon become superfluous in Russia, because the Russian market is saturated. This is due to Russia’s rapid development of native oil processing facilities and self-preferential tax manoeuvring.

European markets seem the most promising alternative, in particular Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. In the future, Belarus will need to expand its production of chemicals beyond oil-based compounds. The production of jet fuel holds vast potential for the industry.

Belarus has the chance to become one of the largest IT centres in Europe. The Belarusian government is working on a package of bills nicknamed High-Tech Park 2.0, which are intended to boost state support for the domestic IT sector. Its authors promise a revolution in the industry, which they hope will turn Belarus into the IT flagship of the entire European continent. According to Aliaksandr Marcinkievič, deputy director for marketing and development at the Belarus High Technologies Park, over the last 4–5 years Belarus has produced a critical mass of IT specialists.

Today, an environment for the development of innovative entrepreneurship and start-ups is emerging in Belarus thanks to three important factors: qualified specialists, abundant funding, and successful IT entrepreneurs and mentors. At the same time, the stiff competition among countries for the best staff and intellectual property is growing even stiffer. Belarusian officials and domestic entrepreneurs are working hard to come out on top, and thereby attract world’s leading tech companies to the country.

Culture

A Medieval festival in Belarus

Belarus needs to upgrade its festival industry. The number of festivals in Belarus is growing. The total number has reached a hundred annually. However, virtually none target foreign tourists. More than half of all festivals are national and historical in their focus, which does not necessarily interest tourists. Many such festivals also have a strong ideological backround, being organised by state bodies. They often look alike and appear unprofessional due to budget constraints and a lack of qualified organisers.

Many regional festivals are in need of attention and investment. Greater coordination with experienced promoters and business would help, too. Belarusian festivals should also develop cooperation with the International Festival Association, which might attract so-called migrating festivals to Belarus.

The state press digest is based on the review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily 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.




Belarus-Russian military exercises: the story still not over?

On 28 September, the last train filled with Russian troops that had participated in the West-2017 military exercises reportedly left Belarus. Some hours later, however, CommanderinChief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko disputed the news. He claimed only a few Russian military units had returned to their garrisons in Russia, and the rest of Russian troops had, in fact, stayed in Belarus.

Muzhenko’s claims follow a string of other accusations and speculations over possible covert aspects to the Belarus-Russian military drills that made up West-2017. Minsk and Moscow have held the “West” military drills regularly since 2009. Each time the exercises are held, they cause observers to speculate about the hidden, aggressive intentions behind the war games.

This year Minsk tried its best to open up the drills to counter negative publicity. Yet, it found this task immensely difficult.

Moscow presents an exaggerated picture, and opponents are eager to accept it

IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a review that covers security issues, published contrasting statistics on the number of Russian troops involved in the West-2017 military exercises. On 28 September, the review wrote that “estimates ranged from Russia’s official number of 13,000 to more than 100,000.” Huge differences in troop-number estimates among analysts—even after the drills finished—point to a lack of evidencebased expertise on the matter.

To escape that problem, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly announced the main issue was not to ascertain the exact number of Russian troops involved. The weekly cited a NATO source as saying “it was the force posture and the quality of the troops that matter.”

Of course, confusion about the West-2017 exercises also stems from the Kremlin’s behaviour. Moscow lost no opportunity to exaggerate the scale of the exercises and to make matters ambiguous.

Image: mil.ru

While Minsk firmly insisted the exercises are limited to a separatist conflict scenario—meant to resemble conflicts in Kosovo and Ukraine’s Donbas region—on Belarusian territory, Russian military officials have been ambiguously promising to hold military exercises “from sea to sea.” That is, Moscow tried to link the West-2017 exercises with its other military training activities, some as far away as the Arctic.

Minsk attempted to dispel Moscow’s hints and ambiguities. All the same, many foreign media outlets, politicians and pundits seemed eager to accept Russia’s more threatening portrayal of the exercises. The Kremlin appears to have succeeded in representing West-2017 as an effective, Russian show of force.

The Russian military tasked its psychological warfare division with making the drills appear large-scale. The following two cases discussed below illustrate Russian efforts at sowing confusion over Russian troop numbers.

The first case dates to the end of last year. In an unprecedented move, Russia’s defence ministry published information on the 4,162 train cars it allegedly ordered for transporting Russian troops to Belarus and back. Writing in Defense One, a defence analysis website, Finnish military expert Jyri Raitasalo pointed out, “With one Excel spreadsheet made public in late 2016, the West has been made to guess [at the number of troops to be on-board] for eight months.”

The second case relates to a 14 February news publication on the arrival of Russian First Tank Army units to Belarus. The news caught Minsk by surprise. In a matter of hours, Belarusian military officials dismissed that information. No additional tank units had arrived. Moscow, however, chose to keep the news published on official military websites. The aim appears again to be to spread uncertainty.

Nowhere to hide

Image: mil.ru

Meanwhile, Minsk and Moscow can hardly conceal their massive military preparations from Western eyes. First, Western satellites can observe any location in Eastern Europe. Indeed, last year the Belling Cat website authors used satellite imagery to reveal the withdrawal of Russian aircraft which had been temporally based in Belarus.

Second, regional and Western countries—both members and non-members of NATO—conduct surveillance flights over Belarusian and Russian territory according to quotas determined by the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies. In exchange, Belarus and Russia—the two countries form one single group under that Treaty—conduct flights over these countries’ territories.

Information collected in these flights is fed into a unified data-bank. About three dozen NATO member countries and states aspiring to join the alliance can together conduct more flights and collect more information on the military capacities of Belarus and Russia than vice versa. Indeed, before the beginning of the West-2017 military exercises, on 4–8 September, the US and Ukraine conducted a surveillance flight over Belarus and Russia.

That is, Western and regional countries may have doubts about some minor details of the joint Belarus-Russian exercises, but not about their main features. It is logical to assume that intelligence agencies know exactly whether 13,000 or 100,000 participated in the drills, as such things cannot remain concealed under these circumstances.

Fog of verbal war

The many opportunities that regional and Western countries had to study the exercises make many statements about the drills by foreign politicians and media look odd. Though Belarus and Russia regularly conduct “West” military exercises causing some negative reactions, this year Minsk faced an unprecedented flurry of negative media coverage, both at regional and global levels.

Lithuanian president Grybauskaite even used an opportunity to address the UN General Assembly on 19 September to lash out at this year’s “West” exercise as a threat to international security. In addition, she also cited the Belarusian-built Astraviets nuclear power plant as a weapon from the “Kremlin’s arsenal.”

Bloomberg, a business news agency, went as far as to warn on 15 September, “If war breaks out with the West, it’s most likely to start in ‘Veyshnoria’ [the fictitious name Belarus’s General Staff gave the enemy zone in the West-2017 exercises].”

Presentation of the scenario of the drills. Image: nn.by

Often, foreign media, politicians and analysts denied any active role for Belarus in the exercises. A case in point is provided by the BBC’s media coverage. At least, on the first day of West-2017, the BBC World Service described the drills in its news summary as “Russian” exercises conducted in Belarus.

Even in the cases where Western media mentions Belarus, Russia is discussed first. Never mind the greatest number of troops involved were Belarusian—according to Minsk, more than 7,000 Belarusians trained together with less than 3,000 Russians. Moreover, the drills were concentrated on Belarusian territory and planning corresponded to standard training scenarios designed and used by the Belarusian military for several years.

Minsk has responded to all the negative coverage and statements in a restrained manner. For instance, reacting to Ukrainian accusations of Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercise, Moscow mocked Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief as ‘professionally incompetent’ and elaborated on ‘degradation’ of Ukrainian General Staff. On the contrary, Minsk merely repeated that Russian troops had left.

In sum, the West-2017 exercises illustrate two key points. First, Minsk reluctantly joins in any show of power staged by Moscow. For the most part, Minsk can hold its ground when the Kremlin pushes for more aggressive displays of military strength. Indeed, none of this is new. Minsk has defended its position on other major joint defence projects with Russia, such as over the establishment of the Single Air Defence System or the Russian airbase in Belarus.

The second point demonstrated by the West-2017 exercises is that it’s really a moot point whether Western or regional states understand Minsk’s policy. Foreign media coverage of the exercises show that Moscow’s opponents feel somewhat comfortable both with Russia’s exaggerated claims and with the illusions Russia paints of controlling Belarus. The statements of top officials from Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania in particular demonstrate this attitude.




Zapad 2017: limits of Belarusian independence, national unity, western attention – digest of Belarusian analytics

In September, analytics on Belarus both at home and abroad almost entirely focused on Zapad 2017 military exercises and related issues of security and defence.

Arciom Šrajbman claims that Russia showed Belarus the ceiling of its independence, Jaŭhien Prejhierman responds that rumours about these limits are exaggerated.  Andrej Jahoraŭ explains why Belarus was not occupied during Zapad 2017. Belarus in Focus notes that the military drill prompted a heated discussion about national unity.

Zapad-2017 was also discussed by Bloomberg, ECFR, the National Interest Magazine, American Enterprise Institute and Lithuanian EESC.

This and more in the new edition of digest of Belarusian analytics.

Rumors About the Ceiling of Belarusian Independence Exaggerated – Jaŭhien Prejhierman, at TUT.BYargues with a journalist Arciom Šrajbman and states that the limits of Belarusian sovereignty are determined not by Moscow or Kiev, but Minsk’s own ability to pragmatically manoeuvre between conflicting interests of neighbours. In fact, Zapad 2017 exercises showed that Belarus does not know how to effectively act in the information wars.

Why We Were Not Occupied. What Zapad 2017 Was About – Andrej Jahoraŭ, at Belarusian Journal, notes that the military Russo-Belarusian drills are over; no occupation took place. According to the expert, the most important things occurred in the information sphere. Zapad 2017 is a doctrine of a consociational war, with an empirical test of the parties’ reactions to information moves and attacks.

Poverty and vulnerable groups in Belarus. Consequences of the recession of 2015-2016 This issue is dedicated to the analysis of various aspects of absolute and relative poverty in the Belarusian regions

Belarus Is Shown the Ceiling Of Its Independence – Arciom Šrajbman, TUT.by, draws attention to two events of the last month, which remind the real limits of today’s Belarusian sovereignty. The journalist means an incident with a young Ukrainian Pavel Grib who was detained in Homiel and moved to Krasnodar detention centre and thousands of Russian soldiers who entered Belarus for the military exercises.

Belarus Is the Real Victim of Russia’s Zapad War Games (Op-ed) – Jaŭhien Prejhierman, The Moscow Times, notes that this year’s hype around Zapad 2017 exercises, obviously, reflects the West’s deep mistrust for Russia and its military. The analyst believes that Russia and the West need to understand that it is in everyone’s strategic interest to keep Belarus as a neutral ground for peace talks and not a part of the Russian-Western confrontation.

Putin Pointed out to Lukashenka His Place – Aliaksandr Aliesin, a military analyst, believes that Putin and Lukashenka separately inspected Zapad 2017 exercises because Russia wanted to show Lukashenka, that he is not an equal partner. The military exercises sharpened the contradictions between Russia and Belarus, while Lukashenka is still trying to play independence.

Situation In the Field of National Security And Defence of Belarus. August 2017 – According to monthly monitoring of Belarus Security Blog, the most important event of the month was the kidnapping of a Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib by Russian special services in Homiel. Provocation was intended to cause a crisis in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations.

Aliaksandr Lukashenka at Zapad-2017. Photo: president.gov.by

Zapad on Belarus’ Mind – A non-paper of the 7th Belarus Reality Check analyses the recent developments in EU-Belarus relations and concludes that Minsk will try further building trust with the West, and continuing to work with and appease Russia, as its only ally. Organised by EESC, the 7th Belarus Reality Check took place in June 2017, in Vilnius to contribute to the policy debate in and outside of Belarus.

The Zapad Military Exercise Reveals Putin’s Fear – Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, considers the large-scale Russian military exercise known as Zapad, which started in Belarus on 14 September, as a propaganda success: it has alarmed Russia’s NATO neighbours and garnered so much Western media coverage that one might think it was an actual combat operation. It has also provided an important insight into the fears of the Russian and Belarusian rulers.

So Far From God, So Close To Russia: Belarus and the Zapad Military Exercise – Fredrik Wesslau & Andrew Wilson, ECFR, consider that fears that Russia may use Zapad 2017 as cover to carry out a hybrid operation in Belarus are overblown. Moscow has other levers with which it can coerce Minsk, and it neither needs nor is interested in another military adventure at the moment.

Zapad 2017: What It Reveals About the Prickly Russia-Belarus Relationship– Bruce McClintock & Bilyana Lilly, The National Interest Magazine, suppose that the Kremlin has little to gain from using Zapad 2017 as a pretext to establish the military presence in Belarus. Belarus continues to view Russia as its principal strategic military partner and seems likely to do so in the future.

Belarus’ Susceptibility to Russian Intervention – David R. Marples believes that Russia’s overriding geostrategic goal in Belarus is to keep a stable, relatively pro-Russian regime in power. Therefore, the chances of a Russian military intervention in Belarus are low for the near future.

Indicators of Belarus export activity in the 1998-2016: what are the chances for growth? The work analyses the indicators of export activity of Belarus in 1998-2016

Zapad-2017. Who Will Benefit From the Russian-Belarusian Drills – Arciom Šrajbman, Carnegie Moscow Centre, believes that despite all the reputational risks, Minsk will try to derive maximum diplomatic benefit from the military drills. On the one hand, Belarus shows to Western observers that they can trust to Minsk’s guarantees. On the other hand, Belarus will convince Moscow that it does not ‘follow the path of Ukraine’, not being afraid to host large-scale exercises with Russian troops.

West-2017 Russo-Belarusian Military Drill Causes Controversy in Belarusian Society – Belarus in Focus notes that the September military drill prompted a heated discussion in civil society about national unity. The fact that the Belarusian authorities keep alternative political views exclusively outside the political system has increased the risks of external influences or interference in domestic political processes with possible destabilisation.

West-2017: Facts and Analysis of Threats – Ihar Tyškievič, the Ukrainian Institute of Future, argues whether there is a danger for Ukraine because of the joint military drills between Russia and Belarus. He concludes that the exercises will be held as they are publicly stated, and media noise will go away.

Belarus Policy

Indicators of Belarus export activity in the 1998-2016: what are the chances for growth? The work analyses the indicators of export activity of Belarus in 1998-2016. It studies how the structure and complexity of the country’s export basket, its competitive advantages, penetration to foreign markets and inclusion in global value chains changed over the period.

Poverty and vulnerable groups in Belarus. Consequences of the recession of 2015-2016. This issue of the ‘Review of poverty and vulnerable groups in Belarus’ is dedicated to the analysis of various aspects of absolute and relative poverty in the Belarusian regions. The study was carried out on the basis of sample surveys of living standards of households in 2013-2016.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




West 2017 in focus, London Conference on Belarusian Studies, human rights dialogue – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In August and September, Ostrogorski Centre analysts analysed developments around West 2017 military drill, progress in the Belarus-EU dialogue on human rights and increase in poverty in recent years as well as the government’s response to it.

The Centre announced call for proposals The Third Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies, which will be held on 23–24 March 2018 at University College London.

We have also added new profiles to belarusprofile.com and new policy papers to Belaruspolicy.com databases.

Analytics

Siarhei Bohdan demonstrates how approaches to West 2017 military drill varied in Belarus and Russia. The Belarusian government struggled to reassure its neighbours, who continued to express concerns about the drills. Lukashenka himself repeatedly visited Ukraine to persuade Kyiv of Belarus’s peaceful intentions.

In contrast, the Kremlin craved an intimidating military show. Thus, Minsk and Moscow were jointly holding an exercise which both countries saw in very different ways. It is unsurprising that their policy regarding West 2017 was vastly different.

Ryhor Astapenia discusses the growth of poverty in Belarus in recent years and the government’s response to it. One of Lukashenka’s greatest achievements in Belarusian society has been his fight against poverty. However, poverty is once again on the rise.

The main reason people end up below the poverty line is the loss of employment, as the state fails to provide any meaningful help for the unemployed. It seems that poverty is doomed to continue spreading, as the authorities see no way out of the crisis other than shifting the country’s economic woes onto the backs of the poor.

Igar Gubarevich analyses the development of the Belarus-EU dialogue on human rights. Belarus hopes to put human rights issues on the back burner in its relationship with the West. At the same time, the country’s authorities understand that avoiding any discussion of this subject could hamper the modest rapprochement between the two parties.

Meanwhile, the West continues to put pressure on Belarus in international human rights bodies, in particular the UN Human Rights Council. Only time will tell which of the two policies – dialogue or critical monitoring – will prove more effective in instigating democratic change in Belarus.

The Third Annual London Conference ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’

The Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies, 25 February 2017. Photo: Yaraslau Kryvoi

The Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century Conference Committee, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum invite proposals from established academics and doctoral researchers for individual papers and panel discussions on contemporary Belarusian studies. The conference is a multidisciplinary forum for Belarusian studies in the West.

Proposals will be considered on any subject matter pertaining to Belarus. This year, however, proposals relating to human rights, social media, education, the history of the Belarusian People’s Republic, Belarusian history and culture and sociology are particularly encouraged. A selection of peer-reviewed papers will be published in the Journal of Belarusian Studies in 2018.

As in previous years, in addition to the conference, which will be held 23–24 March 2018 at University College London, several other Belarus-related events will take place in London. The 2018 conference will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic, the first modern attempt of Belarusian statehood, as well as the 10th anniversary of Belarus Digest.

To submit a paper or panel proposal, please complete an online registration form  by 15 December 2017. Successful candidates will be notified by 5 January 2018. The working language of the conference is English.

There is a £10GPB registration fee associated with the conference. You may pay the fee at the door or pay online (see the registration form for details). If a speaker or delegate is unable to pay the registration fee, the organisers can grant them a waiver. Please email belauk2018@gmail.com to ask for a fee waiver.

The organisers can provide non-UK based applicants with invitation letters for visas.

For any questions, please contact either Stephen Hall or Peter Braga at belauk2018@gmail.com.

Conference co-chairs: Professor Andrew Wilson and Professor Yarik Kryvoi

Comments in the media

Ryhor Astapenia on Polish Radio discusses the hype around the West 2017 drills, the future of mass youth political organisations, and the possibility of political and social protests this autumn.

Siarhei Bohdan on Polish Radio explains why Belarus refused to transport oil products via Russian ports even at a 50% discount. Russian ports require longer delivery time; Belarus has experience in the Baltic countries and invested in their infrastructure; in addition, it is one of the channels of cooperation with the European Union.

Pubic discussions on Asmaloŭka area. Photo: euroradio.fm

Alesia Rudnik on Polish radio discusses the effectiveness of civil campaigns in Belarus on the example of Asmaloŭka area protection. This became not the only success story of local activists, but usually victory is possible only if the project is not essential for the authorities. In most cases, civil campaigns fail.

Siarhei Bohdan on Polish Radio discusses the role of Russia and China in the development of the Belarusian defense industry. Last year Belarus exported arms worth $1 billion. This achievement is the result of complicated partnerships with major players. Russian support of Minsk in the defense industry is limited and expensive, therefore Minsk had to to seek an alternative and develop cooperation with China.

Belarus Profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Alieh Dvihalioŭ, Jury Šuliejka, Mikalaj Korbut, Vitaĺ Paŭlaŭ,  Uladzimir Karpiak, Andrej Dapkiunas, Alieh Dziarnovič, Valieryja Kasciuhova, Piotr Rudkoŭski, Natallia Vasilievič.

We have also updated the profiles of Siarhiej Hurulioŭ, Anatoĺ Isačenka, Ivonka Survila, Paviel Uciupin, Anatoĺ Kapski, Victor Prokopenia, Aliaksandr Pazniak, Jury Chaščavacki, Siarhiej Čaly, Kanstancin Šabieka, Aliaksandr Šamko, Aliaksandr Šumilin, Uladzimir Šymaŭ, Aliaksiej Jahoraŭ, Aliaksandr Jarašenka.

 

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by emailing us.

The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian StudiesBelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Viejšnoryja: the Belarusian Defence Ministry plays with fire

On 29 August in the Palace of the Republic, the Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian Armed Forces and the First Deputy Minister of Defence, Major-General Alieh Bielakonieŭ, held a briefing on the Belarusian-Russian military exercises West-2017. The briefing and the official press-release caused an unexpected reaction in society.

More than 50 media representatives and 14 members of the military-diplomatic corps accredited by the Belarusian Defence Ministry attended the event. The media drew special attention to the plan and scenario of the exercises, which led to many questions.

According to the scenario, extremists, supported by two neighbouring states, invade a part of Belarus, which they then occupy, setting up a different state. It is the role of Belarus and Russia to fight them. Interestingly, according to the scenario, extremists take over in the western part of Belarus. The map of the exercise shows the precise territory of the alleged enemy. The new state is called Viejšnoryja and is propped up by its two western neighbours: Viesbaryja and Lubienija.

Map of the West-2017 exercises. Source: nn.by

High-calibre trolling

First of all, it should be noted that all these names sound Baltic. It is thus likely that the Russian and Belarusian authorities are trolling the Baltic states, which frequently voice alarmist sentiments about West-2017 being the beginning of a Russian invasion of Europe.

Historically, Viejšnoryja itself is the Belarusian part of Lithuania Propria – a historical region and the cradle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This cannot be a simple coincidence. What’s more, Viejšnoryja coincides suspiciously with the majority-Catholic part of Belarus.

Meanwhile, the tone of the briefing and the following press-release were unusual and somewhat unclear. At first, Mr. Bielakonieŭ mentioned the NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe which recently took place, claiming they were designed to prepare for an assault on neighbouring states.

He then spoke about the Rapid Trident exercises in 2017 in Ukraine and the intention of the Ukrainian Right Sector group to deploy temporary militias near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border in case of an  invasion from the north. Such rhetoric is especially odd as Belarus had promised not to strongly criticise NATO and Ukraine for their military exercises in the region.

This presentation of West-2017 was thus an epic fail for the Belarusian Defence Ministry, as its effect was the complete opposite of the intended one. Originally, the ministry intended to show society that West-2017 was not a threat to the independence of Belarus or its international image. Instead, the Ministry of Defence aggressively accused NATO of belligerence and openly trolled the Baltic states. The media focused not on the number of Russian troops and comparisons between West-2017 and similar NATO exercises in Eastern Europe, as planned, but on the division of Belarus into parts, declaring one of them an ‘enemy’.

The rise of Viejšnoryja

The reaction in society was immediate. Right after the press release, all independent media sources posted a map of the exercises showing the imaginary states. Some experts considered this an attempt to split the Belarusian population along religious lines: the Catholic West against the Orthodox ‘Russian world.’ The fact that two neighbouring states were supporting ‘Viejšnorian extremists’ was also taken to symbolise NATO destabilising the situation in Belarus in order to ‘break it apart from its union with Russia’.

A ‘Viejšnorian card’. Source: вейшнорыя.бел

At the same time, the exercises’ scenario became the butt of jokes on the internet: the country has taken on a life of its own as a meme. Viejšnoryja already has an official website, which also issues Viejšnorian ID cards and passports. At the time of writing, almost 7,000 people had applied for Viejšnorian passports.

Some enthusiasts decided to take the ‘statehood’ of Viejšnoryja even further, creating a coat of arms, flag, currency, and even a Twitter account for the  Viejšnoryja MFA. It is now possible to buy a number of products with Viejšnoryja’s name and logo, including passport covers, t-shirts, magnets, and more.

At Lidbeer festival in the western city of Lida, people were seen waiving the Viejšnorian flag. Jokes about the imaginary state are quickly becoming popular on the Belarusian internet, with some claiming that ‘The Belarusian authorities have already asked Viejšnoryja to provide them with a loan.’

More soberingly, however, the exercises’ scenario was one presented by the Belarusian Defence Ministry itself. Had Russia unveiled the scenario, the Belarusian military could have managed to save face, as the low level of trust between the two states is a well-known fact.

Presumably, the scenario was originally a Russian idea, aiming to discredit Belarus once again and cause a harsh reaction from neighbouring states. Either the Belarusian authorities failed to see through this trick or simply had no choice but to agree to it and present it publicly. Seeing as Russia had already started with such provocations  before West-2017 even started, they are bound to continue. The way Belarusian authorities react to them could determine the continued independence and further development of the country.

Dangerous jokes

On one hand, the Belarusian authorities are lucky that the release of the exercise scenario resulted only in jokes, rather than official statements from neighbouring states and international organisations. On the other hand, this situation is revealing of the negative image of the Belarusian Defence Ministry and the military as a whole: society does not take them very seriously.

At the same time, Viejšnoryja quickly became an internet symbol of opposition to the Belarusian regime: some people who disapprove of the authorities have started calling themselves Viejšnorians. A tongue-in-cheek awareness campaign calling for ‘the protection of Viejšnoryja from Russian aggression’ and creation of ‘Vejsnorian volunteer forces’ now also exist. People are using the word ‘Viejšnorian’ to mean ‘traditionally Belarusian’ as opposed to Soviet or Russian.

Map of the West-2017 exercises.

However, although opponents of the Belarusian regime are using the Viejšnoryja meme in jest, supporters of the “Russian world” could use it more seriously, such as for information campaigns against Belarus.

For example, pro-Russian propagandists have started using the names ‘Viejšnoryja’ and ‘Viejšnorians’ to describe Belarusian patriots or opponents of the Belarusian authorities and Russian aggression.

Their long-term goal could be to deprive people with dissenting political views of the very status of Belarusian nationals. Now, the enemies are not Belarusians, but Viejšnorians: traitors of the state and the Russian-Belarusian union.

In the long run, it may turn out that in presenting this West-2017 scenario, the Belarusian Defence Ministry has opened Pandora’s box: a rift in the population on the basis of support for either Russia or the West could really materialise, especially if a corresponding information campaign was held. This is exactly what the Belarusian authorities have been trying to prevent for decades: they rely on preserving stability and maintaining full control of the country to remain in power.




West-2017 smaller than NATO drills, loan from Russia, future of Minsk – Belarus state press digest

Belarusian military officials insist that Belarus has never accused anybody of aggression despite the fact that the West-2017 military drill will be smaller that that of NATO in Poland.

Belarus sees a significant shift towards exports of raw materials over the past two decades, especially in trade with the EU. Russia receives interest from loans to Belarus at twice the rate of investments in US debt obligations.

Minsk mayor reveals development plans: the city will become denser, but without major increase in malls and hotels. This and more in the new edition of the Belarus State Press Digest

Foreign policy and security

Lukashenka meets with top security officials. On 5 September, President Alexander Lukashenka held a meeting with the  Security Council, writes Zviazda.  He inquired about the results of the season’s harvest, the problem of receivables, and the situation surrounding West-2017 exercises. Officials reported that harvesting went without major problems due to the good work of law enforcement bodies.

Foreign distribution networks now owe more than $500m to Belarusian companies, and the government is now trying to find solutions to this problem. Regarding West-2017, Lukashenka stated that ‘We have a joint army group of Belarus and Russia pointed in the western direction and we need to train it to fight. But we are not going to attack anyone’.

West 2017 military drill will be smaller that of NATO in Poland. First Deputy Minister of Defence Alieh Bielakoneŭ revealed details of the West-2017 military exercises, which were published in Belarus Segodnia. In order to prevent tension in relations with neighbouring countries, the authorities chose to hold the drills far from the state border. The total number of military personnel involved will reach 12,700; the drills will also involve 370 armoured vehicles, up to 150 artillery units, multiple launch rocket systems, and more than 40 aircraft and helicopters.

Bielakoneŭ noted that all major parameters of last year’s multinational NATO exercise, Anaconda-2016, exceeded those of West-2017. Furthermore, the upcoming NATO drill – Dragon 2017 – will be held in Poland in a month and will feature a total of about 17,000 soldiers. Despite these facts, Belarus does not accuse its neighbours of aggressive behaviour.

Photo: sb.by

Belarus wants to engage in extraction of Afghanistan natural resources. For most Belarusians, Afghanistan does not enjoy a positive image, and the official visit of Afghan Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah to Belarus in August did not attract much public attention. However, an economic partnership with this state could be highly profitable, explains Narodnaja Hazieta. Afghanistan possesses natural wealth – mostly in the form of metals – worth almost a trillion dollars.

However, due to the country’s mountainous desert terrain, absence of infrastructure, and lack of professional staff, extraction projects will require tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars of investment. Belarus will not be able to compete with big players there and would do well to work in tandem with countries such as China or India.

Economy

Belarus has become a raw material economy. Over the last six months Belarusian exports have increased by 19.4% compared to the same period in 2016, reports Respublika. However, growth occurred only due to services – mainly computer and transport – rather than goods: while goods gave a minus of $1bn, services brought a plus of $1.4bn. According to a study by the IPM Research Centre on the export performance of Belarus in 1998-2016, the country has seen a significant shift towards export of raw materials.

80% of exports to the EU consist of fuel, timber, chemical products and metals; even these exports are steadily declining. While in Belarus raw materials and consumer goods dominate exports (51% of total volume), in Hungary and the Czech Republic capital and intermediate goods account for 55% and 58% of sales to foreign markets.

Russia repays Belarusian debt. Recently, the Russian government approved the allocation of a $700m loan to Belarus to repay a previous debt. Soyuz asked Russian analyst Kirill Koktysh what this would mean for the country. According to him, this is a regular debt restructuring. The fall in oil prices caused a decrease in export income in both Russia and Belarus, but due to the smaller size of  the latter’s economy, Belarus took a greater hit.

Finding new sources of income will take some time. For example, a significant increase in Belarusian agricultural production has become visible only now, although the government has been investing in it heavily for many years. Meanwhile, the credit history of Belarus remains flawless, and Russia received twice higher interest from loans to Belarus than the interest from the money invested in US debt obligations.

Prime Minister of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah visits Amkador company in August 2017. Photo: Belta

Public policy

Belarus needs a population strategy. In 2016, for the first time in 20 years, Belarus saw an increase in population. The country has one of the lowest levels of maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. However, about 63% of Belarusian families remain single-child families. However, for a nation’s population to grow, most families need to have three children.

The number of women of childbearing age is decreasing, while teenagers dream of pleasure, career, travel, and high salaries rather than a large family. More than one hundred institutions provide assistance to mothers and children, and the state has developed a proper family support system, so now the government needs to gently correct the attitudes of young people towards reproduction, writes Belarus Segodnia.

Minsk will become denser, but without major increase in malls and hotels. Andrej Šorac, the mayor of Minsk, told journalists at Belarus Segodnia about development plans for the Belarusian capital. The city will not be expanding outwardly, instead opting for infill: using empty, inefficiently used, and industrial areas inside the Minsk ring road. The mayor expressed scepticism about the future of the so called satellite towns around Minsk, which were supposed to attract city dwellers. Developers will not invest in them as long as possibilities to construct housing inside Minsk remain.

The city has also approached its limit for retail trade zoning and hotels per capita. The idea of removing car traffic from the city centre and making it pedestrian should be considered carefully, as the Belarusian mentality requires comfortable and effective transportation. Nevertheless, some streets will certainly become restricted for cars, the mayor said.

The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily 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.




Minsk struggling to reassure its neighbours about the West-2017 military exercises

At a press briefing on 29 August, Aleh Belakoneu, Head of the Belarusian General Staff, promised that by 30 September all Russian troops participating in the West2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercises would leave the territory of Belarus. He also emphasised that Minsk had chosen sites for the exercises which were as far as possible from the borders of neighbouring countries.

The Belarusian government is struggling to reassure its neighbours, who continue to express their concerns about the drills. Lukashenka himself has repeatedly visited Ukraine to persuade Kyiv of Belarus’s peaceful intentions. In contrast, the Kremlin craves an intimidating military show. Thus, Minsk and Moscow are jointly holding an exercise which both countries see in very different ways. It is unsurprising that their policy regarding West 2017 is vastly different.

Minsk wants a transparent exercise, Moscow prefers discretion

Nothing illustrates the different approaches of Minsk and Moscow to the exercises better than the issue of foreign observers. Belarus and Russia invited observers to the West-2017 separately, and both are offering them different observation programmes. While Minsk invited observers to the forthcoming exercise for five days, Russia invited them for only one. The week-long exercise will last from 14 to 20 September.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka invited NATO observers as early as 20 March, after neighbouring states voiced their concerns over the drills. On 13 July, Belarus issued formal invitations to Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, Sweden, and Poland, as well as the UN, CIS, OSCE, CSTO, ICRC, and military attaches accredited in Minsk.

The Kremlin disregarded the issue of inviting foreign observers as long as possible, issuing invitations to military attaches accredited in Moscow on 15 August without much publicity.

Map of the sites where West-2017 will be held. Image: RFE/RL

The Kremlin-linked Russian media also took advantage of the drills to demonstrate its contempt for the concerns of other countries. On 8 August, the anniversary of the 2008 RussianGeorgian war, the Kremlin-associated media outlet Sputnik published a column on West-2017 which contained explicit threats. Its author, Aleksandr Khrolenko, a political commentator for the Russian government-affiliated Rossiya Segodnya, wrote:

Our partners’ [US] efforts are in vain [in bringing reinforcements to Lithuania before West-2017]. In 2008, Georgia also relied on the presence of the US military and NATO-standard weapons. This did not prevent Russia from successfully bringing peace to Georgia… Since that time, the Russian army … has only increased its capacities.’

Needless to say, the Belarusian government-affiliated media has published nothing of the kind.

A purely regional affair?

Moscow’s aspiration to put on an intimidating military display has triggered fierce reactions throughout the region. However, it is up to Minsk to deal with the fallout, which comes in the form of numerous statements by officials and the media of neighbouring countries.

Belarus’s neighbours reiterate that West-2017 could be larger than announced: Russian troops might remain in Belarus, and Moscow might even take advantage of the exercise to occupy Belarus and invade Ukraine. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian defence ministers, the Polish deputy defence minister, the Lithuanian president, a former Georgian president, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, and other prominent leaders are just a few examples of important political figures to express concerns.

However, outside Belarus’s immediate neighbourhood, few are worrying about the exercises. Speaking on 23 August to the Belarusian-language service of Radio Free Europe, Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs dismissed concerns over West-2017. He claimed that these worries were sparked by certain Belarusian commentators and remain mostly limited to speculation rather than evidence-based argument.

On 17 August, Deutsche Welle published a report on the drills, maintaining that they should indeed be cause for concern in the West. However, the only Western expert cited, Margarete Klein of the German think tank SWP, simply suggested waiting to see how the exercise turns out.

No money for big projects

Image: BelTA

Russia certainly wants to use the forthcoming drills to prove its military might. In all likelihood, however, the Kremlin harbours no plans to put its strength to use.

A research paper published in July by the Valdai Club, a Kremlin-affiliated expert community, illustrates this attitude. The paper stresses that ‘In fact, Belarus is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO.

Changing the existing status would absolutely not suit either Moscow’s or the West’s interests.’ The paper’s author, Prokhor Tebin, cites the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus on one hand, and NATO’s increasing pressure on Minsk on the other, to back up his argument.

The fact that Moscow backed down regarding building an airbase on Belarusian territory lends credence to the argument that Russia accepts the situation as it is. Indeed, on 30 March, the Russian ambassador to Minsk Aleksandr Surikov announced that the issue of the Russian military base ‘had never been there.’ He added that even a legal basis for such a facility was lacking.

The reasons behind this restraint are unsurprising: simply put, there is no money. The issue of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), designed to be a ‘post-Soviet NATO,‘ is a case in point. In May, the CSTO’s Deputy Secretary General, Valery Semerikov, officially admitted that Moscow had recently stopped providing supplies to its allies through CSTO channels because of financial troubles caused by Russia’s economic decline and international sanctions.

Image: CTV.by

In sum, Belarus is doing its best to counterbalance the Kremlin’s provocative moves and assuage its neighbours. Thus, the Belarusian government has made the Belarusian part of the exercise as transparent as possible, despite Moscow’s wishes. Minsk is also de-escalating tension by holding the drills far from its borders and removing the traditional CSTO components.

So far, Minsk has been able to hold its ground. This is because the Belarusian government has one trump card when it comes to dealing with Moscow: Belarus’s key strategic location. This factor makes the country an irreplaceable ally for Russia.

Moreover, Belarus remains too close to Russian civilians for the Kremlin to be able to lash out – as it as it does usually in its relations with post-Soviet nations – without risking widespread indignation domestically. As Russia continues to struggle with economic decline and international isolation, its opportunities to put pressure on Belarus are slowly but surely dwindling.




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.