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,, 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:

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.

Russia kidnaps a Ukrainian in Belarus undermining Belarus’s reputation

On 24 August 2017, Russian Federal Security Service agents kidnapped 19-year-old Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib on the territory of Belarus. He is the son of a minor Orthodox Church official and army reserve officer, Igor Grib. Ukrainian society is actively discussing the event and is trying to draw attention to the ordeal of Pavel Grib, who finally found himself in Russian prison in the Russian city of Krasnodar.

Officials in Minsk appear to be doing nothing to aid Ukraine, not even in helping to gain an explanation of Russia’s actions on Belarusian soil. The situation is beginning to diminish Belarus’s image of a “neutral state” and independent actor.

Forcing a 17-year-old girl to work a honeytrap

According to Igor Grib, his son went to the Belarusian city of Homiel on 24 August 2017. Pavel had arranged to meet a Russian girl there who he got to know on the internet. After crossing the Belarusian border and arriving in Homiel, Pavel disappeared. He didn’t return home the next day as promised.

Distressed, Igor Grib went to Belarus to look for his son. Belarusian police informed him that Pavel Grib was on the wanted list in Russia. The Russian Federal Security Services for the Krasnodar region and the city of Sochi alleged Pavel was suspected of terrorist activities.

According to Pavel’s lawyer, on 24 August 2017, two people in civilian clothing approached Pavel near the Homiel main bus station. They forced him onto a minibus which took him to a forest where he was handed off to other agents. Pavel was detained for several days in a windowless building, his lawyer says.

Then an investigation team arrived and formalised his detention in accordance with the Russian Criminal Code. At the police station, Mr. Grib learned that Pavel had been transferred to a detention facility in the Russian region of Smolensk, which borders Belarus.

After two weeks, Russian authorities finally provided information on Pavel Grib. He was being held in Krasnodar prison, located almost two-thousand kilometres from Belarus, and accused of terrorist activities. The 17-year-old girl from Sochi called Tatiana, who invited Pavel to meet her in Homiel, later said the Russian Federal Security Services had forced her to work for them. She claimed she was also under investigation in Russia on suspicion of terrorist activities. Now Pavel Grib is writing letters to Tatiana, declaring his love for her and telling her not to worry about him.

But the situation is getting worse. Pavel Grib suffers from a serious medical condition that requires regular application of special medication. So far, he has had no access to necessary medical care and his health is deteriorating. This issue has been underlined both by his father and Ukrainian officials. Even on 18 August 2017 when Ukrainian consuls were finally allowed to meet with Pavel Grib in Krasnodar prison, Ukrainian doctors were not allowed to examine him.

Brazen Russian provocation against its closest ally

This series of events is troubling not only for Minsk, but for all post-Soviet states. It may be the first incident in history where, on the territory of one post-Soviet state, another post-Soviet state kidnaps a citizen of a third. The Belarusian regime is shocked by Russia’s provocative behaviour. So far, Minsk appears to have no clear reaction strategy. While Minsk kept silent, Ukraine issued its first official complaint on 31 August. Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Yelena Zerkal stated that Belarus was being uncooperative with Kyiv over the issue of Pavel Grib.

Dzmitry Mironchik, Belarusian Foreign Ministry media officer. Source:

The only statement on the issue released by Belarus’s Foreign Ministry (given by media officer Dzmitry Mironchik, a minor official) appears both misguided and vague. It sounds as if Ukraine is to blame for the current situation:

People, unfortunately, disappear for various reasons—either by their own will or stupidity, or as a result of the malicious actions of a third party. If the 19-year-old young man was not followed by his parents and the authorities of his own country, there is no reason to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Blaming a country that was chosen as the place for a romantic date or a secret meeting, merely a day after an official request [for information about Pavel Grib from Ukraine to Belarus] is certainly not the behaviour of a partner [country].

This kidnapping is pure provocation from Russia for two reasons. First, Pavel Grib represents no interest for Russia. He has neither access to sensitive information nor is it likely he committed any serious crime. Second, he entered Belarus without issue at the state border. It only became know after his kidnapping that he was on a Russian wanted list for unspecified “terrorist activities” in Russia’s Krasnodar region. The result is negative effects for both Belarus’s international image and Belarus–Ukraine relations.

It is necessary to emphasize that Pavel Grib has neither served in the Ukrainian military nor has he visited an Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone (for example in Ukraine’s Donbas region). More to the point, Pavel’s incarceration in Krasnodar prison servers as his very first trip to Russia. Pavel Grib could not have physically been involved in any illegal, terrorist activities on Russian territory. This also suggests that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were not aware of the Russian operation, because according to international agreements, Belarus and Russia share the same database for criminal investigations.

“Moscow has full control over Belarus”

The events surrounding the case of Pavel Grib have resulted harsh rhetoric from Ukraine towards Minsk. On 14 September 2017, lieutenant general Vasyl Bogdan, a former serviceman for Ukrainian military intelligence, declared that Moscow is in full control of Belarus and its authorities. A day earlier Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin stated, that “Russian special services are also operating on the territory of Belarus,” and Ukrainian citizens should understand that going to Belarus can be dangerous for them.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin. Source:

According to Ukrainian experts, at present the Belarusian government is unable to find an adequate response to the case of Pavel Grib. Instead of helping Ukrainian officials, for example communicating with Russian law enforcement agencies on behalf of Ukraine, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry does nothing besides issuing troll-like statements. Indeed, some experts from Ukraine now say they are choosing not to visit Belarus, because there is no guarantee of security.

Pavel Grib’s kidnapping and Belarusian inactivity go hand-in-hand to support the suspicions of Western observers that Belarus lacks independence and control over its own territory in the face of Russian provocation. This weakens Belarus’s role as a negotiator and diminishes its image as a neutral state or “donor of stability,” apparently so cherished by officials in Minsk.

Russia’s behaviour suggests Belarus is no longer perceived as a strategic partner. What it means to be a close Russian ally is up for question. Russia carries out aggressive activities, like kidnapping a third country’s citizens, on a close partner’s territory. This undermines the image of Belarus on the international stage and harms cooperation between neighbouring states. This does not bode well for the future of Belarus–Russia relations.

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:

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.


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.


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.

Live: Ostrogorski Forum 2017. Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014

On 19 June 2017 the Ostrogorski Centre is holding a conference on the challenges to the Belarusian political and economic model in the new international environment, possible ways to prevent further deterioration and find solutions to major problems. The issue will be considered in the three aspects: foreign policy, security and identity.

The conference promotes the development of professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views. Each panel includes experts from both pro-government and independent community with journalists of leading Belarusian mass media as moderators.

The conference offers live broadcast. Videos from the conference will be spread among the stakeholders, including state bodies, media, and civil society organisations.

Agenda of the 2017 Ostrogorski Forum:

Panel 1. Normalisation of relations between Belarus and the West after 2010: problems and results


Valier Karbalievič, Analytical centre 'Strategy'

Andrej Liachovič, Centre for Political Analysis

Siarhiej Kizima, Academy of Public Administration under the President of Belarus

Panel 2. National security and defence policy of Belarus in the conditions of economic crisis and rising international tension: achievements and failures


Aliaksandr Špakoŭski, "Cytadel" project

Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (tbc)

Aliaksandr Hielahajeŭ, independent military analyst

Panel 3. The official policy of identity after 2014: was there a ‘soft Belarusianisation'?


Vadzim Mažejka, Liberal Club

Andrej Dyńko, Naša Niva newspaper

Piotra Piatroŭski, Nomos Centre

#Ostrogorski Forum

The Belarus-Russia conflict through the lens of the Gerasimov Doctrine

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 conflict.

Russia’s asymmetric warfare concept

In February 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, published a report on hybrid or asymmetric warfare (the Gerasimov Doctrine), which Russia successfully tested during its conflict with Ukraine.

Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of RussiaGeneral Gerasimov believes that the rules of war have changed and the line between war and peace has blurred. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown. In many cases, these means have proved more effective than conventional warfare.

This new type of conflict relies broadly on political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures, applied in coordination with mounting discontent and an atmosphere of protest on behalf of the population.

All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed nature, including disseminating hostile information and deploying special operations forces.

According to Gerasimov, Russian military practises must evolve to accommodate these new methods of warfare. He has also proposed a schematic model for modern conflict, entitled 'The Role of Nonmilitary Methods in Interstate Conflict Resolution'.

His model outlines six stages of conflict development (see picture below). Each stage focuses on nonmilitary measures, but potentially entails increasing military involvement as the conflict approaches resolution.

Is Russia already waging a hybrid war against Belarus?

The Gerasimov Doctrine perfectly captures the ongoing conflict between Belarus and Russia. According to the schematic model, Belarus and Russia have already passed through the first ('covert origins') and second ('escalations') stages. They are now in stage three: 'start of conflict activities'. Meanwhile, Belarus and Russia formally remain strategic allies. For this reason, applying the Gerasimov Doctrine to the case of Belarus first requires some clarification.

As interstate contradictions intensify, the third stage of conflict begins, and opposing forces begin to take action against one another. This can take the form of demonstrations, protests, subversion, sabotage, assassinations, and paramilitary engagements. The Kremlin then frames this intensification of conflict as a direct threat to Russia's national interests and security and begins preparations to intervene politically and militarily.

According to General Gerasimov, conflict activities must involve nonmilitary and military measures in a 4:1 ratio. Russia has already begun to take such actions against Belarus.

The Kremlin has been grooming coalitions and unions in Belarus for decades, expanding its influence in different areas such as security services, the bureaucracy apparatus, and even certain NGOs and oppositional groups. Although it may be hard to believe, even prominent Belarusian oppositional leaders such as Stanislaŭ ​Šuškievič and Zmicier Daškievič discussed the option of bringing in Russian troops to Belarus in order to overthrow Lukashenka in 2010.

The Kremlin has been systematically putting political and diplomatic pressure on Belarus since the beginning of the conflict with Ukraine and the West. Moscow urges Minsk to take sides in a new Cold War, attempting to establish a Russian military presence on the territory of Belarus, thus transforming it into a military outpost for Russia.

Economic sanctions include permanent trade wars and restrictions of Belarusian goods on the Russian market, the gas price dispute, and insufficient delivery of Russian oil to Belarus. Because of this, in January 2017 alone Belarus lost 1.5% of its GDP. This Russian economic pressure contributes significantly to undermining social and economic stability.

Uladzimir Makey and Sergey Lavrov, ministers of foreign affairsDespite their ongoing conflict, Minsk and Moscow have not announced a break in diplomatic relations.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin recently ignored Alexander Lukashenka and refused to meet with him in Sochi, according to the press. This may be Moscow's way of signalling that the Kremlin no longer perceives Lukashenka to be a partner worthy of negotiation.

The year 2017 hasn’t seen any significant signs of improvement in Russian-Belarusian relations except statements of difficulties and problems; this includes the visit to Moscow of Uladzimir Makei, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, on 21– 22 February. It seems that the Kremlin does not take the arguments and concerns of the Belarusian leadership seriously during talks.

A few days later, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak stated that a full repayment of Belarus's $600 million natural gas debt is the key condition for the two sides to reach a compromise. On top of this, Gazprom increased the price of gas for Belarus by 6.81% (to $141.1 per 1,000 cubic metres) since January 2017 despite ongoing gas price talks.

Protests against "social parasites" law in HomelOn 17–19 and 26 February 2017, Minsk and several other cities saw the largest demonstrations of opposition forces since December 2010, when Belarusians protested against the results of the presidential election. Hundreds of people protested against the controversial 'social parasite' law.

Some oppositional figures, such as Uladzimir Niakliajeŭ and Mikalaj Statkievič, also took part in the demonstrations. They wished to transform the socially-oriented protests into political ones, demanding the resignation of the government and Lukashenka on 25 March 2017. On 5 March 2017 dozens of anarchists in black masks appeared unexpectedly at the demonstration in Brest. They may easily become a source of provocations. 

The protests have provoked debate regarding whether Russia could take advantage of the situation to destabilise the country and send in troops to 'restore the constitutional order'. Lukashenka has already alluded to this scenario in a recent statement about the protests.

It seems that the Kremlin is preparing Russian public discourse for a serious crisis in Belarusian-Russian relations with the help of an informational warfare campaign. Some journalists' reporting on Belarus in the Russian media evinces parallels with the situation in Ukraine. Allegedly, the West is attempting to drive Belarus away from Russia.

According to them, Belarus can expect Ukraine-style instability, as Western intelligence agencies are preparing a colour revolution to overthrow Alexander Lukashenka. Other stories focus on the growth of nationalist sentiment and 'Russophobia' in Belarusian society.

Recent polls conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre have demonstrated that 60% of Russians oppose oil and gas discounts for Belarus even if Minsk should support the Kremlin on the international arena. About 80% are for re-instating border controls with Belarus.

As for military measures, Belarus Digest has already covered the ongoing deployment of two mechanised brigades of the Russian Armed Forces in Yelnya and Klintsy close to the Belarusian border. Incidentally, these brigades would be very well suited for a hypothetical crisis intervention under the guise of, for example, a joint anti-terrorist operation.

It seems that the Kremlin is considering the possibility of deploying troops to 'stabilise the situation and restore the constitutional order' in response to unrest in Belarus, judging by the 2015 military drills 'Interaction' and 'Slavonic brotherhood'.

In addition, Russia continues to reinforce border controls and infrastructure on the Belarusian frontier, deploying operational formations of the FSB border service. In February 2017, units of the Federal Customs Service appeared there as well. Officially, these are meant to protect the Russian market from the embargo on Western food products which pass through Belarus and other member-states of the Eurasian Economic Union. However, it may easily turn into an economic blockade.

It seems that the Belarus-Russia conflict could easily advance to the next crisis stage, if it is to escalate further. The main question is whether the Kremlin is really preparing for a crisis with Belarus or merely using threats to achieve political aims and concessions by means of brute blackmail.

Belarus at the centre of Russia-NATO wargame simulation

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.

Inside the wargaming simulation

The wargame simulated a military conflict between Russia and NATO caused by a Russian attack on the Baltics. It used the ‘Hegemon’ computer-based programme which was originally created by the United States during the Cold War.

'Hegemon’ operates using open-source and de-classified data for tactical, operational, theatre and strategic level analysis.

Hegemon computer interface

The Potomac Foundation already conducted several wargaming simulations using the 'Hegemon' platform last year: at the Baltic Defence College; in Washington with a group of defence attachés; at the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) headquarters in the United Kingdom; and with the Latvian joint staff.

The recent Baltic wargaming simulation in Warsaw brought together defence experts and government representatives from Poland, the United States, Baltic and Nordic countries and NATO. Retired four-star United States Air Force general Philip Breedlove took part in this wargaming simulation. He had served as Commander, U.S. European Command, as well as 17th Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) of NATO Allied Command Operations. NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Brigade General Paul Tennant also participated in the event.

Left to right: Paul Tennant, General of the Union Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), General Philip Breedlove, Zbigniew Pisarski (Kazimierz Pulaski Foundation)

'Hegemon' also took into consideration open-source intelligence data which outlined deep concerns among western military analysts over a possible conflict with Russia. This data directly refers to Belarus.

A source of concern

Military analysts from the Potomac Foundation believe that the ongoing reestablishment of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Russian Armed Forces has far-reaching strategic intent. This raises a number of security concerns.

During the Cold War the 1st Guards Tank Army was stationed in East Germany as part of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. It served as the mobile, hard-hitting spearhead and vanguard of a Warsaw Pact drive into Western Europe. Today the army is located in Russia's Western Military District, close to Belarus, where it would likely be called into action in the event of a conflict in the Baltic states.

The 1st Guards Tank Army consists of around 3 Divisions and 3 manoeuvre Brigades – a very powerful and offensive strike force. Its assets will soon number approximately 700 Tanks, 1,300 other armoured vehicles, 500 tubes of artillery and multiple rocket launchers, covered by a dense, mobile-radar air defence umbrella. The 1st Guards Tank army is equipped with the latest Russian armament, and has been declared an early recipient of the new Armata T-14 Main Battle Tank.

Russia has already announced that the 1st Guards Tank army will be ready by this spring. The Kremlin is planning to test it in the upcoming West/Zapad – 2017 exercise. This will take place in Russia’s Western military district as well as in Belarus in September 2017.

Russian T-14 Armata Tank

Military analysts from the Potomac foundation also announced that Russia has ordered over 4,000 rail flat cars for the deployment of heavy equipment into Belarus. According to their estimations this is sufficient to transport all the heavy vehicles of the 1st Guards Tank Army and a substantial amount of ammunition. This means the West/Zapad – 2017 military drill may serve to bring together the most powerful concentration of offensive weaponry in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, allowing the Kremlin to present military threats to NATO.

The Russia-NATO conflict begins with Belarus

In the Baltic wargaming simulation scenario, the conflict between Russia and NATO begins with Belarus, with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko refusing to establish a large-scale permanent military presence of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus.

Therefore the Kremlin decides to launch a coup,overthrowing Alexander Lukashenko and replacing him with a fully controlled and loyal secret service general. The new leader of Belarus then officially invites Russian troops into Belarus. After this the Kremlin begins to generate hybrid threats to the Baltic countries and Poland.

NATO then decides to activate Article 5 and sends High Readiness Forces to protect these states. The Kremlin interprets this step as a declaration of war and responds with a large-scale offensive operation against the Baltic states and Poland. According to this scenario Russia even deploys a tactical nuclear weapon on the territory of Belarus.

Some conclusions and results

The Baltic wargaming simulation took place in an ‘off the record’ format. This means the organisers and participants will not share all the details and their conclusions publicly. They will deliver a post-event report to Polish and US officials. Nevertheless, the wargame demonstrates a significant shift in Western strategic perception of Belarus.

The West has until now viewed Belarus and its leadership as a fully controlled satellite and political-military appendix of Russia. Today western strategists are reviewing their attitude towards these myths and stereotypes about Belarus, with Alexander Lukashenko demonstrating a strong commitment to defend the sovereignty and independence of his country through political and military means.

Recently Alexander Lukashenko has reaffirmed his position on the Russian air base in his press conference of over seven hours that brimmed with anti-Kremlin sentiment. According to his statement, Belarus does not need Russian military bases on its territory.

Obviously such a position contradicts the Kremlin's strategic intentions to transform Belarus into its military outpost. This may lead Moscow to activate the crisis scenario posited in the wargaming simulation.

That is why Dr. Phillip Petersen, Vice President for Studies at the Potomac Foundation, suggests that the West now consider how to support independence and sovereignty of Belarus.

He proposes disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) if the Kremlin intervenes in Belarus and undermines its independence. To rejoin the SWIFT, Moscow would need to withdraw its troops from the territory of Belarus and restore its sovereignty.

Only a strong, sovereign and independent Belarus can contribute to regional stability and security and prevent a heated military confrontation between Russia and NATO.

Will Russia occupy Belarus in 2017?

Recently, the Russian Ministry of Defence disclosed logistical data of railway traffic to other countries for the upcoming year.

It revealed that the Kremlin is planning to significantly increase the amount of military cargo headed for Belarus.

This may be a sign that Moscow is preparing to redeploy a large number of Russian troops to Belarus in 2017.

A piece by Belarus Digest predicted that the Kremlin is trying to transform Belarus into a flash point for menacing NATO and Ukraine by deploying its military capabilities on Belarusian territory.

Unfortunately, this prediction is corroborated by the aforementioned logistic data, as well as the fruitlessness of the recent meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

The negotiation agenda: two different angles

On 22 – 23 October 2016 Alexander Lukashenko paid a working visit to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss bilateral economic problems. The lack of official comments on the results of the negotiations in Moscow raises some doubts about its real agenda. Moreover, the current state of affairs demonstrates that the Kremlin is unwilling to compromise and will continue to put pressure on Minsk.

Significant economic problems have been accumulating in Moscow-Minsk relations since the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014. The list of grievances includes permanent trade wars and restrictions of Belarusian goods on the Russian market, the gas price dispute and the incomplete delivery of oil to Belarus from Russia, and the sudden implementation of controls on the Belarusian-Russian border.

However, Alexander Surikov, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, announced shortly before the meeting that the two presidents would not be discussing economic problems. According to him, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko would focus on political issues in the changing international context. He did not specify which 'changes' were implied.

Nevertheless, it seems that Putin had already set the political agenda for negotiations with Lukashenko during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Peru on 21 November 2016, one day before the meeting in Moscow. He explained why Russia is so alarmed by NATO’s expansion and stressed that the 'situation is heating up'.

Without doubt, Putin did discuss the current security situation in the region with his Belarusian counterpart. According to Kremlin strategists, upcoming deployments of four NATO battalions in Poland and the Baltic states will undermine the strategic stability of the region.

Putin believes that Belarus must participate in Russia’s military response to NATO’s activities on its Eastern flank

For this reason, Putin believes that Belarus must participate in Russia’s military response to NATO’s activities on its Eastern flank. Part of this response includes the large scale 'Zapad / West 2017' military drills taking place on the territory of Belarus and Kaliningrad next year.

Military drills or occupation?

However, the newly revealed logistical data of Russian military cargo to Belarus illustrate the Kremlin’s far-reaching strategic designs. It seems that Moscow is planning to redeploy a large number of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus for purposes other than military drills.

According to these data, the Russian Ministry of Defence plans to send 4,162 railway carriages to Belarus next year. This would be 33 times more traffic than in 2015, and 83 times more traffic than this year. Some more argue that this increase in flow is connected with the 'Zapad/ West' joint strategic military exercises taking place next September.

However, comparing next year's logistical data with the number of railway carriages coming from Russia in 2013, during the previous 'Zapad' military drills, paints a rather different picture.

The Russian Ministry of Defence sent only 200 railway carriages to Belarus that year. Moreover, almost half of the motorised brigade of the Russian Armed Forces (comprising 2,500 troops) took part in the joint military exercises on the territory of Belarus.

In contrast, next year the Russian Ministry of Defence is planning to send 20 times more railway carriages to Belarus than during previous 'Zapad' drills in 2013. What's more, the Kremlin’s strategists are not required to publish certain military logistic data in open sources. This is a usual practise. Therefore, to get a more realistic idea of the scale of Russian troops’ redeployment to Belarus, the number of railway carriages should be multiplied at least by a factor of 1.5.

This logistical military data indirectly confirms that Russia is going to redeploy a number of troops to Belarus almost equal to the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District, and not simply participate in regular military drills.

Obviously, the Kremlin does not need this many troops for training purposes. A more likely scenario is that Russia plans to transform Belarus into an outpost for military confrontation with NATO. Specifically, Russia may use Belarusian territory in order to generate security threats and challenges to the Baltic states.

the Kremlin must first set up a strategic military presence on the territory of Belarus

In order to accomplish this, the Kremlin must first set up a strategic military presence on the territory of Belarus. Obviously, if this many Russian troops arrive in Belarus, it will be difficult to send them home later. Without doubt, this is detrimental to the sovereignty and independence of the Belarusian state.

Implications of the meeting in Moscow

Notably, this Russian military logistical data appeared in open sources one week prior to Lukashenka's visit to Moscow earlier this month, despite the fact that Belarusian military officials had not yet ironed out the details of next year's 'Zapad' drills with their Russian counterparts.

In this regard, the publication of these data can be seen as a tool to put psychological pressure on Minsk in order to bring Belarus into line with the Kremlin.

Simultaneously, the Russian media launched an information campaign dedicated to Belarus immediately following Lukashenka's visit to Moscow. Even certain federal-level Russian TV channels, such as 'Channel One Russia' and 'Zvezda', reported on the topic of Belarus

Some journalists' stories drew parallels with the situation in Ukraine. According to them, the same fate of destabilisation awaits Belarus, as Western intelligence agencies are preparing a colour revolution to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko.

Other stories focused on the growth of nationalist sentiment and 'Russophobia' in Belarusian society, as well as an outburst of right-wing oppositional political movements and parties. 'Zvezda', the TV channel of the Russian Ministry of Defence, warned explicitly that Alexander Lukashenko could be overthrown by Ukrainian provocateurs and so on.

Belarus Digest has written articles outlining a hypothetical coup scenario in Belarus launched by the Kremlin. According to this sequence of events, Russian-backed sabotage groups could operate as Belarusian nationalists or 'Ukrainian provocateurs'. In another scenario, based on the failed tactics of plotters in Montenegro, Russian agents could also pose as local security forces.

It seems that the Kremlin is preparing Russian public opinion for a serious crisis in Belarusian-Russian relations. The fruitlessness of Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Moscow also signals that Belarus is refusing to become a Russian military outpost in the event of a confrontation between NATO and the West.

In the future, an intensification of tension and an increase in coercive measures by the Kremlin – should Belarus continue to defend its national sovereignty and independence – is possible. This could even entail a coup attempt and destabilisation as an excuse for the Russian military to intervene in Belarus and instal a fully pro-Kremlin regime in Minsk.

Without a doubt, such a pro-Kremlin regime would acquiesce to however many Russian troops the Kremlin desires on Belarusian territory.

Arseni Sivitski

Arseni is the Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies based in Minsk; he is also a military officer in reserve for the Belarusian Armed Forces.

Trump’s election, military cooperation with the US, comments on KEF 2016 – digest of Belarusian analytics

In November Belarus analysts focused on implications of Donald Trump's election for Belarus-US relations, ways to reform Belarusian economy discussed at Kastryčnicki Economic Forum, as well as developments in human rights situation.

Dzianis Meĺjancoŭ believes that after the election of the US president Donald Trump the Belarusian-American relations will develop in the same direction while, Andrej Jahoraŭ thinks that Donald Trump may initiate a review of the entire package of sanctions previously imposed by the US.

BISS presents a regular monitoring, which explores Belarus’s foreign policy in the five key dimensions. The monthly monitoring of Belarus Security Blog argues that the agreement on US-Belarusian cooperation in the military sphere is rather a political and symbolic act.

Analysing the Kastryčnicki Ekanamičny Forum 2016 Siarhiej Čaly states that in 2011 the public was ahead of authorities, while now it's clear that the government is ahead of society.

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

US presidential elections and Belarus

There will not be radical change in US foreign policyDzianis Meĺjancoŭ, a senior analyst of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) believes that after the election of the US president Donald Trump, the Belarusian-American relations will develop in the same direction as the recent two years. Belarus is far from the top list of US interests, and a process of normalisation will be gradual.

Trump winning the US presidential elections will change nothing for Belarus – Donald Trump may initiate a review of the entire package of sanctions previously imposed by the US, but there will be no automatic lifting of sanctions against Belarus. How will the US foreign policy change after the billionaire populist winning the office, considers Andrej Jahoraŭ, the Director of the Centre for European Transformation.

Foreign policy

Belarus foreign policy index #34 (September-October 2016) – BISS presents a regular monitoring, which explores Belarus’s foreign policy in the five key dimensions. In September-October, the tension in relations with Russia was not removed that expressed in the high negative index of relationship, which was not observed for a long time. In relations with the West and the EU in particular, the experts observe a gradual positive dynamics after the parliamentary elections.

National defense and security. October 2016 – According to the monthly monitoring of Belarus Security Blog, the agreement on US-Belarusian cooperation in the military sphere is rather a political and symbolic act. The level of trust between the parties is obviously not enough for any significant practical cooperation. The goal of Minsk remains unchanged: the preservation of the existing political regime intact.

Strategic assessment: Belarus weathers economic doldrums as rapprochement with West proceeds – Grigory Ioffe considers the recent developments in Belarus under five major themes: economic decline, parliamentary elections, uneasy relations with Russia; rapprochement with the West; and domestic “liberalisation.” The fifth trend clearly accompanies Belarus’s warming relations with the West, and is seemingly dependent upon it.

Civil society and human rights

Belarus civil society is trying to find a comfort zone – journalist Paŭliuk Bykoŭski notes that the last presidential (2015) and parliamentary (2016) elections show that for the first time CSOs were not involved in the mobilisation campaign or boycott. The recent trend is that many pro-democracy organisations distance themselves from politics. For an external observer, the situation in the Belarusian civil society looks frozen for decades.

Human rights situation in Belarus: October 2016 – According to the monthly monitoring of the Human Rights Centre Viasna, October was not marked by any significant changes that could contribute to qualitative changes in the human rights situation. Namely, Viasna welcomes the very fact of the adoption of a National interagency action plan on human rights but notes that the country’s human rights community was not properly invited to discuss it.

Human rights activity: unforeseen traps – Liudmila Hraznova, human rights activist talks about a visible differentiation of the Belarusian human rights community. There are two approaches: a tougher one based on western standards, and a more moderate – from the point of view of internal situation of a post-totalitarian state of the country. These two approaches have the same importance, according to Hraznova.

Kastryčnicki Economic Forum 2016

Trends in the development of small and medium business in Belarus. Small and medium businesses are not able to solve the problem of unemployment which is caused by restructuring of state-owned enterprises

Proven ways do not work and will not work. It is time to "turn on the brain." economic observer, Aliaksandr Abuchovič analysing the Kastryčnicki Ekanamičny Forum, KEF 2016 notes that in contrast to previous years, when foreign mentors strongly pushed Belarus for reforms, this year representatives of almost all international organisations urged not to hurry and stressed that each country has its own path of reforms.

Society should know their interests and formulate a request for reforms. In a regular program Economy in Simple Words economist Siarhiej Čaly sums up the results of Kastryčnicky Ekanamičny Forum, KEF 2016, held on November 3-4 in Minsk. In 2011 it was obvious that the public was ahead of authorities, but now it's clear that the government is ahead of society – this is the key finding of KEF-2016 from Siarhiej Čaly.


Trends in the development of small and medium business in Belarus. The dynamics of macroeconomic indicators of small and medium businesses in recent years shows the reduction of its role in the economy of Belarus. This is largely predetermined by falling incomes, which indicate the focus of small and medium businesses on the demand of households. Most companies focus on saving their business and optimising costs, including cuts on employees.

Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy. The study identifies the main elements and manifestations of neutrality in the Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy

These trends prove that small and medium businesses are not able to solve the problem of unemployment during the crisis which is caused by restructuring of state-owned enterprises. Therefore, the government should first create the environment conducive to the development of the private sector.

Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy. This study examines the three following questions. Firstly, the authors examine the origins and development of the Belarusian neutrality. Secondly, the study identifies the main elements and manifestations of neutrality in the Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy.

At the same time, the authors compared this model of neutrality with other, especially the Finnish one (after WWII) as far as its context and certain conceptual traits are concerned. Third, the study assesses the importance of neutrality for the consolidation of the Belarusian statehood, as well as the prospects and problems of its realisation.

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.

Lessons from Montenegro: is a coup possible in Belarus?

On 6 November 2016 Milivoje Katnich, the Chief Special Prosecutor of Montenegro, gave a statement regarding the failed coup attempt in Podgorica during the Parliamentary elections on 16 October 2016.

According to him, several groups of Russian and Russian-backed Serbian nationalists were behind the coup; they were hoping to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO and the EU.

The fact that the Kremlin was able to plan such an operation in Montenegro leaves no doubts as to its capabilities to launch a similar plot in Belarus. Analysing last year's joint Belarusian and Russian military exercises, which were developed by the Russian General Staff, also arouses suspicions.

The case of Montenegro

Several groups of Russian and Serbian nationalists had planned to open fire on the pro-Russian opposition rally wearing Montenegrin police uniforms. The rally took place in front of the Parliament to protest against Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. This ploy was intended to provoke massive bloodshed by assaulting the protesters near the Parliament. The plan also included the elimination of the prime minister, calling to mind the situation in Kiev during Maidan in February 2014.

Fortunately, Montenegrin and Serbian security services were able to prevent the coup attempt and arrest several participants. Meanwhile, Belgrade quietly deported several Russians suspected of coordinating the coup after Nikolai Patrushev, the Head of the Russian Security Council, flew to Belgrade on 26 October 2016 in an apparent attempt to diffuse the scandal and evacuate his compatriots.

According to officials in Podgorica, the sabotage groups wanted to destabilise the political situation in the country and prevent Montenegro from further integrating with the EU and NATO. It is clear that Montenegro, along with other countries in the Balkan region aspiring to draw closer to the EU and NATO, are highly at risk of destabilisation.

The Kremlin’s networks in Serbia and Belarus

According to our Serbian sources, pro-Russian forces are carrying out subversive activities in Serbia as well. Unfortunately, it seems that Belarusians are also involved in these plots.

Vencislav Buyich, director of the SEAS Foundation (Belgrade), stated in an interview that he had met with Sergey Lushch, a representative of the pro-Kremlin organisation “Rus molodaya” (Minsk), in Belgrade in Spring 2016. The latter apparently spoke quite openly about his plans to destabilise Serbia.

Specifically, Sergey Lushch spoke of the need to have his own people in every Serbian city with a population of over 20,000 people. The main task of these people and organisations would be to gain the trust of the locals, mostly through civic activities. These activists ought never to outwardly demonstrate their pro-Russian orientation, nor should they speak out publicly against pro-Western developments in the country.

Without a doubt, pro-Kremlin organisations are creating their own network of “sleeping agents"

Without a doubt, pro-Kremlin organisations are creating their own network of “sleeping agents". According to Sergei Lushch, at any given moment they could begin anti-Western uprisings in several countries. Unfortunately, the Kremlin has already proved the efficacy of this technique in Ukraine.

“Rus molodaya” is not a well-known or popular NGO in Belarus. Nevertheless, it does enjoy the support of the Russian Embassy in Minsk as well as “Rossotrudnichestvo", the Russian Federal Agency responsible for foreign "civilian aid". Certain Belarusian officials with explicitly pro-Kremlin views participate frequently in their events, one example is Vadzim Hihin, former chief editor of the magazine Belaruskaja Dumka, a mouthpiece of the Presidential Administration.

The fact that the Kremlin has managed to involve Belarusians in destabilising activities in Serbia is deeply worrying. This proves that the Kremlin has been working to create a network of "agents" in Belarus as well. Several pro-Russian groups, such as the Cossacks and Orthodox organisations, have indeed become more active since the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

The plan for Belarus

Unfortunately, like other post-Soviet states, Belarus is a hostage to the Kremlin's perception of international relations as a zero-sum game. It is clear from statements by Aliaksandr Lukashenka that the Belarusian leadership has no intention of normalising relations with the West at the expense of its strategic obligations to Russia or Eurasian integration. Despite this fact, the Kremlin persists in treating any hint of normalisation between the West and Belarus as a threat to its influence.

The Kremlin has also considered the possibility of deploying troops to “stabilise the situation and restore the constitutional order” in Belarus

Some evidence points to the fact that Moscow has already developed a contingency plan for Belarus should it lose influence there. Last year, Belarusian and Russian joint military drills (“Interaction – 2015” and “Slavonic brotherhood – 2015”) demonstrated that Russia is preparing for a possible destabilisation of the military-political situation in Belarus. The Kremlin has also considered the possibility of deploying troops to “stabilise the situation and restore the constitutional order” in Belarus.

According to the scenario of these military drills, which were developed by the Russian General Staff, illegal irregular armed groups (far right radicals) destabilise the military and political situation in Belarus. They practise capturing critical state and military facilities, eliminating political and military leadership, carrying out terrorist attacks, and provoking protests.

In the scenario, the Belarusian government is unable to stabilise the situation on its own and requests military help from the Kremlin. Moscow decides to send troops in to conduct a joint anti-terrorist operation, prevent unrest, and “restore constitutional order”. Incidentally, the 76th Air Assault Division of the Russian Armed Forces and recently deployed mechanised brigades, which are stationed close to the Belarusian border, are very well suited for such hypothetical anti-terrorist operations.

Obviously, such a scenario is a clear exaggeration of the real internal and external situation in Belarus. Such drills, along with a Kremlin-backed media campaign attempting to convey the possibility of Belarus becoming a “russophobic” state, are seemingly intended to prepare the Russian population for a possible crisis with Belarus. Propaganda featuring similar rhetoric could also be seen before and during the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Such assessments by military and civilian analysts illustrate the Kremlin’s willingness to destabilise Belarus and take advantage of the ensuing disorder in order to project its military power, rather than improving the security situation.

The Montenegrin case also demonstrates how easily the Kremlin can initiate a coup with the help of sabotage groups

The Montenegrin case also demonstrates how easily the Kremlin can initiate a coup with the help of sabotage groups (potentially even disguised as Belarusian nationalists) and subversive tactics. Given the Kremlin's influence on Belarusian security services, the bureaucracy apparatus, and even certain NGOs and oppositional groups, it could certainly pull off such a coup in Belarus.

Consequences and implications

Without doubt, the ultimate goal of such destabilisation and military power projection would be a regime change resulting in fully pro-Kremlin political leadership in Minsk. Moscow needs to be sure that it has full access to the territory of Belarus in the case of a large-scale military conflict with NATO.

Theoretically, Moscow intends to transform Belarus into a Cold War outpost in order to generate conventional and hybrid threats to NATO member states and Ukraine. This remains difficult to accomplish as long as the Belarusian state is strong and Aliaksandr Lukashenka attempts to maintain neutrality by refusing to host Russian military bases on Belarusian territory.

Belarus needs to expect increasing pressure from the Kremlin, which wants to gain more political and military control in the near future. However, if Aliaksandr Lukashenka​ resists such pressure, a coup remains a highly likely scenario in Belarus-Russia relations.

The upcoming meeting between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming month will be indicative of further developments. Belarus Digest will be monitoring them closely.

Arseni Sivitski

Arseni is the Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies based in Minsk and military officer in reserve of the Belarusian Armed Forces.

Incident at Belarus Nuclear Power Plant Raises Safety Concerns

On 10 July 2016 there was an incident at the construction site of the new Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant.

According to local whistle-blower Mikalai Ulasevich, a crane dropped the 330-tonne reactor from a height of 2-4 metres during a test lift. Until 26 July the officials either actively denied the incident or simply kept silent.

For Belarusians, this is painfully reminiscent of Chernobyl. When the Chernobyl accident occurred in April 1986, the Soviet government chose to conceal information from the people for as long as it could. This decision exacerbated the situation for the general population, who did not know to take precautions against radiation fallout.

The location of the construction site for the future nuclear plant has also caused tensions with neighbouring Lithuania. Astraviec NPP – just 50 km from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius – poses an immediate threat to residents of Lithuania in the case of an accident. However, despite the significant social and political controversy and safety concerns the Belarusian government has chosen to continue with the project.

The official line vs rumours

The Ministry of Energy, the government entity responsible for the plant, released an official statement only on 26 July. It confirmed that rumours of the incident, now circulating for more than two weeks, were true. The wording of the official press release described "an emergency at the site", which occurred during "the horizontal movement of the frame". On 1 August the general contractor confirmed the safety of the reactor, but suggested that it should be up to the Belarusian authorities to decide whether to use this particular item.

Belarus, the country that suffered the most severe consequences of the Chernobyl disaster in 1989, has now decided to build its own nuclear power plant. The project for the NPP, conceptualised in 2007 and first initiated in 2009, lacks both transparency and public support and controversy surrounding it is plentiful.

First, the Belarusian government could not find enough funding for it, so the money had to come from Moscow with strings attached. Russia agreed to provide $9bn out of $11bn required for the NPP, as a result of which Rosatom, or Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, won the bid as the major partner in construction and supply.

Secondly, the Lithuanian government protested against the choice of the NPP construction site due to its location just 12 Image from tut.bymiles from the Lithuanian border. They also accused Belarusian authorities of violating the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). The recent incident has only added to rising tensions between the two governments.

According to Delfi news agency, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated on Tuesday, 26 July:

Incidents at the Astravyets power plant, a nuclear facility that Belarus is building close to its border with Lithuania, show that Vilnius has reason to be concerned about the project's safety.

Lithuania has sent at least three notes to the Belarusian government voicing their concerns for safety.

When nuclear becomes political

As Mikalai Ulasevich, the whistle-blower and member of the Belarusian oppositional United Civil Party stated on Wednesday, 27 July: “The only way to ensure the safety of the Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant is by shutting it down.” This seems to be a common sentiment among many opposition leaders. According to Yury Tsarik, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies on 28 July:

This situation (the construction of the NPP) has provided some real grounds for oppositional action, and allowed them to play on the widespread phobia in Belarus of nuclear energy. Andrey Dzmitryeu (opposition leader of “Tell the Truth” Initiative) has already announced his intention to do so.

Belarusian authorities defend their right to build the nuclear power plant. The project will address the demand for power in Belarus, which has scarce domestic fuel resources. Belarus aims to diversify its energy resources, including renewable resources, replace the import of natural fossil fuels (five million tonnes of fuel-equivalent a year), reduce electric power production costs, and increase the country's capacity to export electric power. Ideally it will also decrease the country's energy dependence on Russia.

Furthermore, the project will generate approximately 8,000 jobs during the peak construction period and 1,000 new permanent jobs when it starts operations, according to the Ministry of Energy. In an attempt to bring down costs and boost the popularity of the project, Belarusian authorities have handpicked 400 students to send to the construction site. According to news portal, the young people had to go through rigorous competitive selection to qualify for a summer job there.

Moving forward despite controversy

Ironically, this week experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced their intention to visit Belarus to examine the construction site of the NPP.

The Site and External Events Design Mission (SEED) was supposed to be carried out before the construction site was approved. This constituted one of the Lithuanian government's requirements for Belarusian authorities regarding the plant’s safety.

Lithuania has already announced that it would not purchase any energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. They have also promised to bring the issue to the attention of neighbouring countries and urge them to join the boycott, according to the Lithuanian news agency Delfi.

This is not an empty threat. According to expert estimates the Astraviec NPP will produce enough energy for export. Vladimir Nistyuk, from the Belarusian association “Renewable Energy”, commented in Deutsche Welle that: "There is no one around Astraviec willing to buy energy from the plant, yet it could produce a net surplus of energy as early as 2018”.

Undeterred by the rising controversy, Belarusian authorities have chosen to move forward with their plans. According to official information, the first energy unit should be completed by 2018, the second one – by 2020.

Belarus has once again found itself between a rock and a hard place. Going forward with the construction may mean deteriorating relations with Lithuania and possibly the European Union, while freezing the project may antagonise Russia.

CSTO: From NATO’s Enemy to Strategic Partner?

This week Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka attended the jubilee summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The summit participants took stock of the organisation's evolution since its founding ten years ago on 14 May 2002, on the basis of the 1992 agreement. They also set targets for the CSTO's future development.

Their goals include two potentially contradictory developments. On the one hand, they hope to enhance cooperation with the West and NATO. On the other, they are set on preventing contagion of the “Arab spring”.  Which of these two goals comes to dominate will have a profound impact on Belarus’ future. 

The CSTO as a time capsule

seven CSTO members have remained frozen in time

Looking back at the decade of political developments outside and inside the CSTO, one gets the impression that the seven CSTO members have remained frozen in time. Belarus and fellow CSTO members Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan remain undemocratic, dependent on Russia, and economically vulnerable.

In the meantime, Belarus’ neighbours Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have joined NATO and the EU. EU membership and access to the EU structural funds have provided a major boost to these states’ economies and ensured the continuation of democratic transformation. These states participate in NATO’s collective defense system and have revamped their militaries.

Out of the seven CSTO member states only Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have changed rulers

Just like in 2002, when the CSTO was founded, Russia is ruled by President Vladimir Putin and Belarus by President Lukashenka. The leaders of Kazakhstan (Nusultan Nazarbaev), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), and Tajikistan (Emomalii Rahmon) are starting their third decades in power. Out of the seven CSTO member states only Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have changed rulers.

All CSTO members remain disengaged internationally, but Belarus’ relations with the West have been the most strained. In 2002, the EU states imposed their first travel ban on Lukashenka and his ministers over poor human rights violations. Earlier this year, EU diplomats were recalled from Minsk, and the Belarusian leader has become less welcome in the EU than ever. 

The CSTO members’ ambitions

What has held this motley alliance of autocrats together? At the time of founding, the CSTO states faced very different external security challenges – from Islamic resurgence in Tajikistan to territorial defense from Western enemies in Belarus. As its members were scrambling to develop foreign policy after the Soviet breakup, the group has been held together mostly by default.

Lukashenka openly prioritised controlling social unrest and bridling the power of Internet as the organisation's main targets

However, the threats of popular unrest after a string of colour revolutions and now the Arab Spring have given the alliance a new meaning and kept the leaders coming to the summits. It is not accidental that the CSTO members emphasise developing the collective rapid reaction forces, created on the initiative of Kazakhstan, whose leader has been in power since 1990. Last year, CSTO chair Lukashenka openly prioritised controlling social unrest and bridling the power of the internet as the organisation's main targets.

Besides developing rapid reaction forces, the CSTO has also moved into building drones. Last year, the Interstate Corporation for Development was launched in order to develop “scientific, industrial and high-tech cooperation in CSTO countries”.  The organisation is headed by Ivan Polyakov, a senior CSTO official, and boasts 250 ongoing high-tech projects on its website.

Thanks to the CSTO membership and a close military alliance with Russia, small Belarus has a formidable, even if ageing, military. Lukashenka is keen on using national security it as a trump card in negotiations with Russia.
This year Belarus national defence funding reached $550.1mln, a 3.3 percent increase from last year.
Just as he warns the EU of having weakened border control at the Belarus-EU border, he reassures Moscow that Belarus is a reliable ally in defending the western borders of the “union state”. This year Belarus national defence funding reached $550.1mln, a 3.3 percent increase from last year. At the same time, the armed forces remain greatly impoverished, with average monthly salary around $280.

Looking into the future

Putin has redoubled his interest in the post-Soviet space

Judging by Putin’s diplomatic agenda for the coming weeks, the CSTO's relevance is likely to grow. This year Putin has redoubled his interest in the post-Soviet space.  He cancelled his meeting with Barack Obama at the Group of Eight summit in Camp David on 18-19 May and instead has been planning meetings with neighbours. Kazakhstan is the first to be honoured by his presence – on 25 May, and Belarus will enjoy Putin’s visit on 31 May. 

Even though Putin seems to have neglected Obama, the new goal of the CSTO seems to be to stand next to rather than in opposition to the US and NATO. Building strategic cooperation with the West was first outlined in the report on reforming the CSTO by the Russian Institute of Contemporary Development last year. Another area for reform is changing the decision-making process from consensus to simple majority. What do these developments spell for Belarus?

Belying his anti-NATO and anti-Europe reputation, the Belarusian leader expressed interest in the constructive dialogue with the UN, the OSCE, and NATO in his speech at the jubilee summit. He seemed certain that the outsiders would be interested in such cooperation and even boasted that the organization expanded during the chairmanship in 2006 (jointly with Uzbekistan). Emphasizing the “growing prestige of the OSCE in the world”, Lukashenka wants to see the organisation welcome additional members in the future.

However, both cooperation with NATO and majority decision-making will radically alter the costs of Belarus’ participation in the organisation. Without the consensus requirement, there will be no need to waste time persuading or pressuring Minsk into agreement if Lukashenka’s goals diverge from those of Moscow. More importantly, if NATO is to become the CSTO’s strategic partner, the Belarusian leader will have to mend his relations with the West. While none of the CSTO members are democratic, the costs of open repression as well as of angering the US and the EU diplomats may rise.

two potential incarnations of the CSTO – as an alliance of autocrats that helps its members hold down their populations and as NATO’s partner 

Whether cooperation with NATO or catering to the political interests of the CSTO leaders dominates is likely to depend on Vladimir Putin’s immediate interests. Yet in the long run, these two potential incarnations of the CSTO – as an alliance of autocrats that helps its members hold down their populations and as NATO’s partner in Iran and Afghanistan – will come into conflict with each other.  While even NATO has cooperated with undemocratic regimes, it is much less tolerant of human rights abuses than the Kremlin.

In addition to the symbolic praise, the CSTO declaration produced at the end of the May summit contains a curious aside on the inadmissibility of economic and political pressure – between the CSTO members as well as on them from non-members. One may only wonder whether this statement alludes to the Russian or the Western pressure and whether Lukashenka is behind it.  

Belarus Needs CSTO, CSTO needs Belarus

Six out of seven member states attended an unofficial summit meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Astana, Kazakhstan, on August 12-13.
 Isolated from the West and in the midst of an economic crisis, Belarus was one of the most enthusiastic summit participants. CSTO chair this year, Belarusian president used the floor as to draw attention to his immediate concerns: social unrest and the power of internet.   

While other CSTO members were also concerned about violence in Afghanistan and US troop withdrawal plans, Alyaksandr Lukashenka brought the situation in North Africa and the Middle East into focus. Even though Tunis, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen are far from Belarus and far beyond the CSTO immediate sphere of interests, the protests in those countries hit close to home, and he stressed that an adequate CSTO response to anti-government protests is necessary. 

The Belarusian leader believes social inequality, corruption, and political conflicts rather than political repression and authoritarianism as the primary sources of protests. The Belarusian side also  thinks that outside tinkering has played a role. Drawing lessons from the protesters’ use of internet and social networks (the case even in Belarus) Lukashenka called on CSTO members to strengthen their capabilities in cyber warfare and internet surveillance.

Today Lukashenka seems the most enthusiastic CSTO advocate. He is actively campaigning for increasing in the role of the CSTO and strengthening the Collective Rapid Response Forces. CSTO is the only military block in which the isolated Belarus takes part, and as a result the country takes its responsibilities with utmost seriousness. As Lukashenka noted, Belarus “does not have a single CSTO document that is still not ratified”. 

In contrast to Uzbekistan, whose President Islam Karimov didn’t attend the summit as he was busy flirting with NATO and disappointed with CSTO, Belarus not only played a leadership role at the summit, but has devoted the front pages  of its official newspapers and web sites to the meeting. Gone are the times when Minsk would take liberties and boycott CSTO meetings (as happened in 2009 after Russia's ban on Belarus’ dairy products). Today CSTO is the only forum where Belarus is still welcome.

The organization’s focus is on Central Asia, but Belarus fits right in, at least as far as the regimes of member states are concerned: in 2011 out of the seven CSTO members only Kyrgyzstan and Armenia were classified as “partly free” while the rest were considered “not free” by the Freedom House. All of CSTO members are also leaning toward Russia; not surprisingly, some Western analysts suggest CSTO could become an anti-NATO alliance.

Convenient for Belarus, CSTO has a right to offer expedient aid to member states, which includes sending “peacekeepers” to member-states territories in cases of anti-governmental protests. It can only do so when officially asked for help, which takes care of the situations in which such “help” could be unwelcome. Belarus’ position on such interventions became clear last year when Lukashenka appealed for intervention in Kyrgyzstan to restore Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power.

Interestingly, among the priorities proposed by Belarus at the nonofficial summit was creating a legal framework for drafting a list of personae non gratae on the territories of CSTO countries. Denying visas to US and EU officials as well as international human rights advocates on a unilateral basis is clearly not enough for Belarus.

Belarus’ activism in CSTO is also useful for Russia. Busy taking to the West and preparing for presidential elections, Moscow can safely leave CSTO diplomacy to beleaguered Minsk and avoid potential accusations of imperialism.