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.




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: sputnik.by

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: 112.ua

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.




Redrawing the geopolitical map: Belarus and its neighbours connect the Black and Baltic seas

Belarus and Poland are advancing a project to connect the Black and Baltic Seas via the E40 waterway. The 2,000 km-long waterway will run through rivers and canals in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland and provide better access to seaports for landlocked Belarus.

Having already conducted a feasibility study, the participating countries are now considering ways to finance the project before making their final decision.

However, in July, several environmental organisations and public associations launched a campaign against the E40 waterway. About two dozen organisations from Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine signed a petition to halt the project.

If anything can ensure the sovereignty of Belarus and its neighbours, it is such projects which modify the political geography of the region. Unfortunately, many experts and politicians in the region do not seem to understand this matter.

Is the project really as large as it seems?

Linking up the Black and Baltic Seas, the proposed E40 route also connects many of the region’s major cities: Brest and Pinsk in Belarus, Gdańsk and Warsaw in Poland, and Kyiv and Kherson in Ukraine. The designers of the E40 project emphasise that their intention is to restore a previously existing waterway to move both people and cargo. In most parts of the waterway, ships are navigating even today.

The Polish leg of the project will require the most work, while Belarus has only to partially streamline the Prypiats’ River, construct seven locks, and build several other hydro-technical facilities.

Map of the proposed E40 waterway. Image: e40restoration.eu

The Polish Maritime Institute in Gdańsk carried out a feasibility study on the project with EU support. According to the institute, construction of facilities on the Prypiats’, i.e., the Belarusian part of the undertaking, would cost $150m. In comparison, about 12bn euros is to be spent on construction of the Polish part of the route.

Criticism from activists

On 19 July, certain environmentalists and economists expressed their concerns over Е40 during a press conference in Minsk. Ales’ Herasimenka, the press secretary of the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, criticised the project for the high investment risks it carries and the negative consequences for the Belarusian economy.

According to him, internal waterways are generally less efficient than automotive and rail transport in terms of rapidness, necessity of reloading cargo, and seasonal limitations. Therefore, according to Herasimenka: ‘We believe that government and institutional investors should come to terms with the decline of the role of inland water transport. … Waterways were relevant at the beginning of civilisation.’

However, such cursory dismissal of inland water transport is misjudged. In other European countries, this form of infrastructure shows no obvious signs of decline. Between 1990 and 2015, despite some ups and downs, the cargo volume of German inland water transport remained more or less static, at slightly more than 220m tons.

Likewise, some types of cargo, especially liquid bulk and dry bulk cargo, can be profitably transported through inland waterways, despite the limitations on speed. Several major firms in southern Belarus could take advantage of the waterway to transport large volumes of cargo. The Mikashevichy-based firm Hranit has been using the Prypiats to transport its granite for many years. Likewise, the Mazyr oil refinery or the Salihorskbased potash company Belaruskali could transport their products using water transport.

Tourism cannot replace trade

Image: Nasha Niva

Environmentalists insist that the project could have grave consequences for the local bird population, including several vulnerable species. Moreover, they claim it could potentially destroy the unique wetlands ecosystem.

However, the project does not envision any direct destruction of the wetlands. Moreover, nature in the area is not pristine anyway. In the 20th century, most swamps were drained in southern Belarus, and intensive economic activity altered the region significantly.

What’s more, the local environment is transforming because of global climate change. The water level in southern Belarusian rivers has been low for several years. Last year, because of the low water level in the Prypiats’, navigation on the river stopped much earlier than usual: by the beginning of autumn. On the other hand, because of rising temperatures and earlier springs, last year the company Belarusian Riverine Steamships started navigation on the Prypiats’ a month earlier than normal, in March.

One critic of the project, a representative of the Polish organisation Ratujmy Rzeki, Przemyslaw Nawrocki, urges Belarus to develop tourism along the Prypiats’. However, despite the beautiful landscapes along the river, the tourism industry is unlikely to be able to compete with the income brought by the E40. Belarus is simply too poor to leave the region undeveloped to satisfy environmental activists.

The waterway as a political game-changer

The E40 project also has political significance. ‘Death of Palissie [the name of the region in the Pripyats River Basin] or an alliance against Russia?’ exclaimed the US-financed and administered Radio Liberty, writing about the project on 24 July.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian government is negotiating a waterway which would help it use Polish and Ukrainian ports at the time when the Kremlin is urging Minsk to reroute its cargo away from Latvian and Lithuanian ports towards Russian Baltic ports. Minsk is not only resisting Moscow’s plans in this area, it even wants to make more intensive use of ports in countries Moscow considers unfriendly.

Map of the Baltic ports used by Belarus. Image: Tut.by

However, this concerns more than just Russia. Minsk is increasingly interested in the Polish port of Gdańsk and various Ukrainian ports because of very probable problems with using the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda

The Lithuanian government has become unfriendly towards Minsk in recent years because of Belarus’s decision to build a nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian border. Moreover, on 14 July, the Klaipėda City council voted to expand the city at the expense of its port – a priority destination for maritime export of Belarusian products. Belarus had invested in the Klaipėda port and there was long-standing bilateral cooperation on using the port for Belarusian foreign trade. This decision of local authorities dissmisses the plans of the port administration to construct a new deep-water port for ocean-going ships a dream for Belarusian exporters.

In sum, projects like E40 alter the geopolitics of the region, opening it up and providing it with further and better connections to the sea. Belarus cannot change its location, but it can develop its infrastructure in a way which mitigates its disadvantage as a landlocked country. Minsk can diversify its exports and reduce its dependence on Russia; it can also better integrate with its neighbours and the EU.

The environmental and economic arguments against the project are unconvincing, at least as far as Belarus is concerned. To survive, Belarus must reach the sea; the E40 is one way to do this.




Arms deals, Ostrogorski Forum videos, economic forecasts – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In July, analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre discussed arms deals between Belarus and Russia, developments in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations and the smear campaign against Svetlana Alexievich in the Russian media.

We also uploaded video recordings of the Ostrogorski Forum 2017 – a conference on Belarus-EU relations, security, and identity that took place in Minsk in June.

The Belarus Policy database was updated with several economic papers, as well as analyses on human rights and education.

Ostrogorski Forum 2017

On 19 June, the Ostrogorski Centre held its 2nd Ostrogorski Forum, entitled ‘Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014’. The conference featured widely-respected experts with both independent and pro-government views and was aimed at establishing a respectful dialogue. You can see videos of each of the three panels with names of the speakers below.

Panel 1. The normalisation of relations between Belarus and the EU after 2014: results and problems.

Speakers:

Andrej Liachovič, director of the Centre for Political Education

Sergey Kizima, Head of the Department of International Relations at the Academy of Public Administration

Moderator – Valier Karbalievič, expert at Strategy Analytical Centre

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

Speakers:

Alexander Gelogaev, military commentator

Aliaksandr Špakoŭski, head of the Current Concept project

Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, senior analyst of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies

Moderator – Aliaksandr Aliesin, military commentator

Panel 3. The official policy of identity after 2014: has ‘soft Belarusianisation’ been implemented?

Speakers:

Vadzim Mažejka, expert at the Liberal Club

Andrej Dyńko, chief editor of NN.BY portal

Piotra Piatroŭski, researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of NAS of Belarus

Moderator – Valier Bulhakaŭ, chief editor of ARCHE Journal

Analytics

Siarhei Bohdan analysed the recent arms deals between Belarus and Russia. At first glance, Russia seems to be arming Minsk. This fits with conjectures that the Kremlin is becoming increasingly hawkish and Minsk and Moscow are colluding to put their regional and Western opponents under pressure.

However, a more scrupulous analysis of such arms deals and the armaments the Belarusian army already possesses paints a different picture. Moscow refuses to bolster the steadily declining Belarusian military’s capacity to conduct offensive operations, including joint large-scale operations with Russia.

Alesia Rudnik discusses the smear campaign initiated against Svetlana Alexievich in the Russian media. The sharp reaction from Russian media outlets and politicians can be explained by the fact that many of her statements relate to ‘sore points’ of Russian politics: the war in Ukraine and Russia’s role in it, the promotion of the concept of the ‘Russian World’, and confrontation with the West.

Alexievich, who writes in Russian, has made statements that completely contradict official Russian propaganda. Many public figures in Russia perceive this as a threat or an attempt to change Russian public opinion on issues important to the Putin regime.

According to Igar Gubarevich’s article, Lukashenka’s recent visit to Kyiv demonstrates that Lukashenka and Poroshenko have developed a close personal rapport. The two countries’ governments share an interest in stronger economic ties; they also have a fairly good understanding of how to build them. Belarus will never willingly jeopardise Ukraine’s security. In return, Ukraine understands that it cannot realistically expect more than neutrality from Belarus in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Despite the fact that they belong to opposing geopolitical alliances, Belarus and Ukraine still need each other to withstand Russia’s pressure. Their close bilateral cooperation will be instrumental in making both countries stronger.

Comments in the media

On the Political Mirror programme on Polish radio, Ostrogorski Centre analyst Ryhor Astapenia discussed whether Minsk managed to gain the sympathy of western states, the possibility of the Belarusian military joining international peacekeeping missions, and how arrests of top officials and businessmen help improve the economic situation in Belarus.

On Polish radio, Igar Gubarevich discussed the state of Belarusian-Moldovan relations. Despite recent setbacks in bilateral trade, Moldova remains an important economic partner for Belarus in the post-Soviet space. Unlike Russia, Belarus has no objection to the geopolitical orientation of Moldova towards Europe. On the contrary, Minsk seeks to use this factor to its own advantage.

On Radio Liberty, Siarhei Bohdan discussed the political implications of the new brand of Lidskaje beer, which features a map of the Belarusian Popular Republic. According to Siarhei, it creates a destructive political myth and drives the debate on the BPR project into a populist and revisionist direction.

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.




Minsk process promoted, engaging the diaspora, export growth – Belarus state press digest

The Belarusian state press promotes the new Helsinki process initiated on Minsk’s initiative and reports on the numerous foreign policy achievements of the country.

The government attempts to engage the Belarusian Diaspora worldwide to realise its goals. Belarusian exports demonstrate growth after a long recession. This and more in the new edition of the Belarus State Press Digest.

Foreign policy

Lukashenka demands that Belarus’s presence worldwide increases.The current stage in the development of the Belarusian state requires building up foreign policy and economy in a more broad and systematic way. It is time for Belarus to speak out loud in the international arena and actively promote and protect its national interests’. The Belarusian leader gave this comment as part of a speech to the diplomatic corps and all bodies of power at a meeting on foreign policy priorities, reports Belarus Segodnia.

Lukashenka went on to claim that it is fundamentally important to develop cooperation with the East and West, without making a choice between them. The country needs to establish contacts everywhere, so that others know and understand it. The potential for normalising dialogue with the West should be realised more actively. In the European region and in the world, Belarus’s new role as a ‘security donor’ is becoming increasingly evident, as the country’s partners are showing interest in the Minsk initiative on launching a new Helsinki process.

Belarus eager to boost economic cooperation with Ukraine. During an official visit from the Belarusian president to Ukraine, Alexander Lukashenka and Pyotr Poroshenko agreed to focus on a return to an annual trade turnover of $8bn. Belarus and Ukraine also agreed to work on industrial cooperation and joint projects to modernise road and transport infrastructure, introduce innovative technologies, develop production cooperation, and increase cooperation between regions, reports Belarus Segodnia.

Poroshenko called the development of close relations with Belarus a highly important priority, while Lukashenka proposed to work together on humanitarian aid to Donbass, stating that in his peacemaking attempts he does not have personal ambitions and does only what Putin and Poroshenko ask of him.

Minsk hosts the VII Congress of the World Association of Belarusians. The congress gathered 300 delegates from more than 20 countries, including Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makiej, writes Zviazda. According to Makiej, the authorities are sincerely interested in a greater role for the diaspora in the social, economic, spiritual and cultural development of Belarus, preserving and strengthening the independence of the Belarusian state.

The Ministry and the Belarusian diaspora need to identify promising areas for cooperation. A start could be organising cultural events which promote the country’s image, and returning cultural artefacts to Belarus, Makiej said. Today, between 3 and 4 million Belarusians live abroad, according to various estimates.

Belarus manages to block two critical resolutions at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Narodnaja Hazieta published a comment by political expert Aliaksandr Špakoŭski on the results of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session in Minsk, which Belarus hosted for the first time in its history. In addition, Belarus managed to effectively block two resolutions critical of the political regime in Belarus.

The first, proposed by Lithuania, concerned the construction of the Astraviec nuclear plant. The second document, ‘Situation in Eastern Europe’, was initiated by a Swedish deputy. This great success was possible thanks to both diplomatic talent and parliamentary professionalism, as well as the result of the rapprochement of Belarus and the EU.

Importantly, as Špakoŭski notes, it is not Belarus which is changing its political institutions or policies, it is the EU changing its attitude towards Belarus. The West, waging a political struggle with Russia, continues to view Belarus as a potential arena for this confrontation, but its tactics have changed. If earlier Western countries directly attacked Belarus, now they are performing a kind of diplomatic sounding, which suits Belarus more than an open confrontation.

Economy

Belarus sees increase in exports. This is the result of a number of international successes and activities that have helped make Belarus known in the world, writes Respublika. In January – May of 2017, exports of goods and services increased by 20.6%, or $2bn when compared with the same period of 2016. At the same time, imports over the same period have increased by only 15.7%.

A certain breakthrough also occurred in trade with North America, which was long frozen. Both exports and imports are growing, although figures still remain relatively small. Meanwhile, in the first five months of the year, exports of goods amounted to $80m, or 2.5 times higher than last year. However, the Belarusian services, and especially IT residents of the High Technologies Park, have been more successful: exports in services could reach $500m by the end of 2017.

The Belarusian nuclear power plant is to be launched in the summer of 2020. The General Director of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom, Alexei Likhachev, assured Alexander Lukashenka of this during their meeting. Lukashenka emphasised that the construction of the NPP is important from an economic, political, and moral point of view.

According to him, the decision to build a nuclear power plant after the Chernobyl disaster was not easy, as phobias remained strong, but the government has managed to convince the population of its safety. The authorities are monitoring the construction very thoroughly and the president personally receives updates on the details of construction.

Belarus plans to improve legislation in the field of public procurement. Hrodzienskaja Praŭda quoted an official of the Department of Financial Investigation of the State Control Committee, Viačaslaŭ Andruchaŭ. He announced these plans ahead of the international TAIEX seminar, organised by his agency jointly with the European Commission.

The most common corruption cases in public procurement concern the illegal restriction of individuals’ access to participation in the procurement procedure in order to create conditions for concluding a contract with a pre-selected organisation, as well as conscious understatement of the price by the bidder and subsequent increase thereof by concluding supplementary agreements to the contract.

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.




Ostrogorski Academy, Ostrogorski Forum 2017, brain-drain, religiosity – Ostrogorski Centre digest

This June the Ostrogorski Centre launched the Ostrogorski Academy – a nonprofit educational project dedicated to disseminating knowledge of the humanities. The academy is the first Belarusian entirely online 'university’, based on a series of lectures, tests, podcasts on important and engaging topics.

Ostrogorski Centre analysts discussed how Belarus's neighbours doubt its sovereignty, brain drain, and religiosity in the country.

The Centre also held in Minsk the Ostrogorski Forum 2017, which focused on foreign policy, security, and identity.

Ostrogorski Academy

On 19 June, the Ostrogorski Centre officially launched the Ostrogorski Academy – a nonprofit educational project dedicated to disseminating knowledge of the humanities. The academy is the first entirely online educational platform, based on a series of lectures on important and engaging topics. Each lecture series is read by well-known Belarusian academics and analysts based both abroad and in Belarus; courses also feature graphic illustrations, transcripts of lectures, e-books, podcasts, and links to additional sources of information.

Ostrogorski Forum 2017

On 19 June, the Ostrogorski Centre held its 2nd Ostrogorski Forum, which was entitled 'Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014'. The event and in particular remarks made by the Ukraine's Ambassador to Belarus were widely covered in the Belarusian media, including TUT.by, zautra.by, thinktanks.by, Polish radio, and Radio Liberty. You can see videos from the conference below.

Analytics

Siarhei Bohdan showed that despite all of Minsk's efforts to present itself as a neutral country, some of its neighbours doubt not only its neutrality but even its sovereignty and commitment to peace. Minsk's efforts have failed to please at least some of its non-Russian neighbours, which would like to see Belarus distance itself more clearly from Moscow. The Belarusian government, however, can hardly pursue a policy other than a very cautious and incremental build-up of neutrality if it wants to survive as an independent state.

Alesia Rudnik analysed brain-drain trends in Belarus. According to official statistics, Belarus is among the few countries in the Post-Soviet region with more people coming to the country than leaving. Nevertheless, sociologists point to a discrepancy between official statistics and reality. The economic crisis, political pressure, and stagnation of education are just several reasons Belarusians are leaving the country, while the authorities do little to influence Belarusians to stay put.

Paula Borowska discussed a recent study on religiosity in Central and Eastern Europe by the Pew Research Centre with a focus on Belarus. According to the study, the overwhelming majority of Belarusians believe in God and affiliate themselves with specific religious organisations. Nevertheless, the number of practising believers who regularly engage in religious activities is far smaller. Unexpectedly, Belarusian Protestants, not covered in the study, might be the de facto leaders on the ground.

Comments of analysts in the media

On Polish Radio, Siarhei Bohdan argued that Belarus is moving away from its old security doctrine which ties it exclusively to the union with Russia. The Belarusian government is developing a more balanced foreign policy by creating a variety of partnerships in the area of security. It respects the interests of Russia while attempting to strengthen cooperation with the West.

On Radio Liberty, Yaraslau Kryvoi discussed how Belarus's presidency of the Central European Initiative could help the country break with its international isolation. Its presidency will garner the attention of the European community, help balance its foreign policy, and boost regional cooperation.

Also on Radio Liberty, Yaraslau Kryvoi discussed the results of snap elections in the UK and how they could affect London’s negotiations with the European Union on Brexit.

Siarhei Bohdan commented for thinktanks.by on the blockade of Qatar by a Saudi-led Arab coalition. The ultimate goal of the blockade is to put pressure on Iran, which aims to restore the military part of its nuclear programme. Belarus, which has been actively cooperating with Qatar, is losing an opportunity in the region due to the conflict.

Ryhor Astapenia wrote an article for the Polish magazine Kontakt discussing the fall in support for Aliaksandr Lukashenka in Belarusian society.

On Polish Radio, Vadzim Smok discussed a recent series of arrests of important Belarusian businessmen. In Belarus, they can not freely do business without informal arrangements with the country's leadership. According to the official version, the businessmen were tried for tax evasion, but the actual cause may also be a conflict in the system of informal relations with the authorities.

Siarhei Bohdan commented to Deutsche Welle on the recent oil agreements between Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin sees all attempts of its clients to diversify oil supplies in non-economic categories of confrontation – you are either with or against Russia. At the same time, the transition to a new structure of oil supplies from Iran and Azerbaijan via Odessa to Brody and Mazyr, and from there on to Eastern Europe, could change the geopolitical map of the entire Eastern European region.

On Polish Radio, Alesia Rudnik discussed alcohol policy in Belarus. The country continues to occupy top positions in the WHO's world alcohol consumption ranking. What's more, these statistics do not take into account illegal alcohol stock. Although the state claims to be working on some anti-alcohol policies, this seems to be in word only, and alcohol remains extremely affordable.

Belarus profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Jury Karajeŭ, Alieh Chusajenaŭ, Iryna Abieĺskaja, Mikalaj Lukashenka, Michail Zacharaŭ, Paviel Cichanaŭ, Alieh Rummo, Jury Hurski, Piotr Kraŭčanka, Aliaksandr Dziamidaŭ.

We have also updated the profiles of Siarhiej Pisaryk, Aliaksandr Kosiniec, Natallia Nikandrava, Siarhiej Ciacieryn, Siamion Šapira, Fiodar Poŭny, Anatol Kupryjanaŭ, Viktar Marcinovič, Aliaksandr Miažujeŭ, Liudmila Michalkova, Anatol Rusiecki, Marjana Ščotkina, Mikalaj Samasiejka, Siarhiej Michalok, Georgy Ponomarev.

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 Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




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

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

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

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

Belarus as part of ‘Greater Russia’

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

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

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

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

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

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

She added:

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

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

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

Leaving the door open for Minsk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Ostrogorski Forum 2017, Civil Bologna Committee, security cooperation – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In May 2017, analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre discussed why the authorities continue to arrest Belarus's top businessmen, who benefits from the alcoholisation of Belarus, and how Belarus can maintain security cooperation with both Russia and the West.

The Centre is preparing a conference entitled 'Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014', to be held on 19 June. The conference will promote the development of professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views.

We have also added the Civil Bologna Committee as a new partner of the BelarusPolicy.com database. From now on we will be adding papers on problems with compliance to European standards faced by Belarusian higher education.

Analytics

Vadzim Smok discusses why the authorities continue to arrest Belarus's top businessmen. Being close to Lukashenka is by no means a guarantee of safety for oligarchs, and many prefer to register their companies and reside abroad. Those who cannot do so must demonstrate their support for the authorities in various ways and never make a misstep.

As the Belarusian state system is dominated by the security services, they spend their time and resources over-zealously pursuing white-collar criminals rather than improving the business environment in the country. This causes serious damage to the investment climate. In the absence of strong rule of law, large businesses continue to depend on patronage networks and informal arrangements with the country's leadership.

Alesia Rudnik analyses who is benefiting from the alcoholisation of Belarus. Belarus is perhaps the world's second booziest nation. Meanwhile, alcohol prices are considerably lower than in neighbouring western countries. Despite the government's attempt to set up a programme for prevention of alcoholism and rehabilitation of alcoholics, Belarus has so far failed to combat heavy drinking.

Moreover, alcohol prices tend to decrease right before elections or during economic crises. Cheap alcohol in Belarus has become a tool to neutralise activism and numb national consciousness. By decreasing alcohol prices, authorities guarantee themselves more loyalty and support.

Siarhei Bohdan argues that Belarus can maintain security cooperation with both Russia and the West. It would behove the Belarusian government to build a more balanced and neutral policy by establishing more diversified partnerships in the security realm. At the same time, Minsk realises the sensitiveness of this issue for Moscow, and agrees to what is most important to the Russian leadership, such as the forthcoming West-2017 exercises.

This, however, does not mean that the Kremlin can dictate whatever it wants. On the contrary, Belarus is reshaping its national security policies and can still persuade Russia to help it with military equipment.

Ostrogorski Forum 2017

On 19 June, the Ostrogorski Centre plans to hold a conference entitled 'Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014'. It will focus on three aspects: foreign policy, security, and identity.

The conference will promote the development of professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views. Each panel will include speakers from both pro-government and independent communities, with journalists of leading Belarusian mass media sources as moderators.

The conference will be broadcast live. Videos from the conference will be forwarded to stakeholders, including state bodies, media, and civil society organisations. Videos from the 2016 Ostrogorski Forum are available here. To register for the 2017 Forum, please fill in this form.

Comments in the media

Alesia Rudnik discusses the opposition and pro-government youth organisations in Belarus on Polish radio. The number of members of youth organisations in both camps remains a mystery due to their unclear institutional structures. Many people are members only formally. Belarusians do not actively express their civil position, and in this regard young people are no different from the rest of the population. This poses a significant problem for Belarusian civil society.

Siarhei Bohdan argues that maintaining good relations with Kiev is strategically important for the Belarusian government on Polish radio. Belarus seeks to increase trade with Ukraine and is establishing cooperation in various fields: energy (oil supply, electricity), border issues, and military projects (helicopters, missile technology). This proves that there is mutual understanding between Minsk and Kiev and even a tacit alliance at the highest level.

On Polish radio, Igar Gubarevich discusses the effect of Lukashenka's press conference on Chinese journalists. The Belarusian leader organised the event because he is concerned with the low level of Belarusian exports to China and the lack of progress with the Belarusian-Chinese technology park. After the conference, Chinese journalists will prepare pieces for the national and regional media, but this will hardly have any influence on the Chinese leadership.

Ryhor Astapenia discusses on Polish radio why Minsk is keen to develop relations with China. Alexander Lukashenka has repeatedly said that China is one of the poles of global politics, along with the US and Russia. Of these three poles, only China does not conditionalise its relations with political demands. China is ready to cooperate with Minsk on economic and political issues without demanding democratisation or recognition of the Crimea annexation.

On Radio Liberty, Yaraslau Kryvoi discusses how the results of the first round of presidential elections in France were perceived in the UK. Many Brexit supporters see the very likely victory of Macron as a bad sign. On the other hand, they understand that Macron is a pragmatist and will put pragmatic interests above ideology. Traditionally, France is much more interested in its former colonies, and French policy towards Belarus will not change significantly under the new president.

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:

Implementation of the Roadmap requirements in the draft Code of Education. Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, 2017.

4th Monitoring Report on Implementation of Belarus Roadmap for Higher Education Reform (Oct 2016-Jan 2017). Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, 2017.

Yana Ustsinenka. The analysis of reforming higher education policy in Belarus in the period from 2010 to 2016. BIPART, 2017.

Dzmitry Kruk. Monetary policy and financial stability in Belarus: current statе, challenges and prospects. BEROC, 2017.

Uladzimir Paplyka, Halina Kasheuskaya. Public procurement from a single source in the Republic of Belarus: analysis and recommendations. BIPART, 2017.

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 Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Belarusian defence industries: doubling exports and launching ballistic missile production

On 20-22 May, Milex-2017, an exhibition of defence equipment, took place in Minsk. It featured the first Belarusian ballistic missile. This recent success was one of many for the Belarusian defence industry.

On 18 May, the Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee of Belarus, Siarhei Hurulyou, announced that from 2011 to 2016 the defence enterprises supervised by his committee had almost doubled their export volume, earning about $1bn last year.

These two stories illustrate two different paths the Belarusian arms industry is taking. On one hand, they still earn a considerable portion of their money by cooperating with Russia. On the other, they are diversifying and developing products by working with China, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and many other countries – even going so far as to annoy the Kremlin.

Russia both nervous and glad about the successes of Belarusian defence industries

In an article published in the May issue of the Russian Natsionalnaya Oborona defence review, Hurulyou admitted that 'export remains the main point of interest for balanced economic development of the [firms subordinated to the] State Military Industrial Committee.'

Speaking at Milex-2017 on 20 May, Hurulyou stressed that Russia remains Belarus's principal partner, 'which nevertheless is somewhat nervous and, well, maybe also glad about our successes.' He also mentioned China and South East Asian nations as other important partners.

Belarus could hardly have earned a $1bn last year without Russia's involvement. This is obvious given known deals, as well as those reported in the media in recent months. The largest deals which did not involve Russia are novelties for the industry: including deals on air defence equipment and related services with Vietnam, Myanmar, and Azerbaijan. For instance, an improved version of the Vostok-E radar, which once helped Iran intercept a US drone, has been developed together with Vietnam. Furthermore, Belarus sold the armoured vehicle Bars and the Belarusian-Ukrainian anti-tank missile Karakal to Turkmenistan. Minsk also made other minor deals such as selling Poland munition for $7.7m in 2015. Nevertheless, these deals alone cannot explain the dramatic growth in Belarusian defence export.

Deals on military aircraft and their servicing bring in much more money: the 558th Aircraft Repair Works in the city of Baranavichy conducts overhaul and modernisation of helicopters and aircraft. Last year, it signed a contract to overhaul twelve Su-25 aircraft for Kazakhstan. Concurrently, it is also completing the overhaul and modernisation of the second-hand Su-30K jets which Russia promised to Angola. The latter contract generates at least as much income as the deal with Kazakhstan.

Belarusian defence industries make the most money not by producing complete systems, but by making components for the systems manufactured by others, especially Russia. The most notable of these include chassis from the Minsk-based factory MZKT. The Russian tactical ballistic missile system Iskander, some S-400 surface-to-air missile systems' parts, and the mobile coastal defence missile systems Bastion, Bal-E, and Bereg all operate on MZKT-7930 chassis.

Belarusian sight devices are installed on various Russian anti-tank systems, including the T-90, T-72, and T-80 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Russian defence industries also use Belarusian fire control systems on various armoured vehicles. Likewise, Belarusian firms supply electronic warfare and some avionics; these are installed not only on modernised Su-27 but also on the most advanced Russian fighter aircraft Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50).

No wonder the Belarusian defence industries have succeeded in earning more money thanks to the massive modernisation of the Russian army in recent years, which also necessitated replacing certain Ukrainian components in Russian-manufactured equipment.

Missiles and armoured vehicles: How Belarusian are they?

Minsk, however, realises that these tailwinds can change, and is struggling to diversify. The most remarkable new products presented in the Milex-2017 included a new missile for Palanez and an armoured vehicle called Kaiman. Both of them were results of attempts to develop technological branches that had been either non-existent – like missiles systems – or underdeveloped, like armoured vehicles.

A mock-up of a tactical ballistic missile has attracted arguably the most media attention at the exhibition. It will make recently deployed Palanez Belarus-Chinese multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) capable of delivering a conventional 560 kg payload as far as 300 km. Now, the Palanez shoots only at 200 km with much smaller rockets.

The Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee admits that the missile was designed under the framework of 'existing cooperation'. This formulation seemingly indicates collaboration with China. Experts at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies dismiss it as a version of the Chinese missile M20. However, experts have suspected for years that Ukrainian firms may also be involved.

The Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee announced its plans to conduct initial shooting tests of the Belarusian ballistic missiles this autumn. The committee head boasted of 'having established a complete scientific, experimental, and manufacturing complex – from scratch – which enables Belarus to design […] and produce its own modern rocket and missile systems.'

Besides missiles, the Belarusian government has been striving to produce mechanised armoured vehicles in the country. The new combat reconnaissance/patrol vehicle Kayman became one of the most celebrated products at the Milex.

It was designed by the 140th Tank Repair Works based in the city of Barysau. The first models of Kayman were produced based on the Soviet BRDM-2, an armoured patrol car. However, the Works' head designer Volha Pyatrova insist that the final version of Kayman is an original product manufactured mostly from Belarusian components.

President Lukashenka ordered the design of such a vehicle three years ago. This month, Kayman was officially deployed in the Belarusian armed forces.

Does Minsk supply dysfunctional equipment?

Belarusian defence industries have so far succeeded in maintaining a certain degree of quality in their international cooperation. But on 17 May, the radical opposition web-site Belorusskii Partizan published material about allegedly dysfunctional military equipment supplied by Belarus to Azerbaijan in the early 2010s. Some Ukrainian components in the supplied systems reportedly were broken; furthermore, Belarusian firms perhaps paid Ukraine too much.

Numerous foreign media sources, such as the major Azerbaijani media outlet Haqqin, quoted the article. However, there is little evidence of the problems described by Belorusskii Partizan, which was the only source of information on the case. It claims to possess copies of documents proving the story but it has refused to publish them so far.

This is not the only unsubstantiated story about the Belarusian arms industries to circulate recently. On 26 April, the French bulletin Intelligence Online published an article accusing Lukashenka's government of continuing arms trade with the Syrian government. The bulletin based its story on a meeting between Belarusian Industry Minister Vitali Vouk and Syrian prime minister Imad Khamis. Official reports, however, do not indicate that they discussed military matters. Belarus has avoided supplying sensitive items to Damascus for years, and the 76-word story failed to provide any evidence that the opposite is now true.

Defence industries constitute an important branch of the Belarusian economy. They are dynamic, willing to introduce new products, and diversify markets and partners. Belarusian defence firms remain closely linked to Russia, but that does not mean they are dependent on it.

They are looking for autonomous ways to export their defence products. This certainly angers the Kremlin. Unsubstantiated stories which work to undermine cooperation with Ukraine and Azerbaijan are just more proof of this.




Belarus’s plan to import Iranian and Azerbaijani oil: how serious is Minsk?

On 3 April, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka succeeded in securing concessions from Vladimir Putin following a year-long oil and gas dispute between the two countries. In order to reach a deal, Minsk put the idea of buying oil from non-Russian sources back on the table.

On 15 February, the news source Reuters reported an oil deal between Belarus and Iran. It involved 80,000 tones of Iranian oil which were indeed delivered on 24 March to the Ukrainian port of Odessa for subsequent transport to Belarus.

Over the past decade, Minsk has already gained more experience than its neighbours in securing alternative oil sources; it has been able to secure both Venezuelan and Azerbaijani oil before. Although the deals were short-lived, the Kremlin's reaction to these manoeuvres proves that it takes the Belarusian government's efforts seriously.

Oil from non-Russian sources: Has Minsk reported only a fraction of its imports?

Both Belarus and Iran released minimal information regarding their February oil deal. All publications made reference to Reuters, adding only cursory commentary. Even the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), the seller of the oil, based its press release on the Reuters report.

This is in line with the policy of the Belarusian government to shun publicity in its efforts at diversification. According to Reuters, in 2016 Belarus imported a total of 560,000 tones of Azerbaijani oil, but these deliveries stopped in January 2017. Only a handful of these deliveries – just 84,000 tones – were reported in the media before Reuters published its report on 15 February.

Poland's shadow

Remarkably, it was Beloil Polska, the Polish subsidiary of the Belarusian Oil Company Belarusneft, which closed the deal on the Belarusian side. On 20 February, Polish security and energy expert Piotr Maciążek wrote a piece for the well-informed Energetyka24 web outlet suggesting that Belarus was buying Iranian oil with Polish assistance.

He argued that Belarus's deal with Iran on oil delivery could have been linked to another deal regarding Iranian oil supplies to Poland. To conclude its agreement agreement with Tehran, Minsk may even have used the direct support of Warsaw, which is rapidly developing relations with Iran. The fact that the very same NIOC press release about the oil deal with Belarus made reference to an Iranian oil delivery to Poland supports this hypothesis.

There are good reasons to believe that Minsk's move to buy Iranian oil is politically motived by the need to counter Russian pressure. After all, Minsk reportedly purchased only 80,000 tones from Iran, and the deal was completed as a spot transaction; it involved no longer-term commitments.

Most commentators also believe that this oil is to be transported by rail; if Minsk planned to import larger volumes of Iranian oil on a more regular basis, it would make more sense to use Ukrainian pipelines.

However, two facts indicate that Belarus most likely plans to import oil via Ukrainian pipelines in the future. In November 2016, Ukrainian minister for regional development Hennadi Zubko reported that Ukraine would possibly be transporting Azerbaijani and Iranian oil to Belarusian refineries. Moreover, on 21 March, the Ukrainian pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta announced the re-opening of an oil pipeline between Belarus and Ukraine.

Belarus's former plan to import a third of its oil from non-Russian sources

By buying oil from Iran and Azerbaijan, Minsk is reacting to the Kremlin's attempts to impose its own terms of economic cooperation and integration on Belarus. After the beginning of the latest gas dispute between Minsk and Moscow, in 2016 the Kremlin reduced its oil exports to Belarus from the formerly agreed 24m tones to 18m tones.

Oil refinement and sales of reprocessed oil products constitute a major source of income for the Belarusian government, so the reduction of supplies dealt a blow to the financial situation in Minsk.

On 3 April, Belarusian Economy Minister Uladzimir Zinouski directly linked the contraction of the Belarusian GDP in January-March to the reduction of Russian oil imports. Belarusian refineries received less oil, and thus produced less oil products for export.

This, however, is not a new problem for the Belarusian leadership. In 2010, Minsk faced similar problems securing enough Russian oil on favourable terms, so Lukashenka made an oil deal with Venezuela. Belarus, however, is a landlocked country dependent on its neighbours – primarily the Baltic states and Ukraine – for access to the sea, by which the oil must be transported.

In July 2010, the Belarusian government signed an agreement with Ukraine on use of the Odessa-Brody pipeline to transport oil from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa to Belarus. Minsk guaranteed it would pump through Ukrainian pipelines at least 4m tones yearly in 2011-2012, and even hinted at the possible extension of the agreement after 2012, with the oil volume increasing to 8m tones.

At the same time, Minsk was negotiating with the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda over the possible transport of 2m tones of non-Russian oil yearly on a long-term basis. There were similar negotiations with Latvia and Estonia. Oil deliveries also took place via the three Baltic states subsequently.

As long as Belarus planned on buying Venezuelan oil, schemes involving millions of tones seemed fanciful. Very soon, however, Lukashenka managed to convince Azerbaijan to join the Belarusian-Venezuelan oil deal through swap contracts. Thus, in place of direct deliveries from Venezuela, since 2011 Belarus has been receiving Azerbaijani oil.

Under these circumstances, receiving 4m tones a year seemed like less of a fantastic target, although in total Minsk received only one million tones via the Ukrainian pipeline in 2011– about five per cent of what it needed.

How Lukashenka prevailed over the Kremlin

Naturally, Moscow was irked by Minsk's plans, which were becoming reality. In the end, however, the Kremlin's hands were tied and it eventually gave in: by the end of 2011, Minsk had succeeded in getting Russian companies to sign oil agreements more or less on the terms the Belarusian government had wished. Belarus then stopped importing non-Russian oil until 2016.

This history certainly raises questions about the seriousness of Minsk's intentions to diversify its energy sources. This is as true now as it was in the early 2010s. Nevertheless, the scale of the commitments and risks the Belarusian government was prepared to take vis-a-vis Moscow and Kyiv in 2011 in order to import non-Russian oil proves that Minsk is ready and willing to diversify should Russia prove intractable.

At present, Minsk's moves towards diversifying its energy sources seem more modest. But they could turn out to be larger than currently thought: some deliveries could remain unreported, as the post factum revealed data about the volumes of 2016 imports of Azerbaijani oil prove. Last but not least, in either scenario Moscow has capitulated: the Kremlin seems to be taking Minsk's diversification efforts seriously.

 




Moscow erects border with Belarus, undermines its links with Ukraine and the Baltics

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.

Not a Joke: Russia Worries that ISIS could infiltrate Belarus

According to a version of the story widely circulated in the Russian media, probably also supported by the Kremlin, Moscow had to partially restore its border because of Minsk's negligent policies. First, for years Minsk has been re-importing sanctioned commodities from the European Union. Secondly, the absence of border control between Belarus and Russia has allowed persons unwanted by Russia to enter its territory via Belarus. Thirdly, President Lukashenka's introduction of a five-day visa-free regime on 9 January for nationals of 80 countries has critically compromised Russian security.

Only the first of these claims can be seen as legitimate, albeit with serious reservations. The rest are highly dubious. After all, any real border control between Belarus and Russia disappeared in 1995; unwanted people have been able to enter Russia through Belarus for years. Even though the Russian government has not reported any gross violations or crimes since, this has all of a sudden become a problem.

Explanations from Russian officials regarding why Moscow suddenly decided to partially close the border seem ridiculous. On 10 February, Russian ambassador to Minsk Aleksandr Surikov stated to TASS news agency that Moscow is establishing border control zones along the border with Belarus to prevent extremists from Syria, specifically ISIS terrorists, from entering Russia through Belarus.

Belarus-Russia border checks: Who started it all?

The timing of the decisions taken by Minsk and Moscow further undermines Russian claims that it is merely responding to moves by the Belarusian government. Last autumn, Russia – apparently without prior notice – shut down its border with Belarus for third-country nationals. This seriously hurt Belarus, which is striving to become a major transit hub.

Next, towards the end of December, the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, signed orders establishing a border control zone in Russian regions adjoining Belarus. The orders remained secret until 1 February, creating an impression that he was responding to Lukashenka's decision to liberalise the visa regime. In reality, the opposite could have been the case: Lukashenka could have made his decision after learning about the FSB move.

This seems more logical. Minsk had been reluctant to liberalise its visa regime for years – most probably because it worried about Moscow's possible response. However, following the FSB's decision, the Belarusian leadership realised that it had nothing more to loose.

the reputable sociological institute VTsIOM has shown that 78 per cent of Russians are in favour of introducing visas for Belarusians

Both the closing of the border for third-country nationals and the establishment of border-control zones coincides with increasingly negative media coverage of Belarus in Russian. The latter factor leads to more Russians supporting the former. Last week, the Russian mainstream media gave much airtime to the results of an opinion survey conducted by the reputable sociological institute VTsIOM, which showed that 78 per cent of Russians favoured introducing visas for Belarusians.

Moscow seeks to redirect energy and transportation flows

Russian government officials and political commentators have criticised the EU and former Eastern-bloc countries for destroying decade – even century-old links – in the region, as Eastern European countries integrate with the EU. Although this criticism sometimes rests on facts, the Kremlin's behaviour makes such complaints seem hypocritical.

On 8 February, Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister Vadzim Zakreuski announced that Belarus agreed to purchase more Russian electricity. At the same time, despite available opportunities to buy electricity from Ukraine, Minsk failed to reach an agreement with Kyiv on prices.

Belarusian purchases of Ukrainian electricity had been falling since 2014, due both to the unreliability of the Ukrainian energy sector and Russia offering lower prices. Thus, in 2015 the Russian energy giant Inter RAO doubled its annual deliveries to Belarus from 1.4m MWh to 2.8 MWh. This was mostly connected by reducing purchases from Ukraine.

Russia resorts to similar, seemingly economic mechanisms to redirect Belarusian export and import flows to its own ports in Leningrad Province. Since 2006, Moscow has urged Minsk to stop using Lithuanian and Latvian ports and switch to more distant Russian alternatives.

Minsk realises the dangers of Moscow monopolising its connections with the outside world and has so far resisted such proposals. Yet the Kremlin continues in its efforts to deprive the Baltic states of transit revenue. Last October, the Russian Railways granted Belarus a 25 per cent 'unprecedented discount' to redirect its oil-product exports away from the Baltic states to Russian ports.

Commenting on this proposal, the Moscow-based Kommersant daily conceded that the move could be political. It implied that the offer emerged after plans to suppress transit through the Baltic states had been discussed by special representative and confidante to the Russian president Sergei Ivanov. At a conference he held in September, various Russian firms and government agencies reportedly discussed how to convince Belarus to commit itself to using Russian ports.

Yet Putin's attempts to drive a wedge between Belarus and its neighbours have produced scanty results. A case in point are Moscow's efforts to take over Belarusian export flows – Minsk has resisted them since 2006.

On 24 January, Sputnik-Belarus, a media source associated with the Russian government, commented that: 'A discount was given to Belarus [to facilitate its export through Russian ports] yet to no avail.' Minsk's actual investments and plans clearly demonstrate its willingness to keep working with the Baltics. For instance, Belarusian Potash Company has been buying up shares in Klaipeda port facilities since 2013. Moreover, Minsk would probably use Latvian ports if it wanted to bring Iranian oil to Belarus.

In other words, the Kremlin only has limited leverage with Minsk, despite the Russian leadership's interest in convincing Belarus to use Russian ports. After all, the ports in question are reportedly owned by personal friends of Vladimir Putin.

Minsk is aware of the risks of decreasing diversification in its links with the external world. Even the decision to stop purchasing Ukrainian electricity may have more to do with instability in Ukraine than willingness to obey Moscow. The Belarusian government adamantly refuses to side with any party in ongoing regional conflicts. The situation with the Russian border shows the price Minsk must pay for this position.

The Kremlin actively contributes to undermining the legacy of Soviet and pre-Soviet integration between Belarus and its neighbours, including Russia itself. The collapse of links between states in the region increases the risk of instability and conflict and guarantees the deterioration of living standards.




How Belarusian oil imports change geopolitics in Eastern Europe

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

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

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

A reaction to reduced oil deliveries

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

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

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

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

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

Revival of earlier plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regional cooperation on oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Belarus struggles to control its borders

On 13 October Belarusian border guards received EU-funded special equipment worth €2.5m. This will help Minsk control the Ukrainian border. There is an element of irony in this: although it works to remove borders within the EU, Brussels is helping to construct them in the rest of Europe.

If Belarus succeeds in sealing off its border with Ukraine, its Russian border will be the only one to remain open. However, despite decades of integration, the status of this border is precarious. In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-nation nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.

Belarus still has serious problems with the development of adequate border control agencies, as their dependence on foreign aid, as well as allegations of corruption, reveal.

Why is the EU giving millions to Minsk?

In order to provide the Belarusian border patrol with what it need to control its border, the EU is funding a project called “Strengthening surveillance and bilateral coordination capacity along the common border between Belarus and Ukraine” (SURCAP), implemented by of the International Organisation for Migration.

The EU launched SURCAP in 2012 after a period of disruption in relations with Belarus following the 2010 presidential election in the country. In November 2012, Lukashenka even hinted that without such EU assistance, Minsk would no longer be able to control illegal migration to the EU.

Was averting such a threat the reason Brussels initiated the SURCAP project? This is unlikely. By the time the Belarusian president had articulated this threat, SURCAP was already a done deal. Moreover, such declarations have never been particularly alarming, given the fact that illegal migration from Belarus to the EU has always been relatively insignificant.

Brussels probably intended to help Ukraine establish control over its borders and thus move it further towards eligibility for EU membership. The Belarus-Ukrainian border has for years been an issue which Minsk links to Ukraine's need to settle its debts with Belarus.

For the first phase of the project the EU allocated €1.3m to Belarus in 2012-2014. In the second phase (2014-2016) funding doubled to €2.68m. Thanks to these funds, Belarusian border guards received SUVs, swamp buggies, speed boats and motor boats, quadracycles, motorcycles, and other equipment. This collaboration proves that the interests of Brussels and Minsk coincide in this area and that the Belarusian government is not averse to working with the West on issues of national security.

The empire strikes back

Although problems with the Ukrainian border are being solved, Minsk is unexpectedly encountering problems from the east. At some point in mid-September, Russia – without any prior announcement – closed its 1,230-km long border with Belarus for all third-country nationals.

They can now cross the Belarus-Russian border in just one place: the southernmost part of Belarus where the borders of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine intersect. This came as an unpleasant surprise for Belarus as many foreigners are accustomed to entering Russia via Belarus.

For many years, persons banned by Russia from entering its territory could circumvent this by first coming to Belarus and then heading to Russia. Minsk and Moscow also failed to coordinate their visa policies, and kept their own lists of unwanted persons and citizens not allowed to go abroad.

As a result, for many years citizens of Belarus and Russia, as well as of third countries, used the Belarus-Russian border to enter or escape the two countries. The Kremlin put up with this despite the fact that Russia's borders have become increasingly closed since the mid-2000s.

So why did Moscow decide to close the border with Belarus now? There are good reasons to believe that this was a reprimand for Minsk. In July, Reuters reported a roughly 40 per cent decrease in Russia's oil supplies to Belarus as a punishment for Minsk's overly friendly gestures toward the West: the Kremlin has many other tools to put pressure on Minsk.

Another detail seems to prove that this is the real reason for the border closure rather than, for example, a response to the smuggling of sanctioned goods to Russia via Belarus. Russia continues to let cargo trucks cross the border unimpeded; only the movement of individuals is controlled.

Large-scale smuggling

The Belarusian border control system struggles with a number of internal problems as well. On 26 July, President Lukashenka publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the work of the State Border Committee. He emphasised that it was already the third time in 2016 that he had addressed the activities of border control agencies saying that they cause “not worry but deep unhappiness.”

Although he did not elaborate further, corruption and large-scale smuggling might be what Lukashenka had in mind. There are more and more examples of this. Thus, on 21 October Polish customs officials discovered 356,000 packets of cigarettes smuggled from Belarus in a cargo train. If sold at market price in the EU, they would cost $1.2m. In Belarus that quantity could cost as little as $72,000.

This is not the first time Polish authorities have apprehended this sort of illegal cargo; the problem has existed since the early 2010s. For instance, in July Polish authorities in Terespol confiscated two loads of cigarettes smuggled from Belarus ​in cargo trains with a total market value of more than $1.2m. Evidently, somebody is reaping huge profits. More conspicuously, it is impossible to smuggle such large quantities of cigarettes in this way without the collusion of border control officials.

Problems despite investment

Such problems present a paradox. The social prestige of border control agencies is high: even Lukashenka's sons have served on the border.​

In material terms, Belarusian border control agencies belong to the most prestigious and developed government agencies in the country. Unlike other security agencies, they regularly receive up-to-date equipment. This comes not only in the form of foreign technical aid: in the late 2000s, the Belarusian government even purchased four French helicopters Ecureuil АS 355 NP for border guards. This was an unprecedented deal, as Minsk usually procures sophisticated hardware for its security agencies only from Russia.

Nevertheless, the Belarusian government struggles to maintain control over its hundreds of kilometres of borders. Over the past two decades it had to start patrolling borders which had not previously existed – with the exception of the Belarus-Polish border inherited from Soviet times.

In addition, Minsk has made efforts to avoid the harsh border control measures of Soviet times, when 30-km border zones, a highly militarised system, the subordination of border guards to the KGB, etc. were the norm. The Belarusian government has succeeded in overcoming many of these residues of the past. Constructing a more efficient system takes time as well as trial and error.




Ostrogorski Centre: Belarus becomes neutral to survive

Ostrogorski Centre releases the first major publication on neutrality in Belarusian foreign and national security policy authored by Siarhei Bohdan and Gumer Isaev.

This trend towards a real neutrality of Belarus increased in the past decade. For a long time it was misinterpreted as Minsk opportunistically moving back and forth between Moscow and the West. Yet by the mid-2010s, these elements of neutrality became a reliable part of Belarusian foreign and national security policy.

This naturally leads one to question whether neutrality is a viable option for the Belarusian state. So far, Moscow accepted although other countries refused to take it serious. However, that may be the only way for Belarus to survive as a state in current circumstances.

First bigger research paper on Belarusian neutrality

For the purposes of this publication, done by Siarhei Bohdan and Gumer Isayev, neutrality is defined on the basis of modern-time political practice rather than formal legal concepts. Hence neutrality shall mean policies aimed at maintaining distance from political and military blocks and parties to conflicts.

This distance, certainly, differs depending on specific circumstances. It may include formal membership in associations of political and military integration, as well as bilateral security-related arrangements, as long as they do not crucially affect the international position of the country.

Given the extent of Belarusian-Russian entanglement, this paper focuses on the differences between Minsk and Moscow as the main reference point in study. All Belarusian attempts to assert neutrality necessarily start with readjusting the interaction between Belarus and Russia. Therefore, the study looked at the issues in which Minsk’s policy differed from Russia’s without siding with its opponents.

Neutrality or westward drift?

Among the major conclusions of the paper:

  • Although the 1994 Constitution of Belarus establishes its aim to become a neutral state, Belarusian neutrality remained a fiction for many years as Minsk remained a loyal ally of Russia.
  • However, since the late 2000s the Belarusian government has pursued policies demonstrating effective neutrality. This was the result of a series of ad hoc decisions by Belarusian leadership regarding the major issues of the country's foreign and national security policies.
  • Minsk avoided siding with Russia in its assertive policy in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, developed relations with Russia' opponents and opposed the redrawing of post-Soviet borders. Concurrently, the Belarusian government reviewed its own national security policies, limited Russian military presence within its borders and increased the autonomy of the Belarusian armed forces and security agencies.
  • Some Russian commentators have accused Minsk of “drifting” to the West. However, Minsk avoids challenging or confronting Moscow. The policy it now pursues can be better described as neutrality.

Recommendations: Neutrality requires participation of all major political forces

The authors of the paper conclude, Belarusian neutrality is being built ad hoc. Thus, it suffers from poor media coverage and weak expert support. The prospects of Belarusian neutrality still remain uncertain, as Minsk still needs it to be recognised in the East and West, as well as by neighbouring states.

There is no doubt that in order to implement some model of neutrality, the Belarusian government has yet to fulfil several challenging tasks. First of all, it requires recognition for Belarusian neutrality from its foreign partners, especially Russia. To do that, Minsk needs to prove that neutrality does not entail a pro-Western or anti-Russian stance.

Belarusian neutrality ought to be acceptable to Moscow. It means self-restraint for Belarusian foreign and national security policy, as well as self-restraint in domestic political debates. Such a policy could succeed and be accepted by Russia and other countries only if supported by a very wide consensus in Belarusian society.

However, most of the opposition, the media independent of the Belarusian government, and the related analytical community would not currently subscribe to neutrality. They would be especially wary of a model of neutrality involving close interaction with Russia (as in the Finnish case after WWII).

This problem is a general one: all other foreign policy and national security options except joining NATO and the EU have been discarded in the region over the last two decade and Minsk would have a difficult time overcoming this mindset. Nevertheless, the current Belarusian government has no other choice but to persuade broader segments of the Belarusian opposition about the necessity of supporting neutrality. It cannot accomplish this until the political regime becomes more pluralist and the constructive opposition has a stake in governance.

This broad public support for neutrality is necessary, inter alia, to convince Russia that Belarusian neutrality is the real will of all mainstream political forces in Belarus. Otherwise, there is an extremely high risk – if not certainty – that Russia would perceive Belarusian neutrality as a concept supported only by certain political factions and that it will be discarded by Minsk as soon as the constellation of forces in domestic Belarusian politics changes.

Likewise, in order to persuade Russia that Belarusian neutrality is genuine, Minsk needs a military capacity which would guarantee that Belarus does not compromise Russian security. To do that, firstly, Minsk shall accommodate reasonable and legitimate security needs of Russia. For instance, it can continue cooperating with Russia on air defence. Secondly, it needs to pay attention to Russian security needs and sensitivities in building Belarusian armed forces, e.g., by deploying appropriate arms systems.

Predetermined Choice?

In brief, Minsk, might have no other choice but “to go neutral”. The Belarusian establishment also understands that it is becoming ever more risky to remain Russia’s ally. At the same time, given the geographical location of Belarus, as well as its political economy and cultural ties with Russia, Minsk cannot simply “defect” to Western-dominated blocks and organisations.

Opinion surveys and other circumstantial evidence shows, the majority of Belarusians can choose neutrality. It can also found support among significant segments of Belarusian political, economic and cultural elites.

Other options – like further drift towards any foreign countries or blocs and joining them – might involve Belarus in internal political confrontations. Internal clashes would be supported by foreign powers as the case of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has demonstrated and can end in an open armed conflict. Given Belarus’ current position, which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, neutrality might be the only way for the Belarusian state to survive, develop, and succeed.

About the authors

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. He is an alumnus of the Belarus State University and holds an MA degree from the European Humanities University in Lithuania. Siarhei comes from Maladzechna, Belarus. Contact him at: s.bohdan@ostrogorski.org.

Gumer Isayev is associate professor at the Süleyman Şah University in Istanbul, Turkey, until it was closed down in a series of political repression after the July 2016 coup attempt. He holds an MA and PhD degrees from the State Saint Petersburg University in Russia. Gumer comes from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Contact him at: gisaev@gmail.com.