Belarus reviews defence policy after Russia disappoints

On 13 February, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka complained about Russia’s unwillingness to arm the Belarusian army. On 23 February, the ideological periodical of Belarusian government published an article by the defence minister, Andrei Raukou, who described how Belarus would defend itself without mentioning any Russian role in it.

According to him, Belarusian army focuses on learning the lessons of hybrid war in Syria. But the concept itself is much more linked to the war in Eastern Ukraine and the minister most probably kept silence about it just to not irritate the Kremlin.

Minsk, in recent years, has been rebuilding its army according to its own needs and opportunities while ignoring Moscow’s wishes. This conclusion follows from official statements and from the Belarusian army’s rearmament plans. As a result, the Belarusian armed forces increasingly resemble the army of a small European nation.

More military selfsufficiency

Speaking on 22 February at a ceremony marking Defenders of the Fatherland and Armed Forces Day, Lukashenka again repeated his criticism of increasing militarisation in Belarus’s neighbourhood and throughout the world. His statements on Belarusian preparations for defence and rearmament included some remarkable points.

First, probably for the first time, he suggested that Belarus should defend itself on its own. That is, he did not mention Russia in this context at all:

In the event of a military threat, we must be ready for the nationwide defence of Belarus. 70,000 men of our army cannot defend our state. … the land must be protected by the whole people. … In the event of a military conflict, we are able, within a short period of time, to arm half a million people and defend the most important facilities by the territorial defence forces. This is the essence of our defence doctrine.

This statement follows related developments in Belarusian government’s views of defence issues. Ironically, they involve militarisation as well. In March 2017 the government demanded that border security agencies increase their military [voiskovoi] components.

Meanwhile, on 7 December Belarusian parliament amended the Law on the Fight Against Terrorism, adding national armed forces to the list of agencies expected to fight against terrorism. Given the fact that neighbouring Ukraine designated a full-scale war in its eastern regions as an “antiterrorist operation,” this probably means Minsk is taking further precautions against Donbas scenario.

Chinese friends and problems acquiring new fighter jets from the Kremlin

Chinese armoured vehicles arriving in Belarus. Image: VoenTV.

Secondly, on 22 February Lukashenka emphasised the Belarusian army’s receipt of new arms to respond to new challenges. He praised… not Russia, but China for its help in this sphere. Indeed, on 18 February, Belarusian state media reported that the national army received the second batch of CS/VN3 Dajiang armoured vehicles from China. The first five vehicles arrived back in June 2017 and were even deployed in the “West-2017″ drills.

Speaking in the Security Council on 13 February, Lukashenka criticised Russia for its reluctance to equip the Belarusian army as well as the armies of other Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) members. He said,

Russia itself is modernising its armed forces. We are trying, together with other members [of the CSTO], to somehow arm, modernise ourselves and so on. Everyone on its own … But the leadership of Russia today lacks a serious understanding that it is necessary to strengthen the national armed forces … [of] Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and other countries – that, say, Belarus is the main outpost, including for Russia, in the western direction.

Minsk clearly expects more Russian help to develop and maintain the Belarusian army. Too often it suffers disappointment. In recent months, Belarusian officials – from the president to the to the defence minister and air force commander – either keep silent or sound remarkably uncertain about the most important arms deal between Minsk and Moscow of recent times, namely the purchase of new Su-30 fighter jets.

Defence minister Andrei Raukou. Image: BelTA.

For instance, at a news conference on 14 February, defence minister Andrei Raukou announced that the delivery of Su30 aircraft to Belarus may not start until 2019. Even more remarkably he completely omitted the Su30 deal in his major interview to BelTA news agency on 23 February in which he described at length the equipment Belarus plans to purchase for its army.

About a year ago top Belarusian defence officials clearly insisted that the Belarusian army would receive twelve new Su30s with delivery beginning in 2018. The official reason for the delay cites the Western embargo on the supply of some components for the aeroplanes to Russia, a result of Moscow’s meddling in eastern Ukraine. But it sounds odd given that Russia continues production of the same jets for other countries. Most probably, Minsk still needs to find a way to pay for the jets. After all, it earlier indicated its wish both to get maximum discount and to pay as much as possible with goods and not money.

Historical context casts a different light on the story around rearming the Belarusian army with Russian weapons. To put it plainly, today Minsk strives to acquire from Russia a dozen of Su30 aircraft – not even a regiment. Belarus fought for about a decade and yet, apparently, the problems persist. These are definitely not the “good old days” of Belarus-Russian partnership when, as recently as the early 2000s, Minsk and Moscow even negotiated over assembly production of essentially the same aircraft, the Su27, in Belarus.

An army fit for Belarusian needs

No wonder that, faced with Moscow’s reluctance to arm its Belarusian allies, Minsk simply rearranges its armed forces to suit its own needs and thinks ever less about the wishes of the Kremlin. Describing the process of rearmament in an interview to the BelTA news agency on 23 February, the defence minister, Raukou, called it “selective” and “pointed” [tochechnaya].

In particular, according to Raukou, Minsk will soon modernise its T-72 tanks in both Belarusian and Russian factories, as well as deploy more Belarusianmanufactured armoured vehicles V1 and Kaiman, and Belarusian-modernised BTR-70MB1. Among its planned acquisitions for 2018, the armed forces will obtain additional Yak-130 training and light-attack aircraftTOR-M2 surface-to-air missile systems, radars, and drones.

That means the Belarusian army avoids any comprehensive rearming. It decommissions some equipment without like-for-like replacement if Belarus, as a small country, does not need it itself and Russia refuses to supply a replacement either.

Postage stamps dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Belarusian army and its predecessor, the Red Army.

President Lukashenka, speaking on occasion of the Defenders of the Fatherland and Armed Forces Day, praised new products of national industries being deployed by the state army. He specifically mentioned a new ballistic missile for the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system, a surface-to-air missile system and lightly armoured vehicles. And he altogether failed to mention the new aircraft to be bought from Russia.

To sum up, on the one hand, Belarus fulfils its dues as Russia’s ally and participates in the air defence of the core Russian regions as much as it can. Hence so much attention to surfacetoair missiles, radars and similar equipment.

On the other hand, in other spheres, Minsk prefers to care for its own minimal needs if Russia is not willing to arm its ally. Hence attention to less sophisticated types of armoured vehicles, drones and aircraft. They suffice for Belarus’s security needs however inadequate they seem from the Russian perspective, which believes that “bigger is better” and focuses on global confrontation with the West. In the longer-term perspective, that means Minsk is going its own way and deciding that “small is beautiful.”




Belarusian arms exports grow with new rockets and missiles planned

On 31 January, Belarus’s state military-industrial committee reported that the export of Belarusian arms in 2017 exceeded the previous year by 15%, reaching more than $1bn sales. Growth occurred despite problems in accessing Russian military orders, an unclear situation about cooperation with Ukraine and the reported disruption of a deal with Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Belarusian officials announced plans to produce new missiles and combat drones.

Last year’s performance of the national defence industry proves that Belarus evolves economically. It also demonstrates the contradictory balance between Minsk’s efforts to maintain neutrality and its efforts to manoeuvre between Moscow and Kyiv, Baku and Yerevan, and other centres. 

No stagnation in the defence industry

On 31 January, a session of the managing officials of Belarus’s state military-industrial committee summarised the results of the committee’s work in 2017. According to official information, production grew by a quarter. Total exports of Belarusian arms exceeded the previous year’s level by 15% and made up more than $1bn in sales. While the government steadily struggles with problems in the civilian segments of its machine-building branch, the defence industries perform much better. They continue to earn impressive sums year after year, such that Belarus retains its position among top-20 world arms sellers.

Belarusian arms manufacturers have also diversified their client base. In 2017 they sold products to 69 countries, compared to just 60 countries in 2016. For instance, Minsk-based KB Radar could export its electronic warfare systems Groza-S and Optima-B, while the Barysau-based 140th Tank Repair Plant delivered its light-armoured vehicles, Kaiman and V-1, not only to the Belarusian army but also to an undisclosed African nation.

Precarious situation with the arms industry’s main markets

On state TV, Belarusian businessmen and defence firm managers, including from Minotor-Servis and Integral, have openly criticised Russia’s policy that aims to substitute Belarusian components in its military equipment. Furthermore, the chairman of the state military industrial committee, Aleh Dvihalyou, admitted on 31 January that Belarusian firms still face restrictions on receiving Russian state defence orders.

He also revealed something remarkable about the Belarusian arms industry’s international ties. Despite historical ties and the critical importance of Russian markets and partners for Belarus, only 54% of the ‘international interaction’ volume for Belarusian defence industries involves Russian firms. He did not specify what he meant under ‘interaction.’

In any case, 46% of interactions involve non-Russian firms and, apparently, the committee did not calculate interaction with Ukraine here. After all, on 1 February, an unnamed representative of the committee talking to Nasha Niva weekly announced that military-technical cooperation with Ukraine had been halted as early as in 2014.

Minsk allegedly stopped selling Kyiv military equipment immediately after it started military operations in eastern Ukraine. This statement likely shows the wish to downplay respective contacts with Ukraine which undoubtedly continue, although Minsk most probably reclassified them in order not to irritate Russian chauvinists.

Did Armenia disrupt Minsk-Baku deals?

Image: Azerbaijani Defence Minister Zakir Həsənov visiting Belarus in October 2017. Image: Salamnews.org

In addition to difficulties with Russia and Ukraine, Belarus recently needed to resolve controversies in its collaboration with Azerbaijan. On 1 February, Belarusian journalist Alyaksandr Alesin told the daily Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorussii that Minsk had renounced the deal it negotiated with Baku for the sale of Palanez multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). He insisted that the Belarusian government renounced these plans because of Armenia’s intervention. Armenia, clashing with Azerbaijan over Karabagh, formally partners Minsk in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Alesin announced that Minsk would soon sell arms to Armenia instead.

The Russian propaganda outlet Eurasia Daily followed the story on 6 February. It quoted Russian and Armenian military experts as saying that there was probably never such a deal in the first place.

These allegations clash with some well-known realities. First, Yerevan has hardly any leverage over Minsk. For more than a decade, Baku and Minsk have cooperated in effectively every sphere and the Belarusian government has no interest in disrupting such relations because of Armenia. Yerevan, by far the poorer of the Caucasus states, cannot replace Baku, especially in the defence sphere.

Much circumstantial evidence indicates that Minsk and Baku at least considered the Palanez deal. First, top defence and defence industry officials from both countries held numerous talks in recent years. Official announcements acknowledged that last year’s negotiations between the Belarusian and Azerbaijani presidents covered defence cooperation. Almost certainly these negotiations included Palanez – it cannot be otherwise, given the importance Lukashenka attaches to his Palanez project. Azerbaijan also has an interest in such weapons to neutralise the Iskander ballistic missiles Armenia received last year. Last but not least, a prominent Azerbaijani expert, general Yaşar Aydəmirov, spoke to several Azerbaijani media about the probability of such a deal between Belarus and Azerbaijan.

Cautious advancement of missile programme

Map: SIPRI

Minsk tries to develop new products to counter problems in traditional markets. Talking to the BelTA news agency on 31 January, the state secretary of security council, Stanislau Zas’, revealed plans to produce new sophisticated arms. In particular, this year, defence industries are planning to complete the development of combat drones.

Above all, however, Minsk develops its defence industrial capacities in the area of rockets and missiles. Minsk started its missile programme from zero, perhaps only in the early 2010s. In the quoted interview, Zas’ said that in the first half of 2018 Belarus would test a new, completely Belarusian-made rocket for the Palanez MLRS. Until now, Belarusians relied on rockets including some Chinese parts for this system.

In addition to replacing the remaining foreign components in the Palanez rockets, Zas’ announced that designers were developing a new, Belarusian missile for the Soviet-designed Buk surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Minsk believes that with the introduction of a new missile it can make the SAM system fit-for-purpose again.

According to circumstantial evidence published in Belarusian media, it could be retro-fitted Soviet-designed air-to-air missile types R-60 and R-73 that Belarusian designers intend to use in a new version of the Buk SAM system. First, Belarusian company Belspetsvneshtechnika has modernised these missiles to extend their lifetime and efficiency. Moreoever, it has designed new modifications, R-60BM and R-73BM, to be launched also from land-based SAM systems.

To summarise, the Belarusian defence industry faces multiple challenges which, if not addressed, could weaken the industry in the long term. First, instability in cooperation with Russia and Ukraine, especially with both at the same time, looks potentially damaging. Secondly, the national arms manufacturers need to design new defence products, sometimes never before produced in Belarus, as older Soviet types become outdated.

However, if the national defence industry copes with both tasks by diversifying its partnerships and developing new products, that not only will ensure its survival but also strengthen the country’s independence.




The Belarusian army: scaled down but better trained and autonomous

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

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

Important drills go unnoticed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contradictory results of reforms

Image: Vayar news agency

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

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

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

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

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

Have all top Belarus army commanders studied in Moscow?

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

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

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

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

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




Minsk silently builds a new army

On 1 December, Minsk made public an agreement with Russia to supply a joint regional group of Belarusian and Russian troops. In return, Russia’s Defence Ministry has committed to providing Belarus with necessary equipment and arms in times of “increasing military threat to the Union state [of Belarus and Russia] and in times of war.”

Meanwhile, the weapons and training Minsk gives its army show little in common with how Moscow develops its military. The Belarusian government is making its army ever smaller and getting rid of most of its expensive, heavy weapons necessary for all out offensive operations.

Increasing rearmament

Minsk usually buys major arms systems from Russia. This year, Belarusian defence ministry official media reported that Belarus had received six Mi-8MTV-5 helicopters and a division of Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. Less costly—yet still important—purchases from Russia include the 2017-produced RPO-A Shmel, an infantry flamethrower that the Belarusian army already uses, and its modernised version, the ShmelM, bought for the first time. Minsk has also signed contracts on purchasing 12 Su-30SM aircraft and some ProtivnikGE radars from Russia.

National arms industries are supplying the Belarusian army more and more equipment, too. A key new piece of equipment is the Palanez, Belarusian multiple-launch rocket system. At the end of October, an improved version, the PalanezM, was successfully tested at a distance of more than 300km for the first time.

The Belarusian military is also planning to continue purchases of communication, navigation, and surveillance means, armoured vehicles, small firearms and body armour. Some of this equipment will be from Belarus’s defence industries (see Table one below). Minsk also plans to buy over 50 drones, which are mostly Belarusmanufactured, and to continue modernisation of T-72B tanks.

Source of data in the table: MoD official statements & Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta in 2014-2017.

The picture of modernisation looks, however, contradictory. Speaking to reporters on 28 November, Deputy Defence Minister for Armaments Siarhei Simanenka said as many as four T72B, 30 GAZ-66 military trucks, and some other old Soviet era equipment had been successfully modernised. However, the refitting of military truck models from the 1960s, which had already proved highly vulnerable during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, raises questions about the rationality of such modernisation. 

The situation concerning Belarus’s heavy weapons is another story. Minsk is clearly not replacing most of its heavier, Soviet-inherited weapons. It decommisions them for further sales, like Su-27 heavy fighter jets or Su-24 bombers, or it simply does nothing about them as they grow older, like T-72 tanks. It is highly likely that the government is going to build a new army, which will not deploy these older heavy weapons. Indeed, in an article published on 3 November in Belarus Segodnya, the main Belarusian government daily, hinted at exactly such vision by declaring, “The main aim for the period until 2020 is to construct a compact, mobile, well-trained and well-equipped army.” In plain words, an army with only a minimum of heavy weapons.

Special forces model for Belarusian army of the future

Belarusian Special Operations Forces (SOF) Commander Vadzim Dzyanisenka spoke with Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta, a military industry newspaper, on 21 November and presented the Belarusian military leadership’s vision of contemporary armed conflicts. Dzyanisenka emphasised that the role of SOF was growing rapidly. He said that without these forces “it is not possible to solve the tasks related to ensuring national security.” Dzyanisenka described these forces as “mobile, agile and not burdened with heavy weapons.”

Vadzim Dzyanisenka, SOF Commander. Image: CTV.by

That is the direction in which Minsk is developing its military. The SOF seem to be serving as the model for the future national army. The special operations forces were established in the early 2000s and, according to Dzyanisenka, their composition and the scope of their responsibilities remain unchanged.

SOF units have became a priority for the government and, therefore, they receive more new equipment than many other parts of the army. This year, the SOF received a trove of new equipment: Kaiman and Volat V-1 armoured vehicles designed and manufactured in Belarus, Chinese-made CS/VN3 Dragon armoured vehicles, the Belarusian-modernised BTR-70MB1 armoured personnel carrier, Russian-made P7 parachute platforms for cargo, and Russian-made NONA M-1 120mm mortar.

On the one hand, this list of new equipment for the SOF is larger than for any other part of the Belarusian armed forces, excluding air defence. In short, Minsk sees the SOF as its highest priority. On the other hand, it lends credence to the idea that Minsk wishes to build a smaller, yet more efficient fighting force, which can deal with Donbas- or Kosovo-like conflicts, but harbours no ambition of fighting a major war, say, with NATO.

The President‘s new arms?

Minsk has little money and it has always tried to get funding for its military from Russia. Speculation about secret deals between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and the Kremlin abound. And for good reason, too, as the case of a recently published agreement with Russia shows. The agreement concerns supplying a joint regional group of Belarusian and Russian troops. Minsk and Moscow signed the agreement on 2 November 2016 and it entered force on 14 November. Belarusian citizens learned about the document only post factum, last Friday.

Image: vsr.mil.by

However, the terrible secret of that agreement turns out to be banal. The Kremlin essentially made clear that Minsk would only get free arms from Moscow in the case of full out war. Therefore, the Belarusian government’s attempts to arm itself without bearing too much of financial burden seem to have failed. Indeed, the appearance of such an agreement should be no surprise, because the Kremlin for some years has already stopped supplying its post-Soviet allies through CSTO mechanisms.

Inhibited by the Kremlin’s staunch refusals to provide Belarus with heavy weapons, the Belarusian government adapted its policies. Minsk is now silently building a new army better suited to its limited needs and financial constraints. It is letting its Soviet-era, heavier arms be silently discarded without replacement—a huge fleet of T72 tanks that have been neither modernised nor replaced provides an illustration. Simplification of existing army structures automatically follows, which also means a reduction of offensive capacities.




International support grows for Belarusian peacekeepers in Ukraine

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

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

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

Minsk finally accepted as a peacekeeper?

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

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

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

Ukrainian reaction

Фота: Sputnik Беларусь.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minsk has Ukraine’s best interests in mind

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

Belarusian airborne troops. Image: Vayar news agency.

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

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

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




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

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

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

Minsk wants a transparent exercise, Moscow prefers discretion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A purely regional affair?

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

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

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

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

No money for big projects

Image: BelTA

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

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

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

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

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

Image: CTV.by

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

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

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




West 2017, Belarus-China, Mahilioŭ region study – digest of Belarusian analytics

Belarus in Focus: Minsk will show a lot but not everything in West 2017 military drills. Yauheni Preiherman analyses strategic advances and economic hopes of Belarus-China relations. Grigory Ioffe: Belarus’s independent voice is growing louder.

IPM Research Center’s macroeconomic forecast for Belarus: recovery will continue, but its pace is slow. Fresh CSO Sustainability Index report: Belarus remains among the countries with impeded sustainability of CSO sector. MASMI pollster: Over 60% of Belarusian cities’ inhabitants deal with charity.

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

Foreign policy and security

Russia-West Balancing Act Grows Ever More Wobbly in Belarus – The New York Times writes that over two decades, Aliaksandr Lukashenka has perfected the art of playing Russia and the West against each other. But with major Russian military exercises scheduled for September in Belarus, opposition leaders, analysts, and even the American military fear that Mr. Lukashenka’s tightrope act may be coming to a close.

 How Minsk Should Operate to Preserve Foreign Policy Stability? – Valeriya Kostyugova, Nashe Mnenie, notes that a set of recent trends in the regional policy, as well as the exhaustion of the Belarusian economic model forced Minsk to seek more foreign policy stability. Normalisation of relations with the West is a natural part of the strategy; rationalisation of relations with Russia is another essential part.

“West-2017”: Minsk Will Show a Lot But Not Everything – According to Belarus in Focus, Minsk is eager to make the September ‘West 2017’ Russian-Belarusian military exercise transparent as a manifestation of its ability to pursue an independent security policy in the region, which often goes unnoticed by the West and Ukraine, who expect from the Belarusian authorities more than they can afford.

Strategic Advances and Economic Hopes of Belarus-China Relations – Yauheni Preiherman believes that relations with China can be seen as another example of the logic of strategic hedging in Belarus’s foreign policy. In a nutshell, it aims to minimise security risks, maximise economic opportunities, and diversify its strategic options. Moreover, China can be instrumental in advancing Minsk’s relations with third countries.

Corporate interaction in the area of fight against corruption and tax evasion in the construction sector This study provides a detailed analysis of tax evasion and corruption in the construction sector in Belarus, Latvia and Finland

Situation in the Field of National Security and Defense of Belarus. June 2017 – According to the Belarus Security Blog’s monthly monitoring, June was marked with a number of events within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The experts note that because of different standards in the CSTO countries, the creation of a unified system of military equipment and weapons seems to be a complex and long process.

Toward a More Belarusian Belarus – Grigory Ioffe analyses recent developments in Belarus and reflection of media on them concludes that Belarus’s independent voice is growing louder. He gives such examples like the high-ranking Belarusian official speech at the US embassy’s reception on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, or the PA OSCE session in Minsk.

Economy and social policy

BEROC’s Economic Outlook. First Quarter 2017. In 2017 Q1 the economy grew modestly, which contradicted to the bulk of forecasts and expectations. In comparison to the 2016 Q1, output grew by 0.3%. But structural weaknesses still overburden the economy.

Macroeconomic Forecast for Belarus – The IPM Research Center’s regular issue contains a forecast of the main macroeconomic indicators for 2017 and 2018 and analysis of their sensitivity to different scenario assumptions. Namely, the recovery will continue, but its pace is slow and depends on the consistency of domestic macroeconomic policies, implementation of the agreements on crude oil imports from Russia, and the pace of recovery in Russia.

Sociological Study of Mahilioŭ Residents – An analytical paper presents the results of a survey conducted in the spring of 2017 on topical issues of the Belarusian regional centre Mahilioŭ. The study focuses on assessment of the citizens’ well being, the level of satisfaction with various sectors of urban life, etc. In particular, Mahilioŭ residents call inflation the most urgent issue; musical fests are the most requested among cultural events.

Civil society

Assessment of the effect of the programme Leadership in Local Communities The report contains a description of the programme, methodology and results of the assessment, as well as conclusions and recommendations

Belarus Is Among Countries With Impeded Sustainability of CSO Sector – According to the 2016 CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Belarus has improved its score by 0.1 and reached 5.5. However, along with Azerbaijan (5.9) it has the worst rate among the countries of the region. The USAID’s CSOSI has been conducted since 1997. The presentation of Belarus CSOSI was on 15 August  by ACT NGO and gathered over 90 people.

Development of Environmental Friendliness in Belarus in 1990-2015 – The study is commissioned by the Environmental Solutions Center. For Belarus, this is the first attempt to collect and describe how the sphere developed. The study presents the results of sociological surveys that illustrate the actual attitude of people towards environmental issues. Namely, every fourth Belarusian thinks that she/he cares about the environment, and every fourth thinks on the contrary.

Belarus Policy

Corporate interaction in the area of fight against corruption and tax evasion in the construction sector. This study provides a detailed analysis of tax evasion and corruption in the construction sector in Belarus, Latvia and Finland. The report is based on a survey of construction companies and a study of worldwide experience. In order to understand the real situation in the sphere of shadow operations of the construction sector, the study identifies specific problems in the field of public procurement, taxation and employment in the countries studied. The conclusion of the paper provides recommendations on combating corruption and tax evasion in the construction sector of Belarus, Latvia and Finland.

Assessment of the effect of the programme Leadership in Local Communities. The programme ‘Leadership in Local Communities’ is implemented by the educational institution Office of European Expertise and Communications in partnership with the international organisation Pact since 2014. 49 people from 43 local communities of Belarus were trained in the programme. In the process of implementation, local leaders identified 142 local problems, engaged more than 4,600 people in solving them, managed to solve more than 90 local problems and continue to work with the remaining problems. 86% of those who participated in the program continue to work actively in their local communities. The report contains a description of the programme, methodology and results of the assessment, as well as conclusions and recommendations.

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.




Belarus finally reaps tangible benefits from its neutrality policy

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

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

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

No more questions for Belarus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambiguous statements about Russia

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

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

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

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

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

‘A second Ukraine’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Belarus and One Belt, One Road, alternative oil, SCTO – Belarus state press digest

At the One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing, Lukashenka suggested that the project could be used not only as a trading route, but also as a basis for promoting ideas and creating joint innovations. ​

According to foreign minister Vladimir Makei, during its CSTO chairmanship Belarus will focus on positioning the organisation in the international arena and strengthening its interaction with both the UN and the OSCE.

Belarus seeks to diversify its oil supplies, but refuses to mention alternative sources as long as negotiations are underway.

Experts analyse the consequences of flights departing from Minsk being assigned to the international sectors of Russian airports. Moscow introduced this security measure claiming that Belarus's five-day visa-free regime threatens Russian security.

This and more in the new edition of the Belarus State Press Digest.

Foreign policy

Belarusian President takes part in the ‘One belt, one road' in Beijing. According to Alexander Lukashenka, this global initiative is not only reshaping the world's economic map and creating new growth points, it also represents a new type of international framework. This means integration designed to harmonise all economic institutions and remove barriers to the free movement of goods, investment, and people.

At the forum, Lukashenka outlined his ideas for deepening and expanding cooperation on the Eurasian continent. In particular, Minsk suggested using the One Belt, One Road structure not only as a trading route, but also as a basis for promoting ideas and creating joint innovations. The Chinese-Belarusian Great Stone Industrial Park could serve as a model.

The Belarusian leader also held talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Chairman of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping, and Chairman of the Board of the Chinese Corporation CITIC Group Chang Zhenming, reports Belarus Segodnia.

High-level Chinese officials visit Belarus. Over the past few weeks, Minsk hosted a number of high-ranking Chinese officials. Most notable was a parliamentary delegation headed by Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and the third most powerful man in the Chinese hierarchy. This level of political contact is evidence of the authenticity of the strategic partnership between the two countries, writes The Minsk Times.

Currently, Belarus is implementing over 30 investment projects financed by Chinese loans, worth circa $6bn. The Great Stone Industrial Park is the largest of them. Lukashenka insists that only high-tech companies with guaranteed sales markets should become residents of the park. Currently, eight residents are registered within the park, including China Merchants Group, Huawei, and ZTE. An imbalance in Belarusian-Chinese trade, however, is raising concern within the Belarusian government. In 2016 it exceeded $2.5bn.

Makei: Belarus will never abandon Russia or threaten neighbouring states. Soyuznoe Veche published quotes from Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei concerning Belarus-Russia integration. Makei is sure that integration will continue to deepen despite attempts by third parties to destroy them for profit. During its CSTO chairmanship, Belarus will attempt to strengthen the organisation's weight in the world in several areas.

The first is more precise coordination of foreign policy activity. The second is stronger positioning of the CSTO in the international arena and increased interaction with the UN and the OSCE. The minister also commented on concerns from western countries regarding the upcoming military drills West 2017. Some fear Russia is preparing an attack on neighbouring states. However, Belarus has never threatened anyone and will certainly not start now. The country contributes to the stability and security of the region.

Economy

Belarus seeks to diversify its oil supplies. Respublica interviewed the Chairman of the oil concern Belnaftachim, Ihar Liašenka. Over the past 20 years, the concern's production volume has tripled in dollar equivalent. The concern accounts for about 20 percent of industrial production and a third of Belarusian exports. Recently, it has experienced a difficult period due to supply shortage during the Belarus-Russia oil and gas dispute. However, it has also gained experience, which it is taking into account as it forms a long-term development strategy.

Recent disagreements forced the concern to look closely at the possibility of sourcing oil from other regions. The chairman underlines that diversification is conducted not against Russia's interest, but serves as an airbag for the economic sustainability of any industry. He refused to name any country or ways Belarus could receive the alternative oil, as negotiations are underway and their content remains a trade secret.

Experts analyse the consequences of flights originating from Minsk being assigned to the international sectors of Russian airports. Russians have been carrying out border control of aircraft and passengers arriving from and departing for Belarus since 15 May. Flights from Minsk have been transferred to the international sector of Russian airports. Previously they had been treated like domestic flights, writes Belarus Segodnia.

Passengers will now have to show their boarding pass and ID. The Minsk airport and Belavia have made clear that how passengers will be treated in Belarus has not changed, despite new rules in Russia.

Culture

Russification was the result of the industrialisation of Belarus, not Russian politics. Zviazda spoke with famous Belarusian historian and senator of the Council of the Republic Ihar Marzaliuk about the reason why nationalism failed to take hold in Belarus. Belarus is a link between East and West with inherent national and confessional tolerance. Belarus was the only country in Europe where anti-Semitism did not emerge.

The Absolute Communist Supreme Council of the 11th Convocation elaborated a soft and very precise law on the revival of the Belarusian language. The entire ruling elite, understanding the delicacy and complexity of the problem, supported it. However, the nationalist faction in the council of the 12th convocation did immense harm to it, albeit in a Bolshevik manner.

Russification came to Belarus not from Russia, but as a result of the industrialisation of Belarus in the postwar period. Given the multinational nature of the USSR, the intelligentsia used Russian as the language of mass communication, which was also scientifically more advanced.

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.




Belarus has obtained gas and oil concessions from Russia: but what did Russia get in exchange?

After a meeting with Alexander Lukashenka on 3 April in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin announced that all oil and gas issues between the two countries had been resolved.

The media in Belarus reported on the Kremlin's concessions extensively. However, what Minsk will provide in return remains unclear. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka provided a clue when he said that the summit dealt more with security than with energy issues.

Moscow indeed wants closer collaboration with Minsk in the realms of security and foreign policy. On 31 March, before the summit, Russia's Security Council held a meeting on Russian-Belarusian relations. The two governments clearly chose to resolve the issues critical to each of them: Russian gas and oil supplies for Minsk, Belarusian security and foreign policy cooperation for Moscow.

Nevertheless, numerous other issues continue to undermine relations with Russia. Now, even leading experts in the Belarusian government doubt the utility of Moscow-led Eurasian integration in its current form.

Horse trading between Minsk and Moscow

Assessments of the results of the Petersburg summit differed starkly among Belarusian and Russian media sources and analysts. For instance, the Russian liberal daily Kommersant argued that Moscow had ceded almost every possible position, and implied that Lukashenka came out on top. Meanwhile, many Belarusian analysts, such as Dzyanis Melyantsou, insisted that Minsk must have given something valuable to Moscow in exchange.

The media reported extensively on what the Kremlin agreed to give to Minsk: Russia will offer Belarus a discount on gas beginning in 2018 and resume petroleum supplies to Belarus at previous volumes.

However, a clue to what Minsk agreed to in exchange was provided by Lukashenka himself when he announced that national security issues were the most important subject of discussion at the summit.

Why now?

Although this solution to the dispute had already been voiced last summer, it was only now that Russian leadership made the proposal. Two major international developments are likely to have influenced Putin's move.

The first is the geopolitical situation in the region. With Russia's hopes that Trump would be more acquiescent dashed and tensions in Eastern European as high as ever, Moscow needs a less recalcitrant Minsk to deal with numerous urgent problems.

In particular, Moscow needs Minsk to host a massive military power show, the military exercise West-2017. So far, Belarusian officials have downplayed the confrontational aspects of the exercise, emphasising the necessity of transparency. Minsk is extremely averse to further challenging Russia's opponents in this way.

Second, Moscow would probably like to put a stop to Minsk's latest attempt to bring non-Russian oil to the region through a regional cooperation scheme. Minsk has already succeeded in quietly bringing in Azerbaijani oil, and has recently started to purchase Iranian oil as well. In both endeavours it collaborated with Ukraine; in the latter it may even have had the help of Poland. The current Russian leadership has bones to pick with both these countries.

However problematic the results of these efforts may seem at the moment, they are not hopeless. The efficiency of such oil schemes could increase if Belarus succeeds in making its diversification attempts a collective project undertaken together with other countries of the region. Minsk understands this: its deals with Ukraine and contacts with other countries prove it.

Moreover, as Lukashenka revealed in an interview on Mir TV on 7 April, the Belarusian government was preparing to import non-Russian petroleum within the country as well:

We will soon complete the modernisation of our refineries … As soon as this is finished, the output of white oil products at our refineries will reach 95%, so the problem of petroleum [imports] will disappear by itself. We will be able to buy oil from anywhere, recycle it within the country, and make appropriate profits. The Russians also realise this.

Belarusian officials doubt the value of Eurasian integration

The most recent oil and gas dispute between the two countries lasted more than a year. Over the course of the feud, the Belarusian government took several eyebrow-raising demarches: Lukashenka refused to participate in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summits in December, and Belarus would not sign the Customs Code of the EAEU last year.

The director of the government-affiliated Economy Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, Valery Belski, harshly criticised Eurasian integration in an article written on 13 March for the largest Belarusian internet portal Tut.by. As he proclaimed, 'the value of the Eurasian Union for Belarus decreases if the prices for energy resources are not made closer [to domestic Russian prices]'.

This sentiment neatly encapsulates the conclusions the Belarusian government is drawing from its dispute with the Kremlin. For instance, Belarusian prime minister Andrei Kabyakou on 7 March emphasised that the difference in natural gas prices paid in Belarus and Russia had grown from 38% in early 2014 to 110% in 2016.

This makes Belarusian enterprises less competitive, as their products become more expensive than Russian ones. And that, of course, contradicts the agreements on Eurasian integration.

Disputes between Minsk and Moscow increase

The gas dispute also brought other matters of contention to the forefront: reduced oil supplies, disputes over Belarusian food exports, Russia's border checks with Belarus, replacement of Belarusian details in Russian industrial products, limiting access of Belarusian firms to Russian defence programmes, etc all hinder bilateral relations. Many of these problems have been festering for years.

What's more, Minsk points out that many of these issues are of a political rather than economic nature. Agricultural exports to Russia is a case in point. In November 2016, Rosselkhoznadzor, the Russian government agency which oversees agriculture, announced that it had discovered bacteria in meat imported from the Belarusian Vitsebsk Broiler Poultry Factory. It promptly banned all products from the firm on the Russian market.

In February 2017, however, Rossekhoznadzor allowed products from the same Vitsebsk firm to be presented at the Prodexpo-2017 exhibition in Moscow and awarded them prizes for high quality. Nevertheless, Rosselkhoznadzor refused to remove restrictions on Vitsebsk poultry products in Russia.

Similar problems exist elsewhere. As anonymous representatives of the Belarusian defence industries commented to Kommersant daily, 'in spite of all agreements, we remain strangers in the Russian state defence order. And the state defence order in Russia includes many categories of products: from table lamps and fabrics to trolleybuses.'

In short, Belarusian-Russian relations suffer from more fundamental problems than simply trade disputes between close allies. At the Saint Petersburg summit, the two governments resolved the most urgent issues in the energy and security spheres. However, numerous other problems persist, despite long years of declared integration. For this, the political attitudes of the Kremlin bare much of the blame. New disputes between Minsk and Moscow are sure to arise in the future.




Saving Europe’s security architecture – Belarus foreign policy digest

Belarus’s diplomatic activities slowed down before the holidays in December. The country’s diplomacy focused mostly on a multilateral agenda in preparation for its chairmanship of the Central European Initiative, as well as manoeuvring at the United Nations.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makei’s statement at an OSCE meeting was perhaps meant to be a programme declaration, but in reality it amounted to little more than bragging about Belarus’s arguable achievements and ambitious plans.

Belarus has strengthened its diplomatic presence in Europe but has failed to avert the deterioration of its political relations with Ukraine.

Easing tensions in Europe

On 8 December, Vladimir Makei spoke at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg. His statement took the form of a set of suggestions aimed at preventing further degradation of Europe’s security architecture.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s recent idea of a new peace-making project modelled after the Helsinki process of the 1970s was the centrepiece of Makei’s statement. In November, Lukashenka invited the leaders of Russia, the United States, the European Union, and China to come to Minsk to negotiate a new world order.

Realistically, Belarus’s foreign ministry seeks to convene a meeting of experts in Minsk to discuss the new geopolitical situation. The idea of a global summit in Minsk may be nothing more than a clever sales pitch for this expert gathering.

Most of Makei’s other suggestions were merely a clumsy attempt to publicise the country’s recent foreign policy achievements among his European colleagues.

Speaking on the need to promote connectivity in Europe, Makei mentioned Belarus’s imminent chairmanship of the Central European Initiative in 2017. However, few people would argue that the Initiative has played any significant role in regional cooperation so far.

Belarus’s foreign minister also extolled inter-parliamentary contacts as a 'breeding ground' for important constructive decisions, helping to bridge differences among nations. In this context, he alluded to Belarus hosting the summer session of next year’s OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

Nevertheless, the role of MPs in today’s diplomacy is probably exaggerated. The authorities will use the gathering to help its appointed parliament acquire international legitimacy.

Makei did not fail to remind the international community about Belarus’s role in negotiating a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis. However, European diplomats are well aware that Belarus’s contribution remains limited to providing a convenient venue for working-level negotiations.

The foreign minister hailed his German counterpart's initiative to re-launch conventional arms control. In this context, he managed to mention Belarus’s chairmanship of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation as well as the country’s decision to renounce nuclear weapons twenty years ago. However, Vladimir Makei failed to mention that his boss, Alexander Lukashenka, had once called this decision an 'egregious blunder'.

Belarus increases its diplomatic presence in Europe

Despite Lukashenka’s direct order to prioritise trade relations with 'Distant Arc' countries, Belarus failed to open a single diplomatic mission in the developing world in 2015 – 2016. Instead, in November – December, Belarus opened three new embassies in European countries.

Few people expect a large enough surge of Belarusian exports to Georgia, Spain, or Sweden to make a difference for the country’s foreign trade balance.

Minsk may have been guided mostly by political considerations. The expansion of Belarus's diplomatic presence in Europe, together with the recent opening of the Austrian embassy and the appointment of the Dutch chargé d’affaires in Minsk, falls well in line with Belarus’s policy of unfreezing relations with Europe.

Belarus finally re-opened its embassy in Stockholm, which had closed down after a diplomatic conflict in 2012. Minsk needs a more intensive dialogue with the Nordic countries, as this part of Europe remains the least supportive of normalisation of Belarusian – European relations on 'easy terms'. However, a full restoration of relations can happen only with the appointment of a new Belarusian ambassador to Stockholm.

On 16 December, deputy foreign minister Yevgeny Shestakov inaugurated the Belarusian embassy in Madrid. Belarus’s diplomatic presence in Europe’s fifth-largest economy, which also boasts strong ties in Latin America, is long overdue.

Vladimir Makei traveled to Tbilisi on 20 December to open Belarus’s embassy there. Recently, Belarus has been emphasising the development of political and economic relations with Eastern Partnership members, hoping for greater independence from Russia. Full-fledged diplomatic ties between Belarus and Georgia will help the two countries to better coordinate their policies towards both Moscow and Brussels.

Improved trade and political tensions with Ukraine

December marked the 25th anniversary of Belarusian and Ukrainian diplomatic relations. However, recent difficulties have cast a shadow on the celebrations.

The bilateral turnover grew by 10% in January – October 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, with Ukraine firmly establishing itself as Belarus’s second largest trading partner. Last autumn, Minsk and Kyiv managed to put an end to a tariff war between the two countries.

However, despite Belarus’s tacit refusal to support its closest ally, Russia, in the latter’s hybrid war against Ukraine, political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have lagged behind their economic ties. The two countries’ leaders have not met in a bilateral format since Petro Poroshenko’s inauguration.

Lately, Ihar Sokal, the newly appointed Belarusian ambassador to Kyiv, has repeatedly emphasised the fact that over eighty per cent of Ukrainians have a positive attitude towards Belarus. However, many among Ukraine’s elite look very badly on Belarus’s recent vote against the UN resolution on human rights in occupied Crimea.

This disappointment over Belarus’s unwillingness to openly condemn Russia has cooled diplomatic ties. Senior officials of the two countries’ foreign ministries have boycotted receptions given by the respective embassies to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Minsk may also have reacted in this way because of Kyiv’s delay in appointing a new ambassador to Belarus.

On 10 November, Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko agreed over the phone to meet in person before the end of 2016. The meeting failed to take place.

Lukashenka’s encounter with former Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma in Minsk on 22 December may have represented an attempt to diffuse tension. However, doubts remain as to the feasibility of a meeting between Lukashenka and Poroshenko in the near future.

The developments of the end of 2016 prove that Belarus is still more at ease working on relations with its European partners than most 'Distant Arc' countries. However, the steady stream of positive events in relations with Europe has so far failed to bring about full acceptance of Alexander Lukashenka as an equal partner by his European counterparts.




Oil and gas dispute settled, projects with Poland, Chechen refugees – state press digest

Belarus establishes closer political and economic links with Asian countries hoping to boost exports. Lukashenka urges CSTO members to elaborate a new development strategy and attain recognition from global players.

The Belarusian Parliament ratifies the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Belarus emerges successful in the long-standing oil and gas dispute with Russia. The number of Chechen refugees trying to reach the EU via Brest is increasing.

This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.

Politics

Belarus sees Asian countries as important partners. Viačaslaŭ Jaraševič, head of the Finance Department at Minsk International University MITSO, wrote about the recent rapprochement between Belarus and Asian Countries in Narodnaja Hazieta. Over the last year, the Belarusian president visited many Asian countries including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, China, Turkey, Vietnam and others.

Viačaslaŭ Jaraševič argues that Lukashenka is establishing new links that will prove useful for the Belarusian trade sector in the future. He notes that many countries in Asia are beneficial partners for Belarus. The distance between Belarus and Asia does not create obstacles in trade relations as maritime transportation prices have been decreasing every year.

Lukashenka urges CSTO to work on further progress. On 14 October the President of Belarus delivered a speech at a session of the Collective Security Council in Yerevan. He raised the issue of the CSTO’s image. Lukashenka asserted that NATO does not consider CSTO a full-fledged organisation, reports Belarus Segodnya.

Lukashenka said that NATO does not consider CSTO a full-fledged organisation

Lukashenka also urged the CSTO to work towards achieving the status of a recognised organisation. He encouraged representatives of CSTO member states to develop organisation at a higher level. He underlined the necessity of attracting experienced and qualified experts from different countries, including Russia, in order to improve and optimise the functioning of the CSTO.

The Belarusian Parliament ratifies the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. In October 2015 Belarus became a signatory member of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. A year later, on 3 October, the Parliament ratified the Convention. In recent years, the Belarusian government has been adjusting its laws in accordance with the Convention, writes Belarus Segodnya. The document entering into force means that Belarus is ready to make a commitment to comply with all terms of the Convention.

However, non-governmental organisations point to the failure of Belarus to comply with one of the most important terms of the Convention – unmediated participation of people with disabilities in the development of policies that concern them. This fact hampers the progress of Belarus in the framework of the convention.

Economy

Russia and Belarus resolve the issue of oil and gas supplies. An agreement on supplies of Russian oil and gas products through the territory of Belarus came into force on 12 October. The Belarusian and Russian Prime ministers, Andrej Kabiakoŭ and Dmitry Medvedev, have recently confirmed new terms of the agreement. According to the document, Belarus will pay the same price for Russian gas as last year.

However, due to the policy of inter-budgetary compensation, the final price for Belarus will decrease. In 2017 the price of Russian gas for Belarus will be about $100 per thousand cubic metres, writes Zviazda. The oil and gas debate started in the middle of 2016 when Russia announced a double increase of tariffs for gas for Belarus.

Hrodna region strengthens partnership with the border regions of Poland. Belarus and Poland are planning to establish a regular boat route on the Augustow Canal. In addition, Hrodna region and Poland have discussed implementing around 20 projects in the field of tourism and sports, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda. The parties plan to realise these projects in the framework of the "Poland-Belarus-Ukraine 2014-2020" programme.

One of these projects involves the purchase of a vessel which will purify and deepen the Augustow Canal. Representatives from the Belarusian side propose restoring two historic castles in Hrodna region. It is not clear yet which of these projects will be implemented, but the parties are now actively hammering out the details.

Society

17-year-old attempts a massacre in one a Minsk shopping mall. A teenager began a chain saw massacre at the Europe Mall. He killed one woman and wounded several people. The suspect, according to Belarus Segodnya, suffered from a mental disorder. During interrogation, the teenager admitted that he had been planning the massacre for a long time.

He initially intended to commit the crime at the university where he studied. The suspect explained that he felt hatred towards all mankind, struggled with depression, and wanted to be killed during the arrest. It is also known that the suspect lived alone and was antisocial. Students and teachers of the university characterised him as distant.

More refugees from Chechnya arrive in Belarus. Refugees from Chechnya are attempting to reach Poland via Belarus, claiming that they want to escape the Putin and Kadyrov regime. From 2000 to 2016 the number of Chechen refugees hosted by Poland increased to almost 80,000. Poland received the largest number of asylum applications from residents of Chechnya in 2013.

A correspondent at the newspaper Zarya connects this fact to the adoption of a German law equating refugees’ benefits with unemployment benefits. According to the law, the benefits amount to 2000 euros and are paid over the course of one and half years. In Poland, benefits come to only 1,000 zloty (€230) during the first year. For this reason, most refugees from Chechnya are trying to get to countries such as Germany, Austria, Denmark, and others.

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.




Analytical Paper: 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.




Belarus-Turkey Rapprochement: Minsk Refuses to Fight for Kremlin and its Allies

On 14-15 April Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka took part in the Istanbul summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

This trip triggered another wave of derisory criticism in the Russian media. Even Kommersant​, the liberal Russian daily, wrote about the 'demonstrative rapprochement of Ankara and Minsk' against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between Belarus and Russia.

No wonder Lukashenka while in Istanbul met Turkish President Erdogan, whose relations with Moscow remain hostile after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet late last year. The Belarusian president even invited Erdogan to visit Belarus. Belarus' recent refusal to support another Russian ally, Armenia, in its conflict with Azerbaijan makes Lukashenka look disloyal to the Kremlin.

Moscow refuses to accept anything but total support for its policies. Anything else, in the Kremlin's view, is treason and enmity. And Minsk refuses to deal in such black and white categories.

Minsk approaching Erdogan and his friends

Minsk is much more interested in cooperation with Turkey than vice versa. Commenting on recent contact between the Belarusian and Turkish leaders, Kommersant argued that Turkish President Erdogan 'is getting a chance to play the "Belarusian card" in relations with Russia.'

So far, however, Erdogan has displayed no interest in doing that. First, his meeting with Lukashenka was just one of a series of meetings he held with participants of the OIC summit of a comparable level.

Minsk is simply consolidating its ties with the block of conservative Middle Eastern regimes associated with the West

Secondly, Turkish officials made no statements to indicate their intention of playing a 'Belarusian card', nor did the Turkish media display any interest in Lukashenka's visit, only mentioning it on the sidelines.

Joining the OIC as an observer, Minsk is simply consolidating its ties with the block of conservative Middle Eastern regimes associated with the West, like the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Turkey or Pakistan. It is this block that dominates in the OIC. This foreign policy orientation of Minsk is evident from the meetings Lukashenka had in Istanbul with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain.

Just before that, President Lukashenka's son, Viktar, on 29-31 March visited Qatar, another country that has tense relations with Russia and its allies. Viktar openly met high-level officials of that country.

That demonstrative contact contrasted with Minsk sending to Russia's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, just a delegation of the Belarusian Communist party, a marginal political force. The Belarusian communists brought Assad a message from the Belarusian leadership and a painting with the ambiguous title Victory Day.

Armenia angry with Belarusian government

Certainly, only few experts noticed these eloquent details of Belarusian foreign policy in the Middle East. Other moves by Minsk, however, attracted the attention of many Belarusian and foreign media outlets, namely its position on the revived conflict around Karabakh​.

First, on 2 April the Belarusian foreign ministry responded to the beginning of a new round of hostilities in Karabakh with a statement which underlined the inviolability of international borders and territorial integrity. It irritated Armenia because in that context it meant supporting Azerbaijan, which demands recovery of all the territories that belonged to Soviet Azerbaijan.

Despite a harsh reaction from Yerevan, Minsk on 4 April issued a second statement which implied that Belarusian troops could not be sent to participate in foreign conflicts. That meant a blow to the structure of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) which Yerevan had hoped to involve in its conflict with Azerbaijan.

Minsk then drew the final line as the Belarusian parliament adopted – also on 4 April – the new national military doctrine. The norm of not sending Belarusian troops to conflict zones abroad has existed in Belarusian legislation since 1991 and the new doctrine merely reiterated it.

But in a tense atmosphere, as Yerevan tried to use the CSTO in its confrontation with Baku, Minsk's adoption of the new doctrine was interpreted differently. The Armenian media, such as News.am, saw the rapid adoption of the Belarusian military doctrine as Minsk's response to the new outburst of hostilities in Karabakh​.

At any rate, the doctrine indicated Belarusian unwillingness to side with Armenia and undermined the coherence of the CSTO. On 15 April Deputy Foreign minister of Armenia Shavarsh Kocharyan publicly announced that the new Belarusian military doctrine was causing concern for Armenia as a CSTO member. Yet Minsk also knew perfectly well that its moves with regards to Karabakh would also irritate Moscow.

Swimming away from Putin's Titanic?

Moscow, as usual, smells treason, but Minsk is just struggling to find a middle way between Russia and its numerous opponents in the West, former Soviet Union or Middle East. It recognises some interests of Russia which the Belarusian government considers legitimate, and, for instance, continues to participate in the Single air defence system.

At the same time, Belarus is demonstrating that it refuses to follow those of Putin's policies which have already entangled Russia in political and military confrontation with numerous countries. But Minsk resists these Kremlin policies not on ethical or moral grounds.

The Belarusian leadership apparently believes that these Kremlin policies are doomed and based on shaky grounds. Lukashenka knowingly made fun of Russia's 'historic' claims to Crimea, suggesting that it might mean the transfer of most of Eurasia, including Russia, to Mongol administration, since historically Mongols owned these lands.

According to Belarusian political commentator Valer Karbalevich, after Russia fell out with Turkey last November, “Russia, which had been a source of support [for the Belarusian government], turned into a source of problems. It is time to swim away from [drowning Putin's] Titanic.”

That would be a difficult task given the irreplaceable role played by Russia in the Belarusian economy. Nevertheless, Minsk has already succeeded in distancing itself from risky Russian and other countries' endeavours in international politics by referring to international law.

Belarus has denied legitimacy to a variety of different political projects, including the secession of Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea (though with reservations) and now Karabakh​.

It has also consistently refused to support major Russian foreign policy moves: not only in some faraway places like the Middle East but also in Eastern Europe where Minsk struggles to maintain good relations with Ukraine and repair relations with the West.

The recent Belarusian moves on Karabakh​ and its relations with the OIC demonstrate that Belarus continues to move in the same direction.




Playing East And West, Cooperation with Pakistan and Thailand, First Belarusian Billionaire – Western Press Digest

Western media focuses on the EU decision to abolish most sanctions and extend others, and accuses Belarus of playing “both sides” for advantage.

In other news: Belarusian missile site modernisation near NATO border, Lithuanian sentenced for spying for Belarus, lack of progress on human rights in Belarus, the success story of the Belarusian World of Tanks billionaire.

All of this and more in the newest edition of the Western Press Digest.

International relations

EU's controversial decision to end sanctionsThe Guardian comments on the unanimous decision to end asset freezes and travel bans against 170 individuals including President Lukashenka and 3 defence companies due to “improving EU-Belarus relations.” As Rankin explains, EU ministers remain “concerned” after a recent OSCE report suggested Belarus had to improve “on democratic standards.” EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini is quoted as saying: “When we see significant, even if limited steps, in what we feel is the right direction, we feel it is right to encourage them.”

Belarus playing "both sides"Stratfor report suggests that, despite being “one of Russia's closest allies, Belarus is increasingly warming up to the West” with “considerable growth in Belarus' diplomatic and economic ties with the Continent and the United States” occurring recently.

The report claims Belarus is central in “standoff between Russia and the West”, citing membership of the EEU and security and military ties with Russia via the Collective Security Treaty Organisation as examples of the former and “low-level” economic ties with EU countries, talks on visa facilitation as well as its role as mediator post-Ukraine’s Euromaidan as examples of the latter.

Stratfor adds that Belarus has decided to buy Russian fighter jets instead of allowing the opening of a base in Belarus, though Russia remains Belarus' biggest economic partner.

Economy and business

Increased bilateral trade with Pakistan Pakistan and Belarus agreed to enhance bilateral trade and cooperation in various sectors including agriculture, energy and health at the second session of the Pakistan-Belarus Joint Ministerial Commission.

Highlights included both sides agreeing to establish a Joint Trade Committee to identify potential products for exchange and collaborate on the training of Pakistani doctors and para-medical staff in Belarus.

PKKH also reveals that Belarus gave its full support to Pakistan’s request for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EEU and agreed to simplify visa procedures for Pakistani businessmen.

Facebook acquires Belarusian software start-up – The Los Angeles Times confirms that Facebook Inc. has acquired Masquerade Technologies Inc., a young Belarusian start-up whose popular “Snapchat-like silly selfie-altering tool” has acquired 15m users in just 3 months after it was created during a 48-hour hackathon in November and raised $1m in seed funding from European investors. In addition, Masquerade's three co-founders, Eugene Nevgen, Sergey Gonchar and Eugene Zatepyakin, are expected to join Facebook's London office.

Dave reveals that Minsk, Belarus-based Masquerade has confirmed that the company “was excited to bring its virtual effects software to Facebook's 1.6b users” at a time when video customisation tools appear to be in high demand.

Belarusian 'World of Tanks' billionaire – Alexander Sazonov, writing for Bloomberg Business, unravels the success story of videogame creator Viktar Kisly, Wargaming Pcl CEO.

Sazonov explains that Wargaming Pcl has 150m global users, is valued at $1.5b and has given Kislyi a net worth of $1b, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

"The combination of creative brilliance and business acumen is what drives Wargaming’s success,” SuperData Research CEO Joost van Dreunen is quoted as saying.

Security and defence

Belarus strengthens defence links with ThailandIHS Jane's Defence Weekly reports that Thailand has strengthened defence links with Belarus to “diversify its defence suppliers.”

This followed, Grevatt suggests, Thailand's Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s visits to Minsk from 23rd-27th February, confirms the The National News Bureau of Thailand.

Lithuanian sentenced for spying for BelarusABC News comments on the sentencing of former Baltic military paramedic Andrey Osurkov “to three years in jail for spying for neighboring Belarus” by “passing information about Lithuania's military” for 5 years.

The article elaborates that prosecutors claimed “the information collected was likely intended for Moscow.”

Belarus modernises S-200 Polatsk surface-to-air missile siteBellingcat reports that Belarus has partially converted the site at Polatsk near NATO borders to support the advanced S-300 system, as revealed by DigitalGlobe satellite imagery.

Biggers suggests this is significant due to the location approximately 80km from the Latvian border, NATO’s current strengthening of “contingency planning” for the Baltics and talks of a Belarus-Russia Joint Regional Air Defence System.

Civil society and culture

Minsk "Europe's worst city to live in"Newsweek reveals that analytics firm Mercer, in its annual league table comparing quality of life indexes worldwide, has classified Minsk as “Europe’s worst city to live in”, the other lowest ranking cities being Kiev in 176th place and Tirana in 179th place.

Sharkov claims the factors taken into account to determine the ranking were “personal safety and health issues.”

Opposition activist Bialiatski claims Lukashenka "fooling EU"Georgi Gotev, writing for EurActiv, interviews Belarusian opposition activist Alieś Bialiacki, head of Viasna Human Rights Centre.

Bialiacki claims the lifting of sanctions in spite of the unchanged position of “human rights organisations” encourages feeling of “permissiveness” ahead of September parliamentary elections.

His “fear”, he claims, is “that pragmatism, economic and geopolitical considerations” could take priority, such as via proposed EU changes to the Eastern Partnership (EaP).

Belarus releases Tajik opposition activistRFE/RL comments on the release of Tajik opposition activist Shabnam Hudoidodova by the Belarusian state “after being held for more than eight months”, according to Vyasna (Spring) Human Rights Centre.

The article explains that she has been granted refugee status following EU officials’ urging not to extradite Hudoidodova to Tajikistan.

Belarusian authorities had detained Hudoidodova in June 2015 after Tajikistan filed an international warrant for her arrest.

Marta Kochetkova

Marta is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre