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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: mil.ru

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere to hide

Image: mil.ru

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

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

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

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

Fog of verbal war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belarus Policy

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

Analytics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments in the media

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

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

Pubic discussions on Asmaloŭka area. Photo: euroradio.fm

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

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

Belarus Profile

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

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

Belarus Policy

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

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

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




War games, integration of integrations, EBRD investments – Belarus state press digest

Alexander Lukashenka states that the West 2017 drills proved successful and that attempts to discredit them were extremely unprofessional. According to the Belarusian MFA, a block mentality must become a thing of the past; the country refuses to make a choice between East and West.

Belarus is about to become the largest potash producer in the world. The government is in the final stages of preparing laws aimed at developing entrepreneurship. The EBRD claims it has reached a ‘strategic level of cooperation’ with Belarus and is considering new investment projects.

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

Politics and security

On 20 September the joint Belarusian-Russian strategic exercises West-2017 came to an end. Alexander Lukashenka was personally in charge of the final stages of the event and later answered journalists’ questions, published by Belarus Segodnia. According to him, the exercises have achieved the goals they set out. Both the armed forces and the territorial defence system of the country were improved.

Responding to the fact that the presidents of Belarus and Russia observed the manoeuvrers separately, Lukashenka replied: ‘Well, if the shell hits one place, both of us will be gone at once … We agreed that since the main phase was to take place here, while very large exercises were also held in the Leningrad Region, the President of Russia will monitor the drills in the north, and me in the centre.’

As for speculations that Russian troops would stay in Belarus after the exercise ends, Lukashenka promised he would gladly comment on this after all the troops return to their places of permanent deployment. Yet it is already clear that this attempt to discredit the exercises was extremely unprofessional.

Lukashenka at the final stage of West 2017. Photo: sb.by

Belarus calls for a union from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Narodnaja Hazieta quotes a speech by Belarusian deputy foreign minister Alieh Kraŭčanka at the Minsk Dialogue conference dedicated to the future of the Eastern Partnership. The fact that Belarus maintains a strategic alliance with Russia does not mean that it is avoiding developing relations with the European Union and the United States. This block mentality must become a thing of the past; the country refuses to choose between East and West.

The EU and the EEA should begin technical dialogue aimed at harmonising standards and solving existing problems. After a summit in Brussels in November, Belarus expects a more pragmatic Eastern Partnership, by which it means better access to European markets, simplification of customs relations, and further development of infrastructure facilities.

The Second European Games will give a ‘powerful ideological impulse to Belarusian society’. The largest sports event in the history of Belarus will take place on 21-30 June 2019, reports Narodnaja Hazieta. Preparations for the event include significant development of sports infrastructure: development of Dynamo stadium, which will turn into a multifunctional complex, a new building for the Republican Scientific and Practical Sports Centre, the Centre of Gymnastics and a multi-field game gym, and a new 25-level dormitory in the Student Village.

Despite Belarus’s experience of hosting other international competitions, the organisers of the Games are expecting it to be a serious challenge. Belarus has seen no event of this scale: about 11,000 participants will come to the forum. As president Lukashenka pointed out, ‘The European Games should give a powerful ideological impulse to our society, consolidating the nation even more … We must bring the nation, the country, and the state to the highest stage of development, and the Games should do a lot achieve this.’

Economy

The government is in the final stages of preparing laws aimed at developing entrepreneurship among citizens. The government will submit a total of 10 documents for the President’s consideration by 1 October, reports Belarus Segodnia. These documents seek to promote self-employment and improve living conditions in small and medium-sized settlements.

Alexander Lukashenka recently met with the country’s ministers to discuss the first three laws; he generally approved them.  These laws would go far to facilitate the process of opening and managing businesses. In particular, they would expand the list of businesses that citizens can open without registration, paying only a single tax.

Belarus will soon become the largest potash producer in the world. Currently, the state-owned potash company Belaruskali is working on the construction of two mining and processing plants, called Petrykaŭ and Liubań, along with the currently operating Starobin plant. The company estimates the volume of potash at the Petrykaŭ deposit to be 2.2 billion tonnes, writes Respublika. This will be enough for production of 1.5 million tonnes yearly for about 90 years. After the commission of the new ore-dressing plants, Belarus will become the largest potash producer in the world.

According to Ivan Halavaty, following the break with the Russian company Uralkali in 2013, Belaruskali and the Belarusian Potash Company gained prestige among buyers and producers worldwide. ‘They are self-sufficient companies that can carry out their activities independently. Therefore, I do not consider a new alliance with the Russian company necessary’, he said.

Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Suma Chakrabarti. Photo: sb.by

EBRD has reached a ‘strategic level of cooperation’ with Belarus. Aliaksandr Lukashenka met with the President of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, Suma Chakrabarti, to discuss the EBRD strategy for Belarus for 2016-2019. It includes expansion of operations in the public sector and assistance in the implementation of infrastructure projects. The EBRD could participate in the organisation of the southern transport corridor in Belarus.

The Bank already has experience in supporting road construction projects, one of which is the modernisation of the Hrodna-Minsk highway. Now, the Belarusian government is discussing the construction of a wider highway in the south of the country to attract commodity flows from China, Central Asia, and Russia. In the near future, the bank plans to invest up to €200m in Belarus and, in particular, to become a shareholder in Belinvestbank.

Social

Police advocates restriction of alcohol sale hours. The Ministry of Internal Affairs wants to ban the sale of alcohol at night not (in stores only), but also at gas stations, writes Sielskaja Hazieta. Alieh Karasej, Head of the Department of Prevention of the Ministry, recently revealed sad statistical findings: 80% percent of murders and incidences of grievous bodily harm are committed in a state of intoxication. Family members and relatives of alcoholics are the primary victims. However, compared to figures from ten years ago, the situation today has improved somewhat. Previously, 300 relatives of alcohol abusers perished annually, while today the number stands at about one hundred.

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.




Viejšnoryja: the Belarusian Defence Ministry plays with fire

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

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

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

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

High-calibre trolling

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of Viejšnoryja

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

A ‘Viejšnorian card’. Source: вейшнорыя.бел

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous jokes

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

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

Map of the West-2017 exercises.

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

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

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

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




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.




Why is the West afraid of the West-2017 exercises?

On 21 July 2017, Alexander Lukashenka visited Kyiv and met with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. After the meeting, Poroshenko stated that he had received guarantees of security and that Ukraine would never be threatened from Belarusian territory.

However, the very same day, Ukrainian Minister of Defence Stepan Poltorak voiced a different view: ‘Ukraine and the world have a common vision of the possible prospects of the exercises of the Russian Armed Forces. The forthcoming West-2017 exercises  are extremely large; they can be used to launch an aggression not only against Ukraine, but against any other country in Europe that shares a common border with Russia.’

Ukraine sounds the alarm

Poltorak was not the only one to voice his concerns: on 7 July 2017, the Chief of General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Viktor Muzhenko, also spoke about the possibility of Russian troops remaining in Belarus after the exercises were over. He underlined the high probability of Russia leaving behind hidden stores of weapons, military equipment, and material and technical means in Belarus.

Muzhenko also stressed that the West-2017 exercises pose a threat to Ukraine and NATO: ‘According to our information, the number of Russian troops to participate in the exercises has now been increased from the declared 3,000 to 5,000 people. This can be regarded as a measure to build up Russia’s combat potential on the borders of our state, as well as on the borders of Poland and the Baltic states.’ However, given that no reliable sources were provided to back up these claims, they could very well be provocation against Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko. Source: euroradio.fm

Ukraine’s position as a first-line whistle-blower in relation to the Belarusian-Russian exercises is mainly promoted by the Ukrainian military establishment. Their statements are immediately broadcast by Ukrainian and foreign media, which strengthens the image of Belarus as an object or at least a base for Russian military aggression. In this context, Belarus is not seen as an independent actor on the international arena.

These alarmist statements from Ukrainian military leaders can be explained by the fact that the country is undergoing military reforms to bring it up to NATO standards; these reforms include a radical decrease in the number of command staff (especially generals). Thus, Ukrainian generals may be employing tough rhetoric regarding West-2017 in order to create the image of a serious threat, thereby making themselves seem less dispensable.

A Trojan horse

At the same time, certain NATO states have been expressing fears about West-2017 since the beginning of the year. On 14 March 2017, Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz stated: ‘we should be ready for Russian troops possibly staying on the territory of Belarus after the forthcoming West-2017 exercises.’ Earlier, on 29 April 2017, Estonian Minister of Defence Margus Tsahkna stated that Russia could take advantage of the large-scale military exercises to deploy thousands of soldiers in Belarus as a warning to NATO. He added that he had got his information from Estonian intelligence.

Ben Hodges. Source: republic.com.ua

On 21 July 2017, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe, called West-2017 a ‘Trojan horse’. He added that although Russia speaks of ‘exercises’, nevertheless its forces could end up staying.

Belarus’s only neighbour (apart from Russia, of course) which appears unfazed by the exercises is Latvia. On 19 July 2017, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, following a meeting with Uladzimir Makiej in Minsk, stated: ‘We have no more questions about the West-2017 exercises. My Belarusian colleague explained the position of Belarus very thoroughly, and I’m satisfied.’

Dangerous misunderstandings

The main problem with the West-2017 exercises is that they are being held at the exact same time as the Russian large-scale exercise ‘West’. These are two different events, but they have almost the same name and are being held at the same time. Thus, the joint exercises in Belarus are perceived to be part of a larger Russian event. The Ukrainian, Western, and especially Russian media often fail to differentiate between the two exercises.

Notably, this coincidence is reflected in the position of Belarusian Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ, who once stated that West-2017 would cover a territory from the Barents Sea to Brest. By making such statements, as well as by categorically refusing to comment on the possibility of Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercises, the Belarusian Defence Ministry only provides fodder for speculation.

Misunderstandings abound: media coverage of the exercises makes it seem like Russia really is holding a large-scale exercise with an offensive agenda in Belarus. However, this is far from reality. The ultimate goal of this information wave is to undermine Belarus’s image and harm its relations with the West and Ukraine. So far, it seems like this endeavour has met with some success.

Lukashenka with a Kalashnikov rifle. Source: solnzepodobny.livejournal.com

A strong need for transparency

Russia certainly benefits from being perceived as a threat. Moreover, it is the only regional actor interested in the deterioration of relations between Belarus and the West: it wants to demonstrate its exclusive influence in Belarus and diminish Belarus’s role on the international arena, showing to be part of the Russian military system. This attitude often encourages the government in Minsk to be relatively complaisant in negotiations concerning political, economic, and military issues; it also pushes it to further integrate with Russia.

If Belarus wants to be perceived as a more or less ‘neutral’ state, it should make West-2017 as transparent as possible. Maximum media coverage with complete explanations would go a long way. Likewise, inviting foreign observers to all stages of the exercises would be the bare minimum needed to assuage sceptics.

Naturally, Russia would not welcome such measures and would surely grumble in retaliation. Alexander Lukashenka has spoken repeatedly about his willingness to provide the best conditions for foreign observers and guarantee the full transparency of the exercises. It is crucial that he stick to this word: at the moment, the image of the Belarusian state depends to a large degree on his success in fulfilling this task.




Belarus and Ukraine cooperate in the face of Russian pressure

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka travelled to Kyiv on an official visit on 20-21 July. Both Belarus and Ukraine, for different reasons, are seeking to reinvigorate direct dialogue between their leaders, which they resumed three months ago in the Chernobyl zone.

The ‘age-old friendship’ (in Lukashenka’s terms) between Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko may appear paradoxical: the former is authoritarian and pro-Russian while the latter is democratically minded and pro-European.

Ukraine is resisting Russian aggression while Belarus remains Moscow’s closest military and political ally. It seems that simplistic political clichés do not capture the two nations’ complex relationship.

A means to boost trade

Lukashenka attended Poroshenko’s inauguration in June 2014 and returned again to Kyiv in December of the same year on a brief working visit. However, a lengthy hiatus of highest-level encounters followed. An attempt to arrange a meeting between the two leaders before the end of 2016 fell through, probably because of the Ukrainian elites’ displeasure at the Belarusian move against the Ukrainian resolution at the United Nations.

The two presidents finally met on 26 April 2017, at the site of the Chernobyl NPP in Ukraine, and continued their talks at the village of Liaskavichy in Belarus. Lukashenka’s top priority was to boost business ties; Poroshenko’s greatest need was assurance of Belarus’s continued neutrality regarding Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.

Despite a twofold drop in bilateral trade turnover in recent years, Ukraine remains Belarus’s second-largest trading partner, and Belarus is Ukraine’s fourth-largest. What’s more, the growth in trade resumed in 2016 (+10.5%, up to $3.8m) and accelerated in January-May 2017 (+26.7%).

Managers of about 90 Belarusian and over 380 Ukrainian companies attended a Belarusian-Ukrainian business forum held on the sidelines of Lukashenka’s recent visit. They signed contracts amounting to $68m to supply petrochemical products, fertilisers, trucks, harvesters, tyres, lifts, and other goods to Ukraine.

The two leaders agreed to intensify Belarusian-Ukrainian inter-regional ties – in particular by holding annual inter-regional forums. The first such event will soon take place in the Belarusian city of Homiel. The Belarusian government wants to adapt its trade relations with Ukraine to the latter’s decentralisation policies. The Ukrainian regions now have more power and money: thus, direct contacts may prove to be more efficient.

Venturing into foreign markets together

Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union will pose new challenges to bilateral trade with Belarus as Kyiv starts reorienting towards the European market. At the same time, this situation offers new opportunities for Minsk to promote its products in Europe through their higher localisation in Ukraine. The latter is also interested in exporting more to Belarus and its EAEU partners, especially in the context of reciprocal sanction regimes with Russia.

In Kyiv, the Belarusian leader spoke about ‘thousands of goods’ that Belarus and Ukraine could jointly produce and sell. ‘We want to work together in the Distant Arc, in other countries… We will create high-tech goods and we will sell them together in foreign markets’, Lukashenka stated.

His Ukrainian host was slightly more specific. ‘It is important that there is now a mutual interest in the creation of new joint ventures. By this I mean aircraft engineering, transport, and agricultural machine building’, Poroshenko said.

According to Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka, Belarus now has seven knockdown assembly plants in Ukraine, and Ukraine has six such enterprises in Belarus. Belarus’s strategy is to combine Belarusian preferential loans with Ukrainian subsidies to farmers and to increase localisation of goods in order to boost sales in Ukraine and third countries.

Energy projects: Moscow will not be happy

Importantly, Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed cooperation in the energy sector, calling it an extremely promising avenue. Ukraine wants to supply more electrical energy to Belarus. However, they still disagree over the exact terms of the contract.

Poroshenko also announced that the two leaders ‘agreed to consider the possibility of expanding supplies of energy resources [to Belarus], especially crude oil, using the unique transit potential of Ukraine’.

Thus, on 23 May in Minsk, Gomeltransneft Druzhba (Belarus) and Ukrtransnafta (Ukraine) signed an agreement on the use of the oil pipeline Mazyr-Brody. The pipeline would allow the transport of Azerbaijani and Iranian oil from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to Belarusian refineries.

Currently, about 60% of Ukraine’s total import of petrol and 40% of its diesel fuel comes from Belarus. They are both made from refined Russian oil. Ukraine hopes to get an even better deal and increase the purchase volume by supplying crude oil for refining.

For Belarus, securing alternative oil sources would mean mitigating its energy dependence on Russia. However, this would require strong political will and significant investments; such a scheme may not be economically viable given the advantageous oil prices Moscow still offers Minsk.

Lukashenka’s assurances according to Poroshenko

In Kyiv, Alexander Lukashenka carefully avoided making any statement which could be interpreted as him taking sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. He spoke about Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians as a ‘civilisational core in this part of the European continent’.

The Belarusian leader stressed repeatedly that he would go no further in his peace-making efforts than Putin and Poroshenko asked. He also announced an increase in humanitarian assistance to the Donbass region.

In the presence of Lukashenka, Poroshenko told the press about his counterpart’s assurances that ‘the territory of Belarus, friendly to Ukraine, will never be used for aggressive actions against Ukraine, and the Ukrainian-Belarusian border will never become a border of war’.

The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society remain extremely worried that Russia could use the upcoming military exercise West-2017, involving the Russian and Belarusian armies, to launch an offensive against Ukraine. The exercise will be held in Belarus on 14-20 September.

Poroshenko had already spoken of Lukashenka’s assurances in similar terms at their April meeting. However, the promises of the Belarusian leader apparently failed to convince certain factions in the Ukrainian government. Following Lukashenka’s visit, Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak refused to rule out the possibility of ‘provocations from Russia under a false pretext’ in the context of West-2017.

The meeting in Kyiv demonstrated that Lukashenka and Poroshenko have developed a close personal rapport. The two countries’ governments share an interest in stronger economic ties; they also have a fairly good understanding of how to build them. Belarus will never willingly endanger Ukraine’s security. Ukraine understands that it cannot realistically expect more than Belarus’s neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

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




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.




Belarusian army aims to protect Russian airspace, not to atack other countries

Belarus’s neighbours regularly voice their concerns about Minsk’s role in a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Ukraine. However, on 15 June, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka insisted that although Belarusian and Russian troops were operating in the region ‘as one,’ they had no aggressive intentions.

Just a cursory glance at the Belarusian army raises doubts about its ability to engage in any large offensive operations. To make up for its diminishing national army capacities, the Belarusian government went as far as to bring the emergency ministry’s aviation to the 3 July Independence Day parade, along with equipment from the DOSAAF, a paramilitary sport association. In addition, the government invited a large number of Russian military aircraft and helicopters to airshows in Minsk and Mashulishchy, a town nearby.

Many types of equipment operated by the Belarusian army have become old and are being decommissioned without corresponding replacements. The army’s offensive capacities are especially affected by this deterioration. The government takes proper care of only two elements of the military: air defence and special operations forces.

Belarusian demilitarisation

The reality of the Belarusian military’s decline is becoming too evident for even government officials to deny. Writing on 12 May in the official army daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, Aleh Voinau, head of international military cooperation department, and his deputy Valery Ravenka, complained that:

There is a gradual decline going on with regard to quantitative indicators of weapons and military equipment [deployed by the Belarusian army]. Alas, this is not true of the states of the so called ‘good-neighborhood belt’, which are carrying out large-scale modernisation and build-up of weapons and military equipment.

To make their point, they cited the figures of the Belarusian army’s troops and equipment for 2016 and 2017. The decline of military might, however, becomes more clear after one compares the numbers from recent years with even the early 2010s, as shows the table below:

Although official figures may be inaccurate, they more probably exaggerate the amount of equipment rather than the other way around. Besides, no cover-ups have been exposed so far, despite numerous inspection, visits, and survey flights of the Belarusian army by foreign military experts. In 2016 there were 28 such events. Russian aviation spotters also recently conducted an analysis of the Belarusian army’s attack helicopter fleet and drew similar conclusions about its dramatic decline.

Last but not least, the figures in the above table represent the army’s total number of weapons, including those kept in reserve, which may be effectively deficient. Belarusian defence minister Andrey Raukou revealed more realistic data regarding equipment in active service in a presentation for the national parliament on 4 April 2016 (see Table 2 below).

A purely defensive force?

The capacities of the Belarusian army have diminished in all regards. However, this has most affected its capacities for offensive operations. A brief overview of some basic components of offensive might, such as firepower and troop mobility capacities, shows that Minsk places virtually no value on these aspects of its military.

Belarus lacks the modern firepower necessary for any large military operation. Thus, in 2012 Minsk decommissioned its last Su-24 bombers, and its military officials openly deliberated possibly decommissioning the few remaining Su-25 close air support aircraft. Although they ostensibly meant for Yak-130 trainer jets to replace the Su-25s, thanks to the absence of independent media in the country such absurd statements went unchallenged.

As follows from the table above, Minsk also has few attack helicopters, which constitute another possible source of firepower on the battlefield. Moreover, it has no plans to replace them. On 22 May, a source from the Russian helicopter-manufacturing Vertolety Rossii Holding told TASS news agency that it had no contracts concluded with Minsk on attack helicopters.

Another crucial premise for offensive operations – troop mobility capacities – is victim to similar circumstances. Thus, Belarus has just two Il-76 operational transport aircraft. As a result, Russia had to send six of its own Il-76s to conduct the latest Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise including an airborne operation in Brest Province in Belarus.

Similar trends are visible with smaller equipment, which is also important for offensive operations. The media have reported stories from recent paratrooper exercises in Belarus which demonstrate this. When in early April Russian paratroopers came to Vitsebsk Province to participate in a joint exercise with their Belarusian counterparts, the Russians had to remember how to use old D-6 parachutes. The Russian army had long replaced them with newer systems such as D-10 and T-10V as early as in 2007. Meanwhile, in Belarus only older systems are available, so the Russian troops had to make do.

Thus, in anticipation of the next paratroopers exercise in early June, which were to be held with Belarusians and Serbs in Brest Province, Russians brought their own new D-10 parachutes, while the Belarusian and Serbian troops used older Soviet models.

Why is it so?

To put it briefly, Minsk has no money even for parachutes. This stinginess is logical: it does not crave the capacity to sent its paratroopers to seize NATO capitals. Official data about the structure of the Belarusian army shows that it has other priorities. The situation as of 2016 is presented in table 3, although the structure of the Belarusian army has remained almost unchanged for more than a decade, ever since Minsk shifted to a brigade-based structure for its national armed forces.

 

Minsk puts emphasis on two military components: air defence (with its air force ever more directed towards the needs of air defence and mobility of counterinsurgency forces rather than providing support to ground troop offensives) and special operations forces. This is a logical decision.

First, Belarus fosters air defence in order to sell its air space protection services to Russia. In exchange for this intangible and invaluable service, Minsk demands everything else – and above all economic benefits.

Secondly, the Belarusian leadership fears the security risks of Donbas-like scenarios of local insurgencies of whatever political colour or orientation, and it prepares for such emergencies. Top Belarusian officials regularly refer to Ukrainian problems. For example, Defence minister Andrei Raukou recently explained the reshuffling of the country’s national massive mobilisation system by citing ‘Ukraine’s experience’ of problems in mobilising the population for war in Eastern Ukraine.

The only two things which interest Minsk

All of Belarus’s military needs yield to two priorities: air defence and preparation for counterinsurgency operations. Thus, Minsk has invested serious money in designing the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system: it is a cheap way of providing fire support for counterinsurgency operations.

In sum, the Belarusian army itself has few resources for modern large-scale offensive operations, such as those conducted by the Russian army in 2008 in Georgia. It can hardly engage in such offensives even in tandem with the Russian army. Belarus keeps its military autonomy at a high level: it hosts neither Russian combat units, nor Russian forwards supply depots.

That is, even if Russia wants merely to send its own forces through Belarusian territory and fight relying only on its own troops, it has so far prepared nothing for that. Even more difficult for the Kremlin would be to integrate the Belarusian army, even as an auxiliary force to conduct a joint offensive operation.




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

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

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

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

Belarus as part of ‘Greater Russia’

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

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

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

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

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

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

She added:

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

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

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

Leaving the door open for Minsk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

Agenda of the 2017 Ostrogorski Forum:

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

Speakers:

Valier Karbalievič, Analytical centre 'Strategy'

Andrej Liachovič, Centre for Political Analysis

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

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

Speakers:

Aliaksandr Špakoŭski, "Cytadel" project

Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (tbc)

Aliaksandr Hielahajeŭ, independent military analyst

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

Speakers:

Vadzim Mažejka, Liberal Club

Andrej Dyńko, Naša Niva newspaper

Piotra Piatroŭski, Nomos Centre

#Ostrogorski Forum




Belarusian-Russian visa, oil industry failure, new national idea – Belarus state press digest

On 2 June, at a governmental meeting on oil industry problems, Alexander Lukashenka blamed managers and the government for lacking an adequate development strategy for the industry. The Belarusian oil industry showed negative results in 2016.

Belarus and Russia decided against the idea of a unified visa in favour of mutual visa recognition. Belarus should fear the informational war between Russia and the West, not a hypothetical occupation during the West 2017 military drills.

According to former foreign minister Piotr Kraŭčanka, the national idea of Belarus should include shared values and identity, historical memory, language, consensus on domestic and foreign policy, and a market economy.

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

Foreign policy and security

Deputy State Secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia Alexei Kubrin reveals single visa plans. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs decided to shift from a common document to mutual visa recognition. Thus, a person who receives a Belarusian visa will be able to travel to Russia with the same document. The first draft of the bilateral agreement has already been prepared, writes Soyuznoe Veche.

The sides decided to abandon the idea of a ‘Union's Schengen’ because a single visa works better only when many countries are involved. Belarus and Russia deciding to introduce a single visa would be a bureaucratic nightmare for migration and border services. Moscow and Minsk now recognise that they both provide migration security at the necessary level.

Russia will not occupy Belarus during West 2017 military drills. The head of the official Union of Journalists of Belarus Anatoĺ Liemiašonak criticises an article by Ukrainian military expert Alexei Arestovich's, in which he argues that by 2020, Russia will occupy Belarus and launch a second offensive on Ukraine. Russia and Belarus remain close allies, and military exercises such as West 2017, scheduled for September, take place regularly. Moreover, they always involve foreign observers, writes Respublica.

Belarusian leadership has repeatedly stressed that the Russian military contingent will not remain on the territory of Belarus after the drills are over. The author also points out that the EU itself can be considered occupied, as a large number of US bases and military contingents are located on its territory. Instead, Russia and Belarus need to prepare for informational warfare, as the presidential elections in Russia are approaching and Putin's enemies will do their best to end his political career. This will also threaten Belarus, the author argues.

Economy

Aliaksandr Lukashenka acknowledges the failure of the Belarusian oil industry in 2016. Last year saw a negative trend in foreign trade in oil products. The government has invested a large amount of money in oil refinery modernisation, but without any result. Undoubtedly, global affairs played an important role, as oil prices fell two and a half times. Nevertheless, managers working in the sector failed to determine a development strategy for the industry. The government also failed to develop a clear course of action, reports Zviazda.

This question concerns the independence of Belarus, Lukashenka asserted. The country must do everything to ensure its energy independence and security, but the contribution of oil refinement to the economy of Belarus, unfortunately, is declining. For example, the contribution of the two refineries is now equal to that of the national telecommunications company Beltelecom. 'Once again, I want to stress that we have failed many modernisation projects. I will not allow the President's decisions to be devaluated and neglected', the Belarusian leader said.

Belarusian industry cannot rely on foreign investments. Belarus Segodnia writes that in 2002-2016, Belarus received $76bn of foreign direct investment. More than half of it ($40bn) came from Russia, $16bn from the UK, $6bn from the US, and $4bn from Switzerland and Cyprus. However, much of the money that came through Cyprus was most likely Russian. Real western capital comes to Belarus very rarely. Even less of these funds reach the real sector of the economy, as they mostly invest in trade and services. Industry is modernised either by state funding or foreign loans.

The current plans for MAZ modernisation will hardly see any foreign financing either. Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška said that the government plans to invest about $500m in the development of the plant and is looking for sources of money. The article concludes that the proper work of national industry remains a purely domestic concern, and can be supported only by Belarusian taxpayers.

Social

Belarus needs a new national idea. Foreign Minister of Belarus from 1990 to 1994 dr. Piotr Kraŭčanka offered his vision for a national idea on the pages of Belarus Segodnia. According to him, the nation should be built on shared values and identity, market economy, historical memory, language, and consensus on domestic and foreign policy. He also brought up the possibility of introducing private land ownership.

Meanwhile, the revival of the Belarusian language remains crucially important for the formation of the nation. It should be equal to the Russian language in state policies not only formally, but in practise, he argues. Belarusians need to come to a national consensus regarding foreign policy and external economic orientation with the West and East. Kraŭčanka also suggested recognising and honouring national activists of the past, including those of the Belarusian People's Republic, whom the current Belarusian government neglects.

The government gradually eliminates unemployment. The level of registered unemployment today is 0.9%; a year ago the figure was 1.2%, reports Belarus Segodnia. The authorities achieved more than last year's goal of 50,000 new jobs, but this year's goal of 70,000 seems more challenging. However, the government may yet meet the targeted figure, as it created 15,742 jobs in the first quarter of 2017, while the plan required 15,000. The figures for each region vary, but the only region that failed to fulfil the plan was Minsk Region. Local officials explain that some new companies registered in the region have not yet managed to create production and employ staff. The other reason lies in the companies' migration to the capital.

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 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.