Tanks and Tractors: Belarus’ New Deals in the Developing World
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei headed to South Africa and Nigeria for a round of meetings.
After losing its partners in the Middle East and at the time when relations with Latin America are stagnating, Belarus is seeking new trade partners.
This year, Minsk opened four embassies – in Ecuador, Mongolia, Australia and Pakistan. Another one – in Qatar – is on the way. Belarus has also started to use financial incentives to promote its exports.
While it has no problem selling potash, its top export commodity, Belarus struggles to promote its machinery and defence equipment. Finding markets for these exports is key for keeping large state firms afloat and bringing in more foreign currency. It is precisely these vital economic needs and not Belarus' ideological or geopolitical dreams that drive its foreign policy.
Middle Eastern Setbacks
In the 2000s, Belarus had to alter several aspects of its policy towards the Middle East. In 2003, Minsk lost Iraq as a trading partner due to US invasion. Then, Belarus's economic ties with Libya, Syria and Egypt suffered due to the instability produced by the Arab Spring.
Belarus also had to limit contacts with Iran due to growing international pressure. In March of 2014, Lukashenka told Iranian politician Ali Larijani that, "due to external pressure, primarily on Iran (but also on Belarus) the trade volume between our nations has decreased. We started to lose some channels of cooperation.”
Belarus's current ties to Gulf monarchies have failed to compensate for the loss of its old partners in the Middle East.
In 2011, after visiting the Persian Gulf monarchies, Lukashenka predicted an emergence of a “Qatari Island in Europe,” a conglomerate of Gulf Arab investment projects for billions of dollars, in Brest region. The project, however, ended in the construction of a hunting estate in a Minsk forest.
The relations with Latin America have suffered a similar decline after Hugo Chavez's death in March 2013. The former president of Venezuela actively traded with Minsk in oil and gave Belarusian service providers a shot at modernising Venezuela (building trucks assembly plants, bringing gas into houses, exploring mineral deposits and even constructing national air defence system). At one point, bilateral trade between Venezuela and Belarus reached $1.5bn.
Chavez also included Belarus in his political and economic designs in the Latin America, and Minsk capitalised on these opportunities. Addressing Belarusian diplomats in August, Lukashenka extolled the cooperation with Venezuela and urged his subordinates to find “new Venezuelas” for cooperation.
In 2013, trade with Venezuela fell manyfold. It should be noted, however, that Belarusian exports, worth $83m, made up virtually all of the trade between the two countries.
Venezuelan Ambassador Américo Díaz Núñez argued that the change of government in his country was the main reason for the decline in the two nations' ties. It is likely that the cessation of oil deliveries explains most of the decrease in trade. Trade between Belarus and Venezuela is not expected to resume any time in the near future.
Under these circumstances, the government is reorienting its policies in the Third World towards developing relations with regional powers that were earlier neglected by Minsk, such as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan. It is also reviving links with former Soviet allies, including Mongolia, Bangladesh, and Mozambique. Summer contacts with Pakistan and Mozambique provide illustrative cases of Belarus' latest efforts.
In July, Belarusian media briefly noted that Pakistani Minister for Defence Production Rana Tanveer Hussain had attended the Exhibition of Arms and Military Machinery MILEX-2014, and met Foreign Minister Makei.
Pakistani media reported that Minister Hussain and two Pakistani generals had also met Yury Zhadobin, Minister of Defence, Siarhei Huruliou, Chairman of the State Military and Industrial Committee, and representatives of several defence industry-related firms.
The Pakistani government stated, “both sides agreed to develop a plan of action for establishing military & technical cooperation”. Minister Hussain was interested in electronic warfare technology, optical and optical-electronic devices, spare parts for tanks and armoured personnel carriers. He also discussed the possibility of establishing joint ventures, as well as service and maintenance centres.
Islamabad has for years worked with Kyiv on the modernisation of Pakistani mechanised armour. Now, looking at the hopeless situation in Ukraine, it is trying to secure the necessary parts and expertise for the post-Soviet equipment and arms of Pakistani army from Belarus.
Belarus-Pakistani talks are particularly remarkable because, as recently as February, a delegation of the State Military and Industrial Committee of Belarus visited India. They attended an arms exhibition and participated in a meeting of the Belarusian-Indian Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation.
The parties discussed, inter alia, the modernisation of Indian army's armoured vehicles and air defences, the establishment of a service centre for military optical goods, technology transfers involving optical, optical-electronic and laser devices, and cooperation on manufacturing drones.
… and Tractors
In its relations with the developing world, the Belarusian government is also promoting Belarusian machine-building products. In July, the Prime Minister of Mozambique Alberto Vaquina visited Minsk. So far, relations with Mozambique are rather limited – bilateral trade in 2013 totaled only $9.1m, a figure that includes Belarusian exports valued at $8.7m.
When speaking about possible areas of cooperation, Vaquina emphasised agriculture and agricultural equipment. He spoke about increasing Belarusian tractor exports and creating assembly production facilities in Mozambique.
Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka offered Mozambicans cooperation "of the Venezuelan variety" that would include the establishment of assembly plants. "We mean to construct the assembly lines not only to meet the needs of Mozambique, but also to establish a platform for future sales to other countries in South and Central Africa.”
Minsk is very eager to have its MTZs sold in Africa and Prime Minister Myasnikovich has offered his Mozambican counterpart new financial instruments to promote the economic and trade cooperation. Belarus also intends to provide scholarships to Mozambican students – a new step towards promoting better relations with developing countries.
Will Belaruskali Start a Gas Business?
Needless to say, Belarusian policy in the developing world has many weaknesses. Its unstable relations with these countries partly result from the larger international developments unrelated to Belarus. But the problem also lies in the lack of marketing and trade promotion skills among Belarusian producers and in the inability of Belarusian officials to work in a more challenging environment.
It all begins with the basics. Belarusian government and business have for years discussed the problem of the English language skills. Nevertheless, Lukashenka, speaking at a recent seminar of Belarusian diplomats exclaimed again, “Should we finally introduce a list of offices staffed only by people who can speak to foreign customers without a dictionary?!”
Untrained Belarusian officials have been known to undermine Belarus' trade prospects in the past. For example, ambassador to France Pavel Latushka derided the quality of Belarusian goods in an interview. Belarusian officials also show remarkable ignorance about industry-related matters. For example, the vice chairman of the Belarusian Chamber of Trade proposed to use Belaruskali, the national potash company, for extracting natural gas together with Mozambique. He was clearly unaware of the differnece between the technologies used for potash and gas extraction.
As Belarus strives to become a viable state, it can profit from links to the developing world. In recent years Belarusian approach to international trade has become more balanced and detached from any loud political rhetoric. There are no reasons to demonise Minsk's contacts with developing countries, even those that stand in opposition to the US.
Russia Reviews Military Doctrine: Can Belarus Remain a Buffer State?
On 2 September, Russia vowed to revise and update its national Military Doctrine by the end of 2014. The decision was a direct reaction to NATO’s plans for deploying a rapid-reaction force in Eastern Europe, a move to be finalised at the summit in Wales this week.
In a speech in Tallinn on 3 September U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans for additional U.S. Air Force units to be based in Estonia.
NATO's increased presence in Eastern Europe may inject new energy into Russia-Belarus military cooperation. Pivotal for defending Russia's western borders in the event of conflict, Belarus could soon turn from a buffer state into the Russian military's most forward post.
For nearly two decades, Belarus has successfully balanced Russian interests against the West's. While closer military cooperation could strengthen Minsk’s bargaining position with Moscow in the short run, it could eventually undermine Belarus’ multi-vector balancing strategy and restrict its freedom to act alone.
Friends and Foes According to Russian Military Doctrine
The revisions to the Russian doctrine would reflect “changing military dangers and military threats,” according to Mikhail Popov, senior official at Russia’s Security Council. In a recent interview with the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, Popov called NATO’s expansion “one of the leading military dangers for the Russian Federation.” Indeed, all of Russia’s military doctrines – passed in 1993, 2000, and 2010 – recognised NATO as a threat.
Yet the priority accorded to NATO as an enemy has increased over time. While the 1993 and the 2000 doctrines mentioned “the expansion of military blocs and alliances to the detriment of the interests of Russian Federation” among external dangers, they did not name NATO explicitly.
In contrast, the 2010 document moved the threat of NATO to the top of the list of external threats. It explicitly mentioned NATO’s goal “to arrogate to itself the assumption of global functions in violation of international law, and to expand the military infrastructure of NATO nations to Russia’s borders including through expansion of the bloc.”
The 2014 revisions could also amplify the importance of the Russia-Belarus military alliance. This indeed has happened with each subsequent edition of the Russian doctrine. The 1993 doctrine did not contain any references to Belarus or other CIS states. The 2000 document briefly acknowledged that countries in the region implement a common defence policy.
The 2010 doctrine, on the other hand, contains an explicit commitment to respond to an armed attack against the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
It lists the development of the armed forces and the maintenance of the defence capabilities of the Union State as top priorities for Moscow.
It also contains an additional clause regarding military cooperation within CSTO, which applies to Belarus and the four other CSTO members (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
Were NATO to increase its presence in the Eastern European states along Belarus’ border, Belarus’ role in Russia’s military planning would quickly grow in importance.
Belarus’ Role in Russia’s Security
To date, Belarus has fulfilled primarily a symbolic role in Russia’s security. Its armed forces have remained small and military capabilities limited. Belarus’s defence budget (about $ 745 million) is more than 100 times less than Russia’s. In 2013, Belarus proved incapable of protecting the union-state airspace as it failed to register an amateur plane entering Belarus from Lithuania to distribute 800 teddy bears with human rights messages.
The military alliance may gain ground in its actual substance, however, as Russia-NATO tensions intensify. Russia may need Belarus to defend its Western borders. Belarusian territory is particularly useful for stationing Russian military posts and missile divisions, including the S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems.
Russia has mulled the idea of establishing its first military airbase in Belarus. It would be located at Lida, close to the Lithuanian (35 km) and Polish (130 km) borders. So far, the terms of the base agreement remain up in the air. But the ongoing crisis in Ukraine could hasten the process of securing the base on Belarus' border with the EU. If so, Belarus could extract concessions in return for Russia's right to maintain a base on its territory.
An airbase in Lida would be Russia’s third military installation in Belarus. Moscow already operates an early-warning radar system near Baranavichy and a radio-electronic centre near Vileyka, which can be used for communications spying against NATO.
Russia’s Role in Belarus’ Military Planning
Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Belarus has published only two military doctrines. The 1992 doctrine, passed under the leadership of Stanislau Shushkevich, emphasised the nation's neutrality and envisioned the creation of a "nuclear-free belt" from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Neutrality was absent from the 2002 doctrine, which prioritised the formation of “a single defence space with the Russian Federation.” Among the threats mentioned in the doctrine is the “enlargement of military blocs and alliances at the expense of military security of the Republic of Belarus and the counteraction of collective security systems pertaining to the Republic of Belarus.” This exact threat is also mentioned in the corresponding Russian doctrine.
Russia and Belarus have concluded over 30 binding cooperation agreements in the military-technical field, including the Treaty on Military Cooperation, the Agreement on Joint Efforts to Provide Security in the Battlefield, the Concept of Belarus-Russia Joint Defence Policies, the Concept of Security of the Belarus-Russia Union, and the Military Doctrine of the Union State.
Unsurprisingly, Belarus’ perception of security threats in the region has increasingly reflected those of Russia.
The End of the Buffer State?
Lukashenka has succeeded in extracting significant economic benefits by arguing that Russia’s military security depends on Minsk’s economic wellbeing. Even as the President has been careful not to side with Russia as the conflict in Ukraine has unfolded, he has continued to emphasise that, as Russia’s military ally, Belarus would have to react to an increase in NATO’s military capabilities on its borders.
On 3 September, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin twitted a veiled threat, "The Government of Ukraine approved the abolition of the country's non-block status. NATO is now screwed [Rus. 'Hana teper' NATO']."
Should Russia-NATO tensions continue to escalate, Belarus' buffer zone status would erode and its territory would be at Russia’s disposal.
The old, long-standing rumours that Russia may deploy Iskander missiles in Belarus could become reality if NATO establishes a greater presence on Russian borders following the summit in Wales on 3-4 September.
If the need should arise, Russia could also take direct control over components of Belarus' national defence system, as it has always sought to do.
Even if the Russia-NATO tensions are defused, Belarus’ dependence on the Russian economy and its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union leave it exposed to Western sanctions.