Will an Economic Downturn Cause Unrest Ahead of Elections?
On 2 July Belarus witnessed a rather unusual show – 200 Chinese workers marched dozens of kilometres towards the city of Homiel in protest against wage arrears and poor working conditions. These foreign workers are currently employed by the Chinese company Siuan Yuan which is building a paper factory.
A similar protest organised by Belarusians is almost unthinkable in modern Belarus. The government controls every employee through a contract system and dissidents who raise their voices may lose their jobs instantaneously, while independent trade unions have almost disappeared under Lukashenka's rule.
However, the situation may be changing as Belarus experiences its deepest industrial crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Production is constantly falling and enterprises are having to make personnel cuts.
While previously the government restricted layoffs to prevent social unrest, currently they are using a hands-off approach. Ahead of the presidential election the authorities will try to keep the situation calm, but afterwards Belarus may face a period of painful restructuring and social tension.
Chinese Protest March – A Sight Unseen in Belarus
On 2 July a column of Chinese workers of around 200 people employed at a Chinese-owned construction company in Dobruš town left their workplace and marched 33 kilometres towards Homiel, accompanied by emergency services and special police units. The Belarusian police, well-trained to prevent massive political protests, stood by with rather confused looks on their faces, having no idea what to do with the angry Chinese crowd.
The deputy head of the presidential administration Mikalaj Snapkoŭ and head of the state wood industry consortium Jury Nazaraŭ personally took part in the negotiations between Chinese diplomats, the company and workers.
The workers explained to journalists that they were protesting against late salaries. After failed negotiations with Chinese diplomats, who quickly arrived in Homiel, they announced that they were heading towards Minsk and intend to speak to the Chinese ambassador. However, closer to evening the diplomats persuaded workers to return to their workplace by bus.
As it later turned out, the workers were dissatisfied not only with delayed salaries, but also with the working conditions at their construction site. They had no days off, the company took their passports, they had no right to buy Belarusian sim cards to call home, and the food and lodging were in poor shape as well. To top it all off, when they did get paid, their salary was lower than the employer had originally promised.
The Chinese protest was a real sensation among Belarusian media outlets – the way the citizens of half-totalitarian China defended their labour rights very much contrasts with the local climate. Belarus has not seen worker's protests of this type since the 1990s when Lukashenka's power had not calcified and an economic crisis was still unfolding.
Industry Crisis May Cause Social Tension
Today, Belarusians who work in state-owned industries can easily lose their job for dissenting against the upper management and there are virtually no protections in place to ensure their rights are being observed. Virtually all independent trade unions, save a few, have been eliminated and most workers belong to the state-controlled Federation of Belarusian Trade Unions. However, this year the situation may change unexpectedly, and the reasons are becoming more apparent by the day.
The industrial sector of the country, and in particular machine building – the core of the Belarusian economy since the Soviet era – is experiencing hard times. In 2014 Belarus produced 20-50% less machinery than the year prior according to official statistics. Numerous industrial enterprises, such as the wood industry factory Homieldreŭ, the Mahilioŭ automobile plant, machine builder Strommašina, the Svietlahorsk concrete production plant and many others have either reduced the length of their working weeks and sent workers on unpaid holidays or cut their salaries.
As a result, in 2014, many Belarusian industrial giants, including Hrodna Azot, Mahilioŭ Chimvalakno, Minsk Automobile Plant and BelAZ, had to lay off between 5 to 20% of their employees.
According to the World Bank's estimates, state-owned industries employ around 10% of individuals which they classify as economically unjustifiable personnel, who hinder their economic efficiency.
The government has been reluctant to make cuts to the labour force for decades, as they believed that minimal social guarantees and salaries are better than unemployment which can lead to political turmoil. But with the current layoffs their concerns about the effect of unemployment may be realised ahead of the October presidential elections.
Can Workers Spark a Belarusian Maidan?
Tacciana Čyžova, a researcher at the Political Sphere Institute, has been monitoring protest activity in politics and the economy for the past few years. In a comment to BelarusDigest she noted that in 2014 the level of protest activity at Belarusian enterprises clearly grew when compared to 2013. The conflicts usually were tied to salaries and working conditions.
However, these clashes with companies' management usually do not transcend the territory of the enterprise or town and last no more than 1-2 days. Enterprise managers and local authorities usually seek to resolve the conflict peacefully and as quickly as possible, tactics which apparently are part of a model established by the central government.
A fine example of these tactics being employed happened in 2014 when a protest by ambulance workers, who after minor concessions from the authorities, promptly returned to their jobs. As the economic situation is unlikely to improve much ahead of elections, the authorities will attempt to avoid any radical reforms and mass layoffs in order to keep situation on the ground calm. Any mass protests, let alone a Maidan, seems very unlikely, Čyžova believes.
Moreover, this time even most opposition-minded candidates running for the presidency have warned against mass protests. A leftist party leader Siarhei Kaliakin says that violent scenarios will not bring results, but rather lead to tragedy. Tacciana Karatkievič, a candidate from Tell the Truth campaign, believes that the very idea of protests is not popular in modern Belarusian society, but she would join a protest and try to turn it peaceful if people do it spontaneously.
Meanwhile, United Civil Party leader Anatol Liabedźka stated that "we are not going to dissuade people from peaceful protests, as other candidates are, because the authorities push people to them with their unprofessional policies".
While the opposition agrees with the authorities about the danger of a violent scenario (clearly with a potential Ukrainian situation developing in the back of their minds), any real developments will probably follow the election. Belarus needs painful economic restructuring, and mass layoffs may well be on the menu shortly after Aliasksandr Lukashenka assumes the presidency for his fifth term in power.
Strengthening Border with Ukraine, Chinese Paratroopers – Belarus Security Digest
The situation in Ukraine continues to be a major concern for the Belarusian authorities, while the prospects of Russia's air base is still uncertain as Minsk maintains its low-profile cooperation with NATO.
Belarus is set to receive additional second-hand Russian S-300 missile systems but is unlikely to be the recipient of more modern systems anytime in the foreseeable future. In addition to the S-300s, Belarus is set to receive some additional transport helicopters from Russia.
Belarus revealed that it is cooperating with China to design a multiple rocket launcher system and Belarusian special operations forces held a third set of military exercises with their Chinese colleagues.
Increased Border Security with Ukraine
The authorities in Minsk are taking seriously the potential risk of the situation further destabilising in neighbouring Ukraine. In June, the Belarusian Army and Border Guard Committee spent several weeks testing a system of strengthening border control with Ukraine and the territorial defence system located in the Homel Province. The Belarusian Security Council emphasised that this exercise was routine, pointing to the fact that there was a similar exercise in 2014. The Chief Commander of the Special Operations Forces Vadzim Dzyanisenka also noted that the training they carried out had been planned long beforehand.
Belarus formed an additional border guard unit to guard its border with Ukraine Read more
The Security Council, however, conceded that Belarus had taken additional measures to guard its side of the Ukrainian border and formed an additional Mozyr Border Guard Unit last year. In addition, the scenario for the most training session included a battle with an armed band that invaded Belarus with the support of some local residents who underwent military training in a neighbouring country. This all suggest that Minsk had potential developments in Ukraine in mind when they drew up plans for the excercise.
On 19 June, the Chairman of Belarusian Customs Committee Yury Syanko expressed his concerns about attempts to bring weapons and ammunition into the country from Ukraine. This only four days after Alyaksandr Lukashenka discussed with Defence Minister Andrei Raukou measures for ensuring an “adequate response to developments on the southern [Ukrainian] border.”
How Can Belarus Upgrade its Weaponry?
Lukashenka and Raukou also raised questions about how to go about modernising Belarus's armed forces. Lukashenka stated that the army is already undergoing a third wave of adapting to new challenges through modernising it – the previous wave of 'adapting' apparently was apparently the result of the Arab Spring in 2011. Raukou also took time during the public discussion to discuss the testing of new rocket systems and other arms.
The following day, on 16 June, the Chairman of Military Technical Committee Siarhei Hurulyou reported to Lukashenka on the positive results of a Belarusian multiple launcher rocket system in China. Lukashenka critically remarked that, “Our ally, Russia, is as active in supporting our aspirations [as China is].” The new system is believed to be being designed together with the Chinese and contains elements of the Chinese Norinco AR3 multiple launcher rocket system.
Russia remains, of course, the main source of military equipment and related services for the Belarusian armed forces. On 17 June, the Belarusian Defence Ministry signed a contract with Russian Vertolyoty Rossii for 12 military transport helicopter Mi-8MTV-5. Belarus will get them in 2016-2017 and the helicopters will have the exact same specifications as those provided to Russia's armed forces.
In July, one of the world's largest defence holdings, Russian KRET, started overhauling and modernising Belarus' land-based electronic countermeasures stations. Four stations revamped and updated by 2017. Back in June, Belarusian defence firm Agat-Sistemy Upravleniya founded a joint venture with the Russian firm NPO Kvant, which is a subsidiary of KRET. The new joint venture REB-Technology will modernise Belarusian and Russian armies' radio-electronic equipment.
Raukou also announced that Belarus would receive four batteries of the S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems from Russia this year. These systems were previously deployed by Russian army who is now upgrading to the next generation of SAM systems, the S-400. Moscow and Minsk are in talks about Belarus potentially getting some S-400s as well, though at the moment it is unclear if it will.
According to Raukou, in 2014-2015 Belarus signed "some 50 contracts [with Russia] for the supply, repair and modernization of anti-aircraft missile systems, communications, electronic warfare technology, small arms and artillery weapons, ammunition, aviation equipment for the needs of the Belarusian army", on very favourable terms. He said that a majority of the contracts have been fulfilled.
Russian Airbase Still on Hold
On 17 June Defence Minister Raukou told the TASS news agency that Minsk believed the deployment of additional NATO forces and heavy weapons close to Belarus' borders created additional potential risks for Belarus. A day earlier, Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas confirmed that the US was planning to store heavy weapons for up to 5,000 US troops in the Baltic countries and Poland.
In the same interview, Raukou said that the issue of Russia's airbase in Belarus was on hold until a clear political decision could be made. This statement undermined previous public announcements by Russian officials to the effect that a Russian base would be established in Babruysk in 2016. Minsk has never been interested in having this airbase open up and least of all now when it could be used to provoke NATO and Ukraine. As a result of these heightened regional tensions, it is unlikely that a Russian airbase will be opened in Belarus anytime in the near future.
In July, Belarusian delegation chaired by the head of the Belarus' General Staff Major General Aleh Belakoneu visited the regions where this year's joint military exercises with Russia will be conducted. The “Shchyt Sayuza” is held every other year, and this time around will take place from the 10-16 September in Russia.
From NATO to Qatar
Minsk continues with its drive to diversify its international contacts in the military arena. On 31 May – 5 June NATO experts conducted a seminar in Belarus for men of the peacekeeping company of the Belarusian 103rd Mobile Brigade of Special Operations. In June, Raukou said, "The interaction of our country with NATO has a practical orientation and corresponds with our national interests, though does not affect our alliance with Russia."
On 16 June, Defence Minister Raukou met the Secretary General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Lamberto Zannier in Minsk. They discussed military and political issues and signed a Memorandum of Understanding on a joint project concerning the utilisation of liquid rocket fuel.
Besides trying to develop its ties with Western countries, the authorities are working hard to improve relations with China. From 15-27 June, Chinese paratroopers participated in a joint anti-terror training excercise with a company of the Belarusian 38th Mobile Brigade of Special Operations on a site close to Brest. This was the third such Belarus-Chinese training excercised conducted since 2011. On 14-17 July, a Chinese delegation, headed by the deputy head of the Propaganda Unit of the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army, Major-General Zhang Chanin, visited Belarus.
Some military interaction occurred also with India and Qatar. In June, India gave Belarus 25 of its newest mine detectors, the Minelab X-Terra. Last year, India also gifted Belarus 60 radio sets and 30 GPS-navigation systems. On 2-5 July, Minister of State for Defence Affairs of Qatar, Hamad bin Ali Al Attiyah visited Belarus and met with President Lukashenka. Belarus has been cooperating with Qatar on security matters for years now, cooperation which has included Belarusian forces providing specialised military training to Qataris.