Will Pope Francis Visit Belarus? Lukashenka Hopes So
In his congratulation letter to the newly elected Pope Francis, Alexander Lukashenka invited the Pontiff to visit the "friendly Belarusian land".
Although two previous Popes declared the wish to come to Minsk, neither actually had a chance to meet the millions of Belarusian Catholics. Whereas Minsk remains unwanted in the West, the Vatican appears an important mediator between both sides. However, for the first non-European Pope in a hundreds of years, Belarus could be too exotic to make it a priority and visit the country.
Lukashenka has repeated on many occasions that he welcomes the Pope to Belarus. During a meeting with the Vatican's Nuncio in April 2012, he expressed the will to strengthen both the Catholic and Orthodox Church in Belarus. Pope John Paul II never received an invitation to visit Belarus. But in 2002, Vatican officials conducted discussions with Minsk on the issue. However, as happened with Moscow, the visit never materialised.
A breakthrough in Belarus-Vatican relations took place with the new Pope Benedict XVI who met with Alexander Lukashenka and his youngest son Mikalai in the Vatican in 2009. Significantly, it broke for a moment the diplomatic isolation of Minsk in the West. It also turned out to be Lukashenka's first trip to Western Europe since his 1999 visa ban was implemented. However, the Pope could not reciprocate the visit to Belarus. Instead, the Vatican’s Secretary, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, visited Belarus in 2009.
Support for Society
The Holy See has always supported the independent post-Soviet states. John Paul II in one of his audiences said to the representatives of the Belarusian Catholic clergy that “Belarus is the former Soviet republic that has undergone the least change since the fall of Communism, and is the least integrated into the rest of Europe”.
In May 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI addressed the new ambassador of Belarus to the Vatican, he said: ‘Please be assured that the Holy See will continue to support your nation in its efforts to affirm proper and legitimate aspirations for freedom and in her labours to foster the democratic process as a part of the great family of free and sovereign European nations.’
On 1 March 2008 Minsk was included in a special video link of Belarusian youth with the Pope. For the first time Belarusian Catholics could take part in the event. After the common prayer, the Pope made a speech to the Belarusian youth. Belarusian state media broadcasted the event.
Concordat: Still to Be Concluded
A possible concordat remains an unresolved issue between Belarus and the Vatican. A concordat is a special document concluded between a church and secular authorities to regulate bilateral relations, including the right to religious education and protection of religious freedoms.
The leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, nominally the largest religious group in Belarus, have already signed a number of agreements with the Belarusian authorities and view the initiative of a concordat with the Vatican with suspicion. The Patriarch of Moscow, Kiril, during his meeting with Lukashenka in September 2009 said that ‘Belorussia is not a bridge, nor a gateway, but a Western part of the Saint Rus, historical Rus’.
The 2009 visit of Lukashenka to the Holy See might have heralded a conclusion of the document. Nonetheless, until now the two sides have failed to conclude it. According to the head of Belarusian Catholics, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, the conclusion of the concordat would enhance the prestige of both the Roman-Catholic Church and Belarus in the international arena.
Concordats with countries where Catholics are in a minority are not unusual. For example, Montenegro was the first country with a majority of Orthodox citizens to conclude a concordat with the Vatican, in June 2012. During the act of conclusion of the agreement, Benedict XVI confirmed his support for the European integration ambitions of that country.
Through Vatican to the West?
Lukashenka’s 2009 visit to the Holy See remains remarkable for a few reasons. Ten years of isolation of Minsk might have given its leadership hope for improving the relationship with the West. Whereas the West spurns Lukashenka, he finds himself more comfortable with the East.
For Lukashenka, the visit to the Vatican was particularly prestigious at the moment when nobody in Europe wanted to do it. This was probably one of the reasons why the Apostolic nuncio in Belarus was the only diplomat who could visit the Belarusian prisoners of conscience.
The Vatican still appears as an important mediator, but also as a promoter of Western values. At the same time, the Pope with his moral authority is in a good position to improve the image of the West in Minsk, which is a subject of frequent attacks by Belarusian propaganda.
It is too early to speculate over the politics of the newly elected Pope. Most likely the new Pope does not have any special links or emotional attachment to Belarus. He was born and grew up in Argentina where most people are most likely not sure where Belarus is.
The two previous European Popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – carried a ‘regional historical burden’: both witnessed the atrocities of WWII and were aware of the post-war and transformation difficulties Eastern European societies faced.
However, the new Pope may wish to continue their activities and strengthen the position of the Church in the region as the previous leaders of the Holy See did. It will be an important event for Belarusian Catholics and for Belarus, but may raise concerns for those who will regard the visit as tacit support for "Europe's last dictatorship".
Arms Trade Charges Against Belarus: Speculations and Facts
In early March, the U.N. Security Council's independent panel of experts raised the issue of Belarusian and Russian arms sold to Sudan.
According to the experts, Sudan had used these weapons in the Darfur region, violating a Security Council resolution and written pledges to Belarus and Russia to not do so. Most non-state Belarusian experts expressed doubts about possible Belarusian involvement and pointed out the lack of clear evidence corroborating the claims.
Such charges, however, have emerged periodically for more than a decade now. Belarus is supporting global villains of all kinds and its regime finances itself to a substantial extent through the illegal arms trade, the radical opposition insists. The charges are groundless, the government says. The truth, however, is not simple as the known facts prove.
First Smoking Gun?
Hardly any violations of international legal regulations of arms trade by the Belarusian government have ever been explicitly proven. From a legal point of view, the Belarusian arms trade is in a grey zone, as is the work of many occasions even by such prominent weapons-producing corporations like BAE Systems or Lockheed.
Likewise, it is very difficult to classify some Belarusian deals. Thus, a month ago, the First Channel of Iranian TV broadcast a short film about hunting down a US drone in the Eastern Iranian province of Khorassan. On the seventh second of the video, one can clearly see the a Belarus-produced electronic warfare system, Vostok-E. It is shown in an Iranian-like landscape, and indicates that Belarus actually sold such equipment to Iran.
The US immediately – in a couple of days – reacted by imposing sanctions against two Belarusian companies involved in producing the weapons system. However, the time of transfer of these systems is not clear, and the international legal grounds are shaky.
After all, the Vostok-E is a defensive weapon and is not covered by the UN sanctions against Iran. Dr. Paul Holtom of the Stockholm-based SIPRI Institute, told the Jerusalem Post in December that while it was possible that Belarus cooperates with Iran on military-technical projects, but until now he had seen no “credible evidence that it has provided to Iran items falling within the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms.”
Countries Like Belarus
Yet at least it was the first case in years with some substance behind it. There were many accusations for which facts were lacking. For instance, the much quoted 2004 Report of the Special Advisor to the Director of US Central Intelligence on Iraq’s WMD contains only two minor cases of explicit charges.
The rest of Belarus-related material found in the report sounds rather opaque and sometimes oddly uncertain. Here is one example:
Iraq imported at least 380 SA-2/Volga liquid-propellant engines from Poland and possibly Russia or Belarus.[…] Iraq also imported missile guidance and control systems from entities in countries like Belarus, Russia and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
In November 2004, Belarusian pilots participated in the attack launched by the national army of Ivory Coast on a French military base in the country. Yet nothing has confirmed the Belarusian government's involvement in the incident and its sending military specialists to the African country.
Actually if the Belarusians were there privately, of their own accord – something not entirely unusual for jobless post-Soviet military pilots – then the French government could not even press charges against them as it did not join the appropriate conventions on mercenaries in internal conflicts. No wonder, it let the Belarusians go.
For some years, in particular in 2009 and 2010, Belarus regularly faced accusations that it provided Iran with the S-300 air defence system. They looked extremely murky, especially when levelled by the Jerusalem Post. Yet even such authoritative news agency as Associated Press published in August 2010 a news piece based – according to its own admission – on the Iranian FARS news agency quotation of the Lebanese al-Manar TV saying that Iran might have acquired the S-300s from Belarus.
Another time, in 2011, some Belarusian and international media published a package of documents allegedly proving the shipments of Belarusian arms to Pakistani-based terrorists via Syria. The electronic scans were presumably stolen by a hacker group from Italian cyberpolice. The content of documents, however, looked so outwardly fake that nobody followed this trace.
Maybe the most dubious of all was the extremely doubtful publication in September 2012 of documents allegedly proving the involvement in drug trafficking by people close to the former Kyrgyz president now in exile in Belarus. The site belonging to the Belapan news agency claimed that the original documents of Nepal's military were stolen by hackers from the web-site of Cambodian Foreign Ministry. Such pedigree of accusations did not prevent Belarusian media from republishing the story.
Arms Stories For Internal and External Use
The reasons for such interest in this kind of stories are clear. The Belarusian regime is ugly and despotic, yet it is also petty. That is good as far as human lives are rarely threatened. Yet it is unsuitable and unhelpful for motivation and mobilisation of the regime's opponents.
In these circumstances, every mention of possible illegal deals of Belarusian regime abroad, especially with the regimes opposing the West, looks very seducing. The published fake documents in particular refer to the headlines of international politics (alleged link to Syria and Pakistan). If the Belarusian state is an arsenal for the world's conflicts and problems, then to fight it means to fight something more than an election-stealing and rights-suppressing deeply provincial regime.
It means also that such a battle will be more interesting for the rest of the world. And to attract Western attention to Belarusian problems is rather difficult after years of futile efforts to effect changes in the country and the resulting weakness of the opposition.
Actually, the absence of “smoking guns” proving illicit arms trade by Belarus may show that the Belarusian regime cares about this danger of becoming global problem itself. To avoid it, Minsk stays away from international hot spots and violations of international legal norms. Lukashenka feels, as long as his rule remains, however ugly, internationally sound, he can be certain that nobody in the West will bother to topple the ruler in Minsk.
There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth?
Sure, one should not dismiss the possibility of some “black swans,” i.e., unexpected and unsuspected facts about Belarusian arms trade which can arise after the present ruler goes. Among the known unknowns are the cases with Belarusians allegedly being involved in armed conflicts on the side of Ivorian and Libyan governments.
Nobody knew about Ukrainian officers selling top-secret missile samples to the Communist China and Iran until after Orange revolution Yushchenko came to power and revealed the incidents in 2005.
But such eventuality does not justify the speculations and hyping evident fakes now. Unsubstantiated claims undermine the moral case of the Belarusian opposition and non-state media. There are more than enough appropriately documented outrageous conditions and policies in Belarus to lash out at.
Mixing these substantiated critics with dubious charges and irresponsible rhetoric is a rather destructive. After all, as the proverb goes, one rotten apple spoils the bunch.