The Belarus Piece in Eurasia

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November 9th, 2015 – 

By: Joaquin Flores for Fort Russ – 

Belarus plays a critical role in the Eurasian project, being a member both of the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. At the same time, Minsk maintains a considerable degree of autonomy from Moscow. This role has helped it to be a critical ‘work-around’ in some of the sanctions related issues, as well as it being host to the meetings to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.

Importantly also is the example that Belarus plays in the region.  Its successes as part of an emergent Eurasian sphere are an ipso facto argument against the unrealizable (but dangerous) NATO chatter about ‘Intermarium’. 

But like Heraclitus says,  ‘The only constant is change’. What has worked for Belarus today, will not work forever.  A big debate in Belarus today in terms of its relationship with Russia relates to the question of Russian military presence in the country. 

Indeed there is a debate within Belarus as to whether to host a Russian airbase in the country.  The majority of citizens support the idea, but there are a number of factors to consider.  These considerations figure domestically, and also there are pressures from Belarus’ trade partners in the EU and NATO not to go this way.  Furthermore, there is also a technical and logistic consideration on the Belorussian and Russian side as to whether this is necessary at the time. These are independent of economic considerations, and relate primarily to questions relating to perceptions vs. needs. 

It is a particularly pressing issue, with NATO continuing to threaten to build up its presence in Poland and Baltic states, and with troop rotations that it has already increased, along with weapons sales.  

At the same time, moves by Belarus and Russia to increase Russian military presence may have more of a negative impact than positive one in terms of messaging and public relations. It may give more credence to otherwise inflated concerns voiced by NATO that Russia is increasing its military presence in the former Soviet sphere of influence.

Nevertheless, an equal argument can be made that since the US military industrial complex firms have already increased their sales receipts by selling a threat to Poland and Baltic states countries, Russia needs to show greater commitment and resolve as an adequate and mirrored responsive measure. 

At some point, perhaps relating also to the October presidential election in Belarus, a decision was made to delay a final decision on the airbase question.  

There is some important background on this subject to consider.  Belarus and Russia have a special arrangement, which predates the Eurasian Union – it is the Union State. This is an economic and political union, with each state making its own policies and having significant autonomy from one another.  The framework of the Union State has informed the creation of the Eurasian Union which has as members not only Belarus and Russia, but also Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan.

Belarus is also a member to CSTO – Collective Security |Treaty Organization – which formed belatedly, at first as an ad-hoc and now formalized – response to NATO.  After the treaties giving rise to the Warsaw Pact were ended, there was a commitment from NATO that – without a ‘Soviet threat’ – NATO too would dissolve.  This would lead to a neutral Europe.  This was one of the long-term goals of the USSR, what it termed its ‘Finlandization of Europe’ goal.  

This goal was related to Moscow’s influence in the European anti-nuclear movement, and the ‘peace movement’.  The background here is that Moscow was faced with two solutions – expanding the USSR westward to Spain, or the neutralization of Europe.  The then borders of Warsaw Pact states and NATO in western Europe were unsustainable, and so one of those two paths had to be taken.  Neutralization – de-linking EU from NATO –  was the preferred course. 

However, NATO reneged on its agreement with Russia, and so a process that started in 1992 as a treaty (CST) became realized in 2002 as the CSTO – an actual organization. To achieve this required a political de-Yeltsinization process carried out by the first Putin administration. 

On the subject of Belarus, we can see that Lukashenko has played a critical role in guaranteeing the security of the country. The IMF ranks it in the top 1/3rd of all countries in the world in terms of GDP by PPP.  Combined with relatively low levels of crime and corruption, along with a homogeneous culture, life in Belarus is decent and straight forward.  It stands heads and shoulders today above Ukraine in all areas, the latter of which has become a catastrophe of epic proportions following the US backed coup, which ramped into high gear at the end of 2013.   Compared to Poland, Belarus exceeds in a number of areas including, importantly, healthcare – with Belorussians having double the access to doctors and hospital care, and with better subsidies for working families. 

In the international arena, Minsk played host to the resolution agreements on the Ukraine conflict, which considerably increased the visibility and prestige of the country in international media. Such a role may not have been possible if Russian military bases were in Belarus. 

Young Russia web portal cited RIA, with the following bit on October 29th, 2015:

“The Question of the Airbase in Belarus is not removed from the agenda”

The issue of the creation of the Russian military air base in Belarus is still not off the agenda. This topic has gained relevance in the pre-election period and has long been on the Federal Agenda. Minsk and Moscow can not yet come to the unity on this issue. 

“In the context of our allied relations, these issues will be discussed in one form or another, is more specific, I can not say anything,” – said the president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov. 

In turn, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus Vladimir Mackay, in an interview with the Russian newspaper “Kommersant”, said: “We think that there is no need to talk about placing base in Belarus.” 

Many citizens of a positive attitude to the fact airbase, rightly believing that it would strengthen the security of the Union State.

It would seem that this considerable piece awaits resolution. The statements by Mackay however lead us to believe that the present situation is best.  

This would fit a known model in Russian diplomacy, their doctrine of ‘adequate and mirrored response’.  Perhaps if the US formalized its military presence in Ukraine, we would see such a move by Russia in Belarus. Belorussians are keen on the idea, at least.   Another part of this is that Russia does not play cards it does not have to play.  Once it’s played, it’s played. It’s better to use these, and yes – talk about using them –  when using such cards, including talk about such cards, is needed.

NATO is increasing its weapons sales to Baltic state countries and Poland.  So, the next piece would fit the model as we understand it.  Young Russia cites ‘Federal Chamber’ as its source for the following:

“Russia started Production of the MI17-v5 for Belarus”
Scherbinin Alexander, Deputy General Director of holding “Helicopters of Russia” announced the start of production of military transport helicopters Mi-17V-5 for the Republic of Belarus. “There is a planned production at the Kazan Helicopter Plant” – said Scherbinin. Despite the fact that the issue of deployment of Russian military base apparently temporarily withdrawn from the agenda, we can see how we are working actively to strengthen the defense capability of the Union State of Belarus and Russia.

Basic proscriptions for Belarus-Russia bilateral relations

It is important in the arena of public perception in states surrounding Belarus that its relationship with Russia is seen as win-win. NATO is running out of gas, in connection with the transition of the petrol dollar into a genuine system of world trade, on the basis of real-existing multi-polarity. Public sentiments in Belarus’ neighboring states will be an important factor in the battle for democracy and media.  It will be important for average citizens and the ‘under-dog elites’ in these countries to be able to have a viable model to point to, when the opportunity comes and the need exists to fill the void left by diminishing US power. 

This can be done in the following well established ways

1.) Minsk must maintain a high degree of apparent autonomy from the ‘whims’ of Moscow.  This should have examples in all spheres of a state’s life, military, cultural, economic, etc. This apparent autonomy is expressed from time to time in numerous ways, including Lukashenko’s pronouncements that they will not allow Moscow to ‘dictate’ terms to them. 

2.) Minsk should maintain the degree of autonomy it has in order to play its critical role as middle-man between EU and Russia.  We must recall that Russian long term goals are not alienation from EU, but the opposite, as Lavrov and Putin have both affirmed – integration with EU, in a new model. Minsk’s relationship with EU states is also important in its own right.  Elucidating statistics can be seen the relevant European Commission trade portal page for Belarus

3.) Russia must not push Minsk to accept any proposals which may be seen as bolstering Russia’s influence at the expense of reducing the efficacy of 1 and 2 above.  Russia will appear stronger if all proposals come from Minsk to Moscow and not Moscow to Minsk. 

4.)  Minsk must continue to its anti-corruption campaign, and make foreign investment procedures more transparent, with established and well promoted mechanisms of enforcement in place. 

5.) Minsk must continue its path of sustainability. Belarus already ranks very high (between 20 and 25) in the world in terms of economic complexity, meaning that their own internal economy features many sectors. Primarily the index relates to the various types of exports – but to export one must produce.  These things which are produced can compliment each other and reduce its reliance on other states in the event that present regional geostrategic and geopolitical tensions indeed escalate. 

6.) Minsk should continue to downplay their military and economic commitments until the appropriate time. 

7.) In connection with 6., above, Minsk should make efforts to see that political opposition within the country are able to connect problem areas in policy to a lack of Russian involvement.  This will also have the effect of creating echo-chatter in Europe which positively views Belarus, and has the effect of making present government policy seem moderate in comparison. 

Additional text translated from shorts appearing at Rumol.org – Young Russia/Rusia Molodai – 

  

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