Belarus and NATO: still far from cooperation, but dialogue starts
The agreement between the Defence Ministries of Latvia and Belarus is a standard one, covering cooperation on international security and defence policy. Belarus needs a dialogue with NATO countries in the defence field, but regards it as having secondary importance for the overall Belarusian-western normalisation strategy.
During his visit to Riga on December 5th and 6th, 2016, Belarusian Defence Minister Andrei Raukou signed the cooperation agreement between the Defence Ministries of Latvia and Belarus in the defence field.
Despite political and economic disputes between Belarus and Russia, the Belarusian authorities still regard Russia as the main partner in the security field. Inter alia, due to technical reasons: the need to maintain combat readiness of the armament inherited from the Soviet Union. The Belarusian-western normalisation suggests political normalisation too, which includes cooperation in the security filed and defence field in particular, as a crucial component.
It should be noted, that the Belarusian-Latvian ‘cooperation’ agreement, in fact, aims to create conditions for a bilateral military dialogue, so that the parties become more predictable and transparent in the international security and defence policy, airspace control, arms control, military medicine, environmental protection, and in holding cultural and sports events in the Armed Forces of the two states. Prospects for cooperation between the Belarusian and western defence agencies (including Latvia) depend entirely and directly on the political dialogue between the parties.
The Belarusian Defence Minister Ravkov’s visit to Latvia is a part of the general trend aimed at improving relations with the West. That said, there are no reasons to talk about Minsk’s geopolitical U-turn. The Belarusian authorities are attempting to find a balance between cooperating with the West with minimal Western influence on Belarus, and retaining amicable relations with Russia.
Yet the Belarusian authorities have not taken any action to prevent massive protests against the decree on ‘social parasites’. On February 26th, 2017, multiple protests against the decree were held in three Belarusian regions in Vitebsk, Baranovichi, Brest and Bobruisk (more than 4 000 people participated in total). Very likely, the authorities, on the one hand, anticipate that the decree will be abolished, and other hand, do not want to take responsibility for decisions either on the decree or on the protests.
It should be noted, that the mass street protests on February 17th, 19th, and 26th, were held in the absence of the president in the country. There are reasons to believe that the authorities did not expect such a massive action. The state propaganda responded tangentially, insisting that protests were unjustified, because ‘the state did not require a lot’, despite the fact, that the protesters primarily complained about the lack of jobs in the country. In addition, the protesters pointed to the unfairness of the requirement to pay the tax for being unemployed as the state could not provide job and money making opportunities, while people were humiliated by the need to prove to the state they were unable to pay the tax.
In the past ten days, there were several protests against the decree, which were characterised by the following: the protesters easily picked up anti-Lukashenka slogans; they eagerly shared their outrage with journalists; many protesters said it was their first time when they took to the streets; protesters were ‘common people’, i.e. not political activists; there were fewer white-red-white flags during these protests than during conventional oppositional actions; politicians, who organised protests (eg on February 26th, by the centre-right coalition and the independent trade union) did not attempt to take the lead, especially in the regions. All this gives a picture of truly popular protests.
While refraining from interfering with the meetings and protest marches, the militia on February 26th attempted to put pressure on the protest organisers in the regions by handing out reports on administrative violations after the events. Other than that, it appears that the local and central authorities are unable to respond to the massive protests against the Decree No 3, including crowded street speeches, numerous signatories of petitions (over 80 000), multiple collective and personal appeals to the authorities, and mass meetings.
That said, the authorities are unable to enforce the Decree No 3 as they do not have sufficient resources to trial some 400 000 people for non-compliance. In addition, the authorities do not have sufficient institutional capacity to exempt all those not liable for the tax from the mailing lists of the Tax authorities. The Belarusian Bar Association will provide free legal consultations on March 1st, 2017 for those wishing be exempt from the tax imposed by the Decree No 3, however, this would only slightly east the tension in society.
In addition, despite concerns expressed by some experts and the leader of the protest in Minsk on February 17th Mikola Statkevich, there were only scarce reports in the Russian media about the protests in Belarus.