Russo-Belarusian defence cooperation has limitations
Thanks to close defence cooperation with Moscow, Minsk ensured freedom in foreign policy manoeuvre and a large-scale financial and economic support from Russia. However, this scheme is coming to an end, thereby boosting conflicts in bilateral relations and prompting the Belarusian authorities to improve transparency in communication with all their neighbours, including Russia.
Recently, the Russian Defence Ministry published plans of military rail transportation to Belarus and back, which could be an indirect evidence of the unprecedented scale of the Russo-Belarusian military exercise West-2017, unless there was an error (or an intended provocation). The Ministry is planning to send 4,000 railway cars to Belarus, which could transport at least one Russian division to the Belarusian landfills.
Amid Russia’s confrontation with the West, Minsk manages to secure some financial support from Russia due to periodic loyalty demonstrations to Moscow on the international arena, participation in the Russia-led integration projects and expansion (including demonstrative) of the Russo-Belarusian defence cooperation. This trend could not last indefinitely. Firstly, it already threatens Belarus with engaging into the confrontation with the West on the Kremlin’s side. Secondly, it alarms Ukraine, Belarus’ second most important trade and economic partner. Thirdly, the West regards it as a sign of Minsk’s critical dependence on Moscow, which weakens Belarusian positions in a dialogue with the West.
That said, Russia aims to use defence cooperation in order to establish her total domination over Belarus. The Kremlin puts forward new initiatives, which could call into question Belarus’ ability to control the national military capacity.
As economic recession deepens in Russia, she is less capable of supporting Belarus. In addition, Minsk’s desire to avoid being drawn into Russia’s confrontation with the West and Ukraine makes the Kremlin less eager to finance the Belarusian authorities. From a certain point, "payment" with military cooperation for the Russian financial and economic support may become unacceptable for Minsk: Moscow is likely to want to get more for less. For Minsk, preserving independence in foreign policy and continuing the dialogue with the West and cooperation with Ukraine is critically important. Russo-Belarusian military cooperation is nearing its "glass ceiling". Therefore, large-scale conflicts in bilateral relations are becoming virtually inevitable.
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.