The Authorities Choose How to Respond to Violations of Belarus’ Airspace
On July 4, the Swedish media published a video of a single-engine airplane with two passengers on board crossing Belarus’ border from the territory of Lithuania and dropping teddy-bears with texts in support of freedom of speech in Belarus over the town of Ivyanets. Later on, local citizens presented evidence of the incident. The Belarusian authorities either give no comment or deny any violation of Belarus’ airspace.
The level of media publicity drawn by the incident establishes a framework for response from the Belarusian authorities. They vary from strictly punishing and dismissing the guilty persons to acknowledging drawbacks in the air defense system and the need for modernization. In reality, the authorities have avoided choosing between these two extremes and have postponed taking a decision, due to their reluctance to acknowledge the mistake. Their unwillingness to make a final decision is also explained by an acute shortage of management personnel in the Air Force, the high cost of retrofitting an air defense system and the lack of reaction from Russia.
There is evidence that proves the incident. Swedish activists presented a video recording of the flight, there is evidence from local citizens and Ivanyets’ Chief of the Communal service, as well as a press release from the Lithuanian Air Forces which acknowledges a violation of their airspace on July 4. According to the Swedish activists, the duration of the flight over Belarusian territory was about an hour and a half.
However, the Belarusian State Border Committee denies the fact that Belarus’ airspace was violated. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that the video and photos of the flight were crude fakes. Such a restrained stance of the Belarusian law enforcement agencies is explained by at least three factors.
Firstly, the commanders of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces are unwilling to acknowledge their mistake, especially after the national holiday on July 3, Independence Day, during which the special honour is given to the military forces (the incident occurred the morning after the holiday).
Secondly, commanders of Belarus’ Air Force and Air Defense Forces have been changed twice in the last eighteen months. To acknowledge such a grave mistake would lead to the recently appointed officers being dismissed.
Finally, on July 5, President Lukashenko took part in the commencement of the Faculty of General Staff of the Armed Forces Academy of Belarus, where he personally handed the diplomas and awards to graduates, among whom were also soldiers from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Even if Belarusian military officials have not found the courage to report Lukashenko about the incident, he has reasons not to give any comment on the mistake of the Belarusian air defense system which is a part of Russia and Belarus’ joint regional air defense system.
However, the growth of media publicity, especially from the Russian media (on July 5, the First Russian federal TV channel released a news story) may force the president’s entourage to take some action.
In this case the President will be forced to make decisions in a fairly narrow framework and to choose between the two conventional ways: traditional or modernization.
The traditional way implies finding and punishing the guilty parties, but this choice is complicated by the high volatility in the Ministry of Defense personnel. In November 2011, the former commander of the Air Force and Air Defense of Belarus Igor Azarenok was sentenced to 9.5 years of imprisonment for bribery . In February 2012, Azarenok’s successor in office Major-General Sergei Lemeshevsky was discharged for discrediting the military ranks. A current commander Major-General Pakhmelkin has been in office for less than a year. Such a high staff turnover has a negative impact on work of the Defense Ministry in general and military capabilities of the air defense system in particular. Therefore, President Lukashenko is hardly interested in continuing such rigid personnel policies.
A second way, namely of modernization, accounts for the acknowledgement of the mistake and modernization of Belarus’ air defense system. Although it is quite up-to-date, it is not capable of tracking targets flying lower than 20-30 meters above the ground. According to some military experts, the solution to the problem would be to introduce a new radar system such as \"Rosa RB,\" which can detect targets at a height of several meters above the ground. This path is painful for the Belarusian authorities, who view any recognition of their mistakes as a sign of weakness.
As a result, the Belarusian authorities prefer to avoid deciding how to respond. They continue to keep silent about the incident. The Belarusian authorities might be forced to take action in the near future if Russia reacts to the incident. If the attention from the media or Russia’s law enforcement agencies increases, Belarus will have to respond. A decline in attention will most likely allow the issue to drift; several officials from the Ministry of Defense might be dismissed without attracting public attention.
The Belarusian authorities could to step up the opposition representation in local councils, should party members demonstrate potency. The Belarusian leadership is unlikely to have the resources to ensure 100 percent pro-government candidates in the local elections. The authorities have exhausted the grassroot support and have no funds to pay for the loyalty.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission has proposed to hold the elections to the local Councils of Deputies on February 18th, 2018.
The president has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the local councils in the power system and the state machine always tried to ensure the necessary local election results. Candidates have been decreasing in number with each elections and the authorities dealt with that by reducing the deputy corps. That said, during the rule of President Lukashenka, his electoral base has changed substantially. Over the past decade, most Belarusians have moved to cities and lost their local roots. The rural population is ready to support the president, but rural residents are constantly decreasing in number.
The Belarusian leadership is likely to permit broad participation in the election campaign and an increase in alternative representatives in the local councils. However, the opposition would have to boost its activity, so as so far it has been passive in defending its interests. In addition, the authorities, while determining the date for the local elections, have taken into account the fact that the opposition is usually the least active in the winter time.
Overall, both, the opposition and the local authorities have exhausted their grassroot support, however new local leaders may still come on political stage, although the party opposition has not yet shown sufficient aspirations.