Diplomatic row with Sweden distracts from the Belarusian border security issue
The diplomatic row with Sweden distracts attention from the problems with the national border control and acts for the benefit of the most radical group of security forces around President Lukashenko. The row will result in greater international isolation of Belarus, as well as in the deterioration of the political situation.
On July 3rd Belarusian Foreign Ministry press service announced that the Swedish Ambassador to Belarus, Stefan Eriksson’s accreditation was not renewed. On the same day two major national TV channels showed clips that in 2012 Mr. Eriksson and the Swedish Embassy funded Belarusian extremist groups and that he could be involved in the incident with the violation of the Belarusian border by a light airplane on July 4th.
Foreign Ministry and the First national channel’s positions are internally consistent and represent a coordinated response of Minsk to the July 4th incident. Swedish advertising agency Studio Total staff assumed responsibility for this action.
Belarusian authorities have neither detained the plane, nor questioned the pilots therefore they have no evidence of Swedish citizens’ involvement in the incident. Consequently, the connection between non-renewal of accreditation of Ambassador Eriksson and the incident with the plane has not been formally confirmed.
Also, unofficial sources say, that a few months ago, Belarusian authorities issued a tourist visa to Ambassador Eriksson with 3-month validity period. It is likely that it has expired. However, synchronicity of the MFA decision and the information attack on the Swedish Embassy implies it was not a coincidence: de facto, this could be regarded as an intentional banishment of Ambassador.
Belarusian authorities are trying to translate the ‘airplane’ scandal into the international plane, presenting it as a planned provocation against Belarus, which has already resulted in anticipated negative assessment of the situation by the Swedish foreign office (Carl Bildt) and the EU (K. Ashton).
With their actions the authorities attempted to divert the attention from the internal causes of the scandalous incident with the aircraft and from the security forces involved. The incident revealed a serious gap in the air defense system at the Belarusian border, which - in principle – could be used to organize illegal cargo transportation by light aircrafts or drones.
It is likely, that a certain group of security officials, responsible for this systemic error in the border control, tried to secure its positions and attempted to interpret the incident as a provocation by foreign states and their Belarusian counterparts. The fact that President backed up this group implies that the group has greater influence on Lukashenka than the State Border Committee and the KGB, which conventionally referred to as a group of the President’s eldest son Victor Lukashenko.
This first group of law enforcement officials, most likely affiliated with the former Security Council Secretary and a President’s proxy Major General Sheiman is also interested in the deterioration of the political situation. Therefore chances are high that the arrested journalist Suryapin and real estate agent Bashamirov will be charged with aiding illegal border crossing, and the state media will continue a propaganda campaign disclosing international conspiracies against Belarus, as it was after the presidential elections in 2010.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.