Minsk to ’compensate’ for political rapprochement with West by defence cooperation with Moscow

July 25, 2016 23:19

Despite their desire to stay away from the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West, the Belarusian authorities cannot afford to break off relations with Moscow in the security field. That said, the allied action might reduce the prospects for the Belarusian-European normalisation. Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities hope that by providing allied services to Russia in the security field (on non-principled matters), they may secure a broader room for manoeuvre in political and economic spheres.

Last week has revealed some new developments in Russo-Belarusian cooperation in defence sphere. Earlier this month, Ukrainian military intelligence reported about Russian military intelligence activities carried out from Belarusian airspace. It also turned out that the Russian reconnaissance aircraft used Belarusian airfield infrastructure. In mid-June, a joint command and staff exercise of the Belarusian and Russian Air Forces was carried out, with the participation of Russian fighter-bombers Su-34. The latter are shock machines designed to break the air defence system and destroy ground targets. Russia is also talking about the possibility of ambitious bilateral land exercises in Belarus in August-September this year.

These events depart from the Minsk’s course on restoring relations with the West. Moreover, the very nature of the exercises, and an attempt to hide the fact that they were held have led to growth of distrust in the neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, there is nothing new in Belarus’ actions. The history of Russo-Belarusian relations shows that contradictions in political and economic spheres between the two countries did not affect their cooperation in the defence field. Moreover, often the military cooperation has helped Minsk to squeeze favourable decisions from the Kremlin. Military circles in Russia, traditionally wary of the West, approved Minsk’s anti-Western rhetoric and, in fact, lobbied Lukashenka’s interests in the Kremlin.

Now the situation has changed radically. Minsk cannot afford a confrontation with the West, even at the level of rhetoric. Minsk’s efforts to normalize relations with Brussels and Washington are badly perceived in Moscow, mildly speaking: some talk about the betrayal of Russia by the Belarusian authorities. In order to guarantee a space for manoeuvre in foreign policy and economy, Minsk has to demonstrate ‘allied’ sentiments to the Kremlin in defence matters.

Despite the threat to the prospects of Belarusian-Western normalization because of the interaction with Russia in the security field, Minsk could eventually win some benefits. Belarus could refer to the forced nature of such interaction (the pressure from Moscow) and attempt to provoke a "bargain" between Russia and the West over Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities will continue to improve relations with the West, while maintaining a high level of cooperation with Russia in the defence field. They regard the latter as a prerequisite for obtaining preferences from Moscow and a warranty from its pressure. Each step towards the West in the political field will be accompanied by a gesture of loyalty towards Russia in the security sphere. However, the red line for such a tactics is preserving the integrity of the existing political regime. Minsk aims in respect to both, Moscow and the West, at getting / maintaining economic benefits and guarantees of non-interference in Belarus’ internal affairs.

Image: Naša Niva

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.