Russo-Belarusian defence cooperation has limitations

November 28, 2016 8:43
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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.

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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.