Kremlin pushes for Russian airbase in Belarus after presidential elections

April 22, 2016 19:25

Amid the presidential campaign in Belarus, when President Lukashenka is most vulnerable, the Kremlin is forcing the Belarusian authorities to sign an agreement to deploy a Russian military air base in Belarus. In the view of improved Belarus-EU relations and enhanced cooperation between Belarus and China, the Russian authorities are attempting to limit Belarus’ opportunities to counterbalance the Russian military-political and economic dominance. After elections, the Belarusian authorities might be prompted to make concessions to the Kremlin regarding the deployment of the Russian air base, which might be kept low profile in the public space.

At a cabinet meeting last week, the Russian government considered a draft agreement on deploying a Russian airbase in Belarus.

The Kremlin is aiming to hold talks with the Belarusian authorities regarding the deployment of the Russian airbase in Belarus during the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council meeting in Grodno on September 8th, 2015. There were no immediate comments by the Belarusian government regarding the Kremlin’s intentions. Until the end of the presidential campaign, the Belarusian authorities might attempt to withhold the information about the prospects of enhanced Russian military presence in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the Russian government stated that, “the signing of the agreement will facilitate the organisation of the joint air border protection of the Union State and the creation of joint regional air defence system for the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. In addition, the provisions of the agreement will consolidate a long-term Russian military presence in the region and will contribute to enhanced security”.

So far, the Russian military presence in Belarus is limited to two military facilities, which are not considered as military bases: the Gantsevichi Radar Station and the Russian naval forces contact point near Vileika. In addition, Baranavichy airbase hosts Russian SU-27 fighter elements from time to time, which subordinate to the Belarusian command.

Until recently, the Kremlin has avoided official statements about the deployment of the Russian military air base in Belarus – sometimes there were comments by some Russian military officials about the prospects for such a move in the future. For instance, in October 2014 Air Force Commander Colonel General Vladimir Bondarev stated that in 2016 Russia would deploy its airbase for Su-27 fighters in Babruisk. The independent Belarusian media, however, reported that modernisation of the runway and ground infrastructure had already started in the Bobruisk airport.

The Belarusian authorities have been carefully avoiding being drawn into a confrontation between the Kremlin and Western capitals. Instead, they are attempting to normalise Belarus-EU relations and expand cooperation with China. Official Minsk worries that information about the plans to strengthen Russian military presence in Belarus could have a negative impact on the emerging positive trend in Belarusian-European relations.

Moreover, according to independent polls, the Belarusian population is not supportive of the hosting of foreign military bases. In addition, the opposition is using this unpopular idea of deploying a Russian airbase in Belarus to boost their ratings. For example, the only potential opposition candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich is attempting to intercept President Lukashenka’s thesis – which could be the key message in his campaign – that, the state has to ensure stability and safety for citizens.

The Kremlin will attempt to take advantage of the presidential campaign in Belarus in order to formalise the arrangements for the Russian military airbase deployment in Belarus in 2016. Official Minsk does not have sufficient mechanisms to deal with the Kremlin’s pressure and will be forced to agree to the strengthening of the Russian military presence in Belarus.

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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.