Military cooperation with Russia as guarantee of Kremlin’s support for Lukashenko in 2015 presidential election

April 22, 2016 18:37

On September 20th – 26th, a joint Russo-Belarusian strategic military exercise ‘West – 2013’ will be held.

Russo-Belarusian military cooperation aims to achieve primarily domestic political objectives set by Russian and Belarusian leaders. Despite the number of joint Russo-Belarusian military projects which have been announced, the countries lack resources to support them in full. For Lukashenko, the expansion of Belarusian-Russian military cooperation is a guarantee of the Kremlin’s support during the 2015 presidential election.

National defence is not the ultimate priority for Belarus, since Lukashenko sees no real threat from NATO countries. Russia also does not believe that the West poses a serious military threat. Russia is increasingly concerned about its Eastern and Southern borders.

Since 1995, Belarus has been consistently expanding its cooperation with NATO in the framework of the ‘Partnership for Peace’ Programme. As a result, in April 2013 Belarus announced its readiness to send its peace-keeping company to participate in the programme.

The ongoing joint Russo-Belarusian military exercises ‘West – 2013’ are much smaller than exercises held in Eastern and Central Russian military districts. In the ‘West – 2013’ exercise, 12,900 soldiers and 350 armored vehicles will take part. Recent exercises in two Russian military districts involved about 160,000 soldiers, 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles, 130 long-range aircrafts, military transport, fighters, bombers and the Army Air Corps, as well about 70 Russian Navy ships.

Domestic political interests of elites in both states are the driving force behind the military exercise. Alexander Lukashenko allows Russian military presence in Belarus in exchange for Russia’s political and economic support. Back in 1996, Belarus and Russia adopted a package of documents, according to which Russia was provided military facilities for rent in Vileika and Gantsevichi, and, if necessary, access to Belarusian military infrastructure. In return, Russia supported Alexander Lukashenko during the 1996 political crisis, and subsequently provided free access for Belarusian goods on the Russian market. Even when Russo-Belarusian relations deteriorate, the Belarusian president avoids raising the issue of Russian military presence. During the recent ‘potash conflict’, Lukashenko remained Russia’s loyal military ally and on August 29th appointed Dvigalev as Unified Air Defence Commander.

Establishing an airbase in Lida, Western Belarus, is a necessary move to ensure domestic political effect in Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s position in recent years has significantly weakened. Integration projects and military cooperation in the post-Soviet space are old methods the Kremlin uses to play on the Russian population’s post-imperial sentiments.

Simultaneously, Russia lacks the resources to maintain its military presence in Belarus, or provide assistance for Belarusian Army in its efforts to modernize. Plans to build an air base in Belarus or upgrade the aircraft fleet have been discussed for a decade. Aircrafts in service in Belarus date back to 1970-1980s and are unable to provide full protection. The ‘Teddy bear drop’ last summer confirmed the vulnerability of Belarus’ airspace.

The Russian air base in Belarus should be deployed by the 2015 presidential elections. For Alexander Lukashenko, this would be a guarantee of the Kremlin’s support. Most opposition leaders have traditionally opposed Russia’s military presence in Belarus, which is unacceptable for the Russian leaders. Polls say that over one-third of the Belarusian population opposes Russia’s military presence in Belarus. The campaign against Russian airbase deployment launched by some oppositional parties plays into the hands of Lukashenko. Lukashenko becomes a guarantor of the Russian military presence in Belarus.

Thus, despite the close military cooperation between Russia and Belarus which has been declared, it is still far from being put into practice. Both Russia and Belarus lack funds to develop this cooperation in full. Establishing a Russian airbase in Lida, as well as greater military cooperation with Russia are Lukashenko’s priorities in the coming years. This will allow the Belarusian president to enlist the Kremlin’s support during the upcoming presidential election. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the military cooperation agreement will be implemented in full by 2015.

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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.