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Street clashes in Belarus

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Despite everything, Belarus is still the most stable of the former Soviet Union.

 Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has never divided economic power among “oligarchs” – as also happened with Putin – but has transferred the entire State economic apparatus into the new political system led by him.

 This is the real divide between Belarus and the Russian Federation, where also Putin has his “oligarchs” of reference, to whom he must somehow report and refer his policy line.

 Still today, for example, BelAZ, the company that produces transport and excavation equipment in Belarus, controls about 30% of the entire world market. It also has many openings in Western markets. It is not at all true that Belarus has a “post-Soviet relic” economy.

In October 2019 Belarus also obtained a 500 million dollar loan from the China Development Bank, which was alternative to equivalent financing from Russia that never arrived.

 The primary geopolitical fact is that the Ukrainian crisis was interpreted – even correctly – by Lukashenko himself as a real “Russian failure” and, since then, Belarus has progressively reduced its economic and hence political dependence on Russia.

 Meanwhile China was considering a new route, outside Ukraine, for its Belt & Road Initiative to Europe. Two coinciding interests, including the desire to reduce the Russian power in the region.

 Since then Belarus has been using its special relations with China to deal with the EU and, in some respects, with Russia itself.

 In 2018 alone, bilateral Belarus-China trade increased by 17.1% to a total of 3-5 billion U.S. dollars.

 In April 2019, during Lukashenko’s visit to Beijing, Belarus accepted a 100 million euro loan from China (again with the China Development Bank) to support its Central Bank’s reserves.

The Chinese Eximportbank also granted 67.5 million Euros to Belarusian railways.

 President Xi Jinping called Belarus “the pearl of the Belt & Road Initiative”. It is a great miraculous substitute for Ukraine, now unusable for Chinese projects.

 Furthermore, Lukashenko’s regime offers significant tax breaks to investors from both Europe and the “Eurasian Economic Union”, i.e. the small “Belt & Road Initiative” led by the Russian Federation.

 Before 2014 China bet all its cards on Ukraine. Now, after the Western Russian “masterpieces” on the territory of that country, China is easily turning towards Belarus.

 In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, the Belarusian ruling class also thought that Russia was threatening its territory with military exercises and was strongly suspicious of Russia’s demand to open a military base on its territory.

 Hence the simple and peaceful relationship between Belarus and Russia exists only in mainstream Western newspapers.

 Russia prefers to have China in Belarus rather than any other ally, so it has a wait-and-see attitude, at least for the time being.

 Moreover, thanks to its role in the Belt&Road Initiative, Belarus has now every interest in strengthening all ties also with the EU – which, however, is not in Russia’s interest.

 On the military level, during the series of mass demonstrations, Lukashenko announced some operations on the Polish and Lithuanian borders. He also announced that Belarus would “never become a sanitary zone between East and West” and therefore not even a buffer zone between Europe and the Russian Federation.

 A very clear signal for NATO, but also for Putin.  

 The revolt against Lukashenko is based on sound reasons: a) the severe inefficacy of the regime in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; b) the social media’s efficacy in organizing demonstrations, which is a very clear sign of some Western “interference”; c) the regime’s attacks against opponents and the police’s harshness during the election campaign and afterwards, which inevitably catalysed the response; d) the regime’s prohibition to make ex-post electoral statistics; e) the arrests of bloggers, candidates, influencers and “militants” – another factor that triggered people’s anger.

 The protesters used not the Internet, which had been blocked by Lukashenko, but NEXTA, a Telegram service that has 1.5 million subscribers in Belarus and was able to bypass the web blocks imposed by the regime.

 NEXTA operates from a very small office in Warsaw – which is a clearly significant sign. It uses anonymous material and strangely – but not too much – it has no advertising, but is well financed by “anonymous” entities.

 On August 17, NEXTA also “ordered” the demonstrators to march to a prison in Minsk and then told the doctors and journalists participating in the revolt to interview and provide first aid and care to prisoners. In search of torture evidence, above all.

 It seems that the connection between Lukashenko’s intelligence services and the media against the regime is very close. Confidential information is quickly circulating on the web networks of the uprising.

 Again on August 17, Belarus and the Russian Federation announced the start of joint military exercises at various locations.

 The Russian forces were supposed to be stationed near Vitebsk, while Belarusian ones in Grodno on the Polish border.

 Clearly all this is happening with China’s tacit support and probably with some economic support from China, which certainly does not want a confrontation with the EU, but not even Belarus’ autonomy from both Europe and, in other ways, from Russia.

 Lukashenko could ask for Russia’s help within the CSCE, but he would certainly avoid also a direct confrontation with NATO at any cost.

 There is also the issue of fertilizers, which is no small matter. Belarus exports large quantities of potash it extracts mainly from the Soligorsk mine, which are worth approximately 3 billion U.S. dollars per year. The ownership of the mine, however, is public and, according to Western investors, this “blocks” a market of 29 billion U.S. dollars per year.  

 The great Yeltsin-style “liberalization” looms large over Belarus and, in some sectors, it could be the deal of the century. This is one of the reasons for the ambiguity of the local intelligence services.

 Too much not to create political and economic disturbance.

 The Belarusian KGB has also estimated that about 1.8 billion U.S. dollars have been “donated” to Belarusian bureaucrats and journalists to “liberalize” the Belarusian economy.

 With the inevitable and subsequent spreading of corruption, which is endemic in all countries with centralized economies. But the same holds true also for the liberal ones having a “free-trade ” economy.

 This is the reason why Russia is trying to send to power Viktor Lukashenko, the son of the leader and man of “Gorbatchevian” background.

 The British Embassy in Warsaw is supposed to lead and orient the opposition’s operations on the ground in Belarus, while Germany, Austria and even Poland are more attentive to the autonomy of Belarus which could also serve NATO in the future and just as a buffer towards the Russian Federation.

 Other important bloggers are Siarhei Tsikhaunoski, who organized a Youtube channel called Strana dlya zhizhni, (“Country for Life”) and many others, such as RB Golovnogo Mozga, Maja Krajna Belarus, Narodny Reportor – all small-scale homespun structures, with dark funding, which, however, have become the primary and most reliable information source for most Belarusians.

 An important role was also played by Radio Free Europe/Belarus and BelSat, both operating from Warsaw.

 It should be recalled, however, that in early August 2020 – hence just before elections – Lukashenko accused Russia of coup plotting, although without ever clearly pronouncing its name.

 Again in early August, Belarus asked to have exercises made for reservists on the Russian border, starting on August 11.

 During the election campaign for his sixth term, Lukashenko also accused “external forces” that “go beyond colour revolutions”. He could not have been clearer.

 Moreover, Lukashenko will most likely remain in power despite demonstrations.

 A colour non-revolution against a country that has no particular inclination towards Russia – despite the recent requests for help and the relocation of Russian “hybrid warfare” operators on the borders between Russia and Belarus – has no history. Not even in Westerners’ hyper-simplified minds.

 Furthermore, in case of a Western invasion of Belarus, China could move its divisions, which are not military but economic, and would all be against the EU.

 Lukashenko won with 80.23% of votes. No rigged election can go that far and reach such a result. The Belarusian security forces have so far imprisoned as many as 3,000 protest leaders.

 Apart from the vote rigging, which is very likely, the Belarusian intelligence services estimate that support for Lukashenko is around 48% of the population, while the rest are said to be positioning themselves between the current uprising and a veiled opposition to the regime.

 The rebellion against the Belarusian regime is a mix of demonstrations against Lukashenko’s mild response to the Covid-19 pandemic and people’s response against his repression of the anti-regime candidates.

 Nevertheless – and this could be a real game-changer – Lukashenko noted that many members of his security services actively and sympathetically followed the riots on social media, while many Belarusian military took part in demonstrations in favour of Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate, in Brest on August 2.

 Since then Lukashenko has engaged in propaganda against “external influences”, especially the Russian ones (reading between the lines).  

 In fact, on July 29 last, the Belarusian intelligence services arrested as many as 33 operators of the Russian military contractor company Wagner, which Belarus said had arrived on site to “investigate into the protests”.

 The United States, Russia and Ukraine are currently the bêtes noires of Lukashenko’s propaganda and they are the three powers that, in his opinion, would like to “eliminate him before the election”.

 Hence there are two possible options for Russia, which wants to control the rebellious Belarus: supporting Lukashenko while weakening him, by penetrating the security structures and the economy, or setting up a new regime.

 Putin prefers the first option, i.e. support for Lukashenko, because this could stop the military mechanism of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or create dangerous repercussions on the Kremlin’s “hybrid” operations in Belarus.

 If Russia takes Belarus, its pressure on the EU will be sensitive and very dangerous, and if Russia freezes Lukashenko’s regime, this will be a very strong foot on Poland and Lithuania, capable of counterbalancing the U.S. autonomous military operations in those countries, all against Russia.

 The economy is another factor to be considered. Russia sells oil to Belarus 20% less than the market price, and cyclically Russia threatens to “adjust” tariffs.

 As currently, when Russia has refused to continue oil negotiations until 2021.

 Belarus, however, has bought 80,000 tons of Arabian Light from Saudi Arabia, after previously buying oil also from the United States and Norway.

 With specific reference to natural gas, GAZPROM said it will renegotiate the price with Belarus only after it pays its 165 million dollar debt for the gas already supplied.

 Nevertheless, Lukashenko has also accused Russia and Poland of “interfering in the upcoming presidential election” and this is likely to be true for both countries. This is the “pro-independence” key to Belarus’ current geopolitics.

 Poland does not want combined threats from Belarus in relation to Russia, and indeed it does not want Belarus to become the corridor for a hybrid or non-hybrid invasion of the Polish territory by Russia. The latter, however, does not want Belarus to play its cards with the EU and become a NATO’s potential instrument of penetration of the post-Soviet space.

 It is also likely that opposition candidates such as Babariko, a Gazprombank man, have been sponsored by Russia. A first taste for next elections.

 Putin, however, does not want to intervene in Belarus.

 So far protests have posed no geopolitical danger to Russia and the leaders of the uprising have not asked to join NATO or the EU.  

 Putin has therefore two options: a) he can strongly support Lukashenko, but Russia does not want to enter another point of crisis since it already has enough of them.

 Moreover, Russia has never hidden its coldness towards Lukashenko’s regime and there are countless contrasts and small annoyances and nuisances between the two countries.

 With a Belarusian KGB divided between the new oligarchs, to whom the regime has never allowed to expand their power, and a pro-Western modernization of the system, in view of future affairs, i.e. the dismantling of the Belarusian public system.

 Or (b) Putin can enter into the Belarusian chaos, but he will do so if and only if he seriously perceives a heavy Western involvement.

 Another option for Putin may be c) to replace Lukashenko with someone else, his son or a homo novus.

 There is also the option of a possible cooperation between Russia and the EU to solve the Belarusian issue. For the time being this is supposed to be the option preferred by Vladimir Putin, although rumours are rife of Russian forces entering Belarus.

 With new elections, but also without a new Constitution – as Lukashenko wishes – and possibly with pro-Russian candidates capable of winning and, above all, gaining the votes of the mass opposition to the current regime in Belarus.

This is therefore China’s “protection” for Belarus, as well as Lukashenko’s game between Russia and the EU to avoid being incorporated into the Russian system, for which, however, Belarus’ geostrategic role is essential.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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Eastern Europe

No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation

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Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.

2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.

The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.

In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.

Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.

As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.

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