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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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