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Belarus Under Sanctions, What Next?

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Russia has unreservedly expressed its solidarity and unflinching support for Belarus after the United States and European Union slapped the fourth package of sanctions against its political leadership, members of the government and on a number of businesses.

On June 23, in an official statement posted to the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry, for instance, described the European Union decision as “illegitimate and illegal EU sanctions against Belarus” and the EU devalues ​​its own claims to the role of guardian of international law.

According to the statement, “the Russian Federation is committed to allied relations with fraternal Belarus. We will continue to coordinate our efforts in the interests of strengthening state sovereignty and ensuring the national security of our countries on the basis of existing international legal agreements, and strengthening our collective stability in the face of external pressure and a policy of containment.”

In the meanwhile, Belarus and the world is waiting for the results of the international investigation into the emergency landing of the Ryanair airline in Minsk.

The European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States presented a joint statement on imposition of sanctions against Belarus, published on the EU website on June 21.

“Today, we have taken coordinated sanctions action in response to the 23 May forced landing of a commercial Ryanair flight between two EU member states and the politically motivated arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich and his companion Sofia Sapega,” the statement reads.

The sides urged Belarus to cooperate fully with international investigations into the events of May 23, and “enter into a comprehensive and genuine political dialogue between the authorities and representatives of the democratic opposition and civil society, facilitated by the OSCE.”

The EU expanded its sanctions against Belarus, adding 78 persons and 8 companies to the list. The US sanctioned 16 persons and six companies, while the UK sanctioned 11 people and two organizations. Canada imposed sanctions against 17 persons and fiver Belarusian companies.

The European Council notes on its website that the EU sanctions now apply to 166 persons and 15 entities in total. “Those designated are subject to an asset freeze and EU citizens and companies are forbidden from making funds available to those listed. Natural persons are additionally subject to a travel ban, which impedes them from entering or transiting through EU territories.”

The package of sanctions imposed have sparked debates and discussions among Russian politicians and experts as well as foreign academicians. It has attracted unprecedented reports both in the local and foreign media.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, widely known Russian media, reported that the EU Foreign Affairs Council held a session in Luxembourg, and was attended by Belarusian opposition figurehead Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. After her speech, ministers of 15 EU countries interactively asked her questions about sanctions, the domestic situation in Belarus, and the fact that the Belarusian crisis could be resolved peacefully through joint means of putting pressure on the government.

Besides that and as has been the situation, the Belarusian government has shown no desire to alleviate the tensions in its relations with the EU. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that Belarus terminated the activity of the UN human rights adviser in Minsk. The relations between Belarus and the EU have reached their highest escalation point in modern history.

Experts are still figuring out the possible impact on the economy of Belarus and its relation to Russia. First, all the individuals on the sanction list banned from entering the European Union and any of their potential assets be frozen in the EU.

On the economic sectors, the restrictions will affect the potassium, oil and financial spheres of Belarus. According to various news reports, the sanctions may affect up to 4% of Belarusian exports, which last year amounted to US$29 billion.

For instance, Belaruskali, one of the largest producers of fertilizers in the world, might be one of the companies targeted by the sanctions. It transports its products through the Port of Klaipeda in Lithuania, the newspaper reports. “Before the pandemic, the revenue of Belaruskali reached about US$2 billion. About 90% of its products go through Klaipeda.

It will be practically impossible to replace this route with the aid of Russian ports and railways,” Belarusian political analyst Dmitry Bolkunets explained as reported by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, adding that it is necessary to wait for the final decision on the sanctions regime.

So far, about 20-30% of Belarus exports are under the threat of sanctions, the expert suggested. Before the pandemic, Belarus’ exports reached US$32 billion, so as a result of EU sanctions the Lukashenko government risks losing up to US$10 billion.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis noted that Russia would be significantly affected by EU sanctions against Lukashenko’s government. Only Russia can refinance the losses of Belarus, so by introducing sanctions against Minsk, the EU puts part of the pressure on Russia, which has the ability to influence Belarus, the minister explained.

The new Western sanctions against Belarus will not produce the desired effect, while reciprocal measures will negatively affect the interests of the Western citizens and companies, Belarusian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

“The sanctions and restriction will not produce the effect, desired by those who ordered them. The reciprocal measures that the EU forces us to take may equally negatively affect the spheres of our cooperation and, eventually, the interests of Western citizens and companies who took unfriendly steps towards our country,” the Foreign Ministry said in its commentary on the sanctions, imposed earlier by the US, the EU, the UK and Canada.

The Foreign Ministry noted that “such approach leaves neither time nor space for a search for windows of opportunity, in order to find an exit from the situation that exists in the relations between Belarus and the EU, the US, the UK and Canada.”

Russia and Belarus parliaments have together against external forces. During its 60th joint parliamentary session held in June, the First Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia, Chairman of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus, Vladimir Andreichenko, in remarks appreciated the support provided by Russia against the background of attempts by Western states and the European Union to destabilize the situation in Belarus.

According to the 2019 census, Belarus has 9.5 million population. Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, and is a former Soviet republic. The leadership has often been described as “Europe’s last dictatorship” by some media outlets, politicians and authors due to its authoritarian government. Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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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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