Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Moscow Pushing Mensk Around on Air Base, Belarusian Security Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – The Mensk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research says that Moscow has not succeeded in gaining the agreement of the Belarusian side to the establishment of a Russian airbase in Belarus but is going ahead anyway, confident that it can push Mensk around given Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s lack of allies elsewhere.

            In a report released today, the Center points out that even the language the Russians used when they announced that Vladimir Putin had been presented with an accord on the issue on September 2 shows that there was no agreement to the base from the Belarusian side (csfps.by/new-research/bazovyy-vopros).

            The Russian side described the accord as one that had been “worked up with the Belarusian side” rather than the traditional terminology, “agreed to” by both.  This means, the report continues, that over the last three months, “consensus on the issue of creating a Russian air base” in Belarus “had not been achieved.”

            It also means that the Moscow announcement “is a unilateral initiative” by the Russian side and intended to “accelerate the process” toward an agreement “by the Belarusian side.” And that is the case, the report continues, even though Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared that an agreement “should be signed at a comfortable time” for Mensk.
            That formulation too is important, the Belarusian Center report continues, because the current moment is “extremely unfavorable” from the point of view of the Belarusian side. First of all, “almost half of the population of the country – more than 45 percent – are against” an agreement. Lukashenka would not want to offend voters just before the presidential election.

            Second, the report continues, “the creation of a Russian military base in Belarus instantly crosses out the diplomatic efforts of Mensk, undertaken in 2014-2015 in support of the peace process in Ukraine.” A base would cost Mensk its “neutral status” and undermine Ukraine’s trust in Mensk.

            Third, the establishment of such a base would “complicate [Belarusian] relations with Western partners and in fact stop the process of normalization which has been going on for several years.” That in turn would reduce the chances that Belarus could get loans from the IMF or other international bodies.

            And fourth, “the establishment of a Russian military base would mean the drawing in of Mensk into the logic of confrontation in Eastern Europe, something which would have negative consequences for Belarus’ cooperation with China” and especially with the possibility that Belarus would be part of a new China-sponsored Silk Road to Europe.

            In addition to the issue of timing, there are serious questions arising from the draft agreement. The agreement as written opens the way for further Russian expansion of its forces in Belarus and seeks to force Mensk to agree to any of them in advance, something that a sovereign government inevitably will resist.

            The draft accord also includes a “no less strange” provision calling for the base to be used to repel” acts of armed aggression by international terrorist formations,” a proposition that given Moscow’s tendency to refer to Ukrainian resistance as terrorist opens the door for the use of this base against Belarusians as well.

            The accord also gives the base commander a unilateral right to make use of Belarusian airspace, a provision that could be used to introduce forces into Belarus against its will that could threaten Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries and at the very least raise tensions across the entire region.

            And perhaps most worrisome of all, the accord says that Russian military personnel based there can be used “outside the boundaries of the base” if the Belarusian side is kept informed.  How that could be used is obvious given how Moscow made use of Russian military personnel in Crimea.

            In short, this accord would drag Belarus into a new cold war with the West, “a development of events which for Belarus would be a catastrophe,” the report concludes. But it points out that this would have negative consequences for Russia as well because it would further isolate Russia and keep it from going beyond its raw materials-based economy.

            “War, the escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the entire post-Soviet space destroys the chance for development” in Russia, the report says. “This is obvious including from the publicly recognized failure of the import substitution policy in Russia over the last years.”

            One of the authors of this report, Yury Tsarik, repeated its arguments to Kseniya Kirillova, adding importantly that at his September 18 meeting with Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka continued to resist signing the base accord despite Russian pressure for him to do so and an indications Moscow will go ahead regardless (ru.krymr.com/content/article/27262479.html).

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