Thursday, 3 August 2017

Notes on Belarus 2017

Belarus rarely gets much attention in the Western media, other than when there is a disputed election and protests. Venezuela under Maduro gets fare more attention in Britain, partly as it's a major oil producer and Belarus is not. It was also regarded as a model '21st Century Socialism' until Chavez's death in 2013 by some on the left.

On reflection, this is bizarre when it is considered that Belarus is just to the east of Poland's border and that Poland was, until 2015, thought to be a fully integrated EU member, stable liberal democracy and staunchly Atlanticist power in Central-Eastern Europe, with migrant workers living across Europe.

Belarus, by contrast, remains relatively unknown and ignored. The left simply wasn't interested in an anti-Western republic which harks back to a forgotten and drab period of the Cold War. It lacks the exotic appeal of Venezuela and the idealistic appeal of its model. It's citizens are white and Slavonic, a cold land frozen out of the rest of Europe.

One reason, apart from the lack of oil, is Belarus doesn't have much history as an independent nation-state, being variously depicted as a land labouring under 'Europe's last dictatorship', a territory carved out of the collapse USSR that's remained largely indistinct as a separate and independent entity or 'The Last Soviet Republic'.

This interesting analysis below draws attention to Belarus' status as a geopolitical buffer state between Russia and the EU, one that under Lukashenko has tried to survive by playing of rival suitors vying for influence over this strategically located state, one that has resisted being drawn into the EU and NATO or Putin's neo-Tsarist state.

With the tug of war battle over Ukraine's destiny to the south leading to a major crisis in 2013-2014 and a civil war continuing growling away in the eastern provinces, Belarus has remained largely quiescent, though there are stirrings of protest given the deteriorating economy and fear of external political intervention.

It will be interesting to see what happens as Poland shifts towards a more authoritarian system under the PiS party. Under its new regime, Poland has sought to reconstitute itself as a rival Central-Eastern power bloc within the EU as counterweight both to a Franco-German dominated Europe to the west and Russia to the east.

Poland would hardly seek to promote liberal democracy quite as before over the border when it's not committed to it at home. Kaczynski is openly lauding the Turkish model of President Erdogan. Across a broad swathe of territory in what Mackinder called the 'rimlands' surrounding the Eurasian 'heartland', neo-authoritarianism is in.

One of the strange ironies of history could be that far from Belarus moving towards liberal democracy, as was once believed inevitable in every post-Soviet state in the 1990s and 2000s, it offers a model of neo-authoritarianism based on capitalism, a dominant party-state monopower and a minimal social security net.

This new 'model' would be touted as offering 'stability' through security from the 'disorder' of Western liberal freedoms, the threat of 'terrorism' and those hostile alien elements within supported by external powers to disintegrate society and cede control to sinister transnational interests that are conspiring to demoralise the nation.

Even so, this might not preclude both Poland and the Baltic States, as well as Russia, vying for geopolitical influence within Belarus, just as they have over Ukraine, out of nationalist competition and using the plight of ethnic minorities as a pretext for external concern. As this article shows, Russia sees it as a vital buffer state.

In that sense, Belarus is the European western end of the Eurasian landmass just as North Korea is the eastern Asian land tip at the other end. While Timothy Garton Ash refers to Belarus as 'Europe's North Korea', Belarus is hardly a nightmarish totalitarian state threatening its own citizens and the region as Pyongyang does.

Even so, it could be argued that Belarus was were the post-1989-1991 era of democracy rolling east from Europe first 'stopped' after a brief experiment. Lukashenko preceded Putin as an authoritarian strongman after a short and traumatic experiment in a neoliberal market democracy. His regime is a precursor of what was to come later.

Antonia Colibasanu sets out the strategic scene and dilemmas of Belarus' position in 2017 in Geopolitical Futures in Russia, Belarus and a Catch-22.

'Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Moscow will “do its best” to prevent any destabilization that could cause a color revolution in Russia and its buffer zone in Eastern Europe. Putin’s remarks come after the media reported that Russian nationals were arrested in Belarus for taking part in anti-government protests in Minsk on March 25-26.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko used the arrests to send a message to Putin prior to their meeting on April 3. Lukashenko wanted to make clear that he is still in control of his country, despite recent protests and economic problems. And Moscow needs to keep Minsk on its side.

Russia’s essential strategic problem is its vulnerability on its western border. It is susceptible to invasions through the North European Plain and needs access to global trading routes via the Baltic and the Black seas.

Therefore, Russia needs to push its frontier or sphere of influence as far west as possible, creating a buffer zone between Western Europe and its borders. Ideally, the Russian buffer zone would comprise the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine. The Baltics have integrated into the Western alliance system since the end of the Cold War.

After losing Ukraine, keeping Belarus in its sphere of influence became even more important for Russia. Belarus is a key part of Russia’s security strategy because the two countries share a joint air defense system. They also have held joint military exercises every four years since 2009, and Russia hopes to strengthen its military presence in Belarus.

To maintain its influence over the country, Russia needs both a friendly government in Minsk and a stable Belarus. But to keep the government friendly, Russia relies on measures that can fuel destabilization. The poor state of the Belarusian economy has sparked anti-government demonstrations, which have continued for months.

The recent protests against the “social parasite” tax on the unemployed are some examples. After hundreds of protesters were arrested and 150 were jailed, fear has kept people from returning to the streets. But the economic problems remain. Belarus’ economy has been in recession for more than two years.

 Russia’s increasing economic problems since the fall in oil prices have had a negative impact on Belarus, which is heavily dependent on the Russian economy. Russia’s ability to support Belarus financially has declined. This has caused socio-economic problems in Belarus and and forced Minsk to seek solutions elsewhere.

...keeping Belarus in Russia’s sphere of influence is more important than Russian internal politics. Lukashenko doesn’t face a powerful or united opposition. Most of the businesses in Belarus are tied to, if not dependent on, Russian money, either through direct funding or the Russian market.

If Russian support is reduced, Belarus will look to the West, which could lead to a change in government that would not be in Russia’s favor. Therefore, this is a Catch-22 for Russia: It can’t afford to continue spending money on Belarus while it faces problems at home, but it also can’t afford to stop supporting Belarus since another government in the West might instead.

Bibliography and Further Sources on Belarus.

Belarus Digest.
Geopolitical Review.
New East Network, the Guardian,


A Wilson, Europe's Last Dictatorship ( 2011 )
B Bennett, Europe's Last Dictatorship: Belarus under Lukashenko ( 2011 )
I A Zaprudnik, Belarus : At a Crossroads in History ( 1993)
G Joffe, Understanding Belarus. How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark ( 2014 )
L Bazan, A History of Belarus. ( 2014)
D Marples, Belarus: A Denationalised Nation ( 1999 )
A Applebaum, Between East and West ( 1994 )
N Davies, Vanished Kingdoms ( 2012 )
N Davies, Europe at War: No Simple Victory 1939-1945 ( 2007 )
T Snyder, Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. ( 2011 )
T Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus ( 2009 ).


A Wilson, Europe Keep an Eye on Minsk, Politico, March 17, 2017
A Sannikov, 'We are not slaves', Guardian, March 2017.
A Colibasanu, Russia, Belarus and a Catch-22, Geopolitical Futures, April, 2017.
A Fedirka, Belarus: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Geopolitical Futures, December, 2016.
R Astapenia, Belarus is no longer 'Europe's last dictatorship', Guardian, September 2014.
J Steele, Lukashenko's Way, LRB, September 2012.

2010 Election and Protests.

J Laughland, The Technique of a Coup d'├ętat, Lew Rockwell, December 2010.
T Garton Ash, We have to confront Europe's Mugabe , Guardian, December 2010.
C Reilly, Belarus-Image is All, Open Democracy, January 2009.
P Hitchens, The Comb-over Soviet-style Tyrant, Daily Mail, July 2008.

2006 Election and Protests..

M Almond, Less Bizarre than it Seems, Guardian, 21 March 2006
J  Laughland, The Prague Racket, Guardian, November 22 2002.
A Mazhukhou, The Will of the People was heard in Belarus's Election , April 2006.
T Garton Ash, Don't defend the dregs of Soviet Socialism, April 2006.
T Garton Ash, What's real in Belarus ? April, 2006
T Garton Ash, Belarus Needs You, March 2006
J Steele, Europe and the US decide the winner before the vote, March 2006.


The British Media is Silent on Trump's Shift to Confrontation with Iran

When the Independent moved online and ceased its print editions in 2016, this was seen as the beginning of the end of an era. The June 2017 general election in Britain saw too the decline of the populist right wing tabloid media as a decisive force that could determine victories for the Conservative Party.

The rise of social media has fragmented traditional audiences and 'the reading public'. Roy Greenslade has predicted the demise of the 'reactionary' tabloid media in the Guardian. What he hasn't dealt with is the decline of 'mainstream' newspapers as a proper source of information on international power politics.

It's not clear what future the 'serious' quality newspaper heritage media has when it fails to make itself relevant by journalistic coverage of the global politics and events that matter, a tradition being continued at present by a diminishing number of real journalists such as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent and his despatches from Iraq.

The fall of Mosul was barely covered in the Guardian compared with the coverage east Aleppo received when it fell to Assad's forces and Russian airpower in December 2016. The 40,000 civilian casualties have not been even registered in public consciousness nor the roughly 5500 believed killed by Western air power.

By any objective criteria, the liberation of the largest ISIS held city in Iraq ought to have been a major news item. But it was mentioned as if the war against ISIS was largely one in a far off land with little connection to Britain or the US, a footnote in a struggle that has long ceased to have much immediate relevance.

The fact the destruction of the IS Caliphate was downplayed so much might have something to do with lack of interest in civilian casualties that could have been caused by Trump's determination to 'bomb the shit out of ISIS' and to 'let the generals off the leash'. This was raised in the US media, but in Britain-silence.

Also not reported anywhere in the Guardian is the decisive shift of the Trump presidency towards a confrontation with Iran. It got a fleeting mention in an Observer editorial with Iran's ballistic missile 'threat' regarded as one Trump simply wasn't 'dealing with' despite his rhetoric. Nowhere has the Iraq style plan for war on Iran been mentioned.

It might be that the pretexts for war are so flimsy now and, as the Iraq War has demonstrated the US and US publics won't be 'played' by the government and media again, that the emphasis is on a media blanket, in simply not putting anywhere near enough emphasis on reporting the facts or informing the public in Britain.

The Guardian featured one article by Trita Parsi a few weeks ago and one by Trevor Timms lambasting Trump for his 'bloodlust' on Iran: the line is that Trump is the problem more than the Washington elites , both Republican and Democrat, who would be prepared to align behind Trump is he decided on confrontation with Iran.

Parsi is one of many international diplomacy experts who have been writing in the last week of July about the Trump administration's determination to subvert the nuclear deal and project responsibility for its aggressive postures on to Iran. The New York Times has covered this and, to an extent, the Washington Post.

Parsi is clear as to the strategy,
'President Donald Trump has made it clear, in no uncertain terms and with no effort to disguise his duplicity, that he will claim that Tehran is cheating on the nuclear deal by October—the facts be damned. In short, the fix is in. Trump will refuse to accept that Iran is in compliance and thereby set the stage for a military confrontation. His advisors have even been kind enough to explain how they will go about this. Rarely has a sinister plan to destroy an arms control agreement and pave the way for war been so openly telegraphed.  
The unmasking of Trump’s plans to sabotage the nuclear deal began two weeks ago when he reluctantly had to certify that Iran indeed was in compliance. Both the US intelligence as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Tehran’s fair play. But Trump threw a tantrum in the Oval Office and berated his national security team for not having found a way to claim Iran was cheating. According to Foreign Policy, the adults in the room—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster—eventually calmed Trump down but only on the condition that they double down on finding a way for the president to blow up the deal by October. 
Recognizing that refusing to certify Iran would isolate the United States, Trump’s advisors gave him another plan. Use the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal, they suggested, to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks—which it will since the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities—Trump can claim that Iran is in violation, blowing up the nuclear deal while shifting the blame to Tehran.
This decisive shift in the approach of Trump towards Iran was not reported in any British mainstream media outlet, despite the similarities to the build up of the war with Iraq and despite the fact Britain's government regards itself as America's 'first ally' and that any US confrontation with Iran could well drag the UK in.

The Guardian is in danger of becoming a lamer version of the Huffington Post. The international coverage throughout 2017 has been appalling. There is no news coverage of Trump's attempts to shred a deal that could prevent a major war breaking out. Just the mainstreaming information on twitterspats and outrage pieces.

On defence, Richard Norton Taylor seems to have retired and so the shameful concealment of the Saudi role in backing jihadi ideology in Britain simply has not been focused on nor the reasons why the Conservative government is intent on suppressing the 2015 commissioned report into the funding of terrorist activity from the Gulf States.

Those interested in foreign affairs, those wanting quality and balanced, objective reportage simply aren't going to want to pay for Guardian, though they would be if the coverage was better. The Guardian is fine for scanning the headlines, but so is the BBC or any other media platform. It's simply not outstanding on international affairs any more.

The Independent might not be soon. Cockburn is indispensable for understanding the Middle East. But it's disturbing that a large chunk of the shares have been snapped up by a Saudi businessman, Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel. While it might remain a 'progressive' media outlet, one wonders how long Cockburn might last.

Cockburn has done more than any other journalist in Britain to report the truth and reality of both the war in Iraq and in Syria, that Gulf State funding was a factor in the rise of ISIS and that the 'moderate rebel' propaganda trope recycled in the media was just that: the Free Syria Army had long been hijacked by jihadists.

Moreover, Cockburn is critical about the role of Saudi Arabia in funding global Wahhabi ideology and disseminating jihadi ideology-even in Britain. As he wrote just after the Manchester terrorist attack, the BBC and other media know Saudi Arabia is behind the funding the 'radicalisation' but refuse to report it.

As newspapers go online, British media is actually quite feeble compared to the US. If Trump went to war to Iran this autumn, few in Britain would have any idea that it had been brewing away much of the year or that Trump's administration had shifted towards confrontation or even some form of regime change option.

It's unclear how the US liberal media would react to Trump gearing up for a war on Iran, whether it would swing round to rally opinion behind the President, as it tended to before the Iraq War, or whether it would take a more confrontational and sceptical stance as once it did with Nixon's handling of Vietnam.

At least in the run up to the Iraq War, between 2002 to 2003, people were informed of a British government case for war they could be aware about and question. If war with Iran broke out and Britain predictably aligned 'shoulder to shoulder', it could happen very rapidly and appear as though it came 'from out of nowhere'.

Update Aug 5 2017,

The Guardian has reported more on the potential threat to the editorial freedom of the Independent,
'Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel works for NCB Capital, the investment banking arm of the National Commercial Bank, which is controlled by the Saudi government and is one of the biggest banks in the Middle East'. News of Abuljadayel’s stake emerged last week, sparking concerns that the website’s liberal political stance and hard-hitting coverage of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and foreign policy could change.  Saudi Arabia’s suppression of freedom of speech has been heavily criticised. It is one of several Middle Eastern countries that has demanded the closure of the broadcaster al-Jazeera in return for lifting a blockade of Qatar.