November 2011 witnessed interesting developments in Belarus: the announcement of the formation of a territorial army by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and a new advisory body called the Council for the Development of an Informational Society (CDIS), run by an existing Operative-Analytical Center and headed by the president with his son Viktar as deputy. More recently, Russia sharply cut gas prices for Belarus for the first quarter of 2012, and in December the Council of the Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community agreed to release the second tranche of a $3 billion loan, worth $400 million. These events illustrate domestic fears of foreign threats as well as Russia’s growing control over the Belarusian economy. In different ways they are both signs of Lukashenka’s weakening position as Belarusian leader.
The formation of the Territorial Army was announced on November 4 during Lukashenka’s visit to Hrodna, though there were also earlier discussions in the official media. The army is to be comprised of 120,000 troops as an auxiliary force for the regular army, with which it will communicate. Such a force, the president stated, is the most effective defense in the face of external aggression and at lower cost than the maintenance of a professional army. Heads of oblast governments at the same time received the military rank of Major-General. Lukashenka stressed the Ministry of Internal Affairs should use its powers to stop “extremist activities,” while the KGB should expend less time on analytical work and become more actively involved in defending the state (Zvyazda, November 5).
Several analyses of this measure have been offered. Alyaksandr Alesin maintains that the goal is to distract people from economic problems, particularly the most active sector of the population aged between 35 and 50. He also considers that the military hierarchy will supplement the state’s bureaucratic leadership to impose tighter control over high officials. The new “generals” by their nature will be obliged to follow orders from above (www.belmarket.by, November 8-13). Svyatlana Kalinkina considers that with this measure the president has shown that he has lost the ability to gauge the mood of the people. The formation of the army is a “clumsy attempt” to unite the nation before some imaginary military threat, but to frighten people with a war is the worst response to the current dilemmas (Belorusskiy Partizan, November 6). Valer Karbalevich is also critical, saying that the move is based on irrational fears and constitutes a direct response to the brutal death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, though it might make sense to “mobilize” top-level officials in order to prevent their turning against the leadership (Svaboda, November 10).
On November 8, with Decree 515, Lukashenka created a new advisory body called the CDIS, comprised mainly of people with a military background. The intention is to control the Internet using as the leading organ the Operative-Analytical Center that was formerly subordinate to the Ministry of Communications. The list of undesirable websites has now been expanded to include 35 sites, access to which is banned from public Internet offices (www.belmarket.by, November 14-20). Once again the decree seems to have a military component, signaling that as far as the president is concerned, this is the best means of stamping out subversion, but it also indicates anxiety about the growing influence of the Internet in Belarus since the December 2010 elections.
While the president tries to increase his authority at home, the country drifts further into the Russian orbit. At a meeting of the Russian Cabinet in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that in the first quarter of 2012 Belarus would be allowed to pay a heavily subsidized price for Russian gas of $164 per thousand cubic meters. He also stated that the presidents of Russia and Belarus expect to ratify an agreement to provide a $10 billion loan to Belarus to build the controversial nuclear power station in the Hrodna region. Gazprom is also planning to buy the remaining 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz, which transports some 20 percent of Russian gas exports to European customers (Belapan, November 25).
On November 28, the Council of the Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community, which is controlled largely by Russia, accepted a decree to release a second tranche of a $3 billion loan to Belarus worth $400 million on condition that Belarus carries out economic reforms. An initial tranche of $800 million was released last June, and six more tranches are expected to be released by 2013 (Narodnaya Volya, November 28). Such funds are increasingly necessary as Belarus must pay the IMF $500,000 in 2012 and over $1.7 billion in 2013 for the loan of 2008-2010 (Belorusskiy Partizan, November 15).
In an interview with the news agency Belapan, Rustam Tankayev, described as a “leading expert at the Union of Oil and Gas Producers of Russia,” declared that the gas discount and purchase of Belatranshaz constituted a geopolitical move on the part of Russia aimed at deeper integration and the formation of the Common Economic Zone. Russia is thus prepared to make some compromises in order to acquire more political control over its neighbor. Economist Syarhey Chaly judges that the ultimate goal is to tempt to Ukraine into joining the zone (www.naviny.by, November 26).
These developments illustrate the enfeeblement of the Belarusian regime. Its president is clearly fearful of foreign intervention, no matter how unrealistic that may seem to most outsiders. But his measures – the militarization of society and internal repressions – are more likely to alienate the once compliant populace. And despite occasional resistance, such as rejection of privatization of the food industry, “We have not and will not have careless privatization,” (Zvyazda, November 16) Lukashenka is unable to withstand Russian economic encroachment since the state-run economy is too weak to survive without Russia’s financial support.