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Posts tagged ‘Soviet Land of Belarus’

Jitters in Europe as Russia-Belarus war games get underway

September 14, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Russia and Belarus began major war games Thursday, an operation involving thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft on NATO’s eastern edge practicing how to hunt down and destroy armed spies, among other maneuvers.

The Zapad (West) 2017 maneuvers, which are mainly taking place in Belarus this year, have caused concern among members of the Western military alliance and in neighboring countries. Some NATO members, including the Baltic states and Poland, have criticized a lack of transparency about the exercises and questioned Moscow’s real intentions.

Russia and Belarus say the exercises, which run until Sept. 20, involve 5,500 Russian and 7,200 Belarusian troops. Russian military officials have said up to 70 aircraft and about 250 tanks, 200 artillery systems and 10 navy ships will also be involved.

Estonian Defense Minister Juri Liuk, however, says Moscow could deploy up to 100,000 troops. “Leaving weapons in Belarus means the Russian army could prepare bases for a sudden broad attack … right at the NATO border,” Lithuanian officer Darius Antanaitis said.

While the Baltic nations fear the Zapad maneuvers may lead to a surprise Russian attack, the exercises have also been criticized by Belorussian opposition leaders. They say Russia could use the occasion to position a large, permanent contingent of troops in Belarus, leaving the country at the mercy of any armed confrontation involving Moscow.

The exercises began Thursday night with units simulating hunting down and destroying reconnaissance agents belonging to illegal armed groups, according to Oleg Belokonev, the Belorussian Deputy Defense Minister.

“Command points have been set up and fully-functioning command systems created,” Belokonev told journalists at a press conference in Minsk, the capital. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, formally notified NATO of the beginning of the exercises on Thursday evening, according to Russian media. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told NATO troops in Estonia last week that the alliance will be closely monitoring Zapad exercises.

Russia-West relations nosedived to their lowest level since the Cold War in recent years after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine, clashes that have left over 10,000 people dead.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that elite parachute units in several Russian cities had been placed on alert to be deployed during the exercises. Organizers have invented three “aggressor countries” — Veishnoriya, Lubeniya and Vesbasriya — to whose attacks the Russian and Belorussian militaries will simulate a response. The Baltic States and Poland fear that these monikers are just poorly disguised terms for their own countries.

Poland’s National Security Bureau head, Pawel Soloch, said Thursday the exercises were a demonstration “of the Russian state’s capacity to hold full-scale war action.” “The degree of mobilization is really impressive,” Soloch said on private Radio Zet.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who often criticizes Russian leaders, said the war games are a sign the Kremlin is preparing for conflict with NATO. “We are anxious about this drill … it is an open preparation for war with the West,” Grybauskaite told reporters.

There is also unease in Kiev, and Ukraine is currently conducting its own military exercises. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said that Zapad 2017 appears to be a “preparation for an offensive war on a continental scale.”

Both Moscow and Minsk have said repeatedly that the exercises are not a danger for neighboring countries. “We are not threatening anyone,” Oleg Voinov, an adviser to the Belorussian Defense Minister, told journalists Thursday. “We have chosen military bases that are significantly removed from the borders with Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.”

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Thursday that Russia had been completely open and transparent about its military’s involvement in the exercises. The most recent Zapad exercises, which occur every few years, took place in 2013, just before Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Russia had leased a naval base in Crimea from Ukraine prior to its seizure, and used troops deployed there to quickly take over the Black Sea peninsula.

Some people think fears of Russian aggression are being blown out of proportion. “Worries over Zapad are overkill. Russians will not seek confrontation, because they know that NATO will be watching this event closely and is certainly ready to react,” said Kestutis Girnius, a Vilnius University political analyst.

Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Howard Amos in Moscow and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this report.

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Protesters in Minsk denounce military exercises with Russia

September 08, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — About 200 people have held an unauthorized demonstration in the Belorussian capital of Minsk to protest their nation’s joint military exercises with Russia this month. Although police in the authoritarian former Soviet republic often harshly break up unsanctioned demonstrations, there were no arrests at Friday’s gathering.

The military exercises beginning Sept. 14 have raised concerns among Belarus’ beleaguered opposition that Russia could use them to establish a permanent military presence. Nikolai Statkevich, Belarus’ most prominent opposition figure, told the rally that Russia could use the exercises to “use our country as a base for aggression.”

Belarus borders Lithuania and Latvia and is near Estonia. All three Baltic states, which were once part of the Soviet Union, have expressed fears that Russia could try to annex them like it did Crimea in 2014.

Belarus march against nuclear power on Chernobyl anniversary

April 26, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — About 400 people have marched in Belarus’ capital to mark the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster and protest the construction of a nuclear plant in the country.

Wednesday was the 31st anniversary of the explosion and fire at the nuclear plant in neighboring Ukraine. The disaster spewed fallout-contaminated smoke over a wide swath of northern Europe. About a quarter of Belarus’ territory was contaminated and a 2,200-square-kilometer (85-square-mile) sector of Belarus was declared unfit for human habitation.

The demonstrators said authorities are increasingly allowing crops to be grown on contaminated land. They also urged authorities to stop the construction of the nuclear plant, which will open in 2019.

Unlike recent opposition rallies that saw hundreds arrested, Wednesday’s march in Minsk was sanctioned by authorities.

Belarus’ police arrest protesters at banned demonstration

March 25, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Police in the Belorussian capital have begun wide-scale arrests protesters who had gathered for a forbidden demonstration that they hoped would build on a rising wave of defiance of the former Soviet republic’s authoritarian government.

About 700 people had tried to march along Minsk’s main avenue, but were blocked by a cordon of riot police wielding clubs and holding shields. After a standoff, arrests began. “They’re beating the participants, dragging women by the hair to buses. I was able to run to a nearby courtyard,” demonstrator Alexander Ponomarev said.

There were no immediate figures on how many people were taken into custody. Earlier, police raided the office of the human-rights group Vesna. About 30 of its activists were detained, said Oleg Gulak of the Belorussian Helsinki Committee.

In the days preceding the demonstration, more than 100 opposition supporters were sentenced to jail terms of three to 15 days, Vesna reported before the raid. Prominent opposition figure Vladimir Neklayev reportedly was pulled off a train by police during the night while trying to travel to Minsk.

Belarus has seen an unusually persistent wave of protests over the past two months against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994. After tolerating the initial protests, authorities cracked down. Lukashenko this week alleged that a “fifth column” of foreign-supported agitators was trying to bring him down.

Saturday’s demonstrators shouted slogans including “shame” and “basta (enough)” and deployed the red-and-white flag that is the opposition’s symbol. The flag was first used by the short-lived independent Belorussian People’s Republic in 1918 and again after independence from the Soviet Union, but was replaced in 1995 after Lukashenko gained power.

In his 23 years as president, Lukashenko has stifled dissent and free media and retained much of the Soviet-style command economy. The protests this year initially focused on his unpopular “anti-parasite” law that calls for a $250 tax on anyone who works less than six months a year, but doesn’t register with the state labor exchange. But the protests broadened into general dissatisfaction with his rule, which some critics have characterized as Europe’s last dictatorship.

Protests attracted hundreds on Saturday in Brest and Grodno, two other large cities. No arrests were immediately reported.

Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Russia-Belarus rift grows as Putin loses patience

February 18, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — In more than two decades in power, the autocratic leader of Belarus has cast his nation as Moscow’s closest ally, securing tens of billions of dollars in Russian subsidies. At the same time, President Alexander Lukashenko has skillfully exploited Russia’s security fears by occasionally reaching out to the West to win concessions from Moscow. Now, the Kremlin finally seems to have lost patience with its unruly ally, spelling an end to a relationship that has been described as giving away “oil for kisses.”

The spiraling conflict between the neighbors has reached such a level that some analysts have talked about Russia possibly staging a “palace coup” against Lukashenko. Visibly nervous about Russia’s intentions, the Belorussian leader recently assured his nation of 10 million people that “there will be no war” between the two countries.

Lukashenko has sought to present Belarus as an indispensable partner for Russia and a bulwark against NATO. At the same time, he has periodically made overtures to the West, masterfully exploiting Moscow’s fear of losing a crucial ally to win more financial aid.

It now seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin has grown tired of Lukashenko’s games. A scheduled meeting between the two last week was postponed indefinitely, and Russia has set up border controls on its previously unguarded frontier with Belarus.

Putin and Lukashenko never got along, and it’s hard to imagine any affinity between the cold, reserved former KGB officer and the blustery and boisterous Belorussian, a former state farm director. Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994, extending his rule through elections the West has criticized as undemocratic, keeping most of the economy in state hands and relentlessly cracking down on the opposition and independent media.

But Belarus’ dependence on Russia and Moscow’s desire to keep a key military ally on its western flank have helped bridge differences — until recently. When Belarus balked last year at the price Russia charged for its natural gas, accumulating a $550 million debt, Moscow hit Minsk in its softest spot by sharply cutting oil supplies. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus had used cheap Russian crude for products that accounted for more than a third of its export revenues.

The spat escalated with Lukashenko recalling Belorussian representatives from a Russia-dominated economic alliance and ignoring its recent summit. He then raised the stakes by abolishing visas for short-time travelers from 80 nations, including the U.S. and the European Union. The move vexed Russia, which voiced concern that foreign visitors could cross the uncontrolled border with Belarus.

Moscow responded by unilaterally establishing border controls — a move Lukashenko warned could trigger a “serious conflict.” He further challenged the Kremlin by ordering his interior minister to open a criminal inquiry against Russia’s top sanitary official for barring imports of Belorussian food products. Russia has banned some agricultural imports from Belarus, accusing it of becoming a conduit for contraband Western food banned in retaliation for the U.S. and the EU sanctions against Moscow.

The Kremlin responded that the Russian official was only doing his job, and noted that deliveries of cheap oil to Belarus had cost Russia over $22 billion in lost revenue in 2011-15. The cheap energy, along with billions of dollars in Russian loans, buttressed Belarus’ Soviet-style economy that has relied on its eastern neighbor as its main export market.

Russia and Belarus have had economic disputes before, but each time Moscow caved in to Lukashenko’s demands and restored the subsidies. The latest controversy, however, seems deeper, and Putin appears unlikely to back off.

“There are limits to a weak state’s ability to dictate its terms to a stronger one,” economic expert Vladislav Inozemtsev said on Moscow’s Ekho Moskvy radio. Lukashenko sounded unusually tense at a recent news conference.

“Why take us by the throat?” he asked. “No one will occupy us, no one will send in troops,” he said in an apparent reference to fears that Russia could try to use massive joint military maneuvers scheduled in Belarus later this year to overrun the country. “The Russian troops that will enter Belarus will leave.”

The statement seemed to reflect Lukashenko’s suspicions about the Kremlin’s intentions following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Lukashenko never recognized Crimea as part of Russia, and he also refused to follow suit when Moscow acknowledged Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

The Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk warned recently that the Kremlin could try to send troops into Belarus. “The threat of Russia stirring up an internal conflict in Belarus has reached a maximum level,” said Yuri Tsarik, the head of the center’s Russia program.

For several years, Lukashenko has firmly resisted the Kremlin’s push for Belarus to host a Russian air base, probably fearing it might serve as a foothold for Moscow as in Crimea, where Russia had leased a navy base prior to the annexation.

“Lukashenko remembers quite well that the seizure of Crimea began from the Russian base,” said Minsk-based analyst Valery Karbalevich. “After Crimea, Minsk has sensed real danger, and Lukashenko has started searching for ways to resist the Russian pressure.”

In a bid to counter Russia, Lukashenko has sought to mend ties with the West, and he scaled back his crackdown on dissent. The EU and the U.S. recently rolled back sanctions they imposed on Belarus following relatively smoother elections and the release of political prisoners. But Belarus’ hope of securing a $3 billion IMF loan has remained elusive.

“Lukashenko needs Moscow, and the Kremlin knows that,” said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political scholar in Minsk. “In exchange for subsidies, Putin expects Belarus to show support and discipline, not wag its tail to the West.”

He predicted Putin would be unlikely to resort to force. “The Kremlin’s strategy is to scare Lukashenko and then make a deal with him, putting him on a shorter leash,” Klaskovsky said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

Belarus allows small demonstration outside KGB headquarters

October 29, 2016

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Dozens of demonstrators bearing lit candles have held a gathering in front of Belarus’ KGB headquarters to commemorate victims of a Soviet mass execution and to protest continuing repression.

The Saturday demonstration was unsanctioned, but police did not interfere. It marked the 1937 killing of more than 100 members of the Belorussian intelligentsia on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Anniversary gatherings held annually provide are a rare opportunity for public disapproval of the authoritarian leadership of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has stifled news media and opposition since coming to power in 1994.

Nikolai Statkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 elections and was imprisoned for five years afterward, said: “The fear of repression haunts Belarus as before. Today’s authorities are the ideological heirs of those times.”

Belorussian capital Minsk awarded 2019 European Games

October 21, 2016

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The capital of Belarus was chosen Friday to host the 2019 European Games, ending more than a year of uncertainty after the previous host pulled out. The European Olympic Committee’s general assembly approved the choice of Minsk, which was the only candidate to stage the second edition of the multi-sport event.

The motion passed easily, despite calls led by the Danish Olympic Committee to postpone the decision, arguing there was a lack of clarity over financing. “Belarus is not a superpower but we pay a lot of attention to sports,” President Alexander Lukashenko told the assembly. “You can count on Belarus.”

Lukashenko also urged more events from the European Games to be made qualifiers for the Olympics in order to attract more top athletes and fans after some leading competitors opted to skip the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, last year.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, is likely to face criticism over its human rights record. The country is also currently in recession, raising concerns over the cost of hosting the games. Belorussian sports have also been dogged by doping cases.

The 2019 European Games were originally scheduled to take place in the Netherlands, which pulled out last year citing financial reasons. Russia was the EOC’s preferred backup choice, but showed little interest even before the International Olympic Committee said it was not an appropriate host because of doping scandals.

Last year’s games in Baku were hounded by controversies over human rights and lavish spending. Launched as an equivalent to long-established continental events, such as the Asian Games and Pan American Games, the European Games cost several billion dollars, with many new venues built. The opening ceremony in Baku alone had a price tag of $95 million, Azerbaijan’s sports minister said at the time.

Minsk would likely need to spend far less to host the games, having built or refurbished many sports venues in recent years. The Belorussian capital hosted the world track cycling championships in 2013 and world ice hockey championships a year later.

Previously, Belarus had said it would only host the games on the condition it received financial support, a question which was not resolved Friday by the EOC. “Money is the main issue here. The second European Games will require huge investments,” Belarus Olympic Committee deputy president Maxim Ryzhenkov said Wednesday. “Belarus invites the International Olympic Committee and EOC to assume a part of the expenses.”

Belarus has retained much of the economic and political structure from Soviet times, and Lukashenko has regularly been criticized by human rights groups over jailed political opponents and the country’s use of the death penalty.

The country also has a record of doping in ice hockey, weightlifting and track and field. The head of the national track federation served a doping ban during his career as an athlete. The Minsk assembly took place without EOC president Patrick Hickey, who is unable to leave Brazil since he was arrested in August during the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on ticket scalping charges.

Lukashenko said there was “no proof” Hickey had done anything wrong, while acting EOC president Janez Kocijancic said he was concerned for Hickey’s health. “His health is deteriorating. He has problems with the heart. The surgeons and doctors suggest that he should be treated in Ireland,” Kocijancic said. “Patrick Hickey deserves much better treatment, he deserves the opportunity to prove his innocence and he must be returned home to improve his health.”

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