Belarus has always been an oddity in Europe, and this trend has continued during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As much of Europe shuts down in the face of the deadly virus, Belarus – often described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ – has remained opened.
Much criticism will undoubtedly be laid upon leaders across the world for their handling of the coronavirus. However, due to the uniquely peculiar and passive approach that Belarus has undertaken in the face of this pandemic, the criticism could lead to serious ruptures in the social and political fabric of the nation and may even lead to the first change of leadership in a generation.
The country’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, has been running the small eastern European state of about 9.4 million people since 1994. In the past weeks, the intrepid President has taken it upon himself to provide Belarussians with some interesting and dubious tips for how to avoid illness.
President Lukashenko has described the pandemic as “yet another psychosis,” and has suggested that his citizens work outside in the promise that “the tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone.”
Other questionable yet equally intriguing preventative measures that President Lukashenko has suggested have been to drink 50ml of vodka daily, and to visit the sauna house “two or three times a week” followed by washing your hands and drinking 100ml of vodka after coming out of the sauna for extra effectiveness.
Another antidote suggested by the President is sports, which he claims is the “best anti-virus remedy.” Lukashenko, an avid ice hockey fan, responded to a concerned reporter’s coronavirus-related question after having played a game of hockey by stating “there are no viruses here… Did you see any of them flying around? I don’t see them too.”
Silly remedies aside, to this day Belarus has still not implemented any sort of lockdown and has given no explicit social distancing advice. The Belarussian football (soccer) season continues as planned – to the delight of football fans everywhere, seeing as how it’s the only operational league in Europe – and President Lukashenko continues to downplay the pandemic.
Most recently, Lukashenko has even claimed that “no one will die of Coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this.” Which is a strange declaration on his behalf, especially considering dozens of people have already died of coronavirus in Belarus according to his own government.
The issue with Belarus is not so much that they have decided not to lock down the country – in fact, Sweden has taken a similar step – the major difference comes in the form of leadership and guidance. Sweden has advised its people to follow social distancing and has put some measures into place. Swedes know the hazardous potential of the virus and its spread and are taking precautions.
In Belarus, no advice has come. On the contrary, the President has even given inaccurate and detrimental medical advice and has consistently and publicly played down the harmfulness of the virus.
Apart from skeptical medical advice, President Lukashenko is a serious man. He’s managed to stay in power for so long by keeping a tight grip on the country in order to maintain stability and present himself as a powerful ruler, and by managing the meager economy well enough for the economic elites and political insiders, as well as a large segment of the population, to accept near-total control of the electoral process by Lukashenko and his allies.
However, with his very public assertions on the coronavirus and his complete unwillingness to implement any precautionary measures, President Lukashenko may be jeopardizing one of the key pillars of his rule: stability.
In fact, coronavirus cases have recently spiked in Belarus. The first case in the country was reported on February 28th, and it took a full month before Belarus recorded its 100th case on March 31st. In the past 15 days though, the number of cases has grown dramatically and at this time stands at nearly 3,300.
Against the optimistic and precipitous advice of their leader, many Belarussians are already taking precautions against the virus, and have begun to self-isolate and take social distancing measures – as can be seen by the rapidly diminishing attendance at the still ongoing football matches.
Although the total number of cases in the country is by no means at a critical level yet, continued growth at a high pace could lead to a further rise in dissent towards the government and upset the very precious sense of stability that Lukashenko needs in order to remain in power.
President Lukashenko has gambled that the situation will blow over soon, and his predictions of a virus not to be worried about will be proven correct. If he remains on this course, he’d better hope he’s right, or else his high-risk gamble may cost him his job.
Accurate opinion polls on Lukashenko’s popularity are hard to come by due to the severe censorship resulting from the authoritarian disposition of the country. What is certain, however, is that dictatorships are prone to revolutions and a poorly managed healthcare emergency could well be the catalyst for instability and change; the geopolitical landscape of the world could shift because of it.
Why is Belarus Important?
Although Belarus is a small state with a relatively inconsequential economy, the geopolitical relevance of the country is enormous. Few states walk the line between East and West as well as Belarus does, and due to its geography, the country attracts attention from various world powers.
Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus has been seen as one of the closest allies of Russia. The country is also a member of many of Russia’s integration projects, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization military-alliance and the Eurasian Economic Union.
In 1997 and 1998, agreements were signed between Russia and Belarus with the goal of one day forming a so-called Union State. Although Belarus was once interested in this goal, they have backed away from the idea, seeing as how it would result in the de facto absorption into Russia. In recent times, Russia has been increasing the pressure on Belarus to make good on their past promises to form the Union State.
On the other hand, Belarus is also a member of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative and has been seen as a potential EU accession candidate if the political dynamic of the country were to change. Belarus often uses this half-way position to gain concessions from both Russia and the EU, and they especially emphasize their potential western-orientation path in times of Russian pressure for further integration.
Belarus also forms a critical part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China looks to use Belarus as a ‘transport gateway’ linking themselves with the EU, and due to the war in Ukraine, Belarus stands as the only viable land-route between Eurasia and the borders of the EU. China has invested heavily in Belarus and has set up tax-free industrial parks such as the Great Stone Industrial Park outside of Minsk which already hosts important Chinese firms such as ZTE, Huawei, Zoomlion, and Chengdu Xinzhu.
In the past year, China also announced the building of a 33,000-capacity football stadium and 6,000 seat Olympic pool facility in Minsk seemingly free of charge in order to further build their relationship with Belarus.
Considering its size, Belarus plays a disproportionately large role in the geopolitical layout of Eurasia. But with Lukashenko having been in power for so long, and with Belarus having no real political-party system and no clear successor, many observers wonder what would happen if Lukashenko were no longer around, and what the country would then look like.
De facto annexation by Russia? Reorientation towards the West? An economic colony of China on the borders of the EU? No one can know for sure. What we do know, is that if the coronavirus outbreak in Belarus continues to be mishandled by President Lukashenko, and the political stability in the country breaks down, we just might find out.
(Michael Belafi is a Political-Military Analyst based in Brussels) VIEWS PERSONEL
India-China Border Clash: Russia ‘Worried’ About Standoff Between Two Great Allies
After the US, Russia has expressed anxiety over the border clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and urged India and China to address the issue through established bilateral dialogue mechanisms.
“Of course we are worried with the current situation at LAC, reported the Economic Times.
However, as we know, there are specified mechanisms developed by both the nations including hotlines, special representatives dialogue, and informal summits. We are positive that India and China would be able to to find a solution. We would encourage every attempt in this regard,” Russian Deputy Ambassador to India Roman Babushkin told ET.
This is the first statement by Russia since the border clash first broke out between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Ladakh region along the LAC.
Earlier, both India and China also pledged to use the bilateral mechanism to solve the raging border conflict. Referring to SCO-RIC mechanism Babushkin said – We think it is vital to improve Russia-India-China (RIC) dialogue as well as SCO-based coordination as essential for regional security and boosting mutual trust.” Russia presently holds the SCO chairmanship.
Earlier, as EurAsian Times reported, US president Doland Trump had reiterated his offer to mediate between India and China over the border dispute between the two nuclear-armed nations.
Trump has said that he talked with Indian PM about the “big conflict” and asserted that the PM Modi s not in a “good mood” over the latest flare-ups.
Speaking with the reporters in the White House on Thursday, President Trump said a “big conflict” was going on between India and China. “I like your prime minister a lot. He is a great gentleman,” the president said.
“Have a big conflict …India and China. Two countries with 1.4 billion people (each). Two countries with very powerful armies. India is not happy and probably China is not happy,” he said when asked if he was worried about the border situation between India and China.
Trump had earlier offered to mediate between India and China to resolve the border conflict and had tweeted – “ready, willing and able to mediate” between the two countries. Responding to a question on his tweet, Trump repeated his proposal, saying if called for help, “I would do that (mediate). If they thought it would help” about “mediate or arbitrate, I would do that,” he said.
Russia Could Annex More Parts Of Ukraine Over ‘Crimean Dispute’: US Reports
The lack of water in Crimea may lead to a new military aggression by Russia against Ukraine. Analystshe Jamestown Foundation believes that the water situation in Crimea has reached a critical level, which might prompt Moscow to seize more Ukrainian territories.
Goble writes – the Crimea has long endured water shortages now intensified by frequent winters with little-to-no rain or snow. According to officials in Moscow, Crimea has seen its reserves of freshwater slump by 60% and there could be no water by this August in the peninsula.
The situation poses a grave health crisis in Crimea and this could prompt Russia to seize more Ukrainian territories to gain access to freshwater supplies as Kiev has bluntly rejected selling water to Russia.
Until the Russian annexation of Crimea, 85% of the drinking water for the Crimean residents was supplied via the North Crimean Canal, from the Dnieper River. However, Ukraine abruptly terminated the supplies, forcing Moscow to rely on groundwater and reservoirs.
Ukrainian experts state that the water deficiency in Crimea is a direct result of the Russian invasion. If it ends (the Russian occupation) the water crisis will end too, which is also the official position of Ukraine,”
The groundwater levels in much of Crimea have decreased dramatically as the region faces the prospect of water shortages for both agriculture as well as the resident population.
Not only is Crimea running out of water, but experts claim that Russia has often played up this issue in order to pressurize Ukraine via Europe. Indeed, the expert notes, what Moscow says about water for Crimea has matched the Russin attempts to extend its control into other parts of Ukraine.
When Russia overran Ukrainian territory in 2014, they had planned to capture a much larger portion of the nation than they were able to, including the places from which Crimea had historically obtained its water. Will the current “hysteria” in Crimea about water shortage prompt the Russians to move against Ukraine?
Ukraine is unlikely to change its position on Crimea and Russian occupation. That is because there is a looming water shortage in Ukraine itself, and supplying water to the Russian occupation would only increase the matter, besides Kiev looks determined to stand its ground firm.
That raises the probability that Russia may use the military option and drive northward into Ukraine to seize full control of water for Crimea before a humanitarian disaster hits the region this summer.
he Jamestown Foundation
From Syria To Libya, Turkish Drones Outsmarting Russian Air Defence Systems?
Turkey and Russia have been at opposite ends in both Syria and Libya. Just like Syria where Turkish drones excelled against the Russian air defence systems, the situation in Libya looks almost similar.
Turkey's use of armed drones changed the course of the Syrian war in Idlib in March. Now they've changed the course of the Libyan war. https://t.co/TqaVRyWHrJ
— Liz Sly (@LizSly) May 22, 2020
Turkish drones have yet again battered Russian air-defence systems. According to TRT World, the introduction of drones in Libya by Turkey has caused the tide of the war to swing in its favour.
To understand the Libyan war is not easy as different countries support different leaders and this has caused widespread chaos in the region. Much like Syria, Russia and Turkey are supporting different groups in Libya.
Moscow backs and supports Khalil Haftar of the Libyan National Army (LNA) based in Benghazi. Haftar also has allies in France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The LNA recruits from all over Africa and its aim are to wrest control of the capital, Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord (GNA) and rule over the African country.
The GNA is the internationally recognised government in Libya and the defence of the government lies in the hands of Turkey, Qatar and Italy and its army. The LNA, under Haftar, launched a military campaign in April 2019 to take control of Tripoli even though the UN Secretary-General had requested him not to do so.
A year on, Haftar’s self-styled LNA is on verge of defeat as Turkey’s drones have wreaked havoc on LNA controlled territories.
Turkish Drones – Changing the Tide
According to reports, Turkish drones started arriving in late 2019 and the Turkish Army assisted the GNA to familiarize Libyans with the new weapons.
Prior to the arrival of the drones, Haftar’s own air force, supported by the UAE, Egyptians and Russians had devastated the GNA forces resulting in heavy casualties.
However, the drones have proved to be the game-changer yet again. Using their experience from Idlib in Syria, Ankara mastered the use of sophisticated unmanned aerial warfare, hitting targets at distance and assisting ground troops.
Now using the same technology and experience, Turkish drones have been vital in assisting GNA claim nearly all of western Libya from Haftar’s forces. Since April, the GNA has captured numerous cities between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.
The latest feather in the GNA’s cap is the seizure of the Al-Vatiya, HQ of the LNA’s western operations, and the largest airbase across Western Libya. The Turks reported the destruction of two Russian anti-aircraft missile-cannon systems (ZRPK) “Pantsir-C1”.
This is the first time that the GNA has announced hitting the Russian air defence system since the start of the assault on Tripoli forces in April 2019.
Russia Wounded Yet Again?
For the Russian forces, the latest advance in Libya is a flashback of Syria. As reported by EurAsian Times in March, drones from Turkey had destroyed several Russian-made, Syrian-operated air defence vehicles. The Russian Ministry of Defence later confirmed that two Pantsir air-defence systems were destroyed in the Turkish onslaught.
In Libya, the air defence system has met the same fate and has now raised questions over its efficacy. The aerial offensive from Ankara has put Moscow on the backfoot. But like always, analysts agree that the Russian will not go out without a fight.
In an effort to counter GNA and its allies, Moscow has sent 6 MiG-29 fighter jets and 2 Su-24 attack planes to the LNA-controlled al Jufra airbase. The Russians did get some positive news as the LNA was able to destroy 4 Turkish drones last week. Haftar’s only hope to stem the GNA’s advance is to regain air superiority.
The Libyan war has been going on since 2011 and while the tide has now swung in the GNA’s favour, it does not mean the war will end anytime soon. Experts speaking to EurAsian Times believe that there is no military solution to Libya and Haftar must be removed from the scene in Tripoli.
Written by – Armaan Srivastava
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