EU should target Belarus arms trade, expert says

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU should slap sanctions on Belarus arms exporters in response to the post-election crackdown, according to Belarusian sociologist Oleg Manaev.

"This is about the weapons trade. Most of the income that Belarusian authorities get from this trade does not go to the state budget. It goes to the special presidential fund," he told EUobserver.

Arms sanctions would be hard for president Alexander Lukashenko to "repackage" as an attack on ordinary people and could sow disunity in his clan, Dr Manaev added.

Belarus is among the world's top 12 biggest arms exporters, with firms such as Beltekhexport, and Belvneshpromservice selling $1 billion (?830 million) to $2 billion a year of small arms, jets and technical components.

The EU is expected to unveil its list of sanctions on April 10, with top Polish diplomats last week saying "targeted sanctions" are on the menu.

The US is also building a case, with president George Bush declassifying parts of a White House report on Belarus on 16 March.

The US report indicates Minsk is selling components for "weapons of mass destruction" to Iran and other material to Sudan and Syria.

President Lukashenko has squirreled away $1 billion in his secret fund with some 100 individuals in Belarus worth over $1 million, the study suggests.

Belarusian authorities deny the claims - president Lukashenko declared an income of $17,000 in 2004.

But arms are a touchy subject in Belarus, with journalist Veronika Cherkasova murdered in 2004 after looking into the Iran case.

Media campaign needed

Any EU sanctions must be backed up by a vigorous media campaign on the nature of government finance, Dr Manaev said, "otherwise this could be turned on its head to mobilise Lukashenko's supporters."

"Sanctions should be assisted by a strong campaign through various channels such as Euronews, newspapers and the internet. It should show that sanctions are not hitting ordinary people but only the president and his team."

The EU's new ?2 million radio and TV station project is "invisible" in Belarus as nobody knows how to access it, NGO Belarus Free Theatre told EUobserver.

Satellite TV channel Euronews has in the past misled viewers by using Russian sociological data on Belarus, the NGO added.

The information blackout is one reason why the OSCE-deemed rigged elections on 19 March brought 15,000 people to October Square compared to the 500,000 in Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Dr Manaev indicated.

The approximately 400 protestors jailed and beaten in the seven days after 19 March mostly represent the 50,000 or so hardliners actively working against the regime, he said.

The three classes

The rest of Belarus' 10 million-strong population can be divided into three parts: one third strongly opposes Lukashenko but will not brave riot police, one third lives by apathy and pragmatism and the rest support the regime.

Hardliners have so far lacked the political professionalism to mobilise the anti-Luksahenko group en-masse, but the events of 19 March could be a new "evolution" in the movement, the sociologist explained.

Some pragmatists mistrust moves toward a western market economy in case they lose state-subsidised jobs.

Lukashenko supporters are mostly old, under-educated people living in the country who see Minsk and Moscow as guarantors of stability with faint nostalgia for the Soviet era of their youth.

"Lukashenko is very skilful in terms of detecting public impulses, public expectations and then reflecting them back," the sociologist argued. "In this sense he is a master."

Fear also plays a "huge" role in Belarusian society, with three out of four respondents to Dr Manaev's surveys saying they are "afraid" of the state.