Around 1000 protesters in Belarus have criticised a Russian plan to open an air force base in the nation.
With slogans like “we want a peaceful sky” and “no foreign military bases!”, the move comes as Russia starts an aerial campaign against targets in Syria. The Russian government claims it is targeting ISIS, while Western powers suggest they are propping up Assad’s regime.
Unlike many former Soviet-bloc countries, Belarus has kept close ties with Russia, including membership in an economic union. This provides the Belarus with cheap energy, and close political ties. This contrasts with Poland, the Baltic states and others, who have embraced both the European Union and the NATO military alliance.
Belarusian prime mininster Alexander Lukashenko agreed to the air base in September. It is the first time the Russian Federation has sought to increase its military presence outside its borders since the end of the cold war.
Belarus’ close ties with Russia have in the past put it at odds with other European nations. Lukashenko has often been viewed with suspicion, with Belarus having controlled media, as well as concerns over the treatment of political dissidents.
Belarus is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian counterpart to NATO. The organisations stated goals are collective security and military cooperation. To that effect, training exercises are held once a year.
Belarus courts Russia and the EU
Viewed with suspicion by former Soviet countries, Russia’s dealings in Ukraine as well as the fresh campaign in Syria point to a country that wants to prove its military capabilities both in neighbouring countries and further away. The Russian government-backed Russia Today (RT) published an article suggesting the Russian military could expand into other CSTO nations like Azerbaijan, as well as Belarus.
Despite the proposed Russian air base, Belarus appears to have warmed to the European Union lately. In August, Lukashenko pardoned political prisoners in a self described “act of humanism”. His desire to connect with the West may stem from economic policy – Belarus, heavily dependent on the Russian Ruble, has been feeling the pinch of a devalued Russian currency in the face of Western sanctions. However, a fresh military investment from Russia may pivot Belarus further east.
Image credit: By Flymouth1894 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons