Andrew Osborn








Belarus is a kleptocratic arms bazaar that the EU needs to tackle, 20th December 2010 16:51

By Andrew Osborn

The 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” opens with a scene from a terrorist arms bazaar “on the Russian border.” We see potential buyers eyeing up Scud missiles, attack helicopters, heavy machine guns, and armoured vehicles. Or as one of Bond’s colleagues back at MI6 headquarters in London darkly quips: “(There is) fun for the whole family.” The Bond films are of course fictional, but the colourful scene was evocative of a place that is all too real and not that far away: Belarus.

Sandwiched between Russia and the European Union and run for the last sixteen years by the neo-Soviet leader, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus is a thriving marketplace for shadowy arms sales. If its critics are right, its customers are none too savoury. Earlier this year, for example, Belarus had to furiously deny that it had sold Iran S-300 surface-to-air missiles. It had issued similar denials before which read like a who’s who of who not to sell weapons to. Indeed, experts say Russia uses Belarus as a channel to re-export its own weapons to countries it cannot be seen to be dealing with directly. Such allegations are difficult to prove and Belarus steadfastly denies breaking any United Nations arms embargoes. But the country, which hosts important Russian oil and gas pipelines, is a troubling anomaly all the same.

Situated on the EU’s eastern fringe a mere two-and-a-half-hour flight from London, it is the land that time and, it seems, everyone else forgot. It should by rights already be part of the EU. Instead, it is a stagnant political backwater manipulated by Moscow and bullied into submission by Mr Lukashenko, an autocratic former Soviet collective farm boss. Mr Lukashenko “won” a fourth straight presidential term on Sunday, allegedly clinching almost eighty per cent of the vote. Lest they forget, he reminded his opponents who is in charge when they took to the streets to protest against his sham victory. Riot police arrested and clubbed hundreds, and, in an Orwellian piece of theatre, his KGB secret service arrested seven out of nine of his presidential rivals. Mr Lukashenko, who it appears has a deep sense of irony, then had the chutzpah to claim the vote was “honest”. As the EU controversially beefs up its own diplomatic powers, it is increasingly if naively laying claim to a serious role in international affairs. Rather than preaching to others about human rights, it would do well to sort out the problems in its own backyard first. Perhaps it could start with Belarus.