Radical Islam's local connection

  • 2001-12-06
  • Mark Lenzi
With the world focused on Afghanistan and the war against terrorism, it would be very easy for even the Baltic governments to forget about the lawless and undemocratic antics of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus.

Perhaps no world leader benefited more from the terrorist attacks than Lukashenka. Just as world scrutiny and condemnation was beginning to mount after his rigged and falsified presidential election of Sept. 9, the events in the U.S. two days later took all attention away from Europe's last dictatorship.

While the timing of the attacks benefited Lukashenka politically in the short term, the old collective farm boss should be worried about Moscow's new relationship with the West and NATO.

It has long been known in East European military and intelligence circles that Moscow has used Lukashenka as a middleman for arms sales to countries such as Iran or Iraq, where international law or outcry would prevent such transactions. These days appear to be over, as Vladimir Putin seems genuinely serious about working with the international community to fight terrorism.

The risks and headaches of continuing to use Minsk as a proxy for secret transactions with renegade countries is not worth the relatively small economic benefits it would bring Russia.

While it would be a positive step if Moscow stopped working with Minsk on illegal arms sales, more troubling for the West is Belarus' own efforts to sell weapons to generate much-needed economic income for its beleaguered economy.

For a country of only 10 million people, it is alarming that Belarus is ranked year after year among the top 10 weapons exporting countries in the world. Lukashenka's ongoing cooperation with Middle Eastern regimes and organizations that harbor or support terrorist groups is a significant reason why Belarus ranks so high as an arms exporter.

European political journals, such as the highly respected and influential Wprost in Poland, are starting to uncover and report what Western intelligence services have known for a long time: Belarus is a top supplier of deadly military equipment to the Islamic radical world - with terrorists and radical organizations in the Middle East, Balkans and Central Asia often the final recipient.

For example, in 1994, Lukashenka's first year as president, Belarus sold machine guns and armored vehicles to a defense company in Tajikistan, according to Wprost. This equipment quickly made it into the hands of warring factions in neighboring Afghanistan as well as Islamic freedom fighters in Tajikistan itself - ironically where Moscow has thousands of soldiers stationed to protect Dushanbe and Russia from Islamic destabilization.

While it is deplorable that Lukashenka's weapons have been responsible for prolonging civil wars and internal strife in countries such as Tajikistan, Angola and Algeria, it is particularly disturbing that Sudan, a country where Osama Bin Laden used to live before taking refuge in Afghanistan, and known as a haven for terrorists, has obtained from Minsk such proven and capable weapon systems as T-55 tanks and Mi-24 Hind Helicopter gunships.

Weapons sent from Belarus to Sudan either fall into the hands of terrorists or are used in a civil war that has already killed over two million people.

To put in perspective how much military equipment left over from the Soviet Union Lukashenka has at his disposal, consider the following fact: the Belarusian army has 1,700 T-72 battle tanks. Poland, a new NATO member with the most powerful army in Central Europe and four times the population of Belarus, has only 900 T-72s.

Despite strong denials from Minsk, Lukashenka has been a key partner of Saddam Hussein in Iraq's effort to rebuild and modernize its air defense capability. Not only has Lukashenka violated international law by supplying Baghdad with anti-aircraft equipment and technology, Lithuania's largest newspaper, Lietuvos Rytas, reported recently that Iraqi air defense personnel are now training at military schools in Belarus. Given that Iraq has repeatedly tried to shoot down U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the UN no-fly zone, this is an ominous development.

Former Belarusian Defense Minister Pavel Kozlovski, obviously someone with firsthand experience with Minsk's secretive arms deals, recently told the Latvian newspaper Diena, "I know that the Belarusian government does not have moral principles and can sell weapons to those countries (like Iraq) where embargoes exist. This is the criminal policy of the Belarusian leadership."

If Lukashenka is truly serious about helping the international community fight terrorism, he should offer to work with the Lithuanian government to set up a few of Belarus' many anti-aircraft missiles near the border with Lithuania to protect the Ignalina nuclear power plant rather than sending these missiles and know-how to countries like Iraq.

The governments in all three Baltic states should take advantage of their current role as conduits between NATO and Russia to encourage and pressure Moscow to use its overwhelming political and economic leverage on Lukashenka to stop weapons sales to countries that have direct or indirect ties to terrorist organizations.

Mark Lenzi is a Fulbright research scholar based in Vilnius, Lithuania.