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A Murky Merchant of Death

Ready for shipment
Ready for shipment
RFE/RL is pursuing a developing story today about Belarusian arms sales to Ivory Coast. The UN has accused Belarus of selling attack helicopters to Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivory Coast dictator who has refused to abide by the results of a November election that awarded victory to his main political opponent, Alassane Ouattara. If the information turns out to be true, this latest news would mean that Belarus has violated an international arms embargo that's been in effect for the Ivory Coast since 2004. Ouattara's supporters worry that the helicopters could be used against them.

Some might tend to dismiss the report as a bit outlandish. Belarus, after all, has a population of just under 10 million. Where does a tiny country like that get off selling sophisticated weapons like attack helicopters?

Think again. In 2009 U.S. Congressional investigators came to the conclusion that, during the period between 1999 and 2006, Belarus exported around $1 billion of arms, making it the 11th-largest arms exporter in the world. During the 1990s the UN repeatedly caught Belarus supplying banned arms to some of the world's nastiest conflicts. The Mi-24 helicopters used by the Sudanese government against its opponents in Darfur are said to have been delivered by the Belarusians.

Minsk has also been accused of supplying a variety of small arms to Hizballah in Lebanon. And in the early years of this century, there was considerable evidence that Belarus was involved in the smuggling of weaponry to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. After the U.S. invasion in 2003 a reporter for RFE/RL found documents in a destroyed building in Baghdad that provided evidence that Belarusian (and Russian) companies had been plugging arms sales to Saddam just two years earlier. Viktor Bout, the notorious arms shipper known as the "Merchant of Death," is reported to have transported Belarusian weaponry to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. In short, these guys clearly know how to cook up a mean end-user certificate.

But you'd still be justified in asking how an economic midget manages to support an international arms-trading empire. There are three answers. First, Belarus, as one of the Soviet Union's westernmost republics, was right on the front line of a potential war with NATO, and that meant that it was the site of gigantic storage depots for every imaginable kind of military materiel, much of which remained there when the U.S.S.R. collapsed. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka isn't exactly the kind of guy to stare a gift horse in the mouth.

Second, Belarus was an industrial powerhouse in Soviet days, and even though most of its tank factories and aircraft plants have shut down, there's still plenty of capacity left over to fill orders -- especially if some dictator is looking for some bargain-basement spare parts for those T-72 battle tanks he's still got lying around. Soviet-era Belarus also specialized in high tech, so even today buyers can drop in to Minsk if they're looking for some steals on high-powered radars or military electronics.

Finally, in many ways Belarus and Russia remain joined at the hip, and that relationship has provided some elements in the booming Russian arms industry with a convenient way to make covert deliveries to delicate clients. There's plenty to suggest (see Iraq, above) that Belarus has often served as a cut-out for those who wish to conceal the origins of dubious arms shipments. You never know -- maybe this is where Gbagbo's helos are actually coming from.

In any case, thanks to the Ivory Coast story -- on top of the scandal surrounding Belarus's recent election -- Outpost wouldn't be surprised to see the Americans and the Europeans revisiting the issue of Belarusian arms sales in the near future.