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Belarusian perspective: “trap-holes” of ethnic nationalism

Alexander Lukashenko. Photo: lenta.ru

We see no sense in telling you once again how important Belarus is for Russia. Suffice it to say that our economies are closely interwoven and that the army of Belarus is fully integrated into Russia’s western defense system. Should Belarus be torn away from Russia, the centuries-long dreams of Western strategists about a “sanitary cordon” separating Russia from Central and Western Europe will come true. This is why NATO and the EU keep making huge efforts to change government in Belarus. They have two scenarios - tough and soft. Both Minsk and Moscow are aware of the threat of a Belarusian Maidan, but are they in Russia ready to see their closest neighbor westernized?

Will it be a head-on collision?

Until recently, Alexander Lukashenko has been a political outcast for the EU, but the talks in Minsk have improved his image in the eyes of Brussels. According to Reuters, in Jan 2015 the EU considered a plan to improve relations with Belarus. Today, many experts in Europe believe that it is time for a meltdown. 

According to Reuters sources, the EU’s plan implies that Lukashenko “will have to reform.” But the EU is not going to apply the Ukrainian scenario in Belarus.

They in Washington are also showing signs of amity. On Dec 16, 2014, Lukashenko said that the United States had lifted all economic sanctions against his country. “The U.S. is open for better relations with Belarus,” Victoria Nuland said.

We don’t very much believe such statements. On the other hand, Lukashenko is a stubborn and willful man, and the history of his relations with Moscow has both good and bad pages. The latter include his refusal to use the St George ribbon, his decision to re-export goods from countries supporting the anti-Russian sanctions and to inspect cargo vehicles on the border with Russia as well as the wish of the Belarusian Orthodox Church to be self-governed. But even when having problems with Russia, Belarus still remained its closest ally. So, the West will hardly miss the chance to get rid of Lukashenko should it have one. And the next presidential election in Belarus is scheduled for Oct 11.

In Belarus, you can find where to throw a burning match. Belarusian political analyst Yuri Shevtsov says that protest moods in Belarus are higher than was expected. “They are especially widespread among young people. Most probably, this has come from the wish to have some show and also the TV programs broadcasting protests in Europe – this is some kind of liberalization, which has made it possible for them to go into the streets mostly for the sake of a show but also for the sake of a protest,” Shevtsov said a few years ago. Since then the Belarusians have witnessed a disaster in Ukraine, but many of them still believe in the tale about “free and happy Europe.” Today, many in Belarus are expecting an orange revolution. The scheme is known: Lukashenko wins the next election, the opposition says it was a fraud and urges people to go into the streets. And who proves to be stronger will be the winner. Today, Radical nationalists are coming into light and are even holding rallies with pictures of their “idols,” like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych. Some of them are going to Ukraine and are joining the troops fighting in Donbass. “We are sure that Ukraine will win. As soon as this happens, we will start fighting for independent Belarus. So, there we are acquiring experience,” they say.

In Nov 2014, a group of Belarusian oppositionists met with Director of the US Department of State’s Office of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus Affairs Alexander Kasanof, who had just been appointed to the post. “We were glad to meet him. It was obvious that he was not a novice. He has worked at the US embassy in Ukraine. So, he knows what kind of a region it is and what problems it has. And it is good as many of our problems today depend on Ukraine and on how the Ukrainian crisis will be settled,” leader of the United Civic Party Anatol Liabiedźka said. He said that one of the key topics was the presidential election of 2015. “He wanted to know our forecasts. But we are not oracles. We know that Lukashenko has different scenarios both soft and tough,” Liabiedźka said. Also there was politician Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, who is well known for his statement: “Maidan is our symbol, a pledge of our victory.”

In his turn, the leader of the Belarusian People’s Front Alaksiej Janukievich pointed out: “Our people will become truly free only when Belarus withdraws from all Russia-led unions – the Customs Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the future Eurasian Union.” By the way, the meetings of the Belarusian “democratizators” are held in lifestyle hotels – so, they do have money.

One more strong opposition group is football fans. “Thus, by the beginning of this year, for the first time since the late 1990s, when Lukashenko was first opposed by the fighters of the Belarusian People’s Front, we have youth resources that are numerous, well-organized, ready to fight and sharing our anti-Russian ideas. So, new mass protests may grow into clashes with the police and attacks on government buildings. And they will have their own strong Right Sector,” says analyst Vladislav Maltsev.

Creeping “Litvinization”

However, the chances that there will be a successful coup in Minsk this year are not very high. For Lukashenko this is already something usual. In late 2010, before the presidential election, the Belarusian opposition organized mass disorders in Minsk. Several thousand protesters blocked the Independence Avenue and then tried to storm the Government House. The police dispersed them. Almost 500 people were arrested. Following the incident, Lukashenko appeared with facts proving that the organizers of the disorders had ties with western donors.

Quite recently, the Belarusian president amnestied a number of oppositionists, who were sent to jail for crimes against the Belarusian state: Mikola Statkevich, Mikalai Dzyadok, Ihar Alinevich, Jauhien Vaskovich, Artsyom Prokopenko and Yuri Rubtsov. It means that Lukashenko is confident in his strengths and expects no new coups. Following this decision, the foreign ministers of Lithuania and Latvia even promised to ask the EU to lift the sanctions applied against Belarus some 10 years ago. They meant the ban on arms supplies, frozen assets and no entry for a number of high-ranking Belarusian government officials.

But Lukashenko will not be president for ever, will he? Sooner or later, he will have to resign. And that will be the moment of truth for Russian-Belarusian relations. According to Russian historian Mikhail Diunov, the Lukashenko regime is just a period of transition from the Soviet times to the times of a national state. Lukashenko’s mission is to go through economic transformations as painlessly as possible. And he has managed to do it. No less successful the Belarusian president is in nationalizing the Belarusian state, but he is doing it softly and rationally. For example, the Belarusian language is prevalent in Belarus, but the local Russians are not oppressed. Today, Belarus is going through a state-level campaign of “Litvinization.” The Belarusians are being told that in fact they are Litvins, offsprings of Balts and relatives of Lithuanians, Latvians and Prussians. “They are creating some nice legend about Belarus-Lithuania, a country of western European culture, a state of knights, castles and beautiful ladies. All this contrasts well with stories about barbarous Muscovy and its bearded boyars and wild Cossacks. They keep blackening the history of Russia and keep saying that the Russians have always oppressed the Belarusians (while the Poles are only praised),” Diunov says.

Here the historian is absolutely right. The United States has spent a quarter of a century and huge money to tear Ukraine away from Russia and is going to do the same in Belarus. On the Internet one can already see texts like “What is the difference between the Belarusians and the Russians?” The same is true for bookstores where one can easily find anti-Russian books. There are also mass media following the same policy. For instance, journalist Pavel Sheremet moved to Russia and created a pro-western portal called Belarus Partizan.

Today, a number of Belarusian intellectuals are rewriting the history in an attempt to shape a “national idea.” They claim that the theory saying that the East Slavs come from a common root was invented by Russian historians in the 18th-19th centuries as a basis for the Kremlin’s claims to the Belarusian and Ukrainian lands. According to them, the Belarusians are an ancient nation, who adopted Christianity directly from Byzantium and had a huge medieval state, the Great Duchy of Lithuania. They claimed that at that time they were called “Litvins” and that their state was ruined by aggressors from Moscow. In their history, the Russians have always been at war with the Belarusians and have kept humiliating them. So, now they urge their people to restore the traditions of the ancient Belarus-Lithuania and to declare war against the Moskals... And the authorities seem to be complacent about it.

“The alternative ideology – let’s call it ‘Soviet Belorussia’ – is regarded as temporary. Most of the young Belarusians no longer care for the stories about the dull Soviet past. So, they just need to wait till, for some natural reasons, they have a new leader. They already have national elite and an ideology of “Litvinism.” So, as soon as the next president comes into power, we will see the myth of friendly Belarus going into pieces and will hear from the Belarusians what we can now hear from the Ukrainians,” Diunov said.

His words do make sense. Ukraine’s experience has sobered many Belarusians but not all of them. So, even if not now, then some day, they in the West will try to change the foreign policy of Belarus. Here, the question is, if Russia is ready to defend its positions in that country. And has it learned the lessons of Ukraine?

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