In an interview with EADaily, Aleksey Kochetkov, a Russian political analyst, writer, publicist shares his views of the current state of the Russian-Belarusian relations.
Starting from February 12, Belarus will lift visa regime for the countries of Europe, U.S., Middle East and others. What does Belarus’ leadership anticipate from that novelty? Will their expectations come true?
I think these novelties look to improve the relations with the West. Evidently, there is a certain economic pretext too. Normally, five days are more than enough to travel and stay in Minsk, though it is a convenient way to have a good time. The problem is that Belarus has no state borders with Russia and that fact creates certain difficulties to the Russian Federation. Our country has to take certain steps to protect our population against penetration of unwanted individuals.
Experts say that novelty looked to attract businesspersons, sports fans, and boost tourism. Do you see any other motives for such a decision?
Perhaps, they will manage to attract more tourists, but Ukraine’s example shows how inefficient such decisions are. Ukraine lifted visas for the citizens of EU and US not for five days like Belarus, but generally. However, tourist flows have not increased. Therefore, I think that novelty pursued political rather than touristic goals.
There is the impression that Lukashenko’s decision to introduce entry-visa-free travel (though for five days) for citizens of 80 countries and this when there is no state border between Russia and Belarus is slightly provocative towards Russia.
Sure, I think, Alexander Lukashenko with such actions disregards our interests. Actually, he is making decisions ignoring the opinion of its ally. All his statements about any arrangements is nothing but demagogy. In this light, it is quite logical that Russia’s Federal Security Service Chief Alexander Bortnikov decided to establish a boundary zone of Smolensk, Pskov and Bryansk regions with Belarus. We must see who enters our territory. Actually, establishing boundary zones is a forced but justified measure by the Russian leadership.
Generally, Lukashenko demonstrates not just his independence – something we do not deny, but also his devil-may-care attitude. The relations with Belarus are rather tense now. This strain in the relations of Minsk and Moscow has become most noticeable after the known events in Ukraine that triggered confrontation of Russia and the West: the referendum in Crimea, unification of Crimea and Russia, and the “Russian Spring” in Donbass. Russia, the people of Russia have rendered moral and material assistance to residents of Donbass unlike Belarus. Furthermore, Alexander Lukashenko had been using quite weasel words throughout 2014. Meantime, Belarus rendered material and technical assistance to the regime in Kiev in terms of diesel fuel supplies to the Ukrainian army. Although, it was allegedly done to support agriculture, in fact, we are well aware that all these fuels and lubricants supplied by Belarus were directed to “the ATO (anti-terror operation)” zone, first. They supplied military trucks and hardware too. I think it was a very unfriendly step towards Russia.
Besides, Belarus that is not just our ally, but a Union State, refused to recognize legitimate the referendum for unification of Crimea and Russia. Actually, Lukashenko decided to take advantage of the situation in which Russia has found itself for some objective reasons and to settle his political, financial issues with the West. That is exactly why he started deliberately aggravating some already acute issues.
Is it true that a new national ideology is being developed in Belarus? What concept is it based on? What is the reason behind it? What consequences may it have?
Recently, Lukashenko has been evidently playing with the so-called Belarusian nationalism. Now, formation of a new identity, different from the Russian one, is gathering pace in Belarus.
For instance, in the second half of 1990s and throughout 2000s, Lukashenko was the most pro-Russian politician of the so-called foreign ones, and he had repeatedly said “Russians and us are the same people,” “Belarusians are Russians with a quality label.” All this remained in the past. Now, the so-called Will Day in Belarus is marked with a march of nationalists carrying among others posters of Bandera and Shukhevych, who bear no relations to the Belarusian people. In such way, they are showing their solidarity with Ukrainian nationalists. Belarusians nationalists (like their Ukrainian friends) declared Russia as their enemy number one for allegedly suppressing the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples. These organizations do not experience any difficulties in Belarus, which cannot but frustrate Russia. Besides, newspapers in Belarus regularly publish articles slamming not only the Russian authorities or President Vladimir Putin, but also the Russian people as such. Such actions are inherently covered by our Article 282 of the Criminal Code – stirring up national and social hatred. Meantime, those newspapers operate and their editors-in-chief participate in meetings with the president of Belarus.
Besides, several pro-Russian experts and journalists (Sergey Shiptenko, Yuri Pavlovets, and Dmitry Alimkin) were arrested in Belarus over ethnic strife incitement allegations. Those people did nothing unlawful, just wrote articles drawing attention to Belarus’ recent shift to the West. Actually, Lukashenko repeats Yanukovych’s steps by trying to be wearing two hats and paving the way towards a separate anti-Russian identity. This may have gloomy consequences. The Belarusian leadership considered that opinion as a threat to its interests and took preventive measures by arresting the pro-Russian experts and hinting other pro-Russian journalists, publicists, public workers that friendship ends and their pro-Russian sentiments may cause serious problems for them.
Generally, a historical concept has emerged in Belarus claiming that Belarusians and Russians are under no circumstances allied peoples and that they bear no relation to each other. They say Belarusians are allegedly true Europeans as compared to Russians – a mixture of Mongols and Tatars with Finno-Ugric peoples. Russians have different mentality, alien culture, while Belarusians are descendants and heirs of the Great Duchy of Lithuania that joined Rzeczpospolita at the time forming a single state with the Poles. Therefore, Belarusians are allegedly an integral part of the European family of peoples and strive for the West-European civilization.
The State Security Committee of Belarus started withdrawing some books from bookstores. What books are they recalling and why are they so dangerous?
They are recalling the books that fight against “Lithuanism.” Recently a book has been published in Belarus and became a kind of response to the idea of “Lithuanism” – “Unknown history of White Russia” by Vseslav Zinkevich. Basing on the writings of famous and world-renowned Belarusian and Russian historians, the author proves the invalidity of that idea. The book has become a bestseller in Belarus. The first issue was almost sold out within a month. The State Security Committee is now withdrawing from bookstores what has not been sold yet.
The book tells and proves that Russians and Belarusians are one nation with similar history. At large, everything Belarusians boast of now was achieved when Belarus was in the one state with Russians – at first, it was the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. In the long view, we can do nothing but integrate our economics and develop our common Russian culture and Russian civilizations, otherwise Belarusians will face gradual degradation and disappear as an independent community, while Belarus will lose its sovereignty.
For instance, in the periods that “informed” historians mention among others, Russian people of Western Rus were under rule of Poles and they did not let them achieve any heights in administrative or scientific fields. The social, cultural and religious rights of the Russian people were infringed as well. Actually, Russians in Medieval Poland were second-class people. They experienced religious discrimination. Non-Catholics were not considered noble and their children could not study at the schools that were believed to be the best ones at that time. Poland was a szlachta (noble) country where nobles decided everything. Consequently, even Russian nobles were gradually heading down the social ladder there. Eventually, when Belarus became part of the Russian Empire, the Russian population there consisted of peasants only. There was neither szlachta nor educated class there. Consequently, what they in Belarus have now they achieved later, when they were part of the Russian statehood.
The book tells such kind of thoughts and some people did not like those ideas, indeed, since it undermines the state idea of “non-Russian nature” of the Belarusian population. It is a usual problem – when someone is engaged in developing a new identity, he needs to tear part of the society from the old single whole, to substantiate that it is different and has the right to be called differently.
Why do they create that new identity? Won’t it lead to a new Maidan?
It will, indeed. There is a simple reason why they create it: within 25 years of independence, new elite has emerged in Belarus. It has got used to the rules different from the big Russian world, the big Russian state. They consider themselves as the full owners of the country that is called the Republic of Belarus. They are afraid that their unlimited tenure will eventually end. The Western neighbors tell Belarusian elite about it. Feeling uncertainty in legitimacy of their position, they seek additional guarantees. Only a legitimate right to occupy the posts and positions they are occupying today can give them such guarantees.
After collapse of the Soviet Union, local national elites came to power in all 14 post-soviet republics. I am speaking about the former Soviet party establishment that became the sole owners of their countries overnight. They needed a new ideology. The Soviet ideology no longer suited them, but there was no other either. That is why they started developing a new ideological basis that would let them substantiate the right of those territories to be called separate states and manage them. Since Ukraine and Belarus emerged not as a product of self-organization of peoples, but in an artificial way, the elites needed very intensive efforts to build a new mythology. Their ideology is built on denial of the commonness with Russians, otherwise it is not clear what all these established states and local elites are for.
Do you assume that Belarus may make a U-turn to the West?
I think it is not just possible. The situation has matured for that. There is a large swath of government officials that feel psychologically and even culturally more comfortable under management of the West rather than cooperating with Moscow.
Don’t you think that the Ukrainian Maidan is a dramatic example for the population of Belarus? Will they repeat that scenario?
Everyone thinks he is wiser than his predecessor was. Gaddafi thought he was wiser than Saddam Hussein when he tried to agree with the West. Lukashenko think he is wiser than all them rolled into one. They overestimate their capabilities. They think they should make an agreement with the West, but it is impossible. I think Lukashenko is now growing up the ones who will overthrow him later. This has not happened yet, but when the Belarusian society has a sufficient number of activists who will be insisting that Russia is their enemy and it is necessary to break the relations and to do it by force, then they will get cannon fodder for Maidan and it will happen. There will be people and forces that will sponsor Maidan. There will be betrayers inside Lukashenko’s team and inside elites that will chose another administration. No one will be listening to the people’s will then as it happened in Kiev in 2013-2014. The people living there then, including me saw how that tragedy happened, how the state coup was carried out. Ukraine is a strong country that had all the instruments to prevent the revolt, but it has simply ruined itself and was torn to pieces.
Actually, you think that Minsk’s attempt to balance the close ties with Russia and the West was failed. Isn’t there any chance to do it anyway?
The authorities of Belarus need to realize two very simple truths. First, Moscow has never overthrown any legitimate leader in its newest history. There are no such examples. Meantime, the foreign partners Lukashenko seeks to find a certain balance with have been engaged in nothing besides this recently. It is beyond our political tradition to overthrow even the presidents and leaders we do not like much. It is not our method. Lukashenko sees threats where there are no such in fact. Perhaps, they insinuate doubts into his mind.
Second, I think a close and consistent cooperation with Russia is what can guarantee stability and independence of Belarus. If Belarus cooperates with Russia instead of impeding integration of the two countries, it will receive additional sources of stability and impulses for development – something the EU countries and those having association agreement with Europe could just dream about. By combined efforts, we will do much.
At the beginning of our interview, you addressed the issue of journalists who were arrested in Belarus. That news was actively covered in media in Belarus. Meantime, here, it was brushed over. Why? How did the Foreign Ministry respond to that story?
I think the statement by Russian Ambassador Surikov concerning the arrested journalists was certainly inappropriate. He called our pro-Russian journalists “very radical” (Sergey Shiptenko and Yuri Pavlovets are known to have been writing articles looking to maintain the good-neighbored and friendly relations between our countries) and actually supported the allegations brought against them and decision to arrest them.
Such actions by the representative of Russian interests in Belarus may influence the Russian society and make it feel itself abandoned. Russians in Crimea were not abandoned, while here, they have decided that one can be arrested for evidence-free accusations and no one will try to protect you. The ambassador should understand that citizens living in the territory of the country he is working in have the impression that it is the stance of the country that has sent him. I do not say that the ambassador should have interfered with the investigation. He could simply ignore the issue or say “investigation will fund out” or “I have no information.” After all, there are a great variety of ways to do it. He is a diplomat, though he has never been taught diplomacy tips, but he should have learned how to behave in such situations within more than ten years of experience as ambassador. Instead, he made a statement that just harmed Russia.
Do you think that the actions of Belarus with regard to journalists are justified?
Their actions are absolutely unjustified, I think. There are many opinions, including in the Belarusian press, saying the actions by the State Security Committee cause more harm to the authorities of Belarus, as they arouse serious doubts in sincerity of our relations. Besides, they show that the Belarus authorities do not care what their Eastern neighbors think about them. In Belarus they think (though, I can hardly agree with it) that such actions are a kind of plot of the elite against Lukashenko. They are deliberately trying to spoil the relations of Lukashenko with Moscow.
How would you describe the current relations of Minsk and Moscow? Are the two countries strategic partners? We can see that Russia demands Belarus to pay for the gas supplied earlier, and Belarus in response raises the price for pumping the Russian oil.
Since 1994, our relations with Belarus and typically the “Belarusian miracle” as such have been built on our energy resources, which we have sold them at a reduced price or on credit and then regularly wrote-off their debts. Consequently, this makes the industry in Belarus more competitive. Then it helped maintaining the entire Soviet industry, jobs and social stability inside the country, relatively good living standards and roads.
However, the Belarusian leader explains that “economic miracle” with his wisdom forgetting to mention that all this has been achieved thanks to the northeastern neighbor that, to put it in crude terms, pays for those miracles, because there are no miracles as such. It is a universal conservation-of-energy theorem: “nothing comes to be or perishes.”
Since Russia is the key supplier of cheap energy and fuel for Belarus and an active consumer of the Belarusian products and goods, Russia, in theory, should be the first to benefit from that partnership. In fact, things are different. When the leadership of Belarus dislikes something or the Russian leadership tries to build parity relations, Belarus demonstrates its readiness to make a U-turn at any moment. For Russia, the status of its ally is extremely important, as the border with Belarus is just 400km from Moscow. We baulk at the idea that Belarus may suddenly become not our ally, but the ally of our non-partners, and that NATO tanks will be travelling not in Latvia and Estonia, but along the borders with Smolensk region. Furthermore, if Belarus leaves our political orbit, the Baltic-Black Sea arc will be finally complete. The line of the limitrophe countries – starting from Estonia up to Ukraine - will isolate Russia from the rest of Europe. West Europe, and our economic partners – Germany and France – with a ground-based border.
If the state property privatization gathers pace in Belarus, what will Russia do? It may result in involvement of Western transnational corporations and, consequently, Russia will lose its economic levers of influence on the situation in Belarus.
Russian business has always been experiencing certain difficulties because of our different economic and political systems. There is a top-down government system there. Therefore, the Russian business in Belarus has never felt itself confident, as there is always a threat of receiving serious administrative problems up to losing business. If the rules are the same and equal for everyone, nothing will be threatening Russia’s interests any more. As far as I can see, there are few investors who would like to invest outside their countries now.
However, Western transnational corporations may try to privatize the entire industry sector in Belarus with the only goal to destroy (as it was done in early 90s. including with the Russian industry, when factories were bought for a penny and then were simply liquidated). It will affect Russia too. To build an independent, stable, and self-sufficient system able to compete on the world market, we need more human and industrial resources. That is exactly why we need to cooperate with Kazakhstan to get more industrial resources and we needed cooperation with Ukraine with its large industrial capacities. Everything is being destroyed before our eyes. They are doing this not just because they like destroying. They are doing this not to let anyone else to use those resources. The West does not need their capacities – Motor Sich, Antey Concern – it has everything. They want to hold us from getting all this. It was inherently the key reason of the state coup in Ukraine – to prevent cooperation of the Ukrainian and Russian industries, to hold Ukraine from joining the trade and customs union, not to create anything autonomous and able to survive amid global economic system and not depend on the West. Belarus may face similar problems. That is why they need cooperation of our countries, mutual assistance and true allied relationships.
Interviewed by Natalya Kuracheva for EADaily