What both the West and Belarus Authorities Want?

Although the motivations of the Western and Belarusian leadership are different, they both want Belarus to remain an independent country. This is in large part driven by the fear of Russian political and economic expansion. However, the truth is that authoritarian regimes do not surrender their independence to foreign countries. The very reason why they are authoritarian is because they want to retain all power in a country.

Since his election in 1994, Alyaksandr Likashenka's main goal has been to accumulate as much power as possible. To this end, he initiated a series of referenda which destroyed the separation of power and media freedom in Belarus. Today, Belarus has the worst human rights record in Europe and its economy is dominated by large inefficient enterprises inherited from Soviet times.

Generous subsidies from Russia remain the only reason why the Belarusian economic model has not collapsed.  Still suffering from the Cold War legacy, Russia’s interest has been focused on keeping Belarus away from the influence of the European Union at any cost. These costs were not only in the form of profits which Russia had lost by providing cheap oil and gas, but also costs to Belarusian statehood, which has been deprived of strong institutions deeply rooted in society.  These institutions as well as any meaningful decision-making are now controlled by a small group of not particularly competent individuals whose main goal is to uphold the status quo. Also, at any cost.

Belarus' economic dependence upon Russia has become particularly evident in recent months, when Belarus was hit by its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to an artificially delayed devaluation of the Belarusian currency, it is nearly impossible to convert Belarusian rubles into any other currency. Businesses which depend upon imports cannot buy anything abroad because of a lack of foreign currency. Prices are going up while salaries are going down. Unemployment is rising because large sectors of economy depends on imports.

The main reason for the economic crisis was Russia's reluctance to pay too much for Lukashenka's loyalty. With oil prices hitting record levels because of instability in the Arab world, the Kremlin became increasingly assertive. The Russian ambassador hinted in April that the solution of Belarus’s economic problems could be the introduction of the Russian ruble as the currency of Belarus. If the Belarusian authorities were to agree, it would be a serious and most likely fatal blow to Lukashenka and would undoubtedly undermine the statehood of Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities are desperately looking for money to oppose this pressure from Russia. Due to continuing repressions against the Belarusian opposition and civil society, Belarus is unlikely to see any financial aid from Europe. Moreover, the European Union may introduce targeted economic sanctions in response to prosecutions brought against opposition activists, including most of the candidates in the December presidential elections.

There is one area, however, where the interests of Europe and Lukashenka coincide. Strengthening the national identity of Belarusians is both in the interest of the regime and the European Union. Such a feat would contribute to the long-term goal of strengthening Belarusian statehood.

Belarusian authorities tried to create an artificial state ideology based on the glorification of the Soviet past and justification of the political status quo in Belarus. However, the ideology lacked coherency and did not appeal to the younger generation of Belarusians. The cult of the victory in the war with Nazis and honoring Soviet heroes sounded familiar to the old generation, but boring and unappealing to those who grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is not surprising that the Belaruaian authorities tolerate the Budzma campaign in Belarus. Western donors support a group of people working for the Budzma campaign whose aim is to organize concerts, exhibitions and publishing initiatives to strengthen what has been traditionally been deficient amongst Belarusians – a sense of national identity.  The authorities know about the Budzma campaign but do not prosecute its activists.

Moreover, the Belarusian Presidential administration has reportedly encouraged the use of Belarusian language in official proceedings in Minsk and the regions. Belarus' Minister of Culture, Pavel Latushka, is clearly a bureaucrat of the new generation who predominantly uses the Belarusian language even in official communications. This is still unusual for Belarusian officials but may become more frequent in the future as more people who grew up in post-Soviet times are moving up the ranks.

Western pressure on the regime in Belarus to release political prisoners and reverse the deterioration of human rights is justified and necessary. However, it should be coupled with efforts to strengthen nation-building and ethnogenesis in Belarus. In addition to supporting civil society initiatives working towards this end, it may be also necessary to intensify contacts with Belarusian bureaucrats who are not directly implicated in human rights violations.

YK

Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.

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