A major diplomatic row between Minsk and Moscow explained
On 21 March 2019, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official comment regarding the major diplomatic row between Minsk and Moscow. Belarusian and Russian diplomats have exchanged mutual reproaches in a rather undiplomatic manner. Whilst the Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, told Belarusians “not to teach Russia how to live,” the press secretary for the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Anatol Glaz, blamed Babich for misunderstanding “the difference between a federal district and an independent state.”
Though Belarus-Russia relations have deteriorated due to the clash over oil revenues, the recent diplomatic row might also signal a deeper crisis in the relations between the two states. While Russia is hesitating to compensate Belarus for the losses resulting from Russia’s changing policies (the so-called tax “manoeuvre”), Minsk is getting more nervous. According to several Belarusian analysts, as Moscow decreases indirect financial aid to Minsk, the Belarusian economy will inevitably learn to adjust. As a result, the post-Lukashenka Belarus will eventually end up being less dependent on Russian markets and money.
Babich’s scandalous interview: “never teach Russia how to live”
In August 2018, Vladimir Putin appointed diplomat Babich, former Chairman of the Government of the Chechen Republic, as Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, two years after an unsuccessful attempt to send Babich as an envoy to Ukraine. Upon his arrival in Belarus, Babich immediately started raising financial aspects in the relations between the two states. However, it was Babich’s latest interview to RIA Novosti that caused the major uproar among his Belarusian colleagues.
In his scandalous interview on 1 March 2019, Babich commented on Lukashenka’s statements made during the so-called “Great Talk with the President”. In particular, Babich rebuked Lukashenka’s recent criticism of the Russian leadership which “lobbies oligarchic groups”: “All I can say is that no one should teach Russia and its government how to live, especially since there are [already] enough in the world who want to do so.”
In addition, the diplomat commented on Lukashenka’s statements regarding the high cost of Russian credit resources for Belarus. According to Babich, President Lukashenka was simply let down by the aides, who provided the wrong statistics. The diplomat further splashed numbers in relation to Belarus’s exports to Russia: “Out of $5 bn of exports of Belarusian agricultural products that our friends are so proud of, 4 billion stays in Russia, which is 80%,” he calculated.
Finally, Babich referred to recent talk about the Russian threat to Belarus’s sovereignty as “electoral technology.” According to Babich, it was hardly reasonable to implement such technology at the expense of relations with its closest ally – the Russian Federation.
Belarus’s MFA responds, brands Babich a “promising accountant”
Soon Anatol Glaz, Belarus’s foreign ministry press secretary, harshly commented on the assessment of Belarus-Russia relations voiced by Mikhail Babich:
Honestly, there is not always enough time to read all the interviews of Mikhail Babich: all of them are quite similar, and the mentor line of reasoning does not change much… Without reading, I can say for sure that the relations between our states and our nations are much deeper than a fraudulent set of numbers that a Russian diplomat regularly provides. Yet this is his right to set a bar for himself that turns him into a bookkeeper or a promising s accountant.
Moreover, Glaz advised Babich to devote more time to understand the specifics of the host country and get acquainted properly with its history. According to Glaz, Babich “simply misunderstood the difference between a federal district and an independent state.” In addition, Glaz promised to give detailed comments to the Russian partners regarding the Ambassador’s statements on Belarus-Russia relations.
Babich quickly reacted to Glaz’s comments and partially tried to downplay the conflict:
We, in contrast to these commentators [Anatol Glaz], have enough time to read and analyse all the information… I am sure it all comes down. The most important thing is that both the Russian and the Belarusian side have an opportunity to make objective evaluation of different arguments and elaborate mutually acceptable solutions for the benefit of the two nations. All the rest is chatter. We take it very calmly.
Yet, a reaction followed from Kremlin. Grigory Karasin, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, made an official statement that Russia expected a more respectful attitude to its Ambassador from the side of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus.
Subsequent reaction in Belarus and Russia
The diplomatic row immediately attracted the attention of the Belarusian and Russian press. As for the Russian media, the majority of media outlets praised Babich as the “new style of Russian diplomacy”. At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently tried to settle down the diplomatic scandal. On 21 March, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an official statement that “Belarus remains Russia’s chief strategic partner” and “the inter-state dialogue should always stay professional and correct”.
Several Belarusian analysts have also provided their commentary. In his article to Naviny.by, Aliaksandr Klaskouski mentions that Babich stays calm and ironic because Kremlin perfectly understands all of Lukashenka’s weaknesses. By declaring unity and friendship once more, Russia pinpoints Belarus on its vassal dependence.
According to Artyom Shraibman, writing for Carnegie Moscow, despite the bold rhetoric, Minsk has little space for manoeuvre; hence, Lukashenka will continue sticking to Russia and simultaneously preparing for potential separation. The Belarusian economy will eventually adjust to the decrease of Russia’s indirect financial support. Consequently, the post-Lukashenka Belarusian authorities might obtain a favourable opportunity to ditch the Union State with Russia.
In conclusion, the undiplomatic exchange between the diplomats clearly signals an upcoming shift in Belarus-Russia relations. Apparently, Minsk and Moscow have grown tired of each so much that even diplomats – people whose job remains to calm conflicts – start getting engaged in a battle of words. Nevertheless, the diplomatic conflict will most probably fade away, and neither Babich nor Glaz gets punished for overstepping the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette. At the same time, further battles between Minsk and Moscow might soon recur on a different front taken into account Russia’s reluctance to compensate Belarus’s upcoming losses in oil revenues.
Belarusization 2.0.: Will the Russian threat help Belarusization?
On 2 March 2019 Alexander Lukashenka held his annual conference with journalists. The so-called “Big Conversation” lasted seven hours. The marathon session both clarified and blurred official positions on issues of security, closer integration with Russia, and Russian propaganda in Belarus.
At the same time, in the context of recent discussions about the potential annexation of Belarus by Russia, Lukashenka’s public statements on the importance of preserving national heritage and language have grown more frequent. For example, Lukashenka asserted: “If you are the nation, you have to have your own language.” In recent months, he made a public speech in Belarusian, called on citizens to remember the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and declared that Belarusian sovereignty will not suffer from blackmail and gas disputes.
A policy of Belarusization may prove decisive in deterring the Russian world and protecting Belarusian sovereignty. However, a superficial Belarusization orchestrated by Lukashenka and directed at external actors could have a negative effect on Belarusian language and culture. Instead of genuine Belarusization and the development of the Belarusian language, such a policy only awakens Russian propaganda and leaves Russian language dominating education, the judiciary and the media.
Limited space for the development of the Belarusian language
The Belarusian population continues to Russify more and more. According to a 2018 study by the IPM Research Centre, only 2.2% of Belarusians speak Belarusian at home, while 73.7% use Russian; 12.3% speak both and 11.6% use a mixture of the two languages. According to recently published data from the 2009 population census (not previously published), the state of the Belarusian language has declined. The recent data demonstrates that only 57.4% of Belarusians named the titular language as their native language. With further Russification, the numbers speaking Belarusian may significantly decrease when data from the 2019 census is collected.
A rapid Russification of the Belarusian population primarily occurs through Russian-language media. Three of the nine TV-channels included in the standard TV package are Russian and the rest use Russian as the main language. Belarus buys the majority of its TV shows from Russia and broadcasts these even on the Belarusian-language channels.
Russian propaganda has a wide influence through the Russian TV channels that predominate Belarusian TV. Monitoring by the Belarusian Association of Journalists shows that promotion of the notion of a “Russian world” takes place through Russian TV shows of both political and non-political character and broadcast on the nine official TV channels in Belarus.
Although experts continue to talk about the so-called “soft” Belarusization in the cultural and entertainment sectors, the use of the Belarusian language in state and education institutions continues to fall. The festivals of Vyshyvanka (traditional embroidered shirts), cultural events and growing usage of Belarusian language by business show an interest in the language rather than its development.
Besides the Russification of the educational system, the growing interest of young people to the Belarusian language is competing with a brain-drain. 2018 marked a record year in so far as around 11,000 Belarusians emigrated to other countries for work, with a total of almost 95,000 Belarusians officially working abroad according to Mikhail Myasnikovich, the Chairman of the Council of the Republic, cited in Zviazda. In these conditions, English becomes even more popular than Belarusian for young professionals, as does Polish among workers moving to Poland.
Soft Belarusization: External policy rather than an internal course
On 25 March 2018 Minsk saw one of the biggest celebrations of Freedom Day, organised through crowd-funding. The peculiarity of the event was that the authorities approved the celebration – in contrast to many other events organised by oppositional leaders in the past. Last year’s Freedom Day BNR 100 (the centenary of the foundation of the Belarusian Republic) appeared as yet another sign of soft Belarusisation and gave hope for some liberalisation in the country.
This year activists applied to hold Freedom Day celebrations at the Dynama Stadium, which the authorities are preparing for the 2019 European Games. However, the authorities rejected this year’s application stating that the stadium is not yet ready for concerts. The Belarusian pop-singer Alexandr Saladuha subsequently received permission to perform in the stadium, which some oppositional activists see as a way of restricting their access to the stadium. During the “Big Conversation” Lukashenka also said that he sees no sense in celebrating Freedom Day 101 in the city centre.
Although the pressure on the opposition and the initiatives referring to the Belarusian national idea continues, Lukashenka himself does not shy away from playing the language card. Thus, on 9 January Lukashenka delivered part of a speech in Belarusian. The Belarusian president has done this before, for example in 2014.
The speech in the Belarusian language, coupled with statements from Lukashenka during the ongoing Russian-Belarusian gas dispute, awoke Russia’s propaganda machine. Russian media spread information claiming that “Belarusian nationalists plan to ruin the country” and that “Lukashenka has betrayed Russia.”
During the “Big Conversation”, Lukashenka said he does not understand why Russia tries to spread its ideology of the Russian world in Belarus since Belarusians already think like Russians and speak the same language.
The Belarusian language card serves Lukashenka who wants to quieten supporters of the national idea by showing he is not trying to Russify Belarus. The same card is played when it comes to relations with Russia: here it demonstrates sovereignty and difference from Russia. However, in one or another way, Lukashenka uses this card only to benefit the regime and can barely have a relation to the policy of Belarusization anymore.
Genuine Belarusization instead of imitation
Lukashenka’s appeal for the importance of preserving the national language and culture appears as an attempt to strengthen his position by attracting the support of national and opposition forces in the event of Russian aggression. Additionally, he might aim to decrease negative rhetoric regarding his announcement to run again for the presidency (by presenting himself as an advocate of independence, language and culture). Lukashenka may believe that against the backdrop of Russian pressure he can attract more support from the part of the electorate that has never voted for him before.
Although positive rhetoric towards the Belarusian language became more visible, there exists a lack of investments into the language popularisation in education and media. In fact, Belarusization turns into a political tool of foreign policy rather than a genuine movement. If the regime aims to deter the influence of Russian propaganda, Belarusization policy should first of all focus on real reform in all spheres and not mere symbolic steps.