Analytical paper: Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict
Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, the Kremlin has persistently tried to expand its control over Belarus, a process that has had quite the opposite effect as Belarusian government policy became more independent in 2014-2015.
There has always existed a paradox in the simultaneous contingence and estrangement in Belarusian-Russian relations.
Estrangement looks the stronger of the two today, evidenced by the decrease in Belarus’ military dependence on Russia and its refusal to allow the establishment of a Russian military base on its territory; the reduction in the Russian economy’s role in Belarus; discrepancies in the foreign policy and media spheres; and conflicts between the political elites of both countries.
These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.
This paper examines the integration/disintegration tendencies in Belarus-Russia relations since November 2013, when protests started in Ukraine. The ensuing Euromaidan, annexation of Crimea, and war in the Donbass have considerably altered European politics, including relations between Minsk and Moscow.
Despite close relations and the formal joint construction of the Union State, which also provides for integration processes, Belarus and Russia are becoming estranged from each other, in numerous ways. There are two reasons for this.
Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus Read more
First, the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine led to a re-thinking inside Belarusian authoritative circles of the possible steps that Russia could take with regard to Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus as he did when he claimed in May 2015 that the Belarusian army needs to be so strong that it is capable of “being thrown from Brest to Vitebsk in half a night to strike a blow”.
Secondly, the decline of the Russian economy lessens the Kremlin’s role as guarantor of Belarus’ well-being. In the conditions of slumping prices, shrinking of the domestic market, and declining GDP growth and forex reserves in Russia, diversification of the Belarusian economy has transformed from wishful thinking into a vital necessity.
Military disintegration: how to say “no” to your ally
Military cooperation has always been the “holy cow” of Belarusian-Russian integration, and the basis for journalists’ and Western experts’ statements presuming that the Belarusian army remains a part of the Russian one.
One of the grounds for such a presumption is the existence of the Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System which, according to the Russian military, started functioning in 2016. The agreement on its creation was signed back in 2009 and in fact brought nothing new to Russian-Belarusian military cooperation. It looks likely that announcing the establishment of an antiaircraft defense system was aimed at making milder Belarus’ refusal to place a Russian military air base on its territory.
The refusal to create the airbase reflects a broader trend – i.e. Belarus’ attempts to reduce its military dependence on Russia. The presence of so many Belarusian military personnel in Russia has always ensured that there is a mental connection between the Belarusian and the Russian armies – it is hard to find any top Belarusian military official who has not studied in Russia.
However, the number of Belarusian military cadets at the Russian military’s higher educational establishments is decreasing: last academic year there were 447, this year only 374.
The joint Shield of the Union exercises in 2015 gathered 1.5 times fewer military personnel than the 2011 Shield of the Union or West-2013 exercises (i.e. 8,000 participants compared with 12,000). While military exercises seemed all but impossible without Russia before, today the Belarusian paratroopers practice with the Chinese every year.
Although the scope of such training exercises looks miserly in comparison with the exercises with Russia, it shows Belarus’ desire to find new partners.
China, in general, has become a noticeable partner for Belarus. This is most clearly seen in the joint development of weapons systems by Minsk and Beijing, the multiple launch rocket system fire Polonaise being an example.
Failure of the Eurasian Economic Union and economic cooperation
In many ways, Russia’s economic decay is responsible for the fact that in only its first year of existence, the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) became a failure for Belarus.
First, the integration project inherited practically all the tariffs (about 600) that existed in the Customs Union. Due to such mechanisms, about two third of goods and services have been withdrawn from the common market of the EEU. Secondly, economic interaction between the countries has reduced. According to data provided by the Eurasian Economic Commission, the trade turnover of Belarusian goods with the EU countries in 2015 was only 74.8 % of that in 2014.
Thirdly, although Belarus has introduced unpopular measures like increasing fees for the import of cars, the regulations of the economic union serve Russia’s interests, as evidenced by the continuing economic wars. Fourthly, the importance of oil and gas, which were the key motivators for Belarus to join the EEU, have fallen sharply
Discrepancies in foreign policy
Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and economic decline have become one of the most important motivators for the Belarusian authorities to normalise relations with the West. Data provided by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) shows that since 2013 Belarus has intensified its relations with the European Union, and today contacts with the EU outnumber those with Russia.
The BISS data reflects the fact that Belarus started normalising relations with the EU and building up contacts with “developing countries” at the beginning of 2013. This included support for Ukraine’s European integration. This shows that the increase in dialogue with the West started not because of Russia’ expansionist policy, but for internal reasons.
It is nonetheless indisputable that the activation of Belarusian contacts with the world and deepening discrepancies in the foreign policies of Moscow and Minsk in 2013-2014 were in many respects a product of Russia’s foreign policy and economic decline.
It is important to note that Belarus’ normalisation of relations with the West is not an attempt at a geopolitical U-turn. So far, neither Belarus on the one side, nor the European Union and the United States on the other, have taken any cardinal steps in the form of big economic projects (Belarus still hasn’t even managed to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund) and contact in the political and military spheres remains at a low level.
Despite Belarus’ lessening dependence on Russia, relations seem unlikely to come to the point of a dramatic breakdown in integration.
First, Belarus remains overdependent on Russia financially – it continues to receive from Russia loans and “subsidies” – i.e. discounts for oil and gas and access to the common market. Furthermore, it remains highly important to Lukashenka that Russia acknowledges the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. Secondly, Belarus remains an important country in Europe for Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin won’t allow the total disintegration of the two countries’ relationship.
Nonetheless, the process of estrangement will continue further, and this is also connected with the generational changes inside the societies. The number of Belarusians who once lived in the same state as Russia – the USSR – is steadily decreasing and the quantity of people who identify themselves as ethnically Russian is reducing. Also a new nomenclature elite is emerging, interest in Belarusian culture is reviving, and young people are becoming more open to the world.
And the last, but important change: a political class that is accustomed to sovereign power, in which decisions are taken independently, has formed in Belarus.
- Read full paper: Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict
- Чытаць аналітычны дакумент: Беларуска-расійскія дачыненні на фоне канфлікту ва Украіне
- Читать аналитический документ: Белорусско-российские отношения на фоне конфликта в Украине
Ryhor Astapenia & Dzmitry Balkuniets
Searching for Ancestors in Belarus
Louis Mayer, one of the founders of the Hollywood studio Metro-Golden-Mayer and the ‘inventor’ of the Oscar award was born in Minsk.
Isaac Asimov, Marc Chagall and Leon Bakst were born and grew up in Belarus. Fifteen Nobel Prize laureates, Jacques Cousteau and and many other notable personalities have Belarusian ancestry.
At the same time, the Guggenheim museum lists Chagall as a painter from “Vitebsk, Russia.” While many outstanding people have Belarusian ancestry, Belarus remains a kind of terra-incognita, overlooked in most biographical notes in museums, books and Wikipedia.
Toponyms such as White Russia, Russia and Poland are used in place of Belarus and mislead those in search of their family history.
The complexity of the contemporary situation in Belarus does not make matters any easier. However, the country could potentially capitalise on the increasing interest in genealogy; private businesses are already taking their first steps in the field of ancestry research.
Shifting Borders, Shifting Identities
The shifting borders between Belarus, Soviet Russia and Poland in the beginning of the 20th century can easily lead to geographical confusion. The complex position of Belarus between the Russian Empire and Poland made it the middle ground in several wars.
The borders of Belarus shifted more than 15 times in 23 years between 1917-1940. Together with the borders, the identities of local inhabittants shifted as well. Locals could define themselves as Russian, Polish, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Litvin and Slav and commonly spoke several languages within one family.
These identity uncertainties were complicated when immigrants arrived, for example, to Ellis Island and listed themselves according to the basic options provided, most often opting for “russians.” As one of the ancestry researchers on the blog mynativebelarus notes: “My grandparents listed themselves [in the US census] as Russian, spoke Polish and now I find they were actually from Belarus.”
Thus, contemporary toponymic confusions are not only the result of a lack of geographical knowledge, but are a direct consequence of the shifting identity of immigrants from Belarus.
The Pale of Settlement
in 1791 Catherine the Great forced all Jews living in Russia to migrate to the territory of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine Read more
The Pale of Settlement is another key concept in the history of emigration from the territory of Belarus. The Pale of Settlement defined a region in the western Russian Empire where most of the Jewish population lived. Catherine the Great demarcated a border in 1791, forcing all Jews living in Russia to migrate to the territory of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine.
The Jewish population comprised up to 50% of Belarusian city-dwellers in 1918. Yiddish was one of the four official languages used in the Belarusian Soviet Republic. Some of the western regions, including Navahrudak, Pinsk and Slutsk were up to 80% Jewish.
Many Jews from Belarus emigrated to Europe at the end of the 19th century due to economic hardships, while others moved east into Russia during WWII. Before and during WWII some managed to escape and moved to the US, but 1989-1991 whitnessed the peak of emmigration. More than 227,000 Jews from Belarus moved to Israel and the US.
Thus, if your family is of Jewish heritage and originally comes from the region of “Western Russia”, most likely this really means the territory of contemporary Belarus, Eastern Poland or Northern Ukraine.
According to BelStat, around 276,000 tourists visited Belarus last year. 88% of tourists come from Russia, since Russians perceive Belarus to be a cheap ‘European’ place to visit.
While Belarus is not exactly a go-to tourist destination, there is a much potential for “nostalgic tourism.” It seems that to some, Belarus is a unique living museum of the Soviet past. Certain initiatives, such as FSP (Freaky summer party), which takes place in Minsk every July, have started offering complimentary tours of Minsk, branded “so soviet, so sexy.”
However, it is not only the soviet past which attracts western tourists. Many are also coming to discover their family history and learn about their ancestors’ past. A thread related to Belarus on the family history website ancestry.com has over 3000 messages, suggesting that the demand for heritage tourism is high.\
people of Jewish ancestry are currently the group most actively conducting genealogical research in Belarus Read more
Since a large proportion of Belarusian emigration was Jewish, people of Jewish ancestry are currently the group most actively conducting genealogical research in Belarus. Today, around 55,000 people identifying as Jewish live in Belarus; half of whom live in Minsk. This population is far smaller than at the beginning of the 20th century, when around 800,000 Jews lived in Belarus.
There are quite a few Jewish cultural and social organisations in Belarus, particularly in Minsk. Many of them offer help in researching ancestry and Jewish heritage, as well as providing databases of Jewish toponyms, names and the like. Profits mainly go to the preservation and rebuilding of Jewish heritage sites.
Historic cemeteries are another useful tool in researching one’s heritage as well as an unconventional tourist destination. The indexing project Graves.by aims to document historical cemeteries, gravestones and the like and make them accessible to a wider audience. Currently, they have 21 documented cemeteries and one can pin a request for specific gravestones. In addition, there is an index of Jewish cemeteries that accounts for more that 90 entries.
While there is some activity in the field of genealogical research, similarly to other private businesses in Belarus most initiatives are short-lived. While Belarusians have not yet managed to fully capitalise upon foreigners searching for ancestors in Belarus, the demand is high and some steps have been taken.
Breaking the mould
Accounts of those visiting Belarus in search of their ancestors are often grim, grey and even haunting. A Belarusian visa costs from 35$ to 140$ and requires a few days wait-time, and registration of place of residence can put off many eager ancestry researchers.
embarking on a heritage tour to Belarus can bring fruitful results and unconventional local experiences Read more
At the same time, embarking on a heritage tour to Belarus can bring fruitful results and unconventional local experiences. Some examples of positive experiences include those of Princeton University alumnus Stanislaw Maliszewski researching his family property Zastaria in Western Belarus, or the account of one Professor Krohn from America, in search of his family history near Minsk.
Since little to no information is available online, doing some family history research in Belarus can be an alternative to more conventional tourist destinations. At the same time, the Belarusian tourist industry could capitalise on the history of Belarusian emigration, and provide specific tours for those interested in researching their ancestry.