Belarusian authorities and society agree on distancing from Putin’s war?
On 31 March, Larysa Sekerzhytskaya, a school teacher from the Belarusian city of Babruysk was fined for coming to work with a yellow-blue ribbon resembling a Ukrainian flag. At the same time, in March, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s regime banned one public event in support of Putin’s invasion and limited two others.
An analysis of the situation reveals Minsk’s ambiguous stance on Ukraine. This is probably due to a genuine reluctance among politicians to join in Russia’s aggression, which is paired with an overwhelming lack of support for the war among the population.
Curbing support for Putin’s invasion
Few political actors in Belarus openly support Putin’s war. The jingoism of Russian political parties in Moscow is not paralleled in Minsk. The Belarusian political forces which do are marginal. For example, Civic Accord and two other pro-Moscow groups issued a joint statement supporting Putin’s invasion in mid-March and then held a small public gathering on 17 March in Minsk.
But there have been no public events like those held in Russia to acclaim the invasion—no meetings at stadiums, no auto-rallies parading “Z” symbols. On 17 March, Local officials in Hrodna, a Belarusian city on the border with Poland, prohibited a pro-Moscow activist, Volha Bondarava, from staging an auto-rally of about 20 cars in support of Belarusian and Russian “siloviki” (a term referring to senior officials in the military-security establishment). The municipal authorities told her that the roads were being repaired, so better she and her friends join other official events planned for May or July.
Another pro-Moscow activist, Mikhail Malash, said he and his fellow activists wanted to conduct their own auto-rally—with the flags of Belarus, Russia, Serbia, the Russian Empire, USSR, and DNR—to show support for the Russian military in Ukraine on 11 March. However, the Belarusian authorities—referring to an alleged request by the Russian embassy—asked them to abandon their plans. Instead, cars originally intended for the auto-rally drove their own, individual routes about Minsk, festooned with “Z” symbols made from tape and flying Serbian flags. Eventually, their individual circuits completed, the drivers came together at a specified place to record a video, addressing their “Russian brothers.” The following day, Belarusian police ordered the activists to remove all the symbols and then to send a photo of confirmation.
Pro-Russian groups face restrictions on their activities in general because none of them has official registration. On 18 March, the leaders of Immortal Regiment, a pro-Moscow movement known for exploiting the memory of WWII in the interests of the Kremlin, were refused state registration in Belarus for the fifth time. Earlier this year, the already mentioned Civic Accord also failed to get registration. Like other organisations with political inclinations but lacking in official registration, these groups can only operate within tight restrictions.
The pressure of public opinion
By adopting such policies, Minsk appears to be following the public mood. According to a Chatham House survey of public opinion, the Belarusian population in March was almost unanimously opposed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. By contrast, similar surveys conducted in Russia show up to 80 per cent of Russians support the invasion. The results are similar whether it is the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center or liberal NGO Public Opinion Foundation.
Neither Moscow nor Kyiv can be happy with the Belarusians. A Chatham House study has found that a mere 3 per cent of Belarusians support the entry of Belarusian troops into a military conflict to aid Russia. And only 1 per cent give their support if it were Ukraine. 28 per cent consider it right to “support Russia’s actions, but not enter into a military conflict,” and 15 per cent “condemn Russia’s actions without joining the conflict.” Meanwhile, 21 per cent of respondents found it difficult to answer. “Taking part in hostilities is an extremely unpopular idea, even among supporters of the Lukashenka regime,” commented Ryhor Astapienia, author of the Chatham House study.
A quarter of those polled is in favour of neutrality in this conflict, including the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarusian territory. About the same number are willing to support Russia, but without Belarusian troops entering into a military conflict. The establishment of a Russian military base in Belarus is welcomed by only 24 per cent of respondents, with 44 per cent against the idea.
The Chatham House findings look convincing, because of the well-known anti-war sentiment Belarusians feel towards the horrendous loss of life in WWII. Indeed, this anti-war stance is showing itself in reaction to Belarusian state media, too. State media in Belarus have been repeating Moscow’s narratives. But these efforts have not resulted in any mass mobilisations of support. This is because, as Belarus Digest has reported, the Belarusian regime lost its cultural and discursive hegemony years ago.
Moscow’s influence is questionable
Russian soft power in Belarus remains limited. In February, a pro-Moscow political group Civic Accord published a policy paper on domestic Belarusian media. The paper found the influence of pro-Russian media in Belarus to be negligible. It quoted statistics from Telegram, an instant messaging platform, which is widely used in Belarus:
Among Telegram channels in Belarus, Pro-Western and nationalist media resources make up 88 per cent of total audience coverage. Pro-government media resources have 11 per cent of total audience coverage, and pro-Russian media have 1 per cent.
The list of the 50 most popular Telegram channels in Belarus includes only four pro-government outlets: the Belarusian president’s own channel, the channel “Yellow Plums” (which is apparently linked with the Belarusian police forces), the Belarusian Health Ministry, and the channel of Yuri Voskresensky, a pro-government politician.
Certainly, Russian TV channels do exert some influence over the Belarusian population, especially older people. But Belarusian authorities have long been editing them and demanding Belarusian content should make up a third of total broadcasts.
According to one unpublished study conducted by an authoritative Western organisation in 2017, less than 9 per cent of those aged 50-or-older used online communications, which makes them the main TV audience.
At the same time, this is the strength and the weakness of Putin’s propaganda. Although some Belarusian opposition activists talk about Lukashenka as a marionette of the Kremlin, or even about the occupation of Belarus by Russia, they obviously exaggerate. Political News Agency, a Russian nationalist media outlet, recently lamented:
Lukashenka vigilantly prevents the formation of a pro-Russian public or political force… there is not a single pro-Russian political party in Belarus, not a single public-political organisation, not a single pro-Russian media… [otherwise] this banned “third force” could be conducting explanatory work among the population, including those related to the special operation in Ukraine.
The regimes in Minsk and Moscow are being dealt with on different terms. The Belarusian government has its sad record of restricting freedoms, election fraud, and police violence, for which it must be held accountable by the Belarusian people. But various signs suggest the Belarusian authorities have become unwilling facilitators of Russia’s aggression, while the overwhelming majority of the Belarusian people oppose Putin’s invasion and plans for domination. In this light, the differing views and behaviour of the Belarusian authorities and the citizens of Belarus in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine make sense.
Belarusian Christians oppose war in Ukraine despite pressure from authorities
On 3 March, riot police detained mothers of Belarusian soldiers who had gathered at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk to pray for peace.
On 25 March, Belarusian Greek Catholic priest Vasil Jahorau from Bialynichy was fined €440 ($487) for a having placed a sticker on his car reading “Ukraine, forgive us.” Earlier, Catholic priest Andrzej Bulczak, who served in Pastavy, chose to flee Belarus. Bulczak had been charged with criminal extremism for an anti-war video he posted on YouTube.
Belarusians have an increasingly limited space to articulate their political positions. State repressions and paranoia are extending into church services. In such circumstances, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become a delicate subject for all Belarusian religious communities.
Christian Vision’s activism
Some 80 per cent of Belarusians declare a belief in God. Most believers, 73 per cent, belong to the Orthodox Church. Of the minority faiths, 12 per cent are Catholics, while another 12 per cent practise other religions, and the remaining 3 per cent claim no religious affiliation.
According to Natallia Vasilevich, Belarusian church researcher and theologist, the experience of the 2020 peaceful protests in Belarus—and their suppression in 2021—is impacting the reactions of major Belarusian churches to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
In 2020, churches and religious communities gained visibility and popularity as they spoke out against violence and police brutality. But the Belarusian state’s crackdown on political opposition included undermining the civic solidarity promoted by religious communities. Church leaders had to reduce their public visibility and carefully watch what they said throughout 2021. Protestant communities lacking state registration (which is virtually impossible to secure) even faced the threat of prosecution under the amended Criminal Code.
On 9 September 2020, representatives of Belarusian religious communities founded Christian Vision, a working group within the Coordination Council for the settlement of the political crisis in Belarus. Uniting pro-democracy Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical activists, the group represents an informal association of believers. The aim of the group is to monitor religious and political persecution in Belarus.
Most Christian Vision members are now based outside Belarus. Many activists have had to flee the country for fear of persecution. Christian Vision was one of the first politically active groups in Belarus on 24 February to issue a condemnation of “the aggression of the Putin regime against Ukraine” and of the use of Belarusian territory “as one of the springboards for this aggression.”
Following the Pope’s lead
On 25 March, Belarusian Catholics joined Pope Francis in an Act of Consecration of humanity—in particular of Russia and Ukraine—to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The pontiff launched an appeal to all Catholics around the world to unite in prayer to demonstrate a “gesture of the universal Church” to end to the violence and suffering of innocent people.
The position of Pope Francis, along with the expectations of ordinary Catholic believers, encouraged Belarusian Catholic bishops to elaborate their own stance to the war. Initially, on 26 February, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Belarus (CCBB) issued a brief message regarding the “conflict in Ukraine.” The CCBB asked believers to fast and to pray for peace. In response, Catholic activist and Christian Vision member Arciom Tkachuk criticised the CCBB’s statement for its vagueness. Other believers wrote an open letter to the CCBB.
The open letter asked Belarusian bishops not to keep silent about the tragedy in Ukraine. They urged episcopal representatives to give a clear moral assessment of Russian aggression and the Belarusian role in it. Subsequently, the CCBB issued a new statement on 3 March, referring to the conflict as “Russia’s war” and urging for efforts to prevent Belarusian involvement in it.
On 25 February, Metropolitan Veniamin of Minsk and Zaslaŭl’, who is the Orthodox Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, addressed the faithful with a call for reconciliation and for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Metropolitan Veniamin said, “We all feel that we are one family with Russians and Ukrainians… [and we share] the pain of our brothers and sisters.” To date this remains the only war-related statement from the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Belarusian historian Tacciana Proc’ka interpreted Veniamin’s silence as an attempt to avoid responsibility.
Orthodox authorities did not react to an incident on 3 March where several women were arrested after praying for peace at the Holy Spirit Cathedral, located in central Minsk. Only the priest who held the service tried to convince security officers to leave his parishioners alone.
At the very start of the war, Patriarch of Moscow Kirill addressed Orthodox believers. Patriarch Kirill said he perceived the “human suffering caused by unfolding events” with “deep, heartfelt pain.” Later, Kirill was more specific. In a sermon on 6 March, he focused his attention on Ukraine’s separatist Donbas regions, ignoring the rest of Ukraine. Kirill praised the separatist regions for their rejection Western values and went on to condemn pride parades.
Aliaksandr Shramko, an Orthodox priest and a Christian Vision member, commented on Patriarch Kirill’s loyalty to Russian authorities in an interview with Zerkalo.io, a news media website. Shramko noted that a patriarch in the Orthodox tradition cannot be equated with the position of a spiritual leader. According to Shramko, his statements cannot reflect everything that is going on within the Orthodox church.
On 24 March, Christian Vision’s Telegram channel announced that some Belarusian Orthodox priests were refusing to commemorate Patriarch Kirill. This can be understood as a form of spiritual protest against Kirill’s support of the Putin regime. Apparently, they are following the example of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has stopped honouring the Moscow Patriarch in its services.
Church authorities have reacted by pressuring priests who halt their commemoration of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite this pressure, Christian Vision has noted the spontaneity of these protests. Priests reportedly have been deciding to protest either on their own, or with the support of their parishioners, guided by moral principles.
The domestic political situation in Belarus remains decisive in shaping the reactions of major Belarusian churches on the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Catholics have the moral support of Pope Francis, Orthodox priests face more limitations. Still, even in these conditions, they seem to move away from Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s statements. Cautious appeals for prayer in Belarus stand in contrast to the persecution of the anti-war, Christian activists, who were the first to condemn the Russian war in Ukraine and the Lukashenka regime’s role in it.