Belarusian Volunteers Join Ukraine Conflict on Both Sides
Earlier this month the Belarusian media put out a story on the Belarusian military unit Pahonia, which is training in the Valyń region of Ukraine in order to join Ukrainian army.
Fighters did not reveal their names, fearing potential KGB pressure, but Ukrainian officials say many Belarusians have contacted them to join the unit.
Some Belarusians were also detected on the other side of the conflict. While they did not form any special unit and are trying to keep their involvement under wraps as Belarus' KGB has already initiated a number of criminal cases against them for being mercenaries.
At the same time it seems that Belarus is urgently trying to learn lessons from the Ukrainian conflict, while also seeking to retain full control of the situation domestically ahead of 2015 presidential elections.
This month the government ramped up its anti-terrorist legislation, while Lukashenka’s speeches have become increasingly loaded with security issues. He has been urging the authorities to strengthen Belarusian sovereignty on the basis of a strong economy and a heightened level of international authority.
Belarusians Ready to Fight for Ukraine
Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, some Belarusian citizens have sought to personally join in on the military conflict in Ukraine. Ukrainian TV channels occasionally show stories of a Belarusian unit in the Valyń region of Ukraine training and preparing for combat in the country's south-east.
The unit has a name Pahonia and trains Belarusians who want to fight against the separatists. According to head of the Valyń City Council, Ihor Guź, the unit has been formed as part of an initiative of the Right Alliance youth organisation, which has cooperated with Belarusian oppositional youth groups and individuals for many years.
All of the volunteers who have joined are younger than 30 years old and many actively work with Belarusian NGOs. Belarusians do not dare reveal their names as to prevent repression against them and those associated with them at home. The Malady Front, an opposition organisation, confirmed that some of its members have made their way to Ukraine. “After we announced the unit's formation, about 50 people showed up and contacted us to join it. Sure, there are members of the Belarus KGB among them, but we will figure out a way of how to deal with it [later],” Ihor Guź said.
In an interview with the Rosbalt news agency, an anonymous Pahonia fighter explained that they crossed the Belarus-Ukraine border legally, and if they are questioned on their return home at border what they were doing in Ukraine, they will answer they simply reply that they were working in Kyiv.
“We don’t tell anyone about it, people would not understand. Only our closest relatives know that we went to war,” the Pahonia volunteer said.
Belarusian combatants say they decided to help the Ukrainians in their fight against Russia because Belarus may face the same threat in the future:
When Georgians said that Ukraine will be the next, nobody believed them. Lukashenka is quite smart, but Moscow will do away with him sooner or later. And we hope our Ukrainian brothers will help us just as we help them now. We are not being paid any money here.
Aide to Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Anton Herashchenko confirmed that “there indeed are Belarusian citizens who want to fight against the terrorists in Ukraine. Ukrainian legislation does not allow for the use of foreign units, but they can easily obtain Ukrainian citizenship.”
Earlier, Semion Semenchenko, the leader of the Donbas volunteer battalion reported that 15 Belarusians joined them in order to fight against pro-Russian forces.
DNR Combatants Face KGB Pressure
As Belarus remains a nation divided over whether its future is with the EU or Russia, it is hardly surprising that Belarusian nationals have been appearing on the other side of the conflict as well.
Earlier this month Ukrainian security services reported that it detained a citizen of Belarus. Allegedly, he came to Odessa together with some Russians with an order from Russian intelligence services to destabilise the situation in the region. They established contacts with local radical groups, distributed leaflets and inspired anti-government protests.
In May, Ukrainian Security Service detained Belarusian citizen Alieh Šabalin, who was accused of carrying out preparations for a terrorist act. Despite this and other individual incidences of collaboration with pro-Russian forces, no organised units of Belarusians on the side of the separatists have yet to appear.
Natallia Krasoŭskaja became perhaps the most famous Belarusian in the pro-Russian camp. A few videos of her have appeared online, videos where she claims she is from Barysaŭ, Minsk region, and came to Ukraine back on 5 May to support the separatist forces.
Showing her Belarusian passport and addressing Lukashenka, she proclaims in one video that the Donetsk People's Republic has the backing of the Belarusian people.
However, the Belarusian authorities appear to not be all that enthused with this brand of flagrant pro-Russian patriotism. As Krasoŭskaja notes out in a later dispatch, the Belarusian KGB called her mother to inform her that they have filed a criminal case against her. She added that other Belarusian nationals in the DNR paramilitary army have also gotten word that criminal cases were opened against them.
It seems that Belarus is desperately trying to learn as much as possible from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This month the government amended its anti-terrorist legislation which includes a section on financing terrorism, increased penalties for the recruitment of mercenaries as well as for training individuals with the purpose of having them participate in terrorist acts.
On 22 April, Lukashenka in his annual address to the nation ordered Belarusian security services to closely monitor and control those who promotes the “Russian issue” in Belarus and immediately curb these kinds of discussions, regardless of who starts them. And as the cases surrounding the Belarusian paramilitaries working on the side of the DNR has shown, the KGB is indeed carrying out its orders.
Publicly though, Lukashenka continues to maintain a diplomatic balance by utilising ambiguous and unclear statements whenever speaking about either side of the conflict. His rhetoric mainly involves urging all sides to end the armed conflict and restore Slavic unity.
Speaking at the Kupalle annual festival in his native village Aleksandryja on 6 July, Lukashenka stated that “Slavic unity has seriously fractured, and we should do our best to achieve peace in Ukraine.” He used similar words on 10 July at the opening of the Slavic Fair cultural festival in Viciebsk.
Both sides are both seeking to draw Belarus further into their camp. At the opening ceremony of the Slavic Fair, the Ukrainian ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Ezhel read a letter of greeting form Ukrainian president Poroshenko.
At the same time, Lukashenka has been increasingly frequently raising the issue of national security in his conversations with Belarusian officials. “The weak are abused, and the strong are respected in the new geopolitical reality, so we must be strong politically, and even more so economically,” he said at a gathering with Belarusian diplomats.
The Belarusian leadership, for its part, continues with its balancing act on the foreign affairs front, while trying to retain complete control of the situation domestically.
The fear of combatants returning, who may come back home as agents of foreign influence, is forcing the Belarusian authorities to their tighten up security measures.
Before the 2015 presidential elections, Lukashenka is not going to allow for hardly any political liberalisation, especially in an environment that is so highly volatile.
The Split Between Belarusian Elites and Society on Ukraine Widens
On 17 July, Belarusian state media tried to strike a balance between Russia and Ukraine's respective positions when reporting on the MH17 crash.
Russian media clearly stated that it was Ukraine which had shot down the plane and the majority of Belarusians seem to believe it.
The Russian war against Ukraine has shown that the Belarusian elite and society see the world very differently.
Nearly all members of the Belarusian elite (both the authorities and the opposition) have a negative perception of the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine. It seems that Lukashenka`s position is the closest it has ever been to that of pro-European democrats and the business elite of Belarus.
However, the majority of ordinary people seem to support Russia's narrative. The Kremlin's propaganda has found fertile soil for its world view in a Soviet mentality that has been perpetrated and cultivated over the years by Lukashenka’s regime.
As of late, it appears that the authorities are trying to strengthen Belarusian identity, but despite their efforts, it is clearly not enough to turn back the tide of 20 years of propaganda. Whether they realise it or not, the only way to remedy the issues facing Belarusian society is for Lukashenka’s regime allowing society an opportunity to develop intellectually and co-operate other groups of elites.
Otherwise, the gap between the political decision-makers and the people will only continue to widen.
Elites Support Ukraine
The conflict in Ukraine has become perhaps the singular issue in which the entirerty of the Belarusian elite hold virtually the same opinion.
Though the Belarusian authorities have made several concessions to the Kremlin, they managed to maintain neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and be supportive of the Kyiv leadership.
Lukashenka calls on Ukraine to wipe out the militants in Eastern Ukraine Read more
Moreover, the Belarusian head of state has time and again shown that he has a much more pro-Ukrainian stance than many politicians from the European Union. While Angela Merkel advises Poroshenko to call for another ceasefire and negotiate with the separatist forces, Lukashenka calls on Ukraine to wipe out the militants in Eastern Ukraine.
Pavel Yakubovich, editor in chief of Soviet Belarus, the main propaganda newspaper of the regime, criticised Russian media for warmongering in one of his latest columns. Belarusian state media has maintained a certain level of balance in its coverage of the events in Ukraine, while many independent media outlets like Belgazeta, previously neutral, took the side of Ukraine.
The business elite in Belarus are typically silent in public, but unofficially many of them are very upset with Russia's actions, actions that have been to the detriment of the private sector throughout the whole region. For example, shares of the US-Belarusian IT corporation EPAM Systems fell by a third due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The company has many offices, but its largest ones are located in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
All of the significant opposition politicians have been supporting Ukraine since the conflict began, although some marginal figures have been trying to flirt with Russia. For example, Ihar Drako of the Tell the truth campaign said Ukraine's division into three parts is in the best interest of Belarus.
The similarity of the entirety of the Belarusian elite has its roots in their common interests. They view Belarus as an independent, united nation and realise that by protecting Ukraine, they are also protecting themselves.
Society Supports the Kremlin
While the elites are preoccupied supporting Ukraine, a large section of the society is doing quite the opposite. Sociological data made available from the Belarusian Analytical Workshop show that 65.7% of Belarusians support the Russian annexation of the Crimea.
Only 15% of Belarusians consider it illegal. It seems logical to believe that that their views on the Donbas may be much the same. The vast majority of people have a negative attitude towards the new Ukrainian authorities.
Russian media dominates Belarus' airwaves, presenting only the Kremlin's views on the events in Eastern Ukraine Read more
This is the result of aggressive Russian propaganda and the absence of any adequate attempts to bring about some form of informational balance from the Belarusian authorities. Russian media dominates Belarus' airwaves, presenting only the Kremlin's views on the events in Eastern Ukraine. As the Russian media is much better funded and offers higher quality products, most Belarusians choose them over their Belarusian counterparts when given a choice.
A restricted-access sociological study to which the author has access to shows that the programme 'News of the Week with Dmitry Kisilev' remains the most popular informational television programme of its kind in Belarus. This Russian television program has become one of the main mouthpieces of the Russian information war against Ukraine.
The Belarusian authorities have been cultivating a Soviet way of thinking for a considerable period of time, an issue that they are now having to contend with. The regime has systematically weakened Belarusian national identity, reducing the value of its national history and symbols, and as a result Belarusians tend to perceive the world through the lens of Russian interests.
At that moment, as Western scholars are almost entirely absent from Belarusian academic institutions, universities host guests like hardcore Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin. Other similar phenomenon have long been accepted in most arenas of public life. As a result of this isolation and identity maintenance, even the authorities are finding that they lack qualified and capable people for public service.
How the Elite Can Fix Belarus' Problems
The Belarusian authorities grew afraid of the war in Ukraine not only for a fear of Putin, but also because the Belarusian public appear much more pro-Russian than their own elites. Hence, the regime has recently begun to quietly work on developing Belarusian national identity.
Earlier this month Aliaksandr Lukashenka, for the first time in many years, spoke Belarusian in public Read more
On 3 July, Independence Day, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, for the first time in many years, spoke Belarusian in public. This month Vitsebsk officials erected a monument to Algerd, the Grand Lithuanian Duke. The Mahiliou city authorities announcedthe renaming of their Soviet Square, reasoning that the name was now obsolete. But these gestures all appears to be too little, too late.
Every year, the Kremlin every strengthens its role in Belarus and Lukashenka seems to be unable to stop curb its growing influence, though he does try to slow its growth as much as he can. The Belarusian economy hums along largely thanks to Russian money. The Kremlin controls Belarus in almost every aspect of its existence, including its culture. Belarus remains the only country from the former Soviet Union where the Russian language was given official status.
If the state elites want to have public opinion be closer to their own, they should support the national identity of the people and the intellectual development of society to greatest extent possible. The regime, over time, could find ways to cooperate with other elites, at least on a basic level, to help develop the nation's identity and bring it out of isolation.
Previous efforts in this direction can be found in the creation of the Advisory Board at the Presidential Administration, which functioned between 2008-2010, and could be a means to open up societal dialog once more. Another idea would be to invite members of the business elite to high positions in the government of Belarus. Improved relations with the West would also bring no harm.
On the one hand, the authorities would have to carry out their new policy quietly in order not to draw the wrath of the Kremlin for a pivot west. On the other, they need to do so quickly, as no state can function if the elite and society maintain largely opposing perceptions about their national and civic identity.