Belarusians in Ukraine Conflict: Freedom Fighters or the Far-Right?
On 5 December, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko awarded a Ukrainian passport to Belarusian citizen Sergei Korotkich for “courageous and faithful service” on the battlefield.
Korotkich’s dubious past, which includes leading a neo-fascist organisation in Russia and participating in a crackdown on Belarusian pro-democracy activists in the 1990s, highlights the thin line between patriotism and far-right views of foreign fighters in the Ukrainian conflict.
As a growing number of Ukrainians seek refuge in Belarus, Belarusians are crossing the border in the opposite direction, to join fighters on one or the other side of the conflict. On the battlefield, young people seeking to defend Ukraine's independence may find themselves side-by-side with extremists driven by ultra-nationalist ideology.
Unit Pahonia Seeks Young Ideological Fighters
According to Belsat TV channel, hundreds of Belarusians are now fighting in the anti-terrorist operation zone. The actual numbers are hard to verify, however. In June, Commander Semion Semenchenko mentioned that 15 Belarusians were fighting in the Donbas battalion. In September, Commander Yury Bereza told Belsat that some ten Belarusians are active in the Dnieper battalion.
Perhaps the largest number of Belarusians – between 50 and 60, according to various news sources – joined the all-Belarusian unit Pahonia. Upon receiving military training in western Ukraine, Pahonia members joined a variety of Ukrainian units fighting in the anti-terrorist operation zone.
On its Facebook page, Pahonia calls Ihor Guz, elected from Verkhovnaya Rada in November 2014 as the People’s Front candidate, its “godfather” for his support with organising the unit.
In a September interview with Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva, Guz emphasised the propagandistic role played by the Belarusian fighters. He explained that “they demonstrate that Russian aggression is the problem not only for Ukraine, but also for other countries.”
Belarusian activist Tatsiana Elavaya helped finance equipment for the unit through a PayPal campaign. Pahonia’s VKontakte web page includes 1,448 members, and its Facebook page has 1,505 likes. The organisation's social media pages warn users to submit questions about joining the organisation via email because the “secret services are not sleeping.”
Several members of Malady Front, a centre-right Belarusian youth organisation, have reportedly joined the unit. Interviews with Nasha Niva suggest that they see Russia as a common threat for Ukraine and Belarus and frame their goals in anti-imperialist terms.
Dubious Past of the First Belarusian Fighter to Obtain Ukrainian Citizenship
Most known Belarusian fighters in Ukraine espouse nationalist values. Yet Korotkich, a Russian-born Belarusian citizen the first to earn Ukrainian citizenship for participating in the anti-terrorist operations, has a history of participating in several violent, ultra-nationalist pro-Russian organisations.
Also known as Maliuta, Korotkich formerly led the far-right organisation National-Socialist Society and participated in the neo-nazi Format-18 in Russia. Members of these organisations were charged with multiple murders of people of Caucasian, Asian, and African descent.
According to Radio Liberty, while in Belarus, Maliuta participated in the radical nationalist organisation Russian National Unity. Maliuta’s friend Valery Ihnatovich is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Belarusian journalist Dmitry Zavadsky.
Today, Maliuta heads the intelligence unit of Azov Battalion, one of several paramilitary units fighting on the Ukrainian side. While his decision to fight on the Ukrainian side may seem out of character, he fits right in with other extremist and even neo-nazi Azov volunteers. In mid-July 2014, for example, BBC reported that a Swedish white supremacist sniper, Mikael Skillt, joined the fighting as well.
Belarus Digest contacted the battalion's press secretary. He refused to share how many Belarusians fight in the battalion and was unavailable for further comments.
Maliuta’s fame as a newly minted hero has evoked mixed reactions in Belarus. Some view the incident as unavoidable in wartime, while others suspect involvement by the KGB, Belarus's intelligence service.
Tatsiana Elavaya, a political activist who coordinates fundraising for the Pahonia unit, posted in her Facebook account that “not only idealists and romantics travel from Belarus to Ukraine.” She wrote, “Some of these people – intentionally or not – discredit all the Belarusians who help Ukrainians to protect their independence.”
Dzianis Ivashin, a civic activist from Hrodna who regularly visits Ukraine views Maliuta's fame as the first Belarusian to obtain a Ukrainian passport for defending the country's independence as “a provocation to the entire democratic community in Belarus.” In an interview with Belаrus Digest, Ivashin said that the Belarusian KGB might be using Maliuta to advance their goals.
Far-right Friends Fight on Both Sides
Alyaksandra Dynko, a Belarusian journalist who has visited Ukraine to cover the conflict, views the far-right views of the pro-Ukrainian fighters as less worrisome than the radical beliefs of the organisations on the pro-Russian side. She told Belarus Digest that Belarusian supporters of such groups as Russian People’s Unity National-Bolshevik Party, Restrukt and Farmat-18 now fight on the side of the separatists.
The Belarusian branch of Russian People’s Unity indeed issued a call for volunteers for the “Orthodox Army of Donbas.” The group counts 1,250 members on its VKontakte account.
The organisation's web page boasts that Belarusian citizens seeking to join them are going to war via the territory of Russia: “The Belarusian authorities cannot prevent us in purely technical terms, even if they want to do so, because all the coordinators are Russian and business is done via the territory of Russia.”
How many Belarusians fight on the side of the separatists remains unclear, but their numbers likely compare to the number of Belarusians who joined the Ukrainian side.
Among them is Natalia Krasoŭskaja, who in July claimed that the Belarusian people all back the Donetsk People's Republic in an online video.
Belarusians who rally for Ukraine’s independence perceive those who fight on the pro-Russian side as traitors.
“I cannot understand those who ‘protect’ the so-called ‘New Russia’ … or whatever they call it … This is imperialism of the brain,” said Valiancin Tsishko, a resident of Maladzechna, in an interview with Belarus Digest. Tsishko left Maidan one day before violent skirmishes broke out.
Monthly keyword trends provided by the search engine Yandex suggest that volunteer units Pahonia and the Orthodox Army of Donbas generated similar levels of interest in Belarus in September-October 2014. Searches with keywords "fighting in Ukraine" and "volunteer fighters in Ukraine" peaked in May 2014 at 800 queries, but declined considerably this fall.
While keyword statistics hardly reflect Belarusians’ willingness to fight on either side of the Ukraine conflict, they do speak to the general awareness of the possibility of engagement. Some 52% of Belarusian users visit Yandex.by, according to Gemius, a digital consulting company headquartered in Poland.
An Enemy of Our Enemy is Our Friend?
Reacting to the uproar in the Belarusian media, an advisor to Ukraine's Internal Affairs Minister recently defended the Belarusian fighter Karatkich in a Facebook post. Anton Gerashchenko accused critics of sitting at home doing nothing while Karotkich “storms terrorist headquarters.” Gerashchenko concluded that “Maliuta” above all others deserves Ukrainian citizenship because he sacrificed his life to protect Ukraine.
While plenty of young Belarusians are sincere about fighting for Ukrainian independence, the armed struggle will continue to attract extremist characters like Korotkich from Belarus and all over the world.
Radicalism and the willingness to die for one’s values may be necessary to win the Ukrainian war, which explains why the Ukrainian leadership supports even the ultra-nationalist paramilitary units fighting on the Ukrainian side. In times of peace, however, the presence of such ideologically extreme fighters is a liability – for democratic and authoritarian regimes alike.
Minsk Forum 2014 Brings the Spirit of Discussion Back to Minsk
On 1-2 December the international conference “Regional Stability and Modernization: Challenges and Opportunities for EU-Belarus Relations” took place in Vilnius and Minsk.
For the first time since the crackdown on the mass protest against the presidential election results in December 2010, the German-Belarusian Society organised an event in Minsk.
The conference produced a list of concrete policy recommendations and, more importantly, helped to bring the forgotten spirit of constructive discussion back to Belarus. For a country where stakeholders are not used to talking to each other this presents a more crucial value than the conference’s formal outcomes.
The Legendary Minsk Forum
In 1997, the German-Belarusian Society in cooperation with the Minsk-based Analytical Centre Strategy launched a conference that soon transformed into something unique for Belarus. Once a year the Minsk Forum gathered together almost every major Belarusian political and civil society actor as well as stakeholders in Belarus-EU relations. The forum’s venue managed to host over 300 hundred people for two or three days of tense, open discussions.
It was the only event of its kind in Belarus. Only there could one observe such unusual scenes for the Belarusian political reality as, for example, a leader of the opposition and former presidential contender talking to the head of the Presidential Administration.
In 2010, the last such forum took place. The brutal events that followed the presidential elections of 2010 and the imprisonment of a number of opposition activists brought the Minsk Forum to a halt. The German political foundations, which used to sponsor it, declared that they would not do so long as political prisoners remained behind bars. Against the background of deteriorating EU-Belarus relations, the forum was cancelled in 2011 and did not take place in 2012.
In 2013, however, the Minsk Forum was reincarnated in the form of a conference in Vilnius. For two days the leaders of the Belarusian opposition and NGO community discussed ways to improve the relations between Belarus and the West with diplomats, politicians and experts from the EU. They do so without any representatives from the Belarusian authorities present.
Finally, this year a partial return of the Minsk Forum to its original venue unfolded. The German-Belarusian Society in partnership with the East European Studies Centre (Vilnius), Analytical Centre Strategy (Minsk) and the Centre for Analytical Initiatives of the Liberal Club (Minsk) organised a two day cross-border conference: the first day took place in Vilnius and the second one in Minsk.
Challenges and Opportunities
This time the Belarusian authorities did not accept an invitation at a political level but delegated a number of diplomats to participate in the conference’s expert roundtables. This itself can already be seen as a small step forward.
During the two days the discussions focused on the regional challenges that Belarus and the EU face in the context of the Ukraine crisis and opportunities in their bilateral relations.
The ambassador of Germany to Belarus Wolfram Maas spoke of the necessity of reevaluating the way certain things are perceived in the EU’s policy towards Belarus. For example, he proposed to look at the Bologna process as an opportunity for young Belarusians rather than as a gesture to the Belarusian government. At the same time, he asked not to touch “the ties between the sanctions and the political prisoners” in the ongoing debates about ways ahead in EU-Belarus relations.
Balazs Jarabik, Pact Belarus project director and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, opined that the current EU-Belarus dialogue looks better than the one in 2008-2010: “in those years we were declaring a dialogue, now we are doing it”.
Valery Karbalevich of the Analytical Centre Strategy reminded about the escalation of tensions between Russia and the West, particularly militarily, as a factor in EU-Belarus relations: “against a backdrop of this increasing escalation, Belarus might find itself impotent in the face of Russian pressure”.
Ambassador of Lithuania Evaldas Ignatavicius argued that the existing Eastern Partnership (EaP) format was not sufficient for further progress in the region in general and in the relations with Belarus in particular. He suggested that more regional horizontal activities be developed. For instance, new cross-border projects between Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Ambassador Dirk Schuebel, head of the EaP-bilateral division at the European External Action Service, offered some details of the present-day dialogue with Belarus. According to him, the EU welcomed a number of decisions that the Belarusian government took over the last year. These positive developments included the release of the human rights defender Ales Bialiatski, the start of the visa negotiations and its independent position on the developments in Ukraine, as well as President Lukashenka’s positive statements on Moldova’s Association Agreement with the EU.
He expressed appreciation for Belarus’s active participation in the EaP’s multilateral track and said that the EU was also ready to increase the number of its activities with Belarus and in Belarus. In Schuebel’s words, “it is too early to talk about a window of opportunity before the next presidential elections, but the EU should not miss an opportunity when it arrives”.
Process Over Outcome
After the conference, the organisers disseminated the conference notes that include eleven recommendations to policy-makers in the EU and Belarus:
- to redefine the EaP towards a more bilateral approach;
- to consider trilateral formats (EU-Belarus-Russia) for discussing neighbourhood issues, such as energy, trade, logistics, etc.;
- to advance regional cross-border cooperation between Belarus and the neighbouring EU states;
- to review sanctions against Belarus as soon as the government makes constructive steps towards meeting the EU's expectations;
- to enhance the role of Minsk as a “new Geneva”;
- to promote European/international standards in Belarus by accepting the country to the Bologna Process and the WTO;
- to place more emphasis on economic reforms in Belarus;
- to encourage the EBRD and European Investment Bank to finance more EU-Belarus business projects;
- to speed up the visa negotiations;
- to support the strengthening of Belarus’s statehood and national identity;
- to look for ways to facilitate better cooperation between the EU and Eurasian Economic Union.
However, the recommendations were in a way secondary to the fact that the event was able to take place only after three years of the Minsk Forum’s suspension. Still, for Belarus even such a tiny, and not particularly successful, attempt to gather various actors and stakeholders in one room is an important step forward.
In a country where people do not talk a lot to each other about numerous internal and external challenges and ways to meet them, any such attempt serves a better cause than meaningless confrontation.
The smartest thing that the Belarusian government can do at this point is to invite the German-Belarusian Society to hold a full-fledged Minsk Forum next year. And if it really wants to build on its "new Geneva" momentum such fora should become almost a daily routine.