Soft Belarusization: A New Shift in Lukashenka’s Domestic Policy?
Russian pro-government media outlet Lifenews has recently criticised Lukashenka's decision to not participate in the 9 May Victory Day Parade in Moscow. Many in Russia think that Minsk's integration rhetoric has been replaced with a form of soft Belarusianisation. Following the events in Crimea, Lukashenka has begun to demonstrate more support and concern for the Belarusian language and national history.
Still, he is trying to maintain some balance and good relations with Russia for the sake of its economic support. The last time the political scale shifted in this direction, increased rhetoric about independence and more engagement with Europe followed.
In addition to the state's renewed interest in Belarusisation and cultural initiatives, support for these changes in society is also on the rise. The 'soft' Belarusisation policy and the activity of the organisations such as Art Siadziba are in growing demand in Belarus.
Soft Belarusization as a Response to Russian Aggression
The term 'soft Belarusisation' was employed by Lukashenka publicly for the first time during his open dialogue with the media in January 2015. Judging by his words, it appears that Lukashenka regards Belarusisation as means of countering Russian influence. "Some in Russia are bothered by some soft Belarusisation … while in Russia they are accustomed to using terms like 'the Russian World', 'soft power'. We have promoted 'soft Belarusisation' [at home]," said Lukashenka.
However, the reality after Crimea's annexation has discounted popular opinion (especially among opponents of the regime) that Lukashenka is an ideological supporter of Russia and is willing to sacrifice Belarusian independence, if need be.
On the contrary, after following the events in Crimea, Lukashenka has solidified his role as a mediator and peacekeeper on the Ukrainian issue and has started moving slowly towards promoting a Belarusian national revival. Lukashenka explained his new position by stating, “I support the Belarusian language, because it distinguishes us from the Russians. This is a feature of our nation”.
Language, History and Political Balance
The Belarusian head of state explained his new policy in simple and straightforward manner in April 2014 when he declared, "we are not Russians, we are Belarusians", a mere month after the occupation of Crimea began. In the past, he has freely spouted off slogans like "Belarus and Russia are one nation" and other similar phrases indicating their oneness.
As of late, he has turned towards employing the Belarusian language in his speeches. The Ministry of Education's own policies also appear to be following Lukashenka's lead. For example, according to Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuravkov, “we will soon come to understand that we need to have more than half of all academic subjects in the Belarusian language”.
Official attitudes towards history have also changed. Previously, the authorities mainly focused their energies on the Great Patriotic War (World War II), but now their opinions have shifted towards early periods of time in Belarus's history. The installation of a monument in honour of Algerd, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, is just one such example, erected in Vitebsk, near the border with Russia, on 27 June 2014 (Vitebsk's City Day).
The Grand Duke Algerd doubled the domain he reigned over through wars with Moscow at a time when Belarusian lands were an essential region in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is plain for anyone to see how this historical figure does not suit Lukashenka's prior rhetoric about the "historical friendship and unity" of Belarus and Russia.
The Vitebsk Cossacks and the Communists have made an appeal to Minsk, asking Lukashenka not to erect the Algerd monument. Historical memory, as it turns out, is much more important to the authorities than local pro-Russian social movements' support – and the monument was solemnly unveiled as officials from Vitebsk looked on.
Lukashenka justified this move, saying, “At one point in Vitebsk … some people started saying that because of the [process] 'soft Belarusisation', Belarus will lose out on its Russian interests, and so I asked the question: where are our interests? Everything that is on Belarusian territory is our vital interest”.
Altogether this form of Belarusisation, i.e. the gradual, largely voluntary extension of the use of the Belarusian language, support for the development and dissemination of Belarusian culture, historical and cultural heritage via the creation of cultural policy, is slowly beginning to take hold.
Not Only State: Public Belarusization
Of course, this policy of Belarusisation is not simply the domain of the Belarusian authorities. In society, demand is growing for the promotion of the Belarusian language and the nation's history and culture. The events in Ukraine have increased these types of initiatives’ popularity and stimulated manifestations of patriotism and national identity.
Consider the recent Festival of Belarusian Culture “Sniezhan” (31 January 2015) or a Belarusian language pub-quiz game “Varta” about Belarusian history (held three times from February-April 2015) that recently sprung up. There is also the independent cultural initiative Art Siadziba (Art Headquarters) that organises a variety of popular events to promote Belarusian culture and the arts and manufactures clothes with traditional Belarusian ornamentation.
Last, but not least, is the “Mother Language Festival”, organised by Art Siadziba 22 February 2015 (International Mother Language Day by UNESCO). Thousands of Belarusians attended free open courses in the Belarusian language called Mova Ci Kava & Mova Nanova in Minsk and many regional towns thanks to growing popular demand.
What Will Belarusisation Lead To?
Lukashenka, however, has to seek a balance between both sides. On the one hand, he has to use his traditional fraternal rhetoric and alliances with Russia to get it to provide Belarus with loans and discounted energy. On the other hand, Lukashenka needs to guide Belarus away from Russia, be it through a policy of 'soft Belarusisation' or improving ties with the West in order to minimise potential threats to Belarusian sovereignty and to his own power.
All of these initiatives aimed at promoting Belarusisation – sponsored by the state and civil society – are extremely popular and relevant. To some extent, it reflects a new national-oriented period in Lukashenka’s policy. New possibilities are slowly emerging for Belarusian political and civil actors. Leading up to the presidential election in November this year, one can only view from afar how they use this window of opportunity.
Multi-Vector Diplomacy with Trade in Focus – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
In the first weeks of April, Belarus focused on expanding its ties with Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Johannes Hahn, the EU "Neighbourhood" Commissioner has become one more senior EU official to visit Belarus in recent months. The last time his predecessor, Štefan Füle, came to Minsk was back in 2010.
On the Asian front, Belarus has managed to take into account the strained web of relations between the region's superpowers – China, India and Pakistan. Officials in Minsk work on the next month's "milestone" visit of China's president to Minsk.
Preparing Milestone Visit of China's "Paramount Leader"
Belarus and China have been earnestly working on organising the forthcoming visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Belarus. At a special meeting with senior government officials in April, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenka labelled the visit, scheduled on 10-12 May, as "unprecedented".
Belarus and China want more tangible results from cooperation Read more
On 8–9 April, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to Belarus where he met with his counterpart Vladimir Makei and President Alexander Lukashenka. Concurrently, on 8–11 April, Alexander Kosiniec, head of Lukashenka's Presidential Administration, visited China. More recently, on 17 April, President Lukashenka received Vice Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan. These visits are aimed primarily at preparing for Xi Jinping's visit to Minsk.
Belarus and China both view their relations in terms of being a comprehensive strategic partnership. According to Wang Yi, the two countries have only one issue before them, "to turn the high level of political relations into more tangible and substantial results in terms of cooperation".
Both parties have agreed to join efforts in promoting Xi Jinping's "Silk Road Economic Belt" initiative. They feel that Belarus is an important element of this project, one that has the China – Belarus industrial park "Great Stone" as its linchpin.
China insists that the Silk Road Economic Belt will play only a complementary role to the various Russian-led Eurasian integration projects underway. However, some experts see the initiative as a competitive project and an attempt to establish China as an alternative pole of influence for Russia's neighbours.
Maintaining A Delicate Balance in Relations with Asian Nations
Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei visited New Delhi on 14–15 April, accompanied by a delegation of major Belarusian manufacturers. He met with India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (ANI news agency described this meeting as a mere courtesy call) and called on President Shri Pranab Mukherjee. The Indian president confirmed his plans to visit Belarus soon.
The Belarusian delegation also met with executives from several Indian companies and discussed military and technical cooperation in the defence ministry.
Belarus seeks to expand trade with India Read more
Both countries have a sound mutual understanding with regards to international matters, in particular, on human trafficking. Meanwhile, bilateral trade is presently sitting at around only $400m annually. Belarus is India's second largest supplier of potash fertiliser and India is a key supplier of pharmaceuticals for Belarus.
Belarus seeks to enter the Indian market with its agricultural machinery and lorries. This is an ambitious endeavour as India has a highly bureaucratic and corrupt purchasing process for important contracts. Beyond this, India has highly prohibitive tariffs for imports that aim at stimulating local manufacturing and transfer of technology.
Makei's visit to New Delhi also served as a counterbalance to expanding relations between Belarus and India's biggest rival, China. In the same vein, Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov's visit to Islamabad on 1–3 April sought to maintain some balance for another regional rivalry, between India and Pakistan. Rybakov led a large delegation of Belarusian officials and manufacturers who conducted negotiations in many areas with a focus on trade, investment and military cooperation.
Emphasising Relations with the Middle East
The first half of April witnessed an intensive push for greater contact between Belarus and several Middle Eastern nations. Valentin Rybakov visited Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In Doha on 12–14 April, the deputy foreign minister opened a Belarusian embassy, held talks with his Qatari counterpart and met with Prime Minister Al Thani. On 15 April in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Valentin Rybakov held the first round of political consultations between Belarus and the UAE and met with the Emirates' minister of economy.
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Qatar and the UAE, two of the richest countries in the region, have of late become Belarus' preferred partners in the region. The foreign ministry is overextending itself to implement Lukashenka's ambitious plans, especially those formulated during his recent "breakthrough" visit to the Emirates.
Belarus also sees potential in developing trade relations with Syria and Iraq, two Middle Eastern countries that are now suffering from internal strife.
On 2 April, Belarus and Syria held a meeting of the bilateral commission for trade and economic relations in Minsk. The Syrian delegation led by the ministry of industry also met with Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Rusy and visited a number of Belarusian companies.
On 8–11 April, the first-ever official visit of an Iraqi foreign minister to Belarus took place. Ibrahim Al Jaafari met with his Belarusian counterpart and held talks with the Belarusian ministries of health, education and industry as well as the Belarusian parliament. This visit reaffirmed the ongoing renaissance of the bilateral ties that was initiated by Vladimir Makei's trip to Baghdad last August.
Alexander Lukashenka received Ibrahim Al Jaafari on 9 April. At the meeting, the Belarusian ruler identified two areas of cooperation, which should serve as a basis for a new level of relations – trade and military cooperation. He also stressed the potential for providing academic exchanges for Iraqi students in Belarus. However, despite these stated priorities, the two countries have thus far only signed a memorandum on cooperation between the sports ministries.
Intense Push for Contact with Europe Continues
On 16–17 April, Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, paid his first visit to Minsk. He held talks with Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Makei but also met with Belarusian opposition activists.
Human rights and democracy are not among Belarus' priorities in its relations with Europe Read more
The parties focused their discussion on reforming the Eastern Partnership in the context of its forthcoming Riga summit. "We would like to see [the Eastern partnership] reformatted from its typical take on politics… to closer cooperation in specific areas based on solving economic problems", Alexander Lukashenka stressed.
The Belarusian leader pointed to the transfer of technology, trade, regional security and suppression of cross-border crime, such as illegal traffic in drugs and nuclear materials, as priority areas of cooperation between Belarus and the EU.
While Johannes Hahn's visit was the key event of Belarus' interaction with Europe in recent weeks, several other encounters have complemented the growing web of ties. On the days of Hahn's visit, Belarus hosted senior diplomats from the Weimar Triangle (France, Germany and Poland) and the Visegrad Four (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). The foreign ministry also held consultations with Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.