Was the White Legion really planning an armed attack?

On 11 April, the official Belarusian media launched a massive propaganda campaign. They aimed at revealing the alleged plans of a group called White Legion to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The White Legion is a patriotic sports and military-style organisation which ceased to exist in the early 2000s.

At the moment, 35 people remain under investigation on charges of organising mass riots and creating an illegal armed group. However, independent experts have revealed numerous facts that prove the official evidence false.

The authorities seem to have reanimated the White Legion to create a fabricated threat and discredit the wave of protests sparked by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The authorities are also attempting to sell the threat of a Maidan scenario, complete with anti-Russian armed groups, to the Kremlin.

A secret organisation with terrorist plans uncovered

On 11 April, Belarus Segodnia, the largest official newspaper in Belarus, published a lead article describing a 'journalist investigation' of the preparation of mass riots set for 25 March, 'Freedom Day' in Belarus. According to the article, 35 people are currently under investigation. 17 detainees have already been charged, while the rest remain suspects.

20 people also face charges on another criminal case – creation of an illegal armed group. This is unprecedented in Belarusian history. The newspaper gave a detailed report on the White Legion group, including their training and plans for 25 March, along with evidence from the investigation.

The piece explains that although the White Legion was officially dissolved in the early 2000s, this was really a cover for a more elaborate conspiracy and an attempt to outwit security services. The group supposedly preserved its links and continued training, avoiding publicity and oppositional communities.

According to the investigation, the group also took part in the Ukrainian Maidan and the following military conflict in Eastern Ukraine to gain experience. The article maintained that White Legion fighters were preparing to topple the political regime in Belarus and using patriotic training as a cover. They possessed illegal weapons and had assembled a cachet of iron rods to attack the police. According to the state media, the White Legion was closely associated with former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, and backed his political endeavours.

Security services revealed to the main state-run daily newspaper Belarus Segodnia that they had received information about the planned mass riots on 25 March from a German woman with Belarusian roots, called Frau A. She heard about the plot from a friend acquainted with Belarusian oppositional activists in Poland. She immediately rushed to the Belarusian embassy in Germany to write a letter to the President Lukashenka, asking him to take immediate action.

On 12 April, an even harsher propaganda film, 'White Legion with Black Souls' was aired on the TV channel Belarus 1. The film accused the White Legion of Nazism, links with the Islamic State, plans to commit terror attacks in the Moscow metro, training children to become suicide bombers, and similar ludicrous claims. Moreover, the film cast Belarusian singer Anatoli Jarmolenka and actor Uladzimir Hasciuchin as 'experts'. Observers were quick to characterise the film as very poor-quality propaganda.

How true is the official version?

Even without the accusations of White Legion links to ISIS and Nazism, the investigation's 'evidence' appears mostly false. Belsat published an article which analysed photos of the weapon cache and concluded that they were either replicas of real arms or legally-sold airguns and airsoft guns.

Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, former head of the White Legion, who has been living in Ukraine over the last years, denies the article's accusations. In an interview with Euroradio, he stated that he would be honoured to be responsible for the creation of a deeply secret organisation, but in really the group had ceased all activity long ago. It was simply impossible to function legally in Belarus.

People close to former White Legion members informed the newspaper Naša Niva that although the organisation ceased to exist ages ago, its former associates still retain links and engage in training and cultural activities, including youth education in a Patriot Club near Babrujsk. They also admitted that they were ready to become the backbone of a volunteer battalion in case of Russian aggression, but had no plans for toppling the Lukashenka regime.

Mikalaj Statkievič also called the article a lie – he was not acquainted with any of the detainees, and the last time he met Čyslaŭ was ten years ago. Many other facts also prove the criminal cases to be a politically-motivated fabrication. For instance, Frau A., who speaks Russian with a strong accent in the propaganda film aired on the Belarusian television, somehow managed to write a letter without a single typo and used technical phrases commonly found only within security agencies.

Pro-Russian organisations not perceived as a threat

With exception of a single case when Russian nationalist publicists from the news website Regnum were arrested in December 2016, most pro-Russian groups face no serious pressure in Belarus.

Various Belarusian pro-Russian Cossack groups perform openly on a much larger scale the same activities of which  the Patriot Club and former White Legion are accused. They regularly conduct military drills with replica guns, train children, and cooperate with their Russian colleagues, who took an active part in the war in Eastern Ukraine on the pro-Russian side.

What's more, real pro-Russian combatants of Belarusian origin who fought in Ukraine freely visit Belarus and face only 'preventive talks' with security officers. Many of them admit in interviews that Belarusian siloviki sympathise with them and 'express support', as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.

Let's invent a threat as a distraction from the economic crisis

The case of the White Legion seems to aim at discrediting the wave of protests triggered by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The majority of the population is experiencing economic hardship and is losing faith in the government. The authorities are trying to destroy any group which could even theoretically be capable of organising resistance.

As Siarhiej Čyslaŭ puts it, it is important for the authorities that protestors be framed as fighters and terrorists, rather than political prisoners, thus avoiding new confrontation with the West.

The West, frightened by the Ukraine crisis, fears similar developments in Belarus and is inclined to trust the Belarusian government. At the same time, the authorities are trying to represent the crackdown on 25 March as an operation to save citizens from a terror attack.

Finally, the authorities are also apparently attempting to sell the threat of Maidan and anti-Russian armed groups to the Kremlin in order to achieve better oil and gas prices and other subsidies.

The White Legion case shows that in a difficult situation, the authorities prefer to rely on brutal force and illegal methods rather than open dialogue with the opposition and civil society. However, by destroying patriotic communities, they make themselves  and the Belarusian statehood even more vulnerable to threats from Russia.




Belarus between EU and EEU, New Opposition Strategy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Over the past month analysts discussed continuing rapprochement of Belarus with the West and potential Russia’s responses to it. Meanwhile, influenced by Russian propaganda, Belarusians favour Eurasian integration over European, although official Minsk finds its result unsatisfactory.

Belarusian opposition changes its strategy in relations with the authorities and plans to push them to negotiations with backing of mass street pressure. However, a Ukrainian sociologist predicts that democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years and conditions for a Maidan do not exist there. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

Foreign policy

Belarus in the EAEC: a Year Later (Disappointing Results and Doubtful Prospects) – This report was presented in Minsk on March 22, by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The report is devoted to the analysis of the first year of existence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) for Belarus. Among the key findings is that Minsk had great expectations from this association, but now finds it unsatisfactory.

Europe’s Last Dictator Comes in From the ColdArtyom Shraibman, for Carnegie Moscow Center, notices that Lukashenka’s fortunes have changed. Once known as “Europe’s last dictator,” he has won friends in Europe, while antagonizing his traditional ally, Russia. It’s a situation that has left the Kremlin in a difficult position: should it punish Belarus for its pro-Western tendencies? Or should it continue to prop up the Belarusian economy rather than risk further unrest in the region?

Belarus-Ukraine Relations Beyond Media HeadlinesYauheni Preiherman, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that media narratives often distort the reality of Belarus-Ukraine relations. Some observers explain this by the absence of a “strategic vision for a long-term relationship”. The author sees this a typical feature of inter-state relations in the post-Soviet space, where politics is mainly about tactics, and fighting protectionist trade wars is part of the political culture.

Politics

Belarusian Opposition Comes Up With New Strategy: Negotiations With Authorities Due to Protest Pressure – Politicians and leaders of the mass protests discuss the lessons of "The Square-2006". The new strategy is likely to depart from the revolutionary approach to power change and focus on evolutionary approach, by changing relations between the authorities and the opposition through negotiations, backed by mass street pressure.

Ukrainian Sociologist: Maidan will not be in Minsk – Democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years. This will happen only when society is ready for this. Artificial imposition of liberal values does not work, as well as there are no political or social preconditions for Maidan of the Kyiv scenario in Minsk, according to Ukrainian sociologist, Professor Eduard Afonin.

Public opinion polls

Majority of Belarusians want to keep death penalty. According to the March national poll conducted by IISEPS, 51.5% of Belarusians do not agree with the idea to abolish the death penalty; opposite opinion is shared by 36.4%. Women are less in favor of abolition of the death penalty than men – respectively 55.3% and 46.9%. Belarus is the only country in Europe and on the post-soviet space, which still applies the death penalty.

Belarus Between EU and EEU. Nation-Wide Poll – The ODB Brussels commissioned a survey about perceptions, preferences, and values Belarusians attribute to the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to the study, Belarusians have a high-level understanding and appreciation of the EU, a clear opinion that the EU and EEU are competitors while public reasoning is currently swayed in favor of economic cooperation with the EEU.

Peculiarities of Public Opinion in BelarusGrigory Ioffe overviews the key results of a fresh national poll by IISEPS and an alarming reaction of official sociologists to the results, namely, the decline in Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating. Siarhei Nikalyuk, an associate of IISEPS, suggests that independent sociologists who are de facto allowed to work in Belarus are playing the role that jesters did in medieval Europe. After all, only a jester was allowed to speak the truth to the monarch, who actually appreciated that.

Other

Advocacy Sector in Belarus: CSO Experience – The study analyses the actual practices of advocacy in Belarus for the recent five years. The researchers see the key factor of success/failure of any campaign in its capacity for politicisation, i.e. whether authorities perceive a campaign political or not. The study was commissioned by OEEC in a series of sectoral studies aimed at summarising data on the development of specific sectors of civil society in Belarus. The presentation was held on March 24.

How to Make Minsk a Cycling City? – Pavel Harbunou, the Minsk Bicycle Society, shares the results of an annual monitoring on bicycle traffic on the Minsk streets, which shows that the number of cyclists has increased significantly in the city. The activists tells what can be done to make Minsk comfortable for all road users. Namely, the Bicycle Society launches a new campaign Street Bike Supervisor aimed to provide a regular feedback on the conditions of Minsk streets.

Ghetto for Each. Why Minsk Art Spaces Live Separately From Each OtherBelarusian Journal online describes the existing art spaces in Minsk, both mainstream and alternative. While a growing number of cultural spaces is a positive sign, it is too early to talk about the impact of these spaces for culture in general. It is more a question of the formation of separate subcultural groups, the original "ghetto" that arise, rather against the wishes of the state.​

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Belarus: No Appetite for Revolution?

The political year for Belarusian opposition will begin with a traditional rally on the so called Freedom Day 25 March. This day, which celebrates proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918, in the past was bringing to the streets of Minsk thousands of people opposing the government of Alexander Lukashenka. This year, no massive attendance is expected.

Even the November presidential elections – unlike in 2006 or 2010 – will probably not cause serious post-election protests. Developments in neighbouring Ukraine seriously changed the calculus of political change in the Eastern European country. The Ukrainian crisis forced the government, opposition, Russia and the West to look differently at the power struggle in Belarus.

Maidan Cancelled

Addressing high-ranking police officers on 5 March, the Belarusian President said there would be no 'Maidan' protests (i.e. Colour Revolutions) in Belarus.

Two days later, the Belarusian People's Front, one of the nation's opposition parties, proposed to abandon its plans to hold 'Maidan' protests following the November 2015 presidential election.

Inspired by the success of the Colour Revolutions elsewhere, the Belarusian opposition has on multiple occasions tried to oust Lukashenka through post-election protests. They have failed, however, as the main prerequisite for it is a fragile and dysfunctional state.

This year, a successful anti-regime protest movement is even less likely. Unlike in the past, no serious international players will risk a "revolutionary" scenario. Still, provocative actions by a few remain a distinct possibility. Were clashes to occur following the announcement of the election results, the situation in the country would only take a turn for the worse.

Why the West Supported Regime Change in Belarus in the 2000s

Lincoln Mitchell, who for many years worked for the National Democratic Institute in post-Soviet nations, has recently published a critical book on Colour Revolutions. He argued that "by the spring of 2006 Belarus was one of the few countries in the world, certainly the only one in the former Soviet Union," where Washington sought regime change.

Geopolitical calculations explain why Belarus gained reputation of the last dictatorship in Europe

Even though post-Soviet regimes such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Uzbekistan had greater problems with human rights and democracy, it is Belarus that was branded Europe's last dictatorship by the United States.

Geopolitical calculations explain why Belarus gained such a reputation. At the time, US interests were focused on the Middle East. Minsk aroused Washington's concern due to its active engagement with radical Middle Eastern governments, including its cooperation with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Mitchell writes, "[I]n the 'us versus them' framework of the early Bush years, Belarus had become part of 'them' and, by doing so, a target of the US.”

Because Belarus possessed little strategic value to the United States, it was often dismissed as a murky Eastern European state under Russian control. The only purpose Belarus served was to showcase Western commitment to human rights, democratic freedoms, and nuclear non-proliferation.

The West's Change of Heart in 2015

As of 2015, the geopolitical situation has changed. As the Belarusian president is happy to boast, and the opposition readily complains, the West has viewed Belarus in a different light following the onset of the conflict in Ukraine.

Western governments are now telling Belarusians that independence should come before democracy

According to Yanukevich of the BNF party, Western governments are now telling Belarusians that independence should come before democracy. With the emergence of a new power constellation in Eastern Europe, the West has formulated a new strategic task for Belarus – to avoid a Russian takeover.

At the same time, Belarusian cooperation with the Middle East has become less of a problem for Washington both due to the changes in the Middle East, such as the multilateral negotiations with Iran, and thanks to the more cautious approach taken by Belarus with regards to its foreign policy.

In particular, in the early 2010s Minsk minimised its contact with Iran and Syria as these countries faced increased international isolation. Only after the international standing of Iran and Syria had improved and their talks with Russia and the West had resumed did Belarus reactivate its contacts with these states.

The recent United States' decision to lift sanctions on the Belarusian national oil company Belarusnafta is just the latest proof that Minsk has managed to sort out its Middle Eastern affairs.

Belarusians Will Take No Chances

When explaining his appeal to not flood Minsk's central square in November 2015, chairman of the People's Front Alyaksei Yanukevich said that few people would participate. According to him, Belarusians fear a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Belarus. Yet the problem lies not only, if at all, in concerns about what happened in Ukraine.

All these years, the Belarusian opposition has misapplied the lessons of protests in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan

All these years, the Belarusian opposition has misapplied the lessons of protests in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in Belarus. Belarusian circumstances were, and are, very different than the circumstances in the countries where the colour revolutions had "won". When the government effectively controls society and provides people with many essential services, post-election protests are unlikely to produce a change at the upper echelons of the state.

Mitchell lists four main premises for that have lead to these colour revolutions. First, an opportunity to effectively participate in an election and making a plausible claim about the opposition's victory. Second, the media should be able to anticipate election fraud, to inform the people when such fraud is inevitable as well as cover the ensuing protests.

Third, the population should not be intimidated by the state. Fourth, in cases where colour revolutions are successful, foreign and international donors and democratisation-oriented NGOs have “a degree of political access and involvement in the countries where they work[ed] that would never be tolerated in their own countries.” None of these conditions apply in Belarus.

Sitting on a Barrel of Gunpowder?

To sum up, a successful colour revolution is impossible in Belarus. There is some probability that protests will occur, however, and this is not necessarily good news. As the Belarusian left-wing Prasvet web-site has recently commented, all the recent talk about election fraud has led to the opposition losing interest in working with the public. It lamented, "The mobilisation [of radical forces] still supercedes agitation, and popular support for opposition remains what it was five years ago."

The events in Ukraine has led many Belarusian activists to believe in the efficacy of radical rhetoric and methods, regardless of the mood of ordinary citizens. At the same time, the developments in Ukraine have influenced Belarusian law enforcement bodies and the state security apparatus. They may now be more willing than ever before to resort to extreme measures in order to defend the government. Russia may also be prepared to respond more radically to any new post-election protest in the former Soviet nations.

Were a radical provocation by a minority group to lead to a bloody clash in the wake of the 2015 presidential election, Belarusians would only suffer to lose from it. The political regime in the country would become more brutal, its politics more radical, and Belarus's relations with the West would deteriorate once more. Yet, the appearance of radical nationalist initiatives such as 1863x.com suggests that such a scenario may not be as far-fetched as it might appear.




BRSM, Lukashenka’s Press Conference – Belarus State TV Digest

Aleksandr Lukashenka attended a recent BRSM Youth Union conference and tried to convince young Belarusians to stay in the country and be loyal.

Lukashenka's press conference with domestic and foreign journalists on 29 January turned into one of the biggest news events of the year. According to coverage on state-run TV, even the journalists deemed “disloyal to the authorities” were given a chance to express their views at the event.

State TV journalists have been disseminating confusing messages on EU-Belarus relations as of late. On one occasion they took note of several positive developments, but in another instance they were very critical of a Latvian official for his interview on a potential “thaw” in relations between the West and Belarus.

All of this and more in this edition of Belarus State TV Digest.

Belarus: An Island of Social Stability According to the Glavnyj Efir programme on state-run Channel 1, Belarus distinguishes itself on a global arena via its generous financial support for the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society. Its commitment to maintaining a high level of social welfare support remains a priority for the authorities.

However, not every Belarusian has been contributing their fair share to this enormous financial burden. The authorities have already come up with an idea of how to encourage tax evaders to contribute to the budget. Anyone who has been unemployed for more than half a year will be charged a special fee in lieu of taxes.

Is the EU Ignoring Belarus' National Interests? According to a Channel 1 report, there is room for real improvements in EU-Belarus ties. State TV noted that for years Belarus has been advocating for “pragmatism in its relations with its European partners and respect for its national interests”. There is potential for EU-Belarusian relations to obtain an entirely “new quality” before the Eastern Partnership Summit scheduled to take place in May in Riga.

Who Needs Better Relations with Minsk? In a recent programme, a journalist from ONT TV “Bez Granic” criticised an interview by a Latvian official, Andrejs Pildegovichs, for his comments on the need to release political prisoners as a pre-condition for improving ties between Belarus and the EU. According to the coverage, the interview with Mr Pildegovichs was tragicomic in its content. “Who is advocating for Belarus now? Latvia?(…) Every eighth person living in Latvia appears to be stateless”, scoffed the commentator. Co-operation with Belarus is still quite beneficial for Latvia due to severe the economic difficulties that the country is facing at the moment – a comment made with a tone of peculiar satisfaction.

Belarusian Youth – an Apple in the Eye of the Head of State. State Channel 1 widely covered the 42 assembly of the BRSM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), the largest government-organised nongovernmental youth organisation in Belarus. In covering the event, state TV noted that it was an opportunity for the nation's youth to have an “open dialogue” with Lukashenka. The report also emphasised that the head of state has made great efforts to improve the situation of young Belarusians throughout his years in office.

If You Want to Earn Money – Stay in Belarus. Lukashenka pointed out that all of projects oriented towards modernising the economy will be completed to offer workplaces for the younger generation. This, in turn, will ensure that young Belarusians will not need to emigrate to find a well-paid job.

The State’s Support to the Youth Wanting Their Loyalty in Return. Young people should “resist the [ongoing] provocations and the information war”. If there was any threat to the nation's security, they should get involved in its defence by joining the armed forces. In its latest coverage, state TV also pointed out that they should defend the history, culture and the Belarusian language. The speech of the head of state was delivered in Russian.

Belarusian Youth is not Susceptible to Western Influence ? One journalist proudly noted that the youth remains a driving force for the modernisation of the country and society. The authorities have  taken care of younger Belarusians for over two decades now and, unlike in the West where young people all too often have no idea what to do with their lives, here in Belarus they are neither the fuel or kindling that could lead to social or political upheavals.

Local Authorities Happy to Speak with Ordinary Belarusians. ONT TV commented that the Minsk authorities have recently initiated a new practice to learn about the problems of average Belarusians. People now have an option to call and personally discuss the actual problems with the governor himself. According to the reporter covering the story, the sheer number of those who called (over 17 thousand people) proves that Belarusians trust this type of dialogue with the authorities.

Nothing Taboo During Lukashenka’s Chat with the Media. According to Channel 1's coverage Lukashenka's press conference of 29 January was a unique opportunity to hold an “open dialogue” not just with journalists but, more importantly, with society. Even journalists “disloyal to the authorities” got a chance to express their views during the event. Here are a few key moments from the coverage:

An American Political-economic Model for Belarus? A reporter from Channel 1 inquired about an alternative to the present state model in the country. Lukashenka emphasised that Belarusians would not like the “shock therapy” they would be subject to if serious changes were put into play. “Even if we would implement the most efficient American model, the very next day a number of militants – the [nation's] fifth column would appear on the streets – trying to create a “Maidan” there…” As a result a large number of Belarusians would not be able to survive a radically changed state model and would live in poverty, according to Lukashenka.

No Restrictions on the Belarusian Language. A Belarusian girl asked what the state authorities would do to promote and support the language. “The issue of language has already been decided once and for all”, he stated. As he explained, the turbulent events in Ukraine begun because of the senseless national policies, including its language policy.

Who is a Better Partner for Belarus? Minsk will maintain its multi-vector foreign policy. No spectacular changes are to be expected in the nation's relations with either the EU and United States. “I don’t really trust our Western partners”, remarked Lukashenka at one point. He went on to state that there will not be any big shifts in the country's relations with Brussels or Washington leading up to this year's presidential elections. “There will be no Maidan in Belarus so long as I am the president”, Lukashenka huffed.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




New Polls: Belarusians Support Lukashenka and Do Not Want an Euromaidan

At the end of April, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies published the results of two polls.

The polls demonstrate that the crisis in Ukraine became an informational tidal wave that has been sweeping over Belarus, with 90% of Belarusians following the events. Belarusian society has become strongly politicised for the first time in many years.

However, most Belarusians consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and do not want to host a similar revolution in Belarus. Moreover, Belarusians prove reluctant to participate in mass protests and enjoy the current stability provided to them under the Lukashenka regime, which the growth of his approval rating proves.

For Lukashenka, the crisis has been a challenge and a gift at the same time. Relations with Russia have deteriorated and Belarus may yet lose its valued Ukrainian markets. Yet Lukashenka still now has the chance to become a true national leader and consolidate the nation as the protector of sovereignty of Belarus.

Mass opinion on Euromaidan

Broader Belarusian public opinion on the events in Ukraine remains largely unstudied, since very few polls are held in Belarus. Those made by the government usually remain confidential.  Perhaps the only publication on their public opinion recently appeared in a study done by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the oldest independent polling institute of Belarus currently registered in Vilnius.

The IISEPS conducted the poll in March, therefore it did not include the events surrounding Crimea or the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine. However, it provides a good picture of attitudes of Belarusians towards mass protests and coups, as well as shows the level of their attention to Ukraine events.

Did you follow political conflict in Ukraine, which ended in the ousting of president Yanukovych?

The poll shows that the crisis in Ukraine has been hugely influential in Belarusian media space. Almost 90% of Belarusians followed the crisis' developments. Moreover, a third of Belarusians reported that they followed the Ukrainian crisis every day. In Belarus, where real political struggle has not existed for quite some time, and most people are interested only in routine and private issues, these figures look like a populace awakening after a long political winter.

People were discussing Ukraine in the streets and in public places, which is the first such instance perhaps since the beginning of the 2000s. Every media outlet had Ukraine headlining, and these stories garnered a virtually unfathomable number of comments. Heated discussions were unfolding, dividing people into pro and against Maidan camps.

Many Belarusians were able to articulate for themselves their values on the matters of freedom, material wellbeing, national identity and violence. The events in Ukraine have had a significant on the minds of Belarusians, making them consider their own position and future choices.

President Yanukovych was ousted in Ukraine. What do you think of these developments?

A question on their personal perception of Euromaidan showed that a majority of Belarusians (55% ) consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and not a democratic revolution or fair retribution. However, almost a third seems to support Euromaidan.

Would you like events similar to Ukrainian happen in Belarus?

In this question Belarusians demonstrated their famous love for stability. They would rather not have a similar revolution even provided that it is peaceful.  23% of respondents would accept a non-violent revolution in Belarus, while only 3.6% are ready to shed blood in the fight against Lukashenka regime. This means Belarus will hardly ever experience a revolution, at least until people have a minimum level of wellbeing and sense of security.

Although economically Belarusians feel that they are only slightly better off than Ukrainians in terms of corruption and security. For them, Belarus looks to be in a considerably position overall and people appreciate it. Ukraine has indeed become a fine example of poor government, associated, in public opinion, with scuffles in parliament, oligarchs and omnipresent corruption.

If events similar to Ukraine happen in Belarus, would you take part in them?

This diagram supports the previous one, and still sheds light on some interesting details. While most Belarusians state they are reluctant to participate in any kind of mass protests, only 11% are ready to defend the current political regime. This means the majority would simply observe the developments without interfering with them.

Perhaps some of them would change their mind and take one side or another, but the general trend seems to be relatively clear. And importantly, 15% are ready to struggle against the regime via a Belarusian Maidan, which is more that the number of its active defenders.

In the end, however, a majority Belarusians would accept any developments of potential conflict and largely prefer not to interfere – a strategy they have typically employed throughout their history.

A Present for Lukashenka before Elections

The same institution, IISEPS, also measured Lukashenka's approval rating in March 2014. Since December 2013 it has grown from 35% to 40%. Lukashenka surely remains far behind Putin, who currently enjoys an 82% approval rating according to Russian Levada-Centre estimates, and who has capitalised pretty well on the intervention in Ukraine under the “protection of Russian civilisation” mask.

Dynamics of Lukashenka's Approval Rating

But despite a much lower rating compared to Putin, Lukashenka has shown himself to be a true national leader in the Ukrainian conflict. Despite Belarus' heavy economic dependence on Russia and political and military union, he refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea and Belarus' official position remains in favour of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He also spoke out against the federalisation of Ukraine, a point that Russia is strongly advocating for in negotiations with the west.

He is also continuously accusing Yanukovych of outrageous levels of corruption in Ukraine and named it the root of Ukraine's current malaise. Moreover, Lukashenka quickly recognised the new government of Ukraine, personally met with Turchynov and later discussed with him some developments in Ukraine over the phone – a move Vladimir Putin would hardly approve of.

In his address to the nation and parliament on 22 April, Lukashenka for the first time spoke about protecting the Belarusian language and ordered the KGB to identify pro-Russian "diversionists". He also criticised the position of Russia on the Eurasian Union, the main geopolitical project of Vladimir Putin.

The moves of Lukashenka appealed not only to his traditional electorate, but also to many of his opponents who agreed with him on at least some of his points. Ahead of the 2015 presidential elections, Lukashenka may appear to be a true national leader and protector of Belarus against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, his opponents remain in the shadows and are largely unknown to the majority of Belarusians.

Although economically quite damaging for Belarus, Lukashenka received an invaluable present before the next elections – the chance of becoming a truly popular leader and consolidate the nation. At this point it looks like Lukashenka can already be called the next president of Belarus, and maybe this time around he will not even need to use fraud to do it.




Falling Lenins in Ukraine, Minsk’ Position over Crimea – Belarus State TV Digest

Belarus State TV reporters are preoccupied with the removal of communist-era monuments throughout Ukraine – over 50 Lenins have been recently been torn down.

Alexander Lukashenka has named the reasons for the upheavals taking place throughout Ukraine: the nation's economic collapse and the corrupt conduct of its authorities. Recently, Belarusian state TV reported on decreasing levels of corruption in Belarus, which, in their view, proves that there are none of the necessary preconditions for a similar revolutionary scenario in the country. 

Belaruskali is back on the global market. State TV reported that they were hopeful that this time around the Belarusian company would not create a new potash cartel with the Russians.  

Ukraine

Harsh reforms in Ukraine to overcome economic difficulties.  While their Western partners promised to provide loans to the country, Kiev will still have to pay them back at some point. The new government has already prepared a package of unpopular reforms to save the state budget and meet the conditions for the loans that the West asked of them.

The EU leadership discusses Russia and Ukraine. The leaders of EU member countries gathered in Brussels to discuss the events unfolding in Ukraine. They are considering imposing sanctions on Russia. “Even before the summit began, observers noted there was unanimity between them,” one state TV journalist pointed out. 

One reporter provided commentary on some bit of news that sent ripples throughout Internet – the content of the leaked phone call between the Estonian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Urmas Paet, and Catherine Ashton. According to this conversation, the snipers who were firing at the activists on Maidan were both supporters and opponents of the opposition.

‘Leninopady’. Why are Ukrainians tearing down communist-era monuments? Over the last four months Ukrainians have removed more than 50 monuments commemorating the nation's Soviet past.

Ukrainians have taken down a large number Lenin monuments in the central part of the country and in a few of its eastern regions. The north-eastern region and Crimea were able to avoid what has been deemed in the media “leninopad”  (literally “Lenin falling”). In the western regions of Ukraine, people have removed these and other Soviet monuments long ago, a process that began in the early 1990s. Recently, Ukrainians in the nation's western regions removal of monuments was confined only to Russian Genernal Kutuzov monuments.

“Now Kiev has decided to embark on the path of European integration. In liberal Europe, it is not customary to destroy monuments,” one reporter explains. Even in the Baltic countries, which do not celebrate the Soviet period of their own history, they have protected these soviet-era monuments in special parks set aside for their preservation. In the rest of Europe, various monuments stand regardless of the political views of the country’s leadership, he concludes.

Minsk’ position on Crimea remains the sameLukashenka reaffirmed Belarus' position during the State Security Council's latest session. The Belarusian ruler emphasised the traditionally positive economic ties between Belarus and Ukraine. “There are politicians who have decided to the solve problems of their people. We will not interfere in this [process],” he said. He also offered his own help help achieve stability in Ukraine.

Lukashenka is not afraid of a Maidan-like scenario in Belarus. “There will be no Maidan in Minsk. There is no place for a Maidan here,” he said. In his opinion, “there are conceptual reasons for similar revolutions,” to happen elsewhere. Lukashenka pointed out a few times that the collapse of the Ukrainian economy and corruption had led Ukraine to overthrow its (now -ex) government officials.

The head of state also commented on the fact that the Western press was regularly covering him to see what his reaction would be. “The EU is threatening me all the time,” he stated. In his words, nobody has put any pressure on him with regard to the current Ukrainian conflict. “We are one nation with the Russians. As well as the Ukrainians. We are Slavs and we will be together forever,” Lukashenka said.

Threat coming from NATO, not from Russia. In its coverage, state TV has given the impression that it was the West which had intensified the Ukrainian conflict. According to one reporter, "the rising level of NATO's participation was the cause of the events that are currently taking place in Ukraine."

Lukashenka noted that all of Belarus' neighbours, including Poland and the Baltic States, recently carried out military exercises. Similar actions had also taken place in the Black Sea. “They say that these exercises had been planned in advanced,” stated one journalist, with a tone of scepticism.

The presence of NATO is unsettling to the Belarusian leadership. “What should we do? Should we just watch it go on?”, Lukashenka said and called for an appropriate response from both Belarus and its ally, Russia.

Domestic Affairs

Belaruskali will not revive a joint venture with Uralkali. With the advent of several recent contracts of Belaruskali being successfully concluded in China and Indonesia, it has once again attracted the attention of Russian companies. “Will Minsk, having learned a bitter lesson last year, move towards a new alliance?”, prompts one journalist. In his opinion, the new owners of Uralkali will return and will once more try to invite Minsk to create a potash cartel with them.

According to state TV, the Russians have already changed their tone a few times when commenting on the Belarusian Potash Company in the media in the past months. “In Autumn they said – the Belarusians will not be able to sell potash without us. In Winter – BPC established its own foothold in China and signed a unique contract in Indonesia,” they noted, when reporting on Russian media coverage of Belarus' success.

 “We will not establish any joint companies in Moscow. If anywhere, if a similar company was created, it would be in Minsk,” Lukashenka stated during a meeting with Belarusian officials. Belarus' national interests should be considered to be of primary importance, the journalist emphasised.

79% of Belarusians trust Alexander Lukashenka. During a regular evening broadcast programme, information on the results of a societal survey conducted in Belarus were presented. The programme did not state who conducted the survey.

According to the survey, the vast majority of Belarusians, 74%, are happy with their life. 31% of respondents think that their financial situation had improved over the last three months. Fewer people, around 22%, stated that it had deteriorated.

The state TV reporter emphasised that 81% of Belarusians saw the social – political situation of Belarus as being stable. Only 2% of them stated that would participate in protests if they were ever to take place. Significantly fewer people (40%) trust the government and parliament. According to state TV, an increase in salaries was one of the main reasons for the positive attitudes of Belarusians

Lukashenka, Putin and Nazarbayev discuss the Eurasian project. Lukashenka noted that the countries should remove all barriers that are keeping the countries from establishing a common market. The heads of the state also discussed Armenia's potential membership. According to Putin, it is long overdue and they should begin to prepare an agreement with Armenia right away. One state TV journalist stated that on the same day of the Eurasian project meeting, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich criticised his own ministers for delays that have continued to obstruct Belarus' ability to conclude the final steps necessary to integrate into the economic union.

The state is successful in combating corruption. State TV reports that that over the last three years the number of offences related to corruption has seen a significant decline. Corruption is most prevalent in the educational, industrial and health care sectors.

“Corruption and economic offences pose the biggest threat to the country,” Lukashenka stated during a meeting with officials. He stressed how much the authorities have done to combat the problem. State TV commented that according to [unnamed – BD] experts, that thanks to the ongoing “daily battle” with corruption, there are no economic, social and political preconditions that would allow corruption to flourish in Belarus.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




What Should the Belarusians Expect in the Event of the Crimean War?

The Russian Parliament has approved the Russian president's request to use military forces in Ukraine. People sneer in social networks: he asked to approve the bringing of troops, which are already there.

But actually there is nothing to laugh about: while there is no gunshot, Russia tries to make itself at home in Crimea relying on force and Kyiv speaks about "direct aggression". Minsk, the Kremlin's nearest ally, still keeps silence.

Meanwhile, the high noon comes for Aliaksandr Lukashenka. One thing is abstract reasoning in the spirit of "We won't allow the Maidan". The other thing to take a stance in the situation when Belarus' closest military and political ally and the important partner in the Collectiver Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) invades the territory of the Belarus' southern neighbour and the international community qualifies it in unison as an invasion.

This war is against the hair for Minsk

Russian and Belarusian generals have repeatedly staged mock wars with hypothetical enemies intimidating Poles and Baltics and the post-Soviet allies got everything tiptop on practice grounds. But it is quite another matter here, in the Ukrainian question.

On the one hand, the Belarusian "brothers in arms" supposedly should walk in the footsteps of Moscow especially since it depends only on the latter's mercy whether the ever less competitive economic model of Lukashenka will survive tomorrow. 

On the other hand, foreign trade interests of Belarus are strongly tied with Ukraine: last year, the turnover amounted to about seven billions dollars with a large positive balance for us.

And indeed, despite all integration rhetoric of the Belarusian authorities, they must feel chills: here it is, the empire's evil grin! Whatever agreements you sign with them, tomorrow this bear can get mad and hit the sovereignty of any country, which the Kremlin sees as its zone of interests, with his paw.

And here is another zesty moment. In 1994, Russia acted as a guarantor of independence and integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum. Moscow, alongside with Washington and London, gave exactly the same guarantees to Belarus in acknowledgement of renunciation of nuclear weapons. But if today this agreement is violated in respect of Kyiv, then Minsk also is not immune from the same treachery of the eastern "guarantor".

The top Belarusian authorities have a motive to scratch their head strongly. So far, Belarus' Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej spoke out on this hot subject on 28 February in Riga. He spoke in a well-rounded way but clearly not in Russia's support: "The most important thing is to preserve the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine".

Lukashenka will seek to maintain neutrality to the maximum extent 

In the context of the acute phase of the crisis in the relations between Russia and Ukraine "Lukashenka will seek to maintain neutrality to the maximum extent ", said Valiery Karbalievich, an expert of the Minsk analytical centre Strategy, in a commentary for Naviny.by. At the same time, he predicts that Moscow will exert pressure on Minsk, seeking support for its position on Ukraine.

Similar forecast was made by an analyst from BISS (Vilnius), Dzianis Mieljantsou, in his interview to BelaPAN: "There is a danger that Belarus will be embroiled in a military conflict and that Russia will try somehow to win over its closest military allies, including Belarus, not in the military sense but in the political and ideological one". 

Will they twist Lukashenka's arms? 

Here, a parallel with the events of 2008 suggests itself when the Kremlin twisted arms demanding to support the outcome of the war from Georgia and to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Lukashenka stubbornly refused and did not recognise them. Although, he betrayed the secret later: he had a bartering with Russia's then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, about whether Moscow was willing to compensate the costs of the inevitable worsening of the relations with the West (you'd think, they were excellent without this!) 

Medvedev did not promise the payment, and the case dried up. Lukashenka released a political prisoner, Aliaksandr Kazulin, and soon after he received a loan in the amount of 3.5 billion dollars from the IMF together with thawing of relations with the European Union and the United States.

But now the situation is different in many ways. Belarus' economic dependence on Moscow intensified and no quick and large-scale progress is expected by analysts in the relations with the EU and the USA even if the existing political prisoners are released (as we see, the Belarusian regime can hardly do without this standard set by its very nature).

And even if the IMF lends some money it will necessarily be tied to painful reforms, which Lukashenka does not like much generally and especially on the eve of the presidential election. 

So if Russia manages to wrest Crimea, at some stage Minsk can be nailed down to the point that it would be forced to recognise grudgingly the sham independence or even annexation of this territory, said Andrej Fiodarau, a foreign policy analyst from Minsk, in a commentary to Naviny.by.

Bordiuzha spoke as a Russian general

Meanwhile, Nikolay Bordiuzha, the CSTO's Secretary General, spoke in unison with the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Parliament on 28 February: he threw a stone into the new authorities of Ukraine for having violated the settlement agreement signed with Viktor Yanukovich, and generally, "[the Western countries – translator's note] basically do not recognise legitimacy of the duly elected President of Ukraine". 

Please note that the CSTO includes, apart from Russia, five more countries, including Belarus, but it looks like no one really asks their opinion. The CSTO's Secretary General spoke as a Russian Colonel-General.

Meanwhile, Nursultan Nazarbaev, for instance, hardly approves these Putin's militaristic exercises: there are regions in Kazakhstan where the ethnic Russians dominate as they do in Ukraine. And in Belarus, not only opposition activists are set against the Russian military intervention in Crimea; the authorities also do not like this turn of events.

It seems that there is no single country in the CSTO (and in the entire CIS), which is willing to applaud Russia's activities in Crimea. Here you are with the "brotherhood in arms".

In the opinion of Valiery Karbalievich, against the backdrop of the events in Crimea "the CSTO question gets hung up altogether". Moreover, "if it comes to a war in Crimea, the agreement on creation of the Eurasian Union can get hung up as well", the analyst believes.

Belarusian sovereignty is also under attack

Politicised Belarusians, who are following the invasion of Crimea intensely, write is social networks: this is what awaits us if the country chooses the European way (which, by the way, is favoured already today by a relative majority of population). 

Moscow's sinister attack against Ukraine, which got off the hook of the Eurasian integration, strengthens the democratic part of the Belarusian society in its conviction that there can be no friendship with an empire, whichever mantle the latter clothes itself into. And the idea of establishing a Russian air base in Belarus is now unlikely to be particularly attractive even to Lukashenka's hard-core electorate.

In principle, Minsk should urgently seek a counterbalance to Moscow's imperial ambitions. Today, they should at least release the political prisoners and thus unfreeze the relations with Europe and the United States. It would somehow expand the space for geopolitical manoeuvring.

But the issue of national security and preservation of sovereignty is a comprehensive one for Belarus. The worst thing today is the hook of subsidies, incapacity of the economic model, which forces into making concessions and getting involved in Putin's integration projects.

"The Kremlin does not have to obtain something in Belarus by force. The latter gets to this trap by itself anyway", says Andrej Fiodarau. If Russia dares to seize Crimea, it will have nothing to lose in terms of image, so Belarus at some point can easily be "turned into the eighth federal district", if needed, says the analyst.

In his opinion, the obstacle to reforms and improvement of relations with the West is the fact that the objective number one for Lukashenka is to retain personal power. "[He has] no resources or political will to distance [himself] from Moscow", the source of Naviny.by sums up. 

Thus, the events around Moscow sharpen again the most acute political problem of Belarus, and namely: while the undemocratic personalistic regime prevails here, which sticks as a leech to Russian resources, the country's sovereignty will remain under attack. 

Aliaksandr Klaskouski

This text originally appeared on naviny.by in Russian. 




The West Blamed for Unrest in Ukraine, An Ideal Local Election Candidate – Belarus State TV Digest

Belarusian state-run Channel 1 regularly covered the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Journalists have often referred to the participants of protests and the opposition as radicals and extremists.

Reporters blamed Western politicians for the situation in Maidan“Maidan” appeared also in the context of state officials-small businessmen talks with the Head of State. Lukashenka warned the Belarusian business from getting involved into some counter-activities.

Belarusian ONT TV channel organised a discussion about the forthcoming elections to local authorities. The programme featured representatives from state and opposition politicians.

Ukraine

Situation in Ukraine is getting worse. The Ukrainian authorities agreed on amnesty for the participants of the protests, but only if the opposition would leave the government buildings they had seized. However, the city is getting ready for a new wave of unrest. A journalist from the Ukrainian newspaper “Vesti” was shot on the street by a group of unknown people. “Last night (18 February – BD) became the most bloody in the history of independent Ukraine”, the newscast pointed out.  As a result, 26 people died, and at least 10 of them were policemen.

The opposition is clearly not ready for talks, Belarus state TV journalist stated. The European politicians ignored the outrageous actions of extremists and blamed only Yanukovich for all that was happening, he continued. “Although any hope that under the red and black black flags of ‘banderovcy’ democracy will come to Ukraine, is, in the least, a silly idea”, the state journalist commented based on the opinion of unnamed experts.

Kiev: the political crisis affects the economy. The opposition fraction of the Ukrainian Parliament cannot agree on key questions of the Constitution reform. The international agency Fitch downgraded the credit rating of Ukraine.

Moscow: the West is guilty of the Ukrainian crisis. Journalist noted that the leaders of the opposition went to Berlin. They asked the European Union to impose sanctions on the Ukrainian authorities and the German chancellor for financial support. “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia called the disorder in Kiev a result of politics of the West,” journalist concluded.

International Affairs

The Western democracies violate human rights. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus published its annual document on 23 countries that violated the human rights in 2013. State TV commented that it described predominantly the cases of racial hostility and discrimination in the countries of the European Union.

“A real wave of Nazism has swept over Europe. Manifestations of xenophobia are practically in all countries, even in the places that suffered from the red plague: Lithuania, Poland, Greece, France and Germany”.

The publication of the Belarusian MFA referred to the countries which supported sanctions against Belarus due to the alleged human rights’ violations.

“The staff of the MFA stresses that there are no perfect countries. Problems should be discussed rather than become a tool for pressure.” The unique feature of this Belarusian report is that it does not contain any conclusions, but presents only facts, the state TV reporter concluded.

Domestic Affairs

Lukashenka: the industrial park is drowning in bureaucracy. Alexander Lukashenka chaired a meeting on the construction of the Belarusian-Chinese technology park in Belarus. The Head of State harshly criticised the officials for delays in its realisation.

Lukashenka said, “There is everything necessary in place to have such a plant in Belarus. There is stability in the state, which is absent in other countries.” Kiril Rudny, Lukashenka’s advisor, also raised some financial controversies around the project, such as the interest-rate of a loan from Beijing.

Throughout the state TV coverage, Lukashenka shouted at different officials for the slow pace of construction and demanded explanations from them. One reporter pointed out that according to experts, in a long-term perspective, the project could bring billions dollars in the form of investment to the country.

Lukashenka: no “Maidan” in small business. Lukashenka chaired a meeting with officials and businessmen. They discussed the proposal by the government introduction of the obligatory certificates on the quality of goods. “This is a right thing to do. But not everybody is ready to reject their own shady schemes,” the state TV journalist notes.

The Head of State referred to criticism on changes from the Belarusian business community. “It is pointless to threaten me. We will not allow a “Maidan” to happen in our country. Everything will unfold in a civilised manner.” In response, he warned against businessmen getting involved in any reactionary measures against the planned policy's implementation.

Trying to convince the business community of the necessity of these changes, he said: “If you want to live like they do in the West, we are offering you those very conditions. If you want to live like on Maidan, well, then, this is not going to happen in Belarus.”

The elections to local authorities

An ideal candidate for the local authorities: According to state TV, gender does not matter, the most popular candidates are doctors, teachers and social workers, ideally between the age of 45-55 years.

Income plays an important role as well. Unemployed candidates do not have a very good chances, and those with a higher income also arouse suspicion. “If you are successful in business why are you trying to gain political power?”, the state TV journalist asked rhetorically. 

Belarusian voters pay attention to the experience where their candidates work, but also the biography of their candidates. “People do not vote for strangers and do not trust populists,” the reporter comments.

In its coverage, state TV presents the profiles of two members of Bielaja Rus, a government organised non-governmental organisation.

According to the report, both the ruling and opposition political parties are not very involved in local elections. This is the the result of their being a small number of activists engaged in raising the profile of elections. The reporter also noted another reason – “political tourism in Ukraine is flourishing.” 

Debate on the local elections. Recently state-run ONT TV site covered of the local elections scheduled to take place in March.

The show gathered both representatives from the authorities, but also a few opposition figures. It demonstrated that the Belarusian opposition had access to state media and can freely promote itself.

The head of the Central Election Committee Lidzija Jarmoshyna noted that “some political forces abuse the system by using their right to boycott.” According to Valery Uchnaliou from the party “Spraviedlivi Mir” citizens should not boycott, but rather exercise their electoral rights. If they do not like the candidates, they should vote against all of them.

Uchnaliou argued that the amended electoral law still has not addressed all the standing issues, including the apparent pluralism of the members of the electoral committee, but also securing a transparent and open vote-counting process. Jarmoshyna explained that diverse social forces would be represented in the electoral commissions, including civil society, state officials and citizens.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




Why Belarus is not Ukraine

Last weekend many Belarusians came to Kyiv to support the pro-European demonstrations. Social activists, politicians and even the famous rock band​ Liapis Trubetskoy expressed their support for Ukrainians with their pro-European choice.

They came to take part in the truly massive political protests – something which they are unable to do back home in Belarus. Though Belarus and Ukraine have a long shared history, the two countries differ significantly in many ways.

While Belarusians have not yet gone through a true nation-building process, in many ways they live better than Ukrainians. Unlike Lukashenka's regime, Yanukovych's regime has many democratic attributes that make mass peaceful protests possible.  

The private sector also makes up a larger share of the economy and Ukraine's oligarchs play a significant role in its politics. They use their own money to finance other centres of influence, in addition to the authorities.  

Belarusians Reach the Maidan

On 7 December, the famous Belarusian rock band Liapis Trubetskoy performed on Maidan – the epicentre of the Kyiv protests. A week earlier the Belarusian band gathered over ten thousand Belarusian fans at a concert in Vilnius. The leader of the band, Siarhei Mikhalok, stated at Maidan: “We are here to send you a big hello from Belarus. We, Belarusians, look at you with respect and admiration.”

Not everybody who wanted to actually managed to get to Ukraine from Belarus. On 6 December, KGB agents and traffic police stopped 53 activists who were travelling from Minsk to Kyiv by bus. Law enforcement officials explained that they could not let the bus continue on to Ukraine due to the poor weather conditions and the danger it posed to the health of the bus' passengers. As a result, the bus had to return to Minsk, and the activists got off the bus before it turned back and got to Kyiv by hitchhiking.

Belarusian opposition leaders, including Uladzimir Niakliajeu of the Tell the Truth campaign​ and Yuri Hubarevich of the Movement for Freedom took the floor to share words of solidarity with the thouands of Ukrainains who were gathered on Maidan. It is not the first time that activists from Belarus have come to rallies in Ukraine. In 2004, hundreds of Belarusians with white-red-white flags took part in the Orange Revolution.

Why Belarus is not Ukraine

Many people in Belarus and in the West try to draw parallels between the rallies in Kyiv and those that have taken place Minsk. Some are wondering why Belarusians cannot organise something similar in their own country. To understand this, one must remember several aspects in which Belarus differs significantly from Ukraine.

Some are wondering why Belarusians cannot organise something similar in their own country.

First, unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians have not yet completed the process of nation building. Belarusians are much more like Russian-speaking Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine than the western Ukrainians or residents of Kyiv – who are the main participants in the protests.

But even the residents of eastern Ukraine use its national flag, emblem and anthem while Belarusians still use Soviet symbols. Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine, while coming from the east of Ukraine and having Belarusian roots, consistently speaks the Ukrainian language in public. In Belarus, even opposition politicians remain mostly Russian-speaking. All that makes it easier for Russia to influence Belarus.

In terms of economic well-being, Belarusians live better than Ukrainians. The average salary in Belarus hovers around $600, while in Ukraine it is about $400. At the same time the level of inequality between the rich and the poor in Ukraine remain much higher in Ukraine than in Belarus. 

One of the Belarusian participants of EuroMaidan, Mikalai Dziemidenka, said that when compared to Belarus, Ukraine looks like a flourishing democracy. The opposition is well represented in parliament, and there is real and constant political struggle in Ukraine between different different political forces. Representatives from opposition parties actually run several cities – a scenario that remains entirely unrealistic in Belarus. In Belarus, real politics rears its head out only once every five years during the presidential election.

According to the Constitution of Belarus, Lukashenka has vast powers which make other political institutions meaningless. Yanukovych must keep a watchful eye on what is going on in parliament and monitor its activities. Albeit imperfect, Ukraine's separation of powers and the reality of divisions within the government itself is further evidence of the differences between the country. The head of the presidential administration and many other Ukrainian officials resigned after the recent brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Kyiv. After the Minsk protests in 2010, all Belarusian officials either maintained their silence or condemned the demonstrators.

Moreover, President Yanukovych and his government have long been negotiating Ukraine's european integration. Lukashenka's regime cannot even begin such negotiations as it prefers to remain financially and politically dependent on Russia. 

On 9 December, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski publicly spoke out against impeaching Yanukovych​, which is technically and politically feasible, though remains totally impossible in Belarus. Consider the fact that Yanukovych is the fourth president of Ukraine and recently met with his predecessors to discuss the crisis. Belarus has only one president it gained its independence in the 1990s. 

The Real Power in Ukraine

Another key difference is that Lukashenka's power relies on police and law enforcement agencies while Yanukovych relies heavily on those oligarchs who are willing to provide financial support.​ Many people call the Ukrainian oligarchs the real seat of power in the country and for good reason. They financially support the existing political structures and determine the amount of airtime politicians get on TV.

Lukashenka's power relies on police and law enforcement agencies while Yanukovych heavily relies on the oligarchs
For example, the channel 1+1, which is owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, gives more airtime to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, from Yulia Timoshenko`s party. Another channel Inter, owned by Dmytro Firtash, likes to invite Vitali Klitschko as a guest on its programmes. Not a single TV channel in Belarus can promote opposition politicians. 
 
Several Ukrainian oligarchs, such as Vadim Novinsky and Kostyantyn Zhevago, are members of parliament. Each of their respective wealth is estimated to be about $1.5-2bn. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man whose personal wealth is estimated to be about $15.4bn, is claimed to control Yanukovych's party in parliament.
 
Belarusian oligarchs remain much poorer than their Ukrainian counterparts. Uladzimir Peftiev, the richest man in Belarus, whose personal wealth is estimated to be about $1bn, would have a spot on a list of the top 10 richest people in Ukraine. What's more, they do not have any real political power in Belarus.  Belarusian "oligarchs" are little more than managers who can be replaced and stripped of their property at any moment. There is no rule of law in Belarus, so all businesses remain at mercy of the regime.  
 
Although private philanthropy for social and non-political projects in Belarus is slowly developing, Belarusian entrepreneurs shy away from openly political projects. They fear that the government may take away their business and punish them personally. That is precisely what happened to Andrei Klimau in 1998, one of the most promising entrepreneurs of Belarus at that time, who supported the opposition. Klimau has since already served several jail terms for his perceived political involvement.
 
In the 1990s Andrei Zhukavets had a successful business in Belarus and gave money to the Youth Front. In 1999 the authorities started a criminal case against him, so he decided to emigrate to Poland. To this day the Belarusian authorities are still seeking Zhukavets’ extradition. Having seen a few examples like those described above, business people are afraid to be openly involved in politics. 
 
Ukrainian Lessons for Belarus

Will the recent events in Ukraine affect Belarus? Lukashenka's regime is closely monitoring the situation, although the state media and officials do not speak much about the events transpiring in Kyiv. It seems that the authorities have not yet developed their strategic ideological approach to the Ukrainian protests.

On the one hand, if Ukraine drifts to the east, Lukashenka may lose his status as Russia's only loyal ally in the west. On the other hand, if Ukraine strengthens its ties with Russia, Belarus will look more "normal" to the West and its own people, thus justifying the status quo.  

If the protests in Ukraine go devolve into turmoil, the Belarusian state propaganda machine will use it to praise Belarusian stability and condemn the dangers of an uncontrolled democracy. If it ends peacefully and leads to positive developments, this will give hope to Belarusians that changes – perhaps slower and through a different route – will also come to Belarus.