War of Ideology: The Ukrainian Conflict Polarizes Belarusians
The Ukrainian conflict has exposed growing ideological differences among Belarusians.
When Volha Krapotsina was distributing anti-Russian leaflets in Hrodna, a fellow citizen, who empathised with the Russian side, reported her to the police. In Minsk, while some distributed stickers “We support the recognition of Novorossiya” others vandalised cars with Russian licence plates.
Belarusians clash in the social media, take their views to the streets, and even travel to fight in Ukraine.
At the time when the war in Ukraine divides Belarusians, patriotic initiatives that avoid accentuating ideological differences hold great importance.
Seeking Freedom and a Fun New Year’s
The first stream of Belarusians crossed into Ukraine to cheer for the Euromaidan in late November 2013. Politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens waved the white-red-white flags, banned by the Lukashenka regime and used as the symbol of the Belarusian opposition.
“People were driven by a desire to feel free… to participate in the making of independence, even if not of their own country,” Valiancin Tsishko of Maladzechna told Belarus Digest. Tsishko left Kiev a day before the outbreak of violence on 19 January.
“It is vital for me to protect the aspirations of those who are close to me in spirit and support people’s desire for freedom and liberty,” Dzianis Ivashyn, a civic activist from Hrodna who regularly visits Ukraine, said. “Besides, I have both Belarusian and Ukrainian roots. Ukraine and Belarus are my motherlands.”
Some Belarusians arrived in Kiev simply to celebrate the New Year and have fun with friends. Happy Tours (Vitsebsk) advertised a two-night “New Year on the Maidan” in December 2013. Priced at $180, the trip included a walking tour of Kiev, a night on the Maidan, and a visit to Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.
Ideological Struggles at Home and Abroad
Before the conflict turned violent, every firth Belarusian viewed it in the positive light, according to IISEPS March 2014 analysis. After the bloodshed, however, people began taking sides.
Monthly keyword trends provided by the search engine Yandex, popular in Belarus, illustrate this dynamic. Anti-Ukrainian queries spiked in searches from the Belarusian territory in February-March 2014. The popularity of phrases such as "Banderovtsy" and "Ukrainian fascists" shows just how much Russian propaganda affects Belarusians' views.
“Who owns Crimea” has become a marker for establishing and maintaining interpersonal contacts and communities,” said Alyaksandra Dynko, a Belarusian journalist who visited Kiev as the conflict unfolded. Two uncompromising views have emerged. Support for Ukrainian territorial integrity, as well as the mainstream and far right groups fighting toward this aim, predominates among the Belarusian opposition.
Many political activists see the war as a noble fight against Russian imperialism. Youth organisation Malady Front openly supports the decision of some Belarusians to fight against the pro-Russian separatists. On its web site, the organisation went as far as to celebrate the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which in 1943-1944 not only sought Ukraine's independence but also killed nearly 100,000 Poles in Volyn and eastern Galicia.
Pro-Russian sympathies remain popular among the masses, however. Ultranationalist groups such as the Russian National Unity have successfully recruited Belarusians to fight on the side of the separatists.
Some Belarusians have joined the initiatives with self-explanatory names such as Anti-Maidan and Orange Hunters. The identity of Belarusians who chose rally behind the pro-Russian initiatives may surprise some.
For example, the organiser of Anti-Maidan's VKontakte group is the 18-year-old son of Dzmitry Us, who served a prison term after running for president in 2010 and participating in post-election protests in Minsk. Reacting to the revelation about his son, Us told Radio Svoboda in October that the Anti-Maidan protest plans in are "nonsensical and delirious."
As IISEPS surveys of public opinion demonstrate, the Belarusian population is about evenly divided on the ideological dimension. In the October 2014 poll, 25% of respondents said they would take up arms to protect Belarus were Russia to use force and seek annexation. When the question was instead posed about the NATO threat, an identical proportion (25%) said they would take up arms against the Western military block. In each case, only 40% of respondents said they would try to adapt to the situation.
Ideological Disagreement is Everyday Life
Strong convictions on both sides create friction, which further polarises the population.
In October, Evgeny Novikov’s program "Human Rights – a look into the world" disappeared from the Belarusian state TV channel "Belarus 24." According to Novikov’s blog, his attitude toward the situation in Ukraine that is “ruled by banderovtsy and neonazi” was to blame. The government views such an attitude as far too radical.
The authorities also punish the overzealous supporters of the Ukrainian side. For example, the police did not allow the displays of the Ukrainian flag at the November 21 concert of Ukrainian band Okean Elzy.
Belarusians also increasingly resort to vigilante tactics that belie their support for one or the other side in the conflict.
In September, Hrodna’s Volha Krapotsina placed leaflets reading "Return the Crimea! Hands off Ukraine" and "Shame to the traitor who holds the tricolor flag. Putin will shake your hand as he is picking you up on a bayonet" on the windshields of cars with Russian numbers.
Not the police, but a fellow Belarusian – who clearly held the opposite view of Russia – detained Krapotsina. The man said he paid respect to the local policeman who had earlier solicited his help. On 18 November, Krapotsina received both a $400 fine and an outpouring of support from Belarusians who shared her convictions.
The diverging perceptions of Belarusian Mihal Zhyzneuski, one of the first victims of the January clashes between Maidan protesters and the police, prove that heroes for some are fascists for others.
Zhyzneuski's participation in Maidan resulted in a posthumous order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes (Geroj Niabesnaj Sotni) award and a memorial at the site of his death in Kiev. Yet at home In Homel some people call him “a bandit and fascist,” his mother said.
Who Benefits from the Radicalised Masses?
In the long run, radicalisation of the Belarusian society as well as the possible return of the Belarusians now fighting in Ukraine on both sides of the conflict might weaken the stability of the Belarusian regime.
In the short run, however, the government stands to benefit from the growing ideological polarisation. It could win supporters among moderate voters reacting against the ultranationalist views of either the pro-Ukrainian or the pro-Russian sides.
In this context, all the more important become civic initiatives such as distributing Belarusian vyshyvankas (embroideries with national elements) and singing Belarusian folk songs. Such initiatives can bring people together around independent Belarus without accentuating their ideological differences.
Alyaksandra Dynko views these initiatives as the society’s attempt at self-preservation. The authorities’ moderate support for such initiatives indicates that the regime may also like to stem radicalisation and contain the fringe elements, she said.
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.