Who gets official awards from Lukashenka? An analysis of the past two decades
On 9 January, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka held his annual Presidential Prize awards ceremony. Presidential Prizes recognise achievements in spiritual revival, in sports, and in culture and art.
Over the past two decades, President Lukashenka’s personal preferences and hobbies, such as agriculture and ice hockey, have shaped who gets a prize. The highest awards still mostly go to Russian citizens, and often those from the ruling elite.
Finally, the government awards only to employees of state institutions, while Belarusian civil society’s contribution remains unrecognised.
State awards receive minimal attention in the Belarusian expert community. Belarus Digest presents a brief analysis of the main awards and their laureates over two decades and identifies the defects of awarding policies in Belarus.
Lukashenka: the primary award giver
Belarus follows Soviet tradition in having a hierarchy of awards. ‘Orders’ are the highest form of award, followed by medals, and then honorary titles. ‘State Prizes’ and ‘Presidential Prizes’ are another type of award. These are given for achievements in science, literature and arts, sports, and the spiritual sphere. Above all awards stands the title of ‘Hero of Belarus.’ The title occupies its own category and is Belarus’s single highest award.
According to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, the giving of state awards is one of the president’s duties. Award ceremonies occupy a separate category on the Belarusian president’s official website and are widely reported in the official media. Lukashenka gives speeches at each and every award ceremony, explaining the importance of the various laureates’ activities for the Belarusian state.
Hero of Belarus – the highest award
The title of ‘Hero of Belarus’ is the highest state award in the country. The title is given for exceptional merit related to an accomplishment in the name of freedom, independence, or prosperity for Belarus. The title was first awarded (posthumously) in 1996 to Lieutenant Colonel Uladzimir Karvat, who prevented his falling plane from crashing into a village.
At present, 11 people bear the title of Hero of Belarus. Four recipients of the title are for contributions to agriculture in Belarus. Given Lukashenka’s rural origin, agriculture has always received special attention. Three other owners of the Hero of Belarus come from industry, one in religion, sports, culture, and aviation. The most recent person made a Hero of Belarus was Darja Domračava, after she won three gold medals at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
The ‘Order of the Fatherland’ is the second highest award in Belarus. Belarus has three laureates of this award—two of them from sports and one in agriculture. It is worth noting that both areas relate to Lukashenka’s passions. The ‘Order of Military Glory’ is the third highest award to be bestowed in Belarus. Only one person has been awarded the Order of Military Glory—Lieanid Maĺcaŭ, who served at the highest military posts throughout most of Lukashenka’s political career.
Belarus also has a number of other orders in various spheres. They include: the Order for Labour Glory; for Service to the Motherland (military service); for Personal Courage (heroic deeds); for Friendship of Peoples (promotion of peace and cooperation between nations ); for Honour (various achievements); of Francis Skaryna (national revival, history, and culture); and of The Mother (this requires a woman to give birth to five or more children).
Friendship of Peoples Order as a foreign policy tool
The Friendship of Peoples Order presents an interesting case for analysis, because it displays President Lukashenka’s foreign policy priorities. Out of 52 orders awarded since 2002, Russians have received more than half—29. Virtually all are high-ranking Russian officials, most of whom belong to siloviki (controllers of the security and force-wielding ministries). Putin himself has received the Friendship of the Peoples Order from Lukashenka. China, the second largest foreign policy priority of the Belarusian leadership, has the second largest number of orders—six.
Kazakhstan, which is Belarus’s partner within Eurasian Economic Union, has received three Friendship of People’s Orders. Representatives from nine other separate countries, organisations, and companies are holders of one order. Among them are Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela whom Lukashenka considered a close friend, and René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation—ice hockey being Lukashenka’s favourite sport. These cases show that the Belarusian president is decisive in choosing to whom this particular award is given. The Friendship of Peoples Order functions as Lukashenka’s personal tool of gratifying high-ranking foreign figures.
The Order of Francis Skaryna: praising Russians, ignoring the neighbours
The Order of Francis Skaryna, which is named after Belarus’s prominent medieval book printer, is given for outstanding achievements in the field of national and state revival, achievements in the field of national language, history, literature, art, book publishing, cultural, or educational activities. More besides, it can also indicate special merits in humanitarian, charitable activities, protection of human dignity, citizens’ rights, and other noble deeds.
Since the year of its establishment in 2007, the order has been awarded to over 200 people. The overwhelming majority of them represent Belarusian official cultural institutions and other related institutions. Among the foreign holders of the Order of Francis Skaryna—much like with the Friendship of Peoples Order—Russians prevail. Aside from various cultural figures, Lukashenka gave the order to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and Duma Chairman Gennadiy Seleznyov.
Besides Russian politicians, whose cultural achievements and contribution to the national revival of Belarus seem doubtful, the Belarusian president gave the Order of Francis Skaryna to a number of Russian pop artists, including Philipp Kirkorov, Nikolay Baskov, Nadezhda Babkina and producer Viktor Drobysh. During the award ceremony featuring Drobysh in October 2015, Lukashenka also criticised author Svetlana Alexievich for her ‘anti-Belarusian rhetoric abroad.’ Alexievich, the first and single Nobel laureate from Belarus, has so far not been honoured with the Order of Francis Skaryna.
Another important aspect of this particular order is its state-only character: all native laureates come from state institutions, while independent artists and activists remain unrecognised by the authorities.
All representatives of the ‘Western World’ on the list of Skaryna order holders have received it for charity, mostly helping children of Chernobyl. Among them is famous French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who has contributed to various charitable activities in Belarus. Belarus’s second largest neighbour, Ukraine, has received only two orders. Representatives of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have received none, excluding two Belarusian community activists in Poland. This fact proves the dire state of official Belarus’s cultural and humanitarian cooperation with its neighbours other than Russia.
Belarus should reform its award policy
This brief analysis of the awards exposes a number of disproportions and drawbacks in the way the Belarusian government recognises the value of certain persons for the country’s development. First, it remains heavily influenced by the personal preferences and hobbies of President Alexander Lukashenka. Thus, spheres like agriculture and sports receive an undue amount of attention in comparison to others.
Although Belarus declares its foreign policy is that of diversification, the most prestigious foreign awards overwhelmingly go to Russian citizens, and often from the ruling elite. Other neighbouring countries remain neglected, despite long historical and cultural ties with the Belarusian people.
The government dispenses awards only to representatives of state institutions. Independent creators and members of civil society remain unrecognised as contributing to Belarusian societal development. This imbalance contradicts Belarus’s new image which it has been presenting abroad over recent years.
State awards can thus be an indicator of trends in domestic and foreign policy. So far, any visible changes have not occurred despite the new cycle of warming relations with the West and independence strengthening policies of the country’s leadership.
Will the West join Lithuania’s crusade against Belarus NPP?
“We are not going to buy electricity from the Belarusian nuclear power plant, but do not want to politicise the issue of construction of this station,” said the Polish Ambassador to Belarus on 27 December 2017. If asked, a few Western diplomats would say the same.
On the one hand, many Western politicians see Lithuania’s crusade against the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP) as politicised and even panicked. But on the other hand, perhaps thanks to Lithuania’s position, any cooperation (except on security issues) between Belarus and the West in the atomic sphere have become less feasible. Therefore, while Lithuania loses the conflict diplomatically, Belarus is not a winner either.
Lithuania’s fight against Belarusian NPP
It seems that Lithuanian politicians compete over who can deliver the sharpest criticism of Belarus’s first NPP, which is under construction in Astraviec in northwest Belarus near the border with Lithuania. In 2017, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė in her talk with American Vice President Mike Pence described the Astraviec plant as a “non-conventional weapon.” Former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus later called Belarusian NPP “an atomic bomb.”
Lithuanian authorities appear to use every opportunity to tell the world about the dangers of the Belarusian NPP. President Grybauskaite spoke about it in a conversation with Donald Trump, and the Lithuanian authorities have asked US lawmakers to hold a special hearing on the Astraviec plant. On 24 November 2017, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, expressed his “full solidarity” with Lithuanian safety concerns over the Belarusian NPP.
The mood in Lithuanian society follows the exclamations of their politicians. Two-thirds of Lithuanians perceive the Belarusian nuclear plant as a threat to Lithuania, according to Lithuanian polling agency RAIT (23 per cent of Lithuanians do not view it as a threat, while 12 per cent could not answer the question).
However, in practice, the Lithuanian crusade has borne little fruit. While Lithuanian politicians seek termination of the construction of the plant in Astraviec and non-admission of Belarusian electricity to the EU market, no other EU country shares the opinion of Lithuania. This makes Lithuania’s efforts appear futile.
“You will never satisfy the Lithuanians. They simply do not want the project,” an EU official told the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, some view Lithuanian arguments against the Belarusian NPP as being overboard. Although, it is easy to understand Vilnius’s fears of a meltdown or some other kind of catastrophe, because the plant in Astraviec is just 50 km from the Lithuanian capital.
Lithuania on the losing end
It seems that many involved feel irritated about how Lithuania politicises the issue. In September, even the EU Commissioner from Lithuania, who is politically affiliated with the current government, said that “Lithuanian officials confuse economics with politics” and “Belarusians [themselves] are most concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants.”
Previously, in the summer of 2017, at the initiative of a Swedish MP, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly declined to discuss a resolution put forward by Lithuania, because it mixed the nuclear issue and human rights in “an unfortunate way.” 20 other delegations supported the MP, including countries such as Czechia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Only seven countries supported Lithuania.
Other Baltic countries remain reluctant to criticize the Belarusian NPP. Indeed, they appear to flip-flop their positions depending on the circumstances. Moreover, Latvia would like to capitalize on the Belarusian-Lithuanian dispute. The Latvian government has long pitched the Belarusian authorities with the idea of transiting goods through the Latvian ports, and so it tries to be careful with its criticism. As the Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister stated in an interview to online news portal TUT.by, “we share the concern of Lithuania, but talk directly with our Belarusian colleagues.”
Lithuania has even tried to get Ukraine’s support. But, as the Lithuanian Energy Minister Žygimantas Vaičiūnas stated on 8 December 2017, he “has not received any concrete position from Kyiv.”
Poland’s reaction to the Astraviec plant may appear to be the best achievement in Lithuania’s crusade. Poland has not only refused to buy electricity from Astraviec, but it has also decided to dismantle its Bialystok – Ros power line with Belarus. However, in an interview with online news portal Naviny.by, Polish Ambassador Konrad Pawlik indicated that his country would like to distance itself from Lithuania’s position. Poland has acted for internal reasons.
A pyrrhic victory for Belarus
The Belarusian NPP is a precedent: more Western countries seem to support something put forward by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s regime rather than the position of one of its own. To be sure, Belarusian diplomacy was also working hard. The Belarusian Government is working closely both with the International Atomic Energy Agency and with the European Commission. Representatives of the former organisation have visited Belarus several times, and the latter is preparing a major mission for this year.
But that does not mean that Belarus “wins” per se. President Lukashenka has repeatedly asked officials to think of what to do with the surplus electricity Belarus will have after the launch of the nuclear plant. However, the Belarusian authorities are still failing to find enough outlets. Desperation is so great that the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences has suggested to use the excess electricity from Astraviec to mine cryptocurrencies.
Even if the West will not impose formal restrictions on Belarusian electricity, informally Belarusian aspirations for the use of its nuclear power is already suspect. That is, the European Union will likely seek to ensure that any leverage Belarus (and Russia) can gain from cheap supplies of energy in the region has little impact.
Rather worryingly for Belarus, on 18 December 2017, European commissioners met with energy ministers from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland to discuss how to desynchronise the Baltic States’ electricity grid (BRELL) from Belarus and Russia.
According to the Lithuanian Minister of Energy, desynchronisation and synchronisation will cost around €1 mln and the “most of the sum will be financed the by the European Union.” If so, perhaps the Lithuanian crusade against Belarus’s NPP will achieve moderate returns at the very least. If this were to happen, the Belarusian NPP will be cut off from Western markets and likely become unprofitable. Lithuania, on the other hand, will be able to modernise its electricity system with the help of European Union funds.