Why Ukraine Failed to Revolutionize Belarus
Given the numerous ties which link Belarus to Ukraine, one might expect the radical political changes in Ukraine to revolutionise Belarus. Yet political activity in Belarus is barely noticeable, despite dramatic developments in Ukraine and the forthcoming presidential election.
Last month, political scientist Tatiana Chyzhova published the results of a monitoring project that reviewed protests in 2014. According to her, public political acts, be they protests or other events, remained few and far between and were ill-attended. In fact, the level of street-level political acts in Belarus was eight times lower than the period preceding Maidan in Ukraine.
Even Belarusian opposition politicians like Pavel Seviarynets who actively advocated for street protests in the past have recently said that calling on Belarusian youth to engage into politics is basically the equivalent of inviting them to stick their fingers into an electrical socket.
At the moment, Ukrainian events have most influenced Belarusian politics through the widespread use of Ukrainian symbols and rhetoric by the Belarusian opposition, but little else.
No Time for Street Protests?
Chyzhova, who works at the Institute for Political Studies “Political Sphere”, counted a total of 81 protests last year in Belarus. That is slightly more than in 2013, when 64 protests were held. This spike in protests was largely due to the local elections held in March 2014 – and if one sets aside the election campaigns, picketing and other social protests – there were only 52 political acts or events.
Most of these actions involved a small number of people and only four events were attended by more than 100 people.
All in all, the study posits that protest-related activity in Belarus in 2014 was eight times lower than in Ukraine, before Maidan. This is just more evidence that Ukrainian-style political change in Belarus is improbable.
Last year, the authorities issued permits for only seven out of a total 52 political events Read more
Many factors have contributed to the low level of activity with regards to street-level politics in the country – mistakes by the opposition, the absence of efficient political organisations, an ideological and methodological crisis among opponents of the current government, and the poor state of the media landscape.
The government has also done their part to prevent people from taking to the streets. Last year, the authorities issued permits for only seven out of a total 52 political events. 33 of 52 political actions ended with some negative consequences for the organisers, be it administrative arrests, fines, detentions or some form of warning.
Ukraine Does Not Inspire Ordinary Belarusians
17 of these political events dealt with developments in neighbouring Ukraine and 13 of them were pro-Maidan, while four were expressly anti-Maidan. Solidarity with Ukraine has even galvanised football fans to engage in politics – probably for the first time in Belarusian history.
A collective photo of Belarusian fans supporting Ukrainian comrades and a flash-mob of support for Ukraine at a football match raised concerns among the Belarusian authorities who were well aware of the role that Ukrainian football fans played in toppling the Yanukovych government in Kyiv.
The opposition community enthusiastically welcomed the radical shift in power in Ukraine and stood behind the new Kyiv government as the war in Eastern Ukraine unfolded, something which the opposition is very eager to demonstrate. Even traditional Belarusian mass rallies unrelated to Ukrainian events and dedicated to specific historical dates (like 25 March) have featured numerous Ukrainian flags.
Some activists have uncritically emulated the revolutionary Ukrainian demonstrations. For instance, last year “Young Front” publicly displayed a banner praising Ukrainian nationalist fighters, among them Roman Shukhevych, despite, however, his active participation in Nazi atrocities in Belarus in WWII. Resorting to such dubious figures was akin to the opposition shooting itself in the foot in the eyes of the public.
the Ukrainian tragedy has influenced Belarusian society by making it even more cautious in its attitudes towards possible political changes Read more
The Chairman of the Belarusian People's Front Party (PBNF) Alyaksei Yanukevich finally reacted to this politically suicidal behaviour before this year's Freedom Day (25 March). He asked the activists to not bring the portraits of Ukrainian nationalists and banners like “Death to Russian Occupiers!” Yanukevich also emphasised the importance of having more Belarusian than Ukrainian flags at Belarusian rallies. Correct as his point may be, unfortunately, the political damage had already been done.
After all, the Ukrainian tragedy has influenced Belarusian society by making it even more cautious in its attitudes towards possible political changes and even more sensitive to any allusions and parallels with Ukraine. Even before the conflict broke out in Eastern Ukraine, 78% of respondents told the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Research that a better future was “not worth bloodshed”. Seventy percent said they did not want a Ukrainian-style revolution. The pervasiveness of this attitude only grows stronger as time goes on.
Fake as Mainstream
Of course, Belarus is not immune to Ukrainian influence. Much of this political influence has a rather destructive character as they lead to the growth of extremist groups of both pro- and anti-Russian inclinations, neither of which are much engaged in the fight for democracy. A case in point is the participation of well-known Russian neo-Nazis from Belarus – like Sergei Korotkikh – in the war in the Donbas.
Many activists of all political stripes and colours are also trying to import ideas to push their positions in the confrontation between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements into Belarus. Two remarkable media stories stand out in particular. Both involve ludicrous accusations and both were reported by authoritative individuals or organisations and turned out to be blatantly false, though no one admitted their guilt.
The first story, from last September, regards wild Belarusian nationalists allegedly brutalising a small child for his wearing Saint George's ribbon – a sign widely abused today by Russian official propaganda. Tut.by, Belarus's largest internet portal ran the story. This fabricated bit of news, however, has never been followed-up and no complaint has been filed with the police by the mother of this unknown child.
The second story was about an alleged incident where a girl in the centre of Minsk had her hair violently cut off by Russian tourists last April. A well-known activist Andrei Kim promoted this story, despite the fact that there has been absolutely zero confirmation of the events described.
Despite the general tranquillity of Belarusian society, proof of which can be found in nearly every successive sociological study, it could become impossible to avoid some violence spilling over from a neighbouring country.
The government will respond by resorting to even harsher measures should anything happen in Belarus. The consequences could be disastrous. A similar situation in the 1990s contributed a great deal to the transformation of another post-Soviet country, Uzbekistan, into a brutal regime. Tashkent then fenced off the war in Tajikistan by persecuting every member of the opposition inside Uzbekistan, cutting ties to neighbouring countries and building up a huge repressive apparatus.
Belarus, for its part, will never endure this level of repression and isolation. Yet the clampdown on the opposition and every public activity after some kind of provocation – which might not even be linked to the opposition – is a likely future possible scenario.
Belarus-China Relations: More Hype than Substance?
On 10-12 May, Chinese president Xi Jinping capped off his Eurasia trip with a visit to Minsk. As during his prior stops in Kazakhstan and Russia, the Chinese leader was sizing up the opportunities, as well as the risks, of deepening ties with countries in the Eurasian Economic Union.
Over the past two decades, Belarus has achieved a high level of confidence in its political relations with China, mainly through international support for China's policies. Squeezed between the EU and Russia, Belarus has sought to strengthen ties with a third power to gain greater independence in its foreign relations. However, economically speaking, Belarus has little to offer to China other than potash fertilisers.
A "Historic" Visit to Belarus
When Xi's presidential plane landed in Minsk, the Belarusian media was quick to call the visit “historic,” marking a new epoch in Belarus-China relations. No high-level Chinese leader has visited Belarus since 2001. Needless to say, President Lukashenka personally greeted and saw off President Xi at the airport.
The countries signed a number of agreements, which include Chinese investment in Belarusian railroads, industrial enterprises, and Big Stone, a Belarusian-Chinese industrial park. The Chinese leader also suggested that Belarus participates in China’s New Silk Road, an ambitious project to upgrade the transport and communications infrastructure connecting China to Europe.
Among the usual diplomatic niceties about friendship and cooperation, Xi commended the important role Lukashenka has played in working toward peace in Ukraine, “which was highly praised by the international community."
Of course, Xi was not in Minsk simply to compliment to Lukashenka.
Aliaksandr Filipaŭ, a former Asia analyst at the Presidential Analytical Centre in Minsk, told Belarus Digest that Xi Jinping had a few hidden items on his agenda.
First and foremost, he was examining how trade integration was proceeding under the Eurasian Economic Union between Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus, and whether China stands to gain or lose from it.
Xi also wanted to assess whether the economic downturn in Belarus might harm the projects that China has financed through export credits. Not least, Xi was eager to secure long-term contracts at cheap prices for Belarusian potash fertiliser, a critical input for China's large farm sector. China is the world's top consumer of agrochemicals and potash fertilizer. China is even exploring the possibility of acquiring Belaruskali, Belarus's potash extraction and export giant.
From Minsk's perspective, Xi’s visit afforded a unique opportunity to show that Belarus can successfully pursue a "multi-vector" foreign policy, and that it has the stature to host world leaders. In particular, Lukashenka seeks to demonstrate to Belarus's neighbouring powers, Russia and the EU, that his country can increase its room for diplomatic manoeuvre. All the while, the government prevented the Belarusian media from publishing any critical analysis of China's commercial contracts and interests in Belarus.
High Politics and Poor Business
Despite a long history of mutual visits, it was only after 2006 that China became a foreign policy priority for Belarus. At the time, Russia announced its plans to significantly raise the price of oil and gas exports to Belarus. China was fast becoming a global superpower and an alternative partner to the West, making it the most suitable candidate to balance Russia's influence.
China was reluctant to engage Belarus economically because of the country's Soviet-style management culture and lack of a market economy Read more
To draw the Asian power’s attention, Belarus actively supported the One China policy, as well as other Chinese policies, in the international arena. China returned the favour by condemning interference in Belarus’ internal affairs, in the face of Western critics of Lukashenka’s undemocratic politics.
Another goal of cooperating with China, to receive ample investments and cheap loans, proved far more difficult to achieve. Adhering to a pragmatic foreign policy, China felt it was enough to offer political support to Belarus. Chinese diplomats apparently told their western colleagues in the mid-2000s that they were reluctant to engage Belarus economically because of the country's Soviet-style management culture and lack of a market economy. To this day, Chinese FDI in Belarus remain very low, a sober reflection of China's lukewarm attitude.
Belarusian media like to report huge figures for Chinese loans, and often misconstrue them as "investments." The reports never mention that most of these deals originate with the Export-Import Bank of China, which offers export financing for Chinese goods and services. Under the terms of such loans, the general share of Chinese equipment, works and services is to be no less than 50% of the value of project financing. Such projects may modernise Belarusian industry, but they raise many questions in terms of economic expediency.
For a long time, Belarusian official propaganda has exaggerated Belarus’ importance for China, referring to Belarusian-Chinese relations as a "strategic partnership," the highest level of relations in the hierarchy of Chinese foreign policy. However, the Chinese themselves agreed to this formula only in 2013. According to a 2007 cable leaked out of the US Embassy in Minsk, Chinese Deputy Ambassador Jiang Xiaoyang described Belarus-China relations as having “more hype than substance."
The false image of cooperation largely targets a domestic audience, as well as constituting a veiled threat to Russia that Belarus is capable of establishing alternative alliances.
Does Belarus Have Anything to Offer China?
The problem for Belarus in its relationship with China is that it cannot offer any significant projects for investment. Lukashenka has promoted his country as a gateway to both the Eurasian Economic Union and the EU, but this rhetoric lacks practical meaning. China established strategic partnerships with the EU and Russia long before Belarus and has external trade turnover of around $500 billion with EU and $90 billion with Russia, but only $4 billion with Belarus.
But Chinese companies remain reluctant to invest in Belarus because of its poor business environment and Soviet-style management culture, and the actual level of Chinese FDI in Belarus remains extremely low.
Although the Belarusian media has reported billions of dollars worth of contracts, the reports fail to mention that China only offers loans and investments that are tied to procurement of goods and services from China.
According to Filipaŭ, Belarus currently has nothing to offer China but potash. Conversely, the New Silk Road, which Xi has offered Belarus to join, hardly concerns Belarus at all. It primarily targets the development of China's western regions, and its economic feasibility remains in doubt.
The Big Stone Industrial Park, the largest and most promising joint initiative, risks faltering due to red tape and poor management. Technologically, Belarus lags decades behind China. There may be room to cooperate on military technology, but both countries receive much of this technology from Russia already.
Belarus needs China's help across the board – diplomacy, capital, and technology. China is beginning to oblige, but will move forward with caution. In the meantime, a niche area for bilateral cooperation is in information technologies that facilitate government control. As its recent actions show, Minsk is prone to control and censor the Internet. More likely than not, China, a fellow authoritarian regime, will be happy to share its ample experiences in digital repression.