Will Belarus Last for Long?
The Crimean crisis stirred up a number of comments on the probability of Russian annexation of Belarus.
The topic is not completely new. Since the 1990s, fears of Russia taking over Belarus – under pretext of integration process – were one of main issues for national politics.
Later, the public's mood calmed down a bit as Lukashenka made clear that he did not intend to give away anything despite the authorities' integration declarations.
The survival of the Belarusian state today does not seem to be any more endangered than any other moment over the past two decades. Independent Belarus always suffered from a bad reputation and was expected to disappear from the face of the earth for years.
Virtual Russian Annexation
Belarus appeared to be a complete unknown, and an exotic place ,for many outsiders to believe in its permanence. The director of Nasha Niva weekly Andrei Dynko likes to recall how historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, now secretary of the Académie Française, proposed in early 1990s to remove the then newly independent Belarus from the political world map – simply because such a state made no sense to her. The Academy itself discussed which gender to designate to Belarus in French.
Belarusian analysts also doubted the future of their country. Well-known political scientist Vyachaslau Paznyak in his 1998 article Belarus: In Search of a Secure Identity pronounced:
More than any other of the former Soviet republics, Belarus was unprepared for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and remains uncertain about its status as an independent country and about its national identity.
Belarus did not count on Western policies toward post-Soviet nations in early 1990s. The only major Western leader who ever visited the country was Bill Clinton, who came to Minsk for seven hours in 1994 – as a reward for Minsk's agreement not to maintain any claims on its Soviet nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, the president and executive director of Freedom House Adrian Karatnycky in his 1994 article ”Another Chance for NATO” in the National Review argued that “Russia has virtually annexed Belarus by integrating the republic's economy and military into its own.”
After the newly elected president Lukashenka launched a series of integration initiatives with Russia, it led to a new bout of negative perceptions of Belarus. Alexander Vondra, then deputy foreign minister, and later foreign minister and defence minister of the Czech Republic, argued in 1995 that, ”Already Belarus has not succeeded as an independent state. … Belarus is a model of reintegration and of an increase in Russian influence in the Western direction at the smallest cost.”
As Edward Lucas of The Economist commented later on,
The idea that Belarusian statehood might be a temporary phenomenon gained ground. […] it seemed inevitable to many that Mr. Lukashenko’s strongly pro-Russian, pan-Slavic approach would end with the country becoming part of a new Kremlin-led confederation that in the future might include other pro-Russian anomalies such as Transdniestria […] or the two separatist, Russian-backed enclaves in Georgia.
Lucas included these ideas into his list of what the West got wrong about Belarus.
Dissenting opinions about Belarus as a political reality that would stick around remained almost unheard of until 2002-2003. Nevertheless, Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard insisted that,
Although Moscow managed to retain a politically dominant position in the formally newly independent but highly Russified Belarus, it was far from certain that the nationalist contagion would not eventually also gain the upper hand there as well.
The experienced scholar and politician knew that the nationalism in Belarus might be simply misunderstood and it already emerged as being entrenched in some kind of specific state-focused form, unlike the nationalist movements in neighbouring countries with their focus on ethnicity and language.
Meanwhile, even a nationalistic Russian politician such as Alexei Pushkov at the end of 1998 warned in a publication of the Russian foreign ministry that:
As far as Belarus is concerned, we shall develop the foundations of the existing union. It does not matter whether it is declaratory, still it is better than nothing. To unite? The Belarusian elite doesn't want to unite. Why would it be willing to lose the authority that it possesses? It will be drowned out in the Russian elite, it will be like a kind of Russian province – something like the Maritime Province. The elite will not give away their power. […] Nobody ever gives away their power.
Belarus as Cambodia under Pol Pot
By the early 2000s the Belarusian regime became integrated into the global narrative of 'rogue' nations. First, Michael Kozak, the US ambassador to Belarus, described Belarus in an opposition newspaper in 2001 as 'the Cuba of Europe.' More odd speculations were yet to come.
In November 2002, the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank linked to the Bush administration, hosted a conference entitled, “Axis of Evil: Belarus-The Missing Link”. Radek Sikorski insisted at the event that, “the message from this conference with Lukashenka is: 'President Lukashenka, be careful, because if your buddy in Baghdad gets thrown out, we will find the evidence of what you've been up to with him.” Nothing substantial, however, has yet to been found.
Meanwhile, US senator John McCain has proclaimed, that “Thanks to Lukashenka's leadership, Belarus now joins a group of nations, including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that are both isolated in the modern community of nations and face a newfound American commitment to change the way they do business or go out of business.”
To put Belarus alongside, say, Iraq became a handful of issues that are considered completely ordinary even in scholarly quarters, seems a bit extreme. Robert Rotberg did precisely this in his 2003 Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators. “There is a special category of weak state: the seemingly strong one, always an autocracy, which rigidly controls dissent and is secure but at the same time provides very few political goods.” Among them he specifically named North Korea, “Cambodia under Pol Pot,” Belarus, Iraq, and – with some doubts – Libya.
Doomsday Scenarios Replace Sound Debate
Sound analysis of the situation surrounding Belarus remains a rare commodity in western and western-addressed discourse on Belarus and its regime. All respectable western monographs on Belarusian politics can be easily placed on one bookshelf. Gloomy forecasts, comparisons blown out of proportion and colourful rhetoric prevail. Discussions over Belarus' fate after the developments in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine exhibit much of the same pattern.
Ukrainian analogies dominate today's discussions and usually are followed by some grim predictions about an approaching doomsday for Belarus. The lending of Ukrainian concepts does not, in fact, make much sense because of the diametrically different political, economic and cultural developments that have occured in Ukraine since 1991. Many analysts miss the completely incomparable strategic calculations involved in Belarus-Russian and Ukraine-Russian relations.
Belarusian statehood is stable despite the creeping degradation of some state and social institutions. Broad consensus support the value of Belarusian state. The nation displays no geographical cleavages comparable to those found in Ukraine, and there far fewer ethnic Russians – only 8.26% (according to a 2009 census, a number which is decreasing) – living dispersed amongst Belarusians and feeling rather secure as on the absence of any hostility towards them.
The state apparatus in recent years has been informally reshuffled to ensure its loyalty to Belarusian statehood. Although the government articulates Russian-friendly rhetoric, everyone who goes too far with it gets punished.
Economically, the current modus vivendi with Russia, despite its regular trade wars, enables Minsk to monetise its friendship with Moscow and compensate for economic failures elsewhere. Russia, on the other hand, is aware that undermining Belarusian statehood comes with serious risks and does not offer any particularly grand prizes.
The Kremlin is striving to acquire profitable Belarusian factories through having them privatised by Russian oligarchs. Yet they do not seem to be interested in annexing thousands of square kilometres – land which is, in any event, already ruled by the government friendly to Russia.
Protests in Ukraine, Investment from Iran, Presidency in the CIS – Belarus State TV Digest
Over the last two weeks Belarusian state Channel 1 has regularly covered the protests taking place in the eastern regions of Ukraine. It also commented upon the economic repercussions of the crisis for ordinary Ukrainians and an increase in living costs.
Lukashenka visited a few state enterprises. In one of them he met with happy workers who thanked him for their favourable workplace conditions. At another company, things took a different turn and he reprimanded the management.
Minsk will be taking over the presidency of the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Kyiv rejected to chair the organisation.
The Belarusian Leader Visits a Well-managed State Company. State TV covered Lukashenka’s visit to several state enterprises, including one that is famous ‘Sluck belts’. In its nearly 20 minutes of coverage, state TV showed how the factory is the inheritor of the cultural legacy of Sluck belts which were famous throughout Europe. The head of state expressed his enthusiasm and support for the revival of manufacturing these traditional belts and other similar initiatives.
A state TV reporter also went into great detail explaining the technology of how the belts are produced. Later, the head of state met with some women working in the factory. They were thankful for having such good working conditions, and also for the prevailing peace in the country.
The report's narrator emphasised that Lukashenka has changed his plans at the last minute and decided to visit also another company. On his way there, he spoke with people who were gathered on the street. They asked him for increased wages. The general atmosphere was from this segment appeared to be generally positive, and the Belarusian leader was in his element, joking with the crowd.
And Reprimands for Bad Management. The head of state visited another state enterprise, this time a meat-processing plant. From the outset, the footage on state TV showed a dirty and neglected enterprise. According to the narrating reporter, the absence of strong leadership was the reason for the plant's desperate appearance. Lukashenka immediately dismissed the director of the enterprise and ordered to improve things by 1 September. The managers will be held legal responsible for the negligence of the enterprise, the report concluded.
Belarus Encourages More Investment from Iran. Lukashenka met with Ali Larijani, the chairman of the Iranian parliament. The report emphasised that both countries had maintained close economic ties and their friendly relations. The coverage notes that Iranian companies have invested over $700m in Belarus.
In the past the countries planned to carry out a joint oil and gas production project as well as a facility for processing Iranian diamonds. However, in 2013 the USA and EU imposed tough sanctions against Iran, and Minsk and Tehran were forced to cease their work these projects as a result.
The Belarusian leader was actively trying to persuade Ali Larijani that investing in Belarus would bring Iran significant financial gains. Tehran could demonstrate to everyone that the country ‘exists, but also will persist for a long time, and to make it worse for our enemy, it will be flourishing,’ he said.
Lukashenka Praised the State's Official Trade Unions. Lukashenka met with the head of the pro-government (state-run) trade unions, Leanid Kozik. They discussed the level of preparedness of their sanatoriums for their potential foreign and Belarusian guests who will soon be arriving to watch the Ice Hockey World championship. Lukashenka commented that these places would also serve the Belarusian public once the championship is over.
Kozik also reported on the state of the nation's trade unions and commented that the situation remained ‘normal and there is nothing to be worried about.’ Albeit there being 23,000 organisations associated with the official trade unions, he confirmed that he was well aware of what people were saying and what they wanted.
Lukashenka also thanked the trade unions for their ‘calm, quiet and unobtrusive work organising the local elections.’ A number of trade unions’ activists not only sat in on the electoral commissions throughout the country, but also were elected to the local government bodies.
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation Discusses Regional and International Security. One of the main topics remained Syria and Ukraine. The coverage relayed that the CSTO urges Kyiv to curb the activity of radicals and disarm illegal military units. The CTSO believes that the situation in Ukraine should be settled in compliance with its Constitution.
Kyiv Should Deal with Its Problems on its Own. Nikolay Bardiuzha, general secretary of the CSTO, said that international organisations, such as his own and the EU, should not interfere in the internal affairs of Ukraine. ‘The very people of Ukraine themselves should be the ones to work out a position towards for settlement of their problems,’ Bardiuzha emphasised.
Minsk to Take Over Presiding CIS after Kyiv's Rejection. The coverage points out that Belarus ‘was always an active participant in [many] integration processes and advocated for the preservation of Commonwealth of Independent States.’ And while Minsk has quickly reacted, it has done so 'with understanding' with regards to Kyiv's decision. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, thanked their ‘Belarusian partners’ for their decision.
While presiding over the organisation, Minsk wants to focus on security issues. So far, state TV reports, the members of the CIS having been arguing for the immediate stabilisation of the situation in Ukraine and continuation of a multilateral dialogue.
‘Conflict in Ukraine Concerns the International Community’. The opponents of the new authorities in Kyiv continue their protests in a few Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk. The protesters reject the legitimacy of the authorities in Kyiv. According to a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative, the extremist ‘Right Sector’ has also entered Ukraine's eastern regions. That information, however, remains unconfirmed – the report notes.
Members of the Ukrainian Parliament argued over the official status of Russian language. The Communists advocated for elevating its status to that of a second state language, whereas the nationalists from Svaboda disagreed with their proposal. ‘The political and social crisis in Ukraine seriously concerns the world community,’ the reporting journalist concludes, while not delving into more details.
Costs of the Political Crisis. Beginning 1 April Ukraine will pay up to 80% more for gas. Thus, Kyiv is planning to negotiate its current contract with Gazprom. The report also discusses the ongoing protests in Ukraine's eastern regions. However, the tone of the protesters has softened, they note. An atmosphere of unease also remains in the western regions of Ukraine. In Lviv, protesters seized the office building of the general prosecutor and demanded his dismissal.
Kyiv: Massive Military Costs and No Perspective for NATO Membership. Despite its economic difficulties, the Ukrainian authorities will not cut back on its military expenses. Kyiv has planned eight joint military drills with NATO. The coverage also made mention of a statement by Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs, that NATO is not even considering Ukraine's membership in the military alliance.
Meanwhile, Brussels is reviewing possibly imposing further sanctions against Moscow for its annexation of Crimea.
Recently the Russian Ministry of Defence has opened up its archives and published on its web site documents on the activity of Ukrainian nationalists in western Ukraine during World War II. The documents show the development of a nationalist movement in the country, but also its relation to the Nazis and its part in repression aimed against peaceful people.
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.