The National Future of Belarus

Last December Vladimir Putin of Russia paid a visit to Aleksandr Lukashenka of Belarus. This prompted local and international media to speculate on whether the visit was to clinch a deal between the two presidents for a (re)unification of Belarus with Russia. Belarusian nationalists bemoaned the prospect while tacitly admitting that they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Although nothing came of the meeting, the issue remains on the agenda.

Aleksandr Lukashenka was democratically elected in 1994, and by 1997 had become the president of what George W. Bush’s administration has branded “ the last dictatorship in Europe.” Given that by 2007 most of the West started calling Vladimir Putin’s state a dictatorship, Belarus might no longer lay claim to this distinction. Of course, the present U.S. administration might be thinking that Russia, being Asiatic, has nothing to do with Europe. However, as concerns Belarus, the brand is well earned. Lukashenka has several political murders attributed to him, has thrown his critics into jail, rigs all elections, has practically eliminated the free press, and has destroyed most independent NGOs. His crack troops have beaten demonstrators under the cover of an “anti-terrorist” act. Internationally, Lukashenka has defied the United States and the European Union, expanded his country’s arms trade, and befriended Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

What are the chances of the Belarusians keeping their nationhood? And would losing it be a bad or a good thing?

To Be or Not to Be a Nation

Belarusian intellectuals have read what nationalism has achieved in other places and are nearly unanimous in their eagerness to put that knowledge to practical use. The Belarusian people, meanwhile, haven’t read anything of the sort, largely because neither Soviet nor post-Soviet schools assigned such reading. As a result, all they can rely on is their personal experience.

It is just this experience that has prompted the majority of Belarusian people to vote Lukashenka into power, repeatedly. Lukashenka’s elections have never been fair. But had they been fair he would have won anyway, which even the Belarusian opposition publicly admitted last year. The early years of transition from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the mid-1990s were not kind to the Belarusian people. In power, the transition pro-democrats were so maladroit that the state nearly stopped delivering its services even as it maintained control of the economy in the Soviet fashion. Lukashenka was then democratically voted into power as the tentative alternative for people without much hope. He surprised even his own team by (a) establishing an effective dictatorship by 1997 and (b) delivering to the people. He made sure that salaries and pensions were paid, that social services functioned, and that health care began edging upward to reach (very mediocre) Soviet levels.

Belarusians have retained tragic memories of World War II, in which 2.2 million Belarusians were killed, and a popular saying even today is “anything but war.” Lukashenka didn’t bring war, and he kept his promise to double the mean salary by 2000. The country’s gross domestic product and salaries have been increasing steadily since.

Thus the Belarusian experience puts Belarusian nationalism in the specific context of a failed transition from the sovok (or the Soviet system) to democracy. The Belarusian people already waived one of their birthrights, to democracy, in exchange for a “good life” a la Lukashenka. What are the chances that they won’t waive their “birthright to nationalism” as well, regardless of the intelligentsia’s brave new nation?

Transition Trouble

Belarus started its transition from sovok together with all the Soviet Union in 1991. As with the rest of Eastern Europe, it was a transition from and not a transition to. Majorities believed that they knew what they wanted their lives not to be but did not know what they wanted their lives to become. Enter the new elites-to-be. From this point on, the course of a country was defined by the outcome of the power struggle within the new elite, with the winner usually the one that displayed the greatest prowess in appealing to the citizenry with populism.

These transitions were not initially driven by popular demands to change from. Throughout the lands of the former Soviet Union, the winning elites pointed the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Georgia toward post-communist democracy, and Belarus, Russia and Central Asian states were directed toward post-communist dictatorship (while countries like Armenia and Moldova still appear undecided). In all these processes of internal political orientation, nationalism played a very ambiguous and very important part. Not only was nationalism the main slogan of the pro-democrats of the Baltic states but also of Putin’s “sovereign democracy” dictatorship. In Belarus, nationalism has worked in turn for democracy and for dictatorship.

The Belarusian pro-democrats of 1991-1994 were ardent nationalists. They started learning Belarusian (for all were literary Russian speakers) and started teaching it to the people (who hitherto spoke – and still speak – a Russian dialect). Lukashenka, who replaced them, re-established Russian as the official language of the country. The language would be the basis for unification with Russia, which was his proclaimed political goal. Although the people didn’t at the time react to this policy, the opposition elite did, branding him a traitor to the nation. Although they agreed with this label, the people did nothing.

Then in 2003, Lukashenka made one of his notorious about-turns: he embraced Belarusian nationalism. The nationalist intelligentsia didn’t believe him, but did nothing. There wasn’t much to do. After delivering economically, Lukashenka pulled the nationalist rug from under the Belarusian opposition. In the eyes of the people, there wasn’t much left that he could be accused of. There were the political murders, of course, of rivals and journalists. But not surprisingly the official investigations didn’t pin these murders on Lukashenka. And the people, having endured centuries of decimation, remained silent.

More than that: after successfully concluding hard bargains with the Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom in the winters of 2006 and 2007, Lukashenka emerged as something of a national hero even to the opposition intelligentsia (albeit they would never admit it in public). The Russians were threatening Belarusians with a winter without heating – and Lukashenka rode along and saved them. Against the backdrop of the Belarusian intelligentsia, which has displayed a fixation on nationalism (and to a lesser scale on democracy), the Belarusian people have behaved like realists. They know their country is relatively weak in comparison to Russia and other great powers and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

Response from East and West

Should Russia decide to reswallow Belarus, the West has been clear: it will provide no help to the Belarusian opposition. The West has tried to help democracy and failed.

The United States has been staunchly backing Belarusian democratization since 1989, with willful disregard for the changes of the last two decades. The State Department (together with the European Union) underwrote opposition protests after the rigged presidential election of 2001, hoping that these would topple Lukashenka. But the organized opposition failed to oppose. Instead, it ran away, leaving a handful of betrayed youths to face Lukashenka’s riot police.

The same scenario replayed itself in 2006, only this time the EU was conspicuously absent from the scene. The State Department nevertheless continued unwaveringly to underwrite opposition protests after the rigged presidential election, doubtless imagining that Minsk would follow Kiev in another “color revolution.” This time, the Belarusian opposition understood that such a color revolution was impossible but still was reluctant to refuse the funding. When the time came for the traditional protest in the main square, the organized opposition performed within what turned out to be the accepted limits of protest, and the regime answered with a limited amount of violence. Nobody was killed, which was the only good outcome. A new set of youths, not the ones whom the opposition betrayed in 2001, maintained an improvised protest for a time, which the regime tolerated for a few days before sending the riot troops for a final crackdown. The Belarusian people personally sympathized with these brave youngsters but politically remained silent and did nothing to support them.

Since then the West’s position hasn’t much changed . True, the EU got so scared when Lukashenka, pressuring Russia, turned off the Russia–EU gas pipeline for a while, that they started making some small clumsy overtures to him, beginning in 2007. Lukashenka took his time to react. Finally, at the beginning of this year, he permitted an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe office in Minsk and released most of his political prisoners. The Belarusian pro-democrats felt betrayed. The hardball U.S. position had failed to move Lukashenka while the EU’s softball position achieved some small results: last March an agreement was signed to establish an EU Delegation in Minsk. Recognizing the lack of revolutionary potential in Belarus, the United States has reverted to human rights issues. Unlike in the 1980s – and in the aftermath of Kosovo and Iraq – human rights are no longer a mobilizing tool, either for Belarusians or for the international community.

The message from the East, meanwhile, has been ambiguous. Russia is currently divided between nostalgic imperialism and realism. The nostalgic imperialists want to force Belarus back where they think it rightly belongs: for them it’s simply White Russia. Realists in Russia understand that a politically independent, but economically and culturally dependent Belarus is a better bargain: it wouldn’t burden the centralist Putin administration system with its problems, there will be no nationalist resistance, and the West will be calm. However, Russian realism is known to be rather idiosyncratic. Therefore all Russian vagaries are being watched closely not only from the political and intellectual capital of Minsk, but from the whole country.

Looking Within

Having looked at the mighty powers East and West, the Belarusian people are now considering the other important player in this game: their own regime. And they have concluded that the present regime no longer really needs or wants unification with Russia. Andrey Lyakhoivich, a leading Minsk-based political analyst, wrote recently in a Slovak journal of foreign policy: “Independence is in [the material interest of Lukashenka and his men]. They have the monopoly of control over the Belarusian market.” So, direct state ownership is no longer a Soviet-era requirement. In the Belarusian transition, the regime can derive enough benefits from simply controlling a market that is gradually adopting private ownership as its basis. Which means that the regime should naturally tend toward sovereignty: if the current Belarusian leaders lose their state, it shall be the Russian and not the Belarusian bureaucratic elite that gets all these benefits.

As a result, the Belarusian people will not likely trade their birthright of nationalism for the good life. They believe they have already traded democracy for this good life. To renounce nationalism and sovereignty and unite with Russia would probably result in a worse life, they would reason. Moreover, it would be bad in the eyes of the West, the realistic part of the Putin regime, and for their president’s men. Which means that, besides being undesirable, the reunification of Russia and Belarus is unlikely.

Jan Grinberg is the pen name of an East European analyst who has researched developments in the region for the last two decades. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).