On December 15 last year, a blog appeared in Russia claiming that the Belarusian regime is comatose and sleepwalking to a revolution as it allows the West to undermine it. It was followed five days later by a short documentary film, Military Secrets, which furthered the claim that Belarusians in western Belarus were in the pay of Europe. Both spelled out Russian displeasure with Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime and spoke of the need for Russia to counteract this threat either by replacing Lukashenka with a more pliant pro-Russian leader, or by increasing the Russian presence in Belarus.
Why would a pro-Kremlin blogger, albeit a relatively minor one, and a TV channel have reverted to castigating Lukashenka? Not since the 2010 film The Godfather has Lukashenka faced such Russian ire. This is partly due to Minsk’s unwillingness to rally behind the Kremlin and give support to the escapade in Ukraine and partially because the Belarusian regime appears to be finding some long-forgotten Belarusian identity.
The rise of Belarusian identity?
Belarus has been alarmed by Russia’s adventure in Ukraine, especially its annexation of Crimea under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians. Having experimented at length with different ideologies, Lukashenka has had to reverse years of telling Belarusians they are the first Russian nation. After all, if Belarusians are Russian, as Lukashenka has claimed, then it makes it easier for Russian nationalists to claim that Belarus does not exist.
One such group marched through the Belarusian city of Vitsebsk in early November, calling for the reuniting of all Russian lands. At the same time, other Russian nationalist groups like the Orthodox Brotherhood and the wonderfully-titled Russian Public Movement for the Spiritual Development of the People for the State and Spiritual Revival of Holy Rus’ have become active in Belarus.
There has been political friction too. In November, Russia banned Belarusian meat and dairy products, to chastise Lukashenka for his support of Ukraine and for attempting to undermine Russian sanctions on EU food. The loss of $160 million in five days drastically affected the Belarusian economy and emphasised to Minsk that overreliance on Russia was dangerous. At the same time, events in Ukraine and the impressive mobilisation of Belarusian youth into Russian organisations have alarmed the authorities to such an extent that Minsk is now promoting a distinct Belarusian culture.
Lukashenka would not call this nationalism, which he recently and publicly condemned. However, like so much else in the Shangri-La that is Belarus, rhetoric and reality do not match. Nationalism is a dirty word after the failure of the Belarusian National Front (BNF) in the 1990s. Instead, what is occurring is a conscious promotion of Belarusian culture without explicitly nationalist rhetoric, and a concomitant marginalisation of Russia and Russianness.
As early as November 2013, Lukashenka had begun to look past Russia to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, to offer Belarus a different national-historical narrative. This culminated in the unveiling of a monument to a Lithuanian Grand Duke in July 2014, which Russia had long opposed. Then, in December, Lukashenka moved his ‘grey cardinal’, Andrei Kabyakou, to the position of Prime Minister. Despite his Russian origins, the Kremlin appears to consider Kabyakou less accommodating then his predecessor Mikhail Mayasnikovich.
The Belarusian government has also debated increasing the number of hours of Belarusian language training at schools, at the expense of Russian and English. The language issue is particularly stark, given that Vladimir Putin justified intervention in Ukraine by citing the need to protect ethnic Russians, which for him meant Russian speakers. In a country like Belarus where nearly 95% of the population speaks Russian, and most use it as their first, or only language, this is a worrying turn of events.
This beginning of the creation of a Belarusian identity is so far limited. It also smacks of something else. Lukashenka has been adept at creating ideologies for himself that are empty caskets to which he adds different items depending on his needs. He began with visions of neo-Sovietism and of Belarus as a part of an Eastern Eurasian civilisation, remarking that “Belarusians are just Russians but with the sign of quality”.
This concept of Belarus as a part of a Russian world evolved into a claim that Belarus was on a higher level of civilisation than Moscow and represented the fourth Rome. This in turn evolved into the ‘For Belarus’ ideology, the emptiest casket of all, into which Lukashenka poured a mixture of state centralism and nationalism-lite. It is highly probable that we are now coming full circle as Lukashenka reverts to promoting to a domestic and international audience the concept that Belarus is different from Russia.
It is a cynical and pessimistic view, but Lukashenka has promoted such a notion before when he felt that he could make political capital from it. Since 2013, Belarus’s foreign minister Uladimir Makei has practically been living in Europe, flying between Brussels, Warsaw and Belgrade. Indeed, his deputy Alena Kupchyna appeared to have set up a permanent residency in Brussels for a long time to try and improve the relationship between Belarus and the EU.
Belarus’s relationship with Lithuania has warmed, and the ‘teddy bear incident’ of 2012, when a private Swedish plane dropped soft toys carrying anti-regime messages over the country, was relegated to history as Belarusian envoys even went to Stockholm. The Ukraine crisis has provided Lukashenka with the perfect opportunity to show that he is not the worst bastard in the former Soviet Union. As Russia becomes pariah number one, it is highly likely that Lukashenka is trying to placate European states and distance himself from the erstwhile motherland.
The juggling exhibition continues
The analogy of Lukashenka as a juggler remains apt. He is brilliant at playing off Russia and Europe while doing just enough to keep the stuttering Belarusian economy afloat, to keep ordinary Belarusians relatively appeased, and to maintain his grip on power. With a presidential election coming up this year, he may have guessed that simply by not being cosy with Putin, Europe will turn a blind eye to his electoral fraud and quashing of protest. The release of political activist Ales Byalyatski may have been the first step in this strategy.
It has been suggested that Lukashenka wants to push Russia into backing him more closely for fear that he may slip Moscow’s leash for good. However, I do not buy this idea. Belarus is now nearly totally reliant on Russia not only for oil and gas, but also as an export market, and the a Belarus entirely detached from Russia’s orbit does not seem a realistic prospect inside the Kremlin or anywhere else. Belarus may well look to diversify, but for a state that has been a part of all Russian regional institutions, isolationism looks an idle threat.
Maybe, just maybe, the clown is becoming a nationalist
Gauging the juggler is a difficult task, but I think that the Ukraine conflict has spooked the Lukashenka regime. If you are not with Putin, you are against him, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the former ‘grey cardinals’ of the Kremlin, and the Russian president will not forgive Lukashenka for siding with Ukraine. With the continuing squeeze on the Russian economy under Western sanctions and the falling price of oil and gas, it is possible that an isolated country, considered by many Russians to be six western oblasts of Russia, will become too much of an attractive target, as the Kremlin looks to bolster its public support.
Whether Lukashenka’s newfound (or rather re-established) nationalism remains a pidgin or limited nationalism remains to be seen. I feel that this current incarnation of ‘nationalist Lukashenka’ may actually be relatively real. He has been very protective over his personal fief and has been loath to cede power to Russia before. He has often enticed Russia to support him with promises of privatisation only to renege on the behind-doors deals. Now fearing the hand that feeds him he is likely to protect his cave from this more dangerous friend.
This does not mean however that Minsk will look west. Lukashenka has tried this before, and every time European governments have spoken of human rights he has gone back to Russia. Besides, the Kremlin would not accept a Western-oriented Belarusian regime. Moscow knows that Belarus is beholden to it and will eventually return to its embrace. But, for the first time, it must confront a more assertive Belarus determined to create its own identity.
Having spent the early part of his tenure eradicating any nationalism that was not controlled, Lukashenka has ample avenues to build a Belarusian nationalism he can control. Talk of him undermining his own regime is overblown, as the juggler is adept at maintaining support from diverse societal factions. The clown may, just may, have clothed himself in nationalist garb. It is not yet clear whether these vestments are more than just for show, to be changed when needed, or whether a more nationalist Belarus is here to stay. Without political competitors and fearful of a resurgent Russia, Lukashenka the clown may just become a Belarusian nationalist.