Belarus Celebrates Independence Day Amid Stress of Integration Talks With Russia

(Source: RT)

On July 3, Belarus celebrated its Independence Day. Belarus is the only post-Soviet country whose major national holiday is an anniversary of the liberation of its capital city from Nazi German invaders (July 3, 1944). The Independence Days of other post-Soviet states tend to either commemorate the adoption of independence declarations in anticipation of the Soviet Union’s breakup (Ukraine, Central Asian republics, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) or earlier acquisitions of statehood prior to the formation of the USSR (Baltic States and Georgia).

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered a 23-minute speech in conjunction with the celebration this year (Belta, July 3). Following the account of casualties (3 million deaths) and damage (more than 200 towns thoroughly destroyed; and out of 9,000 destroyed villages, 600 were burned together with their inhabitants), Lukashenka called upon Belarusians to stand together in the face of reemerging threats. He then criticized the multiple critics of the so-called “deferment law.”

Adopted by the Belarusian House of Representatives (lower chamber of parliament) on May 28, with 85 lawmakers voting in favor and 9 against, the respective bill established the possibility of only one deferment from the universal draft—for males aged 18 to 27, in conjunction with obtaining higher education. Thus, those attending professional schools (analogous to community colleges) but then continuing their education at a four-year college or a university will have to serve following graduation from a professional school. Those attending colleges will have to serve before entering graduate school (, June 28). Most critics of this bill (not yet signed by the president into law) suggest that it goes against the government’s pledge to make Belarus an information-technology (IT) country since it will force talented youths to interrupt their education during their formative years. Opponents predict that, if adopted, the deferment law will increase the number of youths obtaining higher education abroad and then staying there for good or at least until turning 27 (, July 5). For those Belarusians without higher education, the length of mandatory military service is 18 months; for those with a higher education, it is 12 months; and for those graduating from colleges that provide military training (alongside a civilian major)—6 months (, accessed July 6).

Lukashenka snubbed the bill’s critics in his speech by, as usual, asserting the expediency of the middle ground between two equally unacceptable extreme alternatives. One may refrain from defending the country, suggested Lukashenka, by either asking the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to defend Belarus or by joining brotherly Russia. As neither alternative is to our liking, Belarusians ought to defend their country themselves, he posited (, July 4). While this explanation of the much-criticized bill may not seem particularly persuasive, it nonetheless sounds like a veiled rationale for Belarus’s neutrality in the face of continued “integration” pressure from Russia. Lukashenka is next scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on July 18, in St. Petersburg. And the prospects of reaching a mutually acceptable solution to bilateral problems (e.g., compensation for the upcoming price hike on Russian oil, desired by Belarus; and establishing de facto prerogatives of a unified state, like a single currency, desired by Russia) do not look promising.

This year’s celebration of July 3 in Minsk was marred by a deadly explosion. At the start of the usual evening fireworks extravaganza, a loud bang was accompanied by the sound of glass breaking. Plumes of grayish smoke were seen billowing from the site of the explosion, mixing with the fireworks that continued to light up the night sky. At least ten people were injured by glass shards. A 64-year-old woman died at the scene from a ruptured carotid artery, despite prompt medical assistance. The authorities initiated a criminal case (RT, July 3). It subsequently turned out that flawed fireworks had allegedly been supplied by the Russian company Pirro-Ross, which has been selling its products to Belarus’s Ministry of Defense since 2009 (OfficeLife, July 4).

In such a way, a major uncertainty regarding Belarusian-Russian integration prospects and an outright tragedy overshadowed this year’s celebration of Independence Day in Minsk.