On May 1, a Holocaust Remembrance event at the US Department of State focused on the history of the Minsk Ghetto, one of the largest in Nazi-occupied Europe. Most of its 100,000 prisoners were slaughtered when the ghetto was liquidated, including 22,000 Jews transported there from Germany and Austria. Thirteen people survived after they concealed themselves in the hidden basement of a residence on Sukhaya Street. They were only able to leave their refuge on July 3, 1944, when Minsk was liberated. In the meantime, some others managed to flee and join Belarusian partisans. One of the latter was Savely Kaplinski, who immigrated to the United States in 1992. Now 89 years old, he was honored during last week’s event at the State Department. Following the airing of the Belarusian documentary Chronicles of the Minsk Ghetto, Kaplinski responded to questions from the audience, consisting of more than 100 US officials, diplomats, and representatives of various Jewish organizations. The State Department and the Belarusian embassy to Washington organized this event jointly, with US and Belarusian national flags exhibited next to each other, not a unique but heretofore rare occurrence, particularly at public gatherings. Along with acting US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Oleg Kravchenko and Charge D’Affairs Pavel Shidlovsky greeted the audience (Naviny, May 2).
On behalf of his government, Kravchenko expressed condolences in conjunction with the recent act of domestic terrorism at a San Diego synagogue. He then proceeded to talk about the long history of ties between Jews and ethnic Belarusians on Belarusian soil, dating back to the imposition of the Pale of Settlement in the Russian empire. He underscored that, compared with neighboring territories, the scale of the Belarusian collaborationist movement during the war was minuscule. As a result, many, if not most, non-Germans who aided Nazis in exterminating Jews were imported from other former Soviet republics. (This author attended the May 1 event at the State Department.)
The Holocaust Remembrance ceremony was just one event in Deputy Minister Kravchenko’s busy four-day schedule in Washington. Additionally, he met with Fiona Hill, the special assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council; and he spoke with members of Washington’s analytical community. At State, Kravchenko met Michael Kozak, a former US ambassador to Belarus (Mfa.gov.by, May 3). Based on a detailed 2001 article in The Guardian, tellingly titled “Belarussian Foils Dictator-Buster… For Now: Tested US foreign Election Strategy Fails Against Lukashenko,” one can appreciate the true scale of change in Washington’s Belarus policy over the past two decades. During Ambassador Kozak’s tenure, that policy revolved around vigorous support and generous aid to those fighting Belarus’s political regime, headed by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka since 1994 (The Guardian, September 14, 2001). Whereas today, Washington supports this same regime’s quest for retaining and strengthening Belarusian statehood (see EDM, October 30, 2018; November 8, 2018).
To be sure, the Belarusian-American rapprochement is far from complete; there is plenty of room for “glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty” interpretations. Those in favor of the former would claim that the current level of bilateral contacts and their intensity have no precedent in recent history. Those embracing the latter would reply that the two countries have not even fully restored the status of their diplomatic ties yet, which were demoted in March 2008, when their ambassadors were “recalled for consultations.”
The same dichotomy applies to many other events, including swift replacement, last week (April 30), of Mikhail Babich as Russia’s ambassador to Minsk (see EDM, May 1). Babich only served eight months in the position, but importantly he enjoyed the additional status of President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for the development of economic ties with Belarus. Some underscore the apparent increased leverage of Minsk (see EDM, April 30), if only because recalling a Russian ambassador for the officially articulated reason that Babich routinely confused Belarus with a federal district of Russia (see EDM, April 26) is an event without precedent. The majority of commentators, however, have effectively preferred the glass-half-empty option. Their reasoning is that President Lukashenka may have promised some crucial integration-related concession in return for Moscow’s compliance with Minsk’s request to replace the ambassador (Svaboda.org, April 30). Alternatively, instead of a bad cop, i.e., Babich, Russia dispatched a good one, Dmitry Mezentsev; but Russia’s overarching goal of subjugating Belarus remains intact (Naviny, May 2). The “first lesson from this story,” observes Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by, “is that one should take less seriously those maintaining the appearance of being privy to insider knowledge about the expansionist plans of the Kremlin. After all, Babich was described as someone with a personal mandate from Putin to bend the Belarusian authorities across the knee, a kind of Governor General [sic] that would boost the power of the Russian World in Belarus and establish grounds for the unification” (Tut.by, May 1).
In that regard, it is worth recalling that the same interpretation dichotomy applied to a recent rumor that Lukashenka had been offered the prime minister post in a would-be government of the Russia-Belarus Union State, with Putin as its president. The source of this rumor was the well-known Russian liberal political commentator Nikolay Svanidze (YouTube, April 26). The aforementioned rumor was covered by the media intensely, but only up to a point—when the news of Babich’s replacement eclipsed it. In this case, however, the glass-half-full option quickly came to dominate. “Better to be first in Gaul than second in Rome,” opined Alexander Klaskovsky, alluding to Caesar’s pronouncement, thus suggesting that it would be extremely unlikely that Lukashenka would agree to the Kremlin’s offer (Naviny, April 29). On the very same day that Svanidze shared this rumor, Andrei Vtyurin, the deputy chair of Belarus’s Security Council and former boss of Lukashenka’s security detail, was arrested. Some commentators, therefore, tried to connect these two pieces of news into an alleged Moscow-orchestrated attempt at a palace coup in Minsk (Belorussky Partisan, April 29). But it ultimately turned out that the Russia-born Vtyurin was caught red-handed receiving a $148,600 bribe from a Russian company (Kgb.by, May 4).
A broken clock is right twice per day. Conspiracy theorists are perhaps less fortunate but may accidentally hit the mark at some point, too. In the meantime, it is generally safest to adhere to glass-half-full evaluations.