Oppressive silence followed the February 7 Russian-Belarusian summit in Sochi, Russia. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka left that North Caucasus resort city without making any public statement. However, it was clear that silence would not last long given the emotional and charismatic personality of the Belarusian leader. It was first punctuated by a rather improbable statement from Belarus’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Krutoi, who suggested Russia’s decision to sell Belarus oil at market prices was what Minsk wanted all along (Belta.by, February 10).
Soon the tone of official Belarusian pronouncements changed. First, Lukashenka stated that, in his conversation with Putin in Sochi, the Belarusian leader touched on the issue of unfriendly publications in the Russian media (Belta.by, February 11). Then, Igor Marzalyuk, the chair of the parliamentary commission on education, culture and science, suggested that the “time has come” for Russia to return the pieces from museums, archives and institutes that were hastily taken away from Belarus when the German army was approaching Minsk back in the summer of 1941. Just from the National Art Museum, 2,700 exhibits were evacuated to the Soviet interior, of which only 500 have been returned (Tut.by, February 11). Somehow, this was not deemed an issue for more than 78 years, and now it suddenly has become one.
Then, information surfaced that Minsk is planning to introduce changes to Belarus’s coat of arms. As the Russian popular online news portal Lenta.ru put it, “in the coat of arms of Belorussia [sic], Russia will be replaced by Europe” (Lenta.ru, February 13). To wit, there is a globe in the center of the Belarusian national emblem. The way it is positioned in the current version, northern Eurasia (i.e., the former Soviet Union) faces the observer; whereas in the new version, the globe will be shifted counterclockwise so Europe will show up in its entirety and only part of northern Eurasia will remain visible.
Finally bilateral tensions exploded into the open on February 14, during Lukashenka’s improvised speech at the Svetlogorsk Bleached Pulp Mill, in Gomel Oblast (YouTube, February 14). “Why are you willing to buy oil elsewhere?” Putin reportedly asked Lukashenka in Sochi. “So as not to kneel in front of you every year, on December 31, as it approaches midnight,” Lukashenka quoted himself as responding. In his speech, the Belarusian president also threatened that, should the previously agreed-upon two million tons of crude oil fail to reach Belarusian refineries in February, Minsk will start appropriating oil from the Druzhba pipeline, which carries petroleum supplies earmarked for European customers. He also asserted that Russia’s so-called oil tax maneuver was undertaken with the express goal of depriving Belarus of revenues from export duties and accused Moscow of explicit designs to replace “integration by incorporation.” He stated that during the previous week’s Sochi negotiations, he asked Putin to lower interest rate from 5.23 to 3 percent on the loan to build the nuclear power plant in Astravets and to start its repayment in 2025 instead of 2021. Lukashenka cited Russia’s two-year delay in commissioning the station as motivation for his request. However, Russia’s Ministry of Finance had already rejected the idea in the meantime (Tut.by, February 11).
This crucial confrontation with the Kremlin triggered some unusually candid pronouncements by influential Belarusians. “I do not know who could resist Moscow the way Lukashenka does,” writer Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize laureate, observed. “I do not see [potential] leaders who would be as powerful as he is. This does not mean that I favor Lukashenka, but his interests have matched ours. However sad, this is the case.” In response to the question of whether Belarusians ought to blame Russia for a lack of change in Belarus, Alexievich replied that “this is much like adults blaming their parents for their problems. Yes, they bear some guilt, but you are already an adult and it is high time to steer your own destiny.” And yet, she also claimed that “Belarusian youths are brought up by the Russian Internet […] and there are few among them who can think in national terms” (Svaboda.org, February 10).
An extensive interview with Victor Babariko, the head of Belgazprombank, created even more resonance in the media. Babariko has long been known for his support of genuinely Belarusian initiatives, such as sponsoring the translation of works by Alexievich into Belarusian (she writes in Russian) and publishing a respective five-volume edition (Kyky, June 28, 2018). This time, Babariko expressed his utmost pessimism about Belarus’s prospects. In his opinion, national feelings in Belarus peaked in the early 1990s, when “slightly more than 10 percent voted for the national idea.” Whereas today, “the majority would say ‘Oh, finally!’ if Belarus were to become part of Russia.” As for the benefit of Russian subsidies, Babariko claimed these simply allow the Belarusian economy to “die slower.” That is because Belarus defies the organic experience of world economics wherein ineffective entities go bust. But “can you imagine the bankruptcy of 70 percent of Belarus’s state-run enterprises? I cannot.” He also opined that Belarus’s economy is like a consummate “drug addict who demands ever stronger narcotics to survive.” In reality, however, loans and price discounts do not produce a competitive product, he noted (Naviny.by, February 12, 2020).
Yury Drakakhrust’s exercise in alternative history—i.e., addressing the question of what would have happened if former Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev had never presented his integration ultimatum in December 2018 (see EDM, January 14, 2019)—effectively dovetails with some of Babariko’s musings. On the face of it, the ultimatum—unite with us lest we stop aiding you—triggered the current standoff with Russia. But if the Kremlin had avoided its de facto call for incorporation and simply acted on its intention to reduce aid, the situation would be identical as it is today. This means that, one way or another, Belarus will have to live within its means and become more austere (Svaboda.org, February 12; see EDM, February 13).
As hopeful as Belarus might be to see a light at the end of the tunnel following the preannounced end of Russian aid, neither the events themselves nor those commenting on them in the media have yet to offer any noticeable dose of optimism.