Belarus: Expanding the Scope of the Permissible

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 10

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) with his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka

Minsk continues to drift away from Moscow. Among the most recent indications of this trend was President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s remark about “wars for independence” during his meeting with university professors. “We obtained independence very cheaply,” said Lukashenka. “All peoples fought for it like our brothers in Ukraine are now doing” (Belta, January 26). Not a single Russian media outlet spared this remark a caustic and condescending reaction (e.g.,, January 27). Artyom Shraibman of, Belarus’s private news portal, opined that Minsk is “expanding the scope of the permissible” vis-à-vis Moscow in part by taking cues from some other post-Soviet states. For example, half a dozen residents of northern Kazakhstan received no-nonsense jail terms for spreading pro-Russia separatist appeals in social networks. Russia, however, kept mum. How Moscow will ultimately react to Minsk’s newly acquired liberties (see EDM, January 18) remains to be seen. After all, in the opinion of most Russians and their elite, Belarus is not really a foreign country, and it is closer to Russia than Kazakhstan and even than pre-Maidan Ukraine. “Belarus has embarked on a path of conscious emancipation,” writes Shraibman, “and it has done this not without help from its ‘elder brother’ ” (, January 27).

Indeed, as the Russian economist Ruslan Grinberg averred late last year, the intellectual heirs of Russian Westernizers (i.e., modern-day liberals) and of Slavophiles (i.e., modern-day patriots) alike have a problematic attitude toward the other former Soviet republics. The former extrapolate the encumbrance theory of the early 1990s: according to this line of though, the other post-Soviet republics are congenitally dependent on Russia, and these close ties in fact inhibit Russia’s own efforts at modernization. The latter suffer from the elder-brother complex, which does not allow them to treat the republics as independent states (Mir Peremen, December 2016).

Russia’s post-imperial complex, however, is only one side of the problem; actually, the repulsion is mutual. For Belarus, like for at least half of Ukraine, the latent but powerful driving force is unaccomplished nation building. If it is to succeed, it can only do so by a mental distancing from Russia, the meaningful other, especially given the stronghold of the Russian language and the Russia-centered information space. Under this condition, the neighboring post-Soviet republics can only assert themselves in opposition to Russia. Already, this is a palpable urge on the part of Belarusian-language bloggers: they love to cast doubt on any recognized intellectual authority from Russia. One of those Russian authorities, the political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky, incidentally spoke in Minsk, at the invitation of 2015 Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Belkovsky was nevertheless on target when he claimed that both “Ukraine and Belarus can only realize themselves by explaining the difference between them and the empire from which they became detached” (, January 26).

Whether or not nation building is likely to succeed is a debatable issue. On the one hand, there are signs that it is progressing. And recent public statements by Lukashenka are a case in point. However, Minsk-based liberals and Westernizing nationalists alike do not recognize him as the national consolidator-in-chief. Consequently, it was not to their liking when the alleged intellectual guru Belkovsky, fresh from Moscow, made a series of statements flattering to the Belarusian leader. Specifically, Belkovsky claimed that in free elections in Russia, Lukashenka would defeat Putin. He also claimed that Putin envies Lukashenka as someone who possesses incomparably fewer resources but behaves audaciously and achieves his goals. Likewise, the absence of Lukashenka at the signing of the Eurasian Union’s Customs Code in St. Petersburg was an insult to Putin that won Lukashenka respect of the Russian elites because, unlike them, Lukashenka is unafraid of Putin. Moreover, Belkovsky encouraged the democratization of Belarus while retaining Lukashenka at the helm of power since, although Lukashenka identifies the Belarusian state with himself, he helps detach Belarusians from Russians (, January 26).

But if Lukashenka is no national consolidator, who is? Yulia Cherniavskaya, a cultural anthropologist, author of the book Belarusians: From Locals to a Nation and herself an intellectual guru, gave a suggestive interview to an opposition-minded online newspaper, titled “We Have a Nation but It Does Not Look Like the Way We Would Like.” As Chernyavskaya stated, “we have no impeccable leaders.” To be more exact, they are available but only for specific close-knit circles that are hostile to each other. The Belarusian is a member of a small group within which, and only within which, he or she strives for democracy and freedom. Moreover, “we have a feeling that we are not at the center of things and that the center is elsewhere: either it is in Russia or in Europe or in America,” she argued (Salidarnasts, January 25). This sense of atomization and of being provincial is, indeed, acute within Minsk’s intellectual circles and arguably constitutes more of a vulnerability for Belarus than just a degree of its economic and/or military dependence on Russia.

The 87-year-old history professor Leanid Lych recently suggested that in order to rescue “true Belarusians”—that is, the ones who have not lost their “linguistic-cultural background”—from national extinction, one has to either resettle one million of them to a reservation within the Republic of Belarus or about half a million to Canada or Australia (, January 18). Not surprisingly, Lych’s idea elicited a mixed reaction. On the one hand, it may be seen as a way to call public attention to the problem of the ongoing disappearance of the Belarusian language. For example, in all of the city of Mogilev, a regional center with 366,000 residents, only four students attend secondary-school classes with Belarusian as the language of instruction (, January 22). But on the other hand, one may suggest that national idealism is self-destructive. Perhaps it might be better to “expand the scope of the permissible,” this time with respect to tolerating Belarusians as they are, and of recognizing whatever leadership they have. After all, it is far from the region’s worst examples.