Most Russians and many in the West remain captive to the notion that Belarus is not that different from Russia given that its people speak Russian and its authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka rivals, and in some cases even exceeds, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in his abusiveness. They have even accepted the claim bruited about by Moscow propagandists that Belarus is a natural part of Eurasia, the term the Kremlin uses to describe what it believes is the cultural and political unity of the former Soviet space. But such a view could not be more wrong, says Andrey Kazakevich, director of the Minsk Political Sphere Institute. In fact, Belarus is very different from Russia and “there is almost nothing Eurasian” about it (Thinktanks.by, June 5).
Many in Moscow, some Western capitals and even in Belarus “love to talk about Eurasia lately, what prospects it opens up and how it would be right and good to stay away from the ‘decaying’ West,” the Belarusian analyst says. But whatever value such observations may have for the Russians, they simply do not apply to Belarus, a country that does remain “exclusively post-Soviet,” to be sure, but is not Eurasian in any meaningful sense—unless one makes the mistake of conflating Eurasian and Russian as many in Moscow continue to do. Belarusian foreign trade provides statistical evidence of this reality. While Belarus continues to trade primarily with the former Soviet area—its exports to that region have decreased by only 4 percent, from 63 percent in 1995 to 58.8 percent in 2019—its trade beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has focused on Europe rather than China or the countries of the East that might be said to constitute Eurasia.
But the Europeanness of Belarus as compared to the Eurasianness of Russia is much deeper than that. As this author noted in his testimony to the Helsinki Commission in May, if Belarus was a predominantly rural country at the end of the Soviet times, it is now more urban than almost any other post-Soviet state. If its urban employers in the past were primarily Soviet-style heavy industries, now its primary employment centers are increasingly in more advanced technological sectors (House.gov, May 6). As a result, the Belarusian population is far from the stereotypes that many in the West hold and Lukashenka appears to retain. Its people are increasingly urban, increasingly educated, and increasingly familiar not just with Russia to the east but also with the rapidly developing and democratizing countries in all other directions, including the Baltic states to the north, Poland to the west, and Ukraine to the south. They may watch Russian television, but they want to live like the Poles or Lithuanians.
Today’s Belarusians, both the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets to demand Lukashenka leave the office he occupies in violation of their country’s laws and constitution and the many in his government who want a different future, are more like their western and southern neighbors than their eastern ones, especially with Russia becoming an increasingly unattractive option. Russia’s economy is in disarray. Its government is moving from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. And its aggressiveness is leaving it isolated in ways that Belarusians want to avoid. In short, they do not want to be forced to become Eurasians; they want to develop as a European nation they already in many respects are, even if they remain a Russian-speaking one.
Many in the West, who still tend to approach Belarus via Russia, find it hard to believe that Belarusians are as different from Russians as they are. Following Moscow’s lead in all too many cases, Western commentators constantly point to the fact that Belarusians often speak Russian better than they speak their national language, that they watch Russian television, and that they share some of the Orthodox Christian cultural values of their eastern neighbor. But in doing so, they forget something critically important: having the same language does not make two peoples part of the same nation, just as the US and Canada are not the same nation even though they speak the same language. And even a people who has been forced to give up its national language by foreign occupiers may be more nationalistic when speaking the language of the occupier past or present than it was when it spoke its own. The cases of Ireland and India are instructive in that regard.
Belarusians are not Russians, and they are not Eurasians, and they do not want to be forced back onto some Muscovite Procrustean bed to try to cut them down to that size. The tens of thousands who continue to come into the streets show that. They want to be a free and democratic European country. Indeed, one of the reasons Lukashenka has survived so long is that many of them believe that to become a European country, they must remain a country; and despite all his repressions, the Minsk dictator seems committed to that. To escape his embrace and move toward Europe, Belarusians need the West to recognize both that they are a different nation than the Russians and that they need help to block Russia from coming back. This is something the West and especially the US should understand, given our experience with the Marshal Plan and NATO. That gave much of Europe the chance to recover as democracies and free-market economies. Now, the West needs to extend protection to another European nation.
And it is already clear such a policy has a far greater chance to succeed in Belarus than even has been the case in Ukraine. As Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev points out, not only is Belarus smaller and with a population already more integrated with the West than Ukraine, but it does not have the internal threat of Eurasianism that some of its ethnic Russians represent, and thus stands a chance of becoming a great success story in the coming years (МК.ru, June 7, 2020).