On March 25, the celebration of the centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) (see EDM, January 25), which opposition-minded Belarusians have long christened “Freedom Day,” proceeded as planned. An emotional meeting and a concert took place in the park square attached to the Minsk Opera House. The authorities allowed the event and did not obstruct it. Predictably, estimates of the number of people attending the celebration are wide-ranging. They average some 18,000 participants. White-red-white flags, outlawed as national insignia, were plentiful at the designated place but were still taboo elsewhere.
At the same time, dozens were apprehended at the Yakub Kolas square, where the rally disallowed by the authorities was supposed to begin. All of the arrested demonstrators, however, were released later that evening, as were all the preventively detained organizers (see EDM, March 28).
In marking the March 25 event, Tut.by, Belarus’s privately owned news portal, published a set of 20 Russian-language articles devoted to different aspects of the BPR, including its leadership, borders, history, and the authorship of BPR’s flag and emblem, etc. (Tut.by, March 25). Yury Zisser, Tut.by’s owner and founder, also made a speech at the celebration, emphasizing the event’s informal and joyous character and the genuine public activism that backed it. In contrast to other speakers, Zisser (who was born and raised in Lviv, Ukraine) spoke in Russian (Tut.by, March 25).
By all accounts, this year’s celebration was a groundbreaking event. While it has been the opposition’s annual routine, never since the 1994 election won by Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has it been so emotional and relaxed at the same time. What used to be a public protest became a festivity. The state TV channels and the main government daily kept mum. But the outpouring of reactions on social media, opposition outlets and groups dedicated to Belarus’s Eurasian integration has been tremendous.
Among those reactions, there was also plenty of expressed criticism. And its tone rather confirms the unprecedented nature of the 2018 Freedom Day. The opposition-minded commentators dutifully lambasted Lukashenka. Yury Drakakhrust, for example, called his carefully apportioned and localized freedom to celebrate the centennial of the BPR “the Gorbachev syndrome,” i.e. attributable to Lukashenka’s alleged fear of losing control the way last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once did (Svaboda.org, March 28). “Why Is Lukashenka Afraid of Belarusian Nationalism?” is the title of Valer Karbalevich’s article. In it, Karbalevich recognizes that “the disposition of a significant part of Belarusian society is more pro-Russian than that of official Minsk,” so if Lukashenka initiates a “decisive detachment from the Russian world [Russkiy mir], this will not be appreciated by his electorate.” That is why he chooses to foster Belarusian patriotism under strict state control, the writer suggests (Svaboda.org, March 26).
Yet, there exists a sizable group of Lukashenka loyalists who cling to the “Russian world” but champion Belarusian statehood. These people cannot allow themselves to criticize Lukashenka for effectively abetting and blessing the March 25 celebration. Rather, they criticize subversive Western “political technologies” for allegedly exerting pressure on him and, more specifically, on the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also castigate Tut.by, as did Alexander Shpakovsky, who called it the cheerleader of a celebration that “under opportune circumstances may become the herald of the Belarusian Maidan” (Sonar2050, March 27). Shpakovsky’s concern could be a sign of jealousy. Based on a report by Gemius.com, Tut.by has just become the third most visited portal in Belarus—after Google.com and VK (a Russian social network). In no neighboring country, has a single news portal reached this high in the ranking order of popularity (Facebook.com/yzisser, March 28).
Other Lukashenka-friendly critics continue to emphasize the phantom nature of the BPR that, unlike a similar formation in neighboring Ukraine, did not even receive support from the German occupiers. They label the so-called Rada or Council of the BPR, resurrected in 1947 and still claiming to be the Belarusian government in exile, an imposter institution. Moreover, they charge that the BPR was tainted by collaboration with yet another German administration, that installed by the Nazis during World War II (ImhoClub, March 27).
In a free academic debate, such criticisms would not be without grounds; but politically, they seem to be a couple of steps behind the thinking of Lukashenka himself, whom Valantsin Akudovich has just called a “born politician, a politician by the grace of God” (Svaboda.org, March 28). While Lukashenka’s innate political savvy has long been apparent to most initiated, Akudovich is one of the intellectual gurus of Belarusian Westernizers for whom March 25 has always been the most important date.
Indeed, the tide has changed. As such, observations by Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by are noteworthy. The generational change and the “the eastern neighbor’s getting off its knees,” to use the Russian metaphor for Russia’s renewed assertiveness, are two factors making national consolidation a natural response among all of Russia’s neighbors, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, Shraibman believes (Tut.by, March 26). In the case of Belarus, the glorification of Soviet history has exhausted its consolidation potential because it effectively portrays Belarus as a side-effect of the breakup of the Soviet Union and nothing more. But when Belarusian authorities saw how easily the so-called “polite people”—that is, Russia’s covet emissaries—could operate in the most Sovieticized regions of Ukraine, they realized that Belarus is in dire need of deepening and broadening its historical memory and national identity (Carnegie.ru, March 26). Moving carefully in that direction seems to be the guideline for years to come.
In the meantime, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid a visit to the United Kingdom, where he had a conversation with his counterpart, Boris Johnson, who is currently engaged in a fierce confrontation with Russia (Tut.by, March 28). At the same time, Makei’s deputy, Oleg Kravchenko, visited the United States, negotiated with Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell and had a talk with the Rand Corporation (Mfa.gov.by, March 28).
How far-reaching the ongoing change of tide may be remains to be seen. In any case, Belarus is no Ukraine, and Alyaksandr Lukashenka has never been in the business of burning bridges. Building them is what he does best.