Even during periods of relative calm, interpreting the range of opinions regarding the domestic situation in Belarus requires a no-nonsense immersion in the country’s political landscape, formative experience and an ability to read between the lines. However, until recently, a degree of certainty has at least existed about the viewpoints one could expect to hear from Belarusian officialdom, government-friendly analysts, Westernizing nationalists as well as Russian-speaking liberals.
Today, those usual division lines have become blurred: understanding who is saying what and why is befuddling to a seemingly unprecedented degree. Thus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called upon Belarusian educators to tap into “healthy nationalism” when teaching on the subject of Belarusian statehood and history (Belta, February 28). In Russian, the language in which Lukashenka communicates, “nationalism” has negative connotations, which almost invariably invoke xenophobia. As Andrei Dmitriev, the leader of the Speak the Truth civic campaign, observes, no bureaucrats down the power “vertical” would understand what healthy nationalism means, whereas government-friendly ideologues would rather pretend they did not hear the phrase. As an example of the latter, Dmitriev mentions Alexei Dziermant, editor-in-chief of ImhoClub, whose stance is normally pro-government and pro-Russia (Dmitriev, February 28).
Last month, however, Dziermant published a sort of a manifesto titled “What if they decide to liquidate Belorussia [a Russian word for Belarus]?” This, according to Dziermant, may happen if nationalist leanings (again) gain the upper hand in Russia itself. With respect to Belarus, Russian nationalist thought treats the Belarusian language and state as artificial constructs and advocates that “Belorussia” should rightfully join Russia proper. But were Russia to indeed swallow up Belarus, observes Dziermant, the quality of life in the latter would plummet. Moreover, he predicts that former Belarus would be overcome by protests and nationalist attitudes: the nationalist underground would take shape and receive crucial aid from the “nationalist international” of the “Intermarium”—that is, of the region squeezed between the Baltic and the Black Seas. The situation in Belarus would come to resemble that in Donbas, he concludes (Na Linii, February 8).
At the same time, Belorusskie Novosti, an outlet that has traditionally given voice to the liberal wing of the opposition, quotes Valery Karbalevich of Radio Liberty, who believes that fearmongering about Russian designs on Belarus is the work of government trolls (i.e., agents) directed by Minsk (Naviny.by, February 28). Indeed, Lukashenka has already stressed that the protests against his decree on social parasites (see EDM, February 28) may be exploited by unnamed external forces (Tut.by, February 28)—by which, most analysts agree, he means Russia. Karbalevich is a doyen of opposition journalism, born out of a desire to uncouple Belarus from Russia. Interestingly, so is Alexander Klaskovsky, whose recent article was entitled “Instead of Scaring Belarus About Russia, the Government Should Embark on Reforms” (Naviny.by, February 28).
The reshuffling of viewpoints and allegiances in today’s Belarus was further illustrated by the recent debate between Zmitser Pankavets of Nasha Niva, a Belarusian-language newspaper informally allied with the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), and Olga Karach of the Vitebsk-based civic non-governmental organization (NGO) Nash Dom. Of those entities, Nasha Niva would typically be more government-unfriendly. Instead, Pankavets opined that “Lukashenka is a much lesser evil compared with Russia” and that Lukashenka’s pro-independence stand is beyond reproach. Whereas Karach argued that “Lukashenka is Russia” and that he would allegedly sell out Belarus’s independence and not bat an eyelid (Svaboda.org, March 1). Karach’s remarks resemble arguments that Nasha Niva, let alone the most rabidly anti-Lukashenka outlet Charter97, used to regularly make.
The Westernizing nationalists’ newfound fondness for Lukashenka is not entirely one-sided. In his June 2011 interview to this author, Lukashenka called the BPF “the most decent part of the opposition.” And he added, “To be sure, I don’t like their radicalism. But they are sincere” (Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, Palgrave McMillan 2014, p. 223).
During the March 1 Minsk-based conference “Belarus and the Region,” the Russian historian Alexander Sytin suggested that a classic military occupation of Belarus was out of the question. Therefore, he contended, “Russia would continue to blackmail Lukashenka by destabilization” of the country. Sytin further described Russia’s influence on Belarus as an asphyxiating anaconda’s coil. According to him, Lukashenka had an existential choice between reforms and overwhelming dependency on Russia (Naviny.by, March 2).
Perhaps the most revealing and controversial piece in recent weeks, showed up recently on Dziermant’s online outlet, ImhoClub. Authored by blogger and journalist Dmitry Isayonok, his article argues that Belarus has not succeeded on the path of ethnic nationalism. Something has failed to coagulate. Many Belarusians lack any sense of being culturally different from the Russians, he writes. Isayonok believes that many eastern Ukrainians, not to mention most residents of Crimea, wanted to be with Russia because they also did not see a cultural difference between them and Russians. At the same time, he alleges, those populations realized that any of the negative social-political-economic facets Vladimir Putin’s Russia might expose them to are things they have already lived with anyway under Ukrainian rule—i.e., socio-economic stratification, oligarchs, weak social guarantees, etc. So, he asks, what will happen in Belarus when all sorts of currently marginalized nationalists and other fear mongers suddenly expand their agitation in view of an imminent Russian aggression? Or, alternatively, what will happen if the International Monetary Fund (IMF) continues to insist that Minsk carry out its strict reform demands? Isayonok’s response: same thing as in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. More and more Belarusians who do not feel a detachment from Russia would ask themselves: what negative thing could Putin bring to us that we do not already have anyway? As a result, they will overwhelmingly welcome Putin. In the absence of strong and clear ethnic foundations for Belarusian nationalism, Belarusians’ appreciation of their statehood hinges on the generous social contract, an avoidance of conflicts, and a lack of oligarchs. These factors will need to be retained by the government for Belarusians to continue to appreciate their independence. Boosting fears of Russian aggression is exactly the opposite of what needs to be done for the sake of retaining independence, Isayonok believes (ImhoClub, March 2).
Whether the aforementioned author is right is most certainly debatable. But clearly, some topics may indeed be better suited to a more discreet rather than public discussion. Not only money loves silence.