- Belarusian President Lukashenka strengthens ties with Russia through various events, emphasizing economic cooperation, joint ventures, and alignment on historical narratives to cement their alliance further.
- These symbolic gestures showcase a united front against perceived Western threats, reinforcing the ideological bond between Belarus and Russia.
- The signing of a memorandum to establish a Joint Russian-Belarusian Historical Commission presages deeper integration in ways that could undermine Belarusian national identity, unless a clear distinction is made between Minsk and Moscow.
On January 27, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka landed in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Besides a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin about issues in the military-industrial complex held in the Konstantin Palace, the program of his visit included five other events (President.gov.by, January 27).
First, he met with the Supreme Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. At the meeting, Lukashenka’s speech emphasized the creation of a component base for electronic engineering to eliminate the dependency on the West. For the umpteenth time, the Belarusian president touched upon the still non-existent common Russian-Belarusian hydrocarbon market that would allow price equalization. He also mentioned eliminating the remaining constraints on Belarusian cargo transit through Russia. Lukashenka stated that in 2023, the total trade exchange between Russia and Belarus amounted to $54 billion, including merchandise and services. Finally, Lukashenka welcomed the pending creation of the Union State’s Media Company as an essential element in the ongoing information war (President.gov.by, January 29).
Second, with Putin, Lukashenka took part in the inaugural online event for the launch of a trial operation of a new wintering complex at the Russian Vostok station in Antarctica. The Belarusian Antarctic Research Station has been functioning since 2021 and receives help from more experienced Russian researchers (President.gov.by, January 28).
Third, Lukashenka visited the world’s largest ice hockey stadium (SKA Arena) in Saint Petersburg, designed for 21.5 thousand spectators and commissioned in 2023, with Putin (President.gov.by, January 28).
Fourth, Lukashenka and Putin paid a visit to the concert requiem devoted to the 80th anniversary of ending the Leningrad siege that lasted 850 days from September 8, 1941, to January 27, 1944. Lukashenka’s and Putin’s speeches before the concert attempted to draw a line of continuity between the Soviet resistance to Nazi occupation in the 1940s and the current war that Russia is waging with the entire Western world (President.gov.by, January 27).
The connection between the Russian fight against the Nazis in the 1940s and their fight against the West today was further emphasized during Lukashenka’s fifth event in Russia. He attended the opening ceremony of the elaborate monument erected not far from Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo International Airport in memory of Soviet civilian victims of the Nazi genocide during World War Two (President.gov.by, January 27). Lukashenka’s rhetoric at that event specifically exploited the ostensible inter-civilizational character of the war in the 1940s and today. “We will preserve our civilization, you may be certain on this account,” were the last words of his speech (YouTube, January 27). He did not fail to note that “[the West] honor Nazi criminals in their parliaments” in an apparent reference to the scandalous applause to a Nazi collaborator in the Canadian parliament in September 2023 (RBC, September 27, 2023).
The same ideological manipulation is widely used beyond the leaders’ speeches. For example, the office of Belarus’s Prosecutor General has recently brought a criminal case against the prominent opposition-minded Belarusian journalist Sergei Dubovets under six articles of the criminal code. Specifically, he stands accused of spreading false information about Belarus; inciting social hatred; slandering the head of state; participating in an extremist group’s activity; denying the war-time genocide of the Belarusian people; and whitewashing Nazism (SB, January 27). While these accusations of crimes Dubovets allegedly committed are exaggerated, in one of his Q-and-A sessions with the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, he observed that “The Nazis burned down Belarusian villages and shot people in response to the actions of Soviet saboteurs, took Belarusians to work in Germany… At the same time, Belarusian schools, civil administration, and public organizations worked in Belarus, which today have been completely destroyed” (Svaboda, December 2, 2023). Not only did he refer to Belarusian Soviet partisans as “saboteurs,” but he also recognized that under German Nazi occupation, Belarusian-language schools and public administration existed, coupled with a statement that genuinely Belarusian schools, etc., are no longer available in today’s Belarus.
Regrettably, Dubovets’s statement is just as ideological and vulnerable as the accusations against him. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, they treated Belarus as nothing more than a vague geographical term. Only after the partisans assassinated the Generalkomissar of occupied Belarus, Wilhelm Kube, in September of 1943 and following the overall success of the Soviet-led guerilla activity did Germans decide to play the card of Belarusian patriotism. The white-red-white flag and the coat of arms of Pahonia were then used by local authorities, whom the occupiers appointed (Understanding Belarus and How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark, Ioffe 2008, p. 58).
Admittedly, Belarus’s history is too nuanced for those who prefer crude one-dimensional juxtapositions (such as Lukashenka bad, Tikhanovskaya good). The reality of the Russia-Belarus fusion underway, however, is too serious to overlook because of the nuance-free approach practiced by many Belarus watchers. Thus, on January 25, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Interdepartmental Commission for Historical Education under the President of Russia and the Council for Historical Policy under the Presidential Administration of Belarus. The memorandum envisages the establishment of the Joint Russian-Belarusian Historical Commission. Its working body is the Russian-Belarusian Expert Advisory Council on History. The parties “will contribute to the coordination of efforts to protect historical truth, preserve the memory of the common history of Belarus and Russia, reflected in educational literature, as well as the development of educational, expert, consulting, and socially significant humanitarian activities in the field of history” (SB, January 25).
The above implies that the two countries commit themselves to identical interpretations of historical and, consequently, current events in their national education systems. This may be a further-reaching phenomenon than just economic and even military integration. Outsiders can only preclude this effective merger by treating Russia and Belarus as truly different entities.