Belarusians continue to protest the presidential decree on social parasites (DSP). Already, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has backed off, if only in part. Short of abandoning the infamous decree altogether, he postponed its implementation by one year. At the same time, three opposition leaders who tried hard to ride the wave of popular protests—Anatoly Lebedko, Yury Gubarevich and Vitaly Rymashevsky—were arrested for 15 days for violating public order (Svoboda.org, March 11). In the meantime, protest rallies against the DSP occurred not only in all the regional capitals of Belarus, but also in larger rayon (district) towns, like Pinsk, Rogachev and Orsha, where no public protests had ever been recorded (BBC—Russian service, March 12). Why did the protest activity not subside following Lukashenka’s decision to back off? Many opposition-minded analysts believe this is because the DSP has become just a trigger for discontent over the painful implications of broader economic decline, especially plummeting earnings (Svaboda.org, March 13).
The most immediate reasons for the lingering decline have to do with Russia and include the devaluation of the Russian ruble, the reduced amount of duty-free oil sold to Belarus in retaliation for underpayment for natural gas, selective bans of Belarusian agricultural exports to Russia, etc. On March 7, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, at the meeting of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council, Prime Minister Andrei Kobiakov of Belarus complained about the lack of progress in leveling prices on hydrocarbons within the entire Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), only to be rebuffed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. In his response, Medvedev appealed to Russia’s EEU partners “not to indulge in monitoring Russian gas prices… If some countries represented here were not members of the EEU or […] left that Union, they would be paying for natural gas what Europeans are, that is, about $200 per 1,000 cubic meters. That is all there is to it… And nobody forces you to stay in the EEU” (Tut.by, March 7).
In his turn, President Lukashenka rebuked Medvedev, who “should understand that, were we to pay as much for gas as the Europeans do, he [Russians] would have to pay for something, too. And the price he would have to pay is going to be much higher than that for gas. I have always thought, and the overwhelming majority of Russians understand, that […] bookkeeping as well as the price of natural gas that does not belong to Medvedev should not be the foundations of our relationships” (Tut.by, March 9). Clearly, Lukashenka refers to the infamous nuisance theory, which, in his judgment, undermined the Soviet Union when Russia opted out, assuming that it would be better off by discarding the burden of supporting the other republics. Lukashenka also implies that geostrategic decisions are not always profitable.
The same, however, applies to the geostrategic thinking in Western capitals. To this day, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) credit line to Belarus has not opened, despite being in the works for three years. This is because Belarus does not fully embrace the so-called structural reforms that would include pervasive privatization and 100 percent out-of-the pocket coverage of utility costs by ordinary Belarusians. Moreover, the European Union has not even finalized the mutual visa simplification process with Belarus that was supposed to bear fruit as early as 2015. Instead, the negotiations are buried in technicalities, like the features of Belarusian passports, etc. Above all, no significant Western investment has materialized in Belarus.
In this regard, the opinion of the government-friendly political commentator Alexander Shpakovsky merits attention. “Quite a few analysts describing the situation in Belarus […] fail to grasp the local specifics. In reality, the population is not protesting the absence of market reforms. Quite the opposite, they are protesting reforms themselves. After all, rising utility bills and the increase in the retirement age have been imposed on the Belarusian authorities by international creditors, [namely] the IMF and the Eurasian Development Bank.” As for Russia, it is definitely willing to punish Belarus for its excessive liberty of strengthening contacts with the West against the backdrop of Moscow’s own lousy relations with the Euro-Atlantic community. Zbigniew Brzeziński wrote in his Grand Chessboard that without Ukraine Russia is no empire. What would Russia be without Belarus nobody has even attempted to fathom. But if so, is it worthwhile for Medvedev to make pronouncements like “whoever does not like it here can walk away” (Sputnik News, March 13)?
Conversely, however, why has the West so far failed to extend its helping hand to Belarus? Perhaps it is because of a perennial tug of war between realists and idealists. The latter apparently think they can only offer assistance to the Belarusian state as long as it precipitates the self-destruction of Belarus’s political regime. However, in exchange for its own aid to Belarus, Russia will ultimately demand smaller, though still significant sacrifices. And with each passing day, Minsk is finding that there is hardly any alternative to Russian help—especially since the US Department of State has recently described the human rights situation in Belarus in exactly the same terms it has used since Lukashenka’s first electoral victory, in the mid-1990s (State.gov, March 2017).
As one Russian philosopher has pointed out, “most people I know dwell in an existential jetlag. For example, they live in today’s Russia and yet demand some anachronistic things, be that independent courts or worshiping [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin. And there is no mechanism, like in a mobile phone, that could automatically update the time [for them]. They live in 2017 Russia, but their inner calendar [seems to reflect] 1920s Britain or the 1930s in the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics], or [even] the 22nd century” (Kommersant, March 10).
An existential jetlag may also be an accurate description of the West’s policy toward Belarus (and perhaps not only toward Belarus). Among other things, it helps explain why Russia keeps on winning the geopolitical game across the post-Soviet space. After all, Moscow lives in much the same historical time as many of its neighbors, and entertains no illusions about that.