The passing of Gene Sharp, the author of the influential 1973 book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, did not go unnoticed across the post-Soviet space. A sampling of headlines in the Russian media say much about the late political scientists’ perception in that realm: “The ideologue of color revolutions dies in the USA” (Gazeta.ru, January 31); “The man that broke up the Soviet Union” (Snob.ru, February 1); “The ideologue of colored revolutions is dead, but his case lives” (Kompravda, January 31). Meanwhile, the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty conducted a debate on the applicability of Sharp’s methodology to Belarus. Both participants, Frantsishak Viachorka, an opposition youth activist and now a college student in the United States, and Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator for Tut.by, agreed there is no critical mass of discontent in Belarus. That is why protests in Belarus have never succeeded, despite the fact that 74 out of the 198 non-violent types of actions proposed by Sharp had been tried in the country, according to Viachorka. To the mutually agreed reason, Shraibman added that, in Belarus, the ruling elites are consolidated (Svaboda.org, February 2). According to Yury Drakakhrust, change in Belarus’s political system is not going to derive from a common effort by dissidents or from an electoral boycott. Rather, it is going to result from an “inner erosion of conventional notions,” including in the elite (Nashe Mneniye, February 1).
Against the backdrop of this combination (no critical mass of discontent, a cohesive elite, and an at best evolutionary change in popular attitudes), the ongoing evocation of electoral reform and human rights by Western emissaries sounds like a broken record. Whereas, the growing frequency of their visits manifests an important trend, which Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty recently labeled “a slow westward drift” by Minsk (Svaboda.org, January 30). Indeed, just during the last week of January, the Belarusian capital was visited by Kent Hasterd of Sweden, the vice president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly; Paulo Rangel of Portugal, the vice chairman of the of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) faction in the European Parliament; and Johanness Hahn of Austria, the European Union commissioner in charge of the European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. At the same time, Andrea Wiktorin, a German diplomat and the head of the EU delegation to Belarus, once again assured Belarusian opposition leaders that the European Union had not changed its approach to Belarus and that electoral reform and human rights are still themes of bilateral talks (RFI—Russian service, January 29). In turn, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka underscored, during his meeting with Hahn, that Belarus is interested in a “strong EU” and warned against excessive politicization of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (Belta, January 30).
However, misgivings of the opposition are palpable, as signs of Western friendliness toward the government in Minsk continue to mushroom. Earlier, the US Department of State declared Belarus safe for American travelers (Naviny, January 11). And on February 1, the US embassy in Minsk resumed issuing visas to all citizens of Belarus; since 2008 (i.e., after the drastic reduction in embassy staff), most Belarusians had to travel for US visas to Moscow, Warsaw, Kyiv or Vilnius. Moreover, Robert Riley, the US Charge d’Affaires in Minsk, declared that the US embassy is bent on facilitating the removal of all sanctions imposed on Belarusian production units. Charter97, the most intransigent opposition media outlet, called this declaration bizarre because it was made “despite the blocking of Charter97” by Belarusian authorities last month (Charter97, January 30).
Indeed, the new strategy in the corridors of powers in Minsk seems to be impartiality when it comes to rebuking any and all perceived assaults on Belarus’s socio-political stability. Thus, the court in Minsk recently sentenced three Belarusian authors of Russian “patriotic” media outlets (such as the online edition of Regnum) to five years imprisonment with a three-year suspension. Accused of fomenting inter-ethnic animosity by calling the Belarusian language and statehood artificial, they were set free following fourteen months already spent behind bars (Tut.by, February 2). Their trial was vigorously discussed on online social networks. A noteworthy twist in these discussions followed the publication of Mikhail Malash’s article “What the pro-Russian Regnum essayists are guilty of” (Politring, December 22, 2017). A businessman and a political commentator, Malash voiced his unequivocal support for the prosecution’s case. In his judgment, the three authors jeopardized national security by inciting anti-Belarusian sentiment amongst politically active Russians.
In a protracted online discussion that followed, Malash was asked provocatively if he himself, by any chance, had not claimed that Belarusian statehood is an aberration and not evinced a condescending attitude toward Belarusian history and language. A self-proclaimed “West-Russian nationalist” (i.e., a follower of the 19th century school of thought asserting Belarusian cultural specificity only within the confines of the Russian world), Malash is not immune to such reproach. His ally, who introduced himself as someone who participated in the crackdown on the post-election rally on December 19, 2010, as a policeman, rushed to his defense: “Malash and I may criticize Belarusian realities because we do that inside the country. I also think Belarus is a limitrophe [a dependent border state] and believe Belarusian is dead. But we do not share these qualifications with Russian websites, and we are reliable supporters of our authorities” (Facebook.com/michail.malasch, December 23, 2017). Because opinions like these are at least as widespread in Belarus as their antipodes, the country’s growing receptiveness of inclusive civic nationalism appears appropriate.
A strong national identity of some type is essential if only in view of the country’s transparent border with Russia. During the first week of February, in Minsk, the final meeting of experts is underway to formulate a Belarusian-Russian agreement on the mutual recognition of visas issued to citizens of third countries. The agreement is expected to be enacted before the soccer World Cup, which will take place in Russia during June 14–July 15. The agreement is supposed to preclude the establishment of full-scale passport controls on the Belarusian-Russian border (Kommersant, January 30). A mutual recognition of visas is more preferable to Belarus than a single visa for the Union State of Belarus and Russia would be because it allows Belarus to retain more of its own migration control.
Minsk’s quest to sustain inner stability and enhance the country’s sovereignty thus continues.