Like smoke with little fire, there has been a lot of anxiety surrounding the current Belarusian-Russian tensions (see EDM, January 15, 2019). Prolonged agitation, however, clouds judgment. At the end of the day, policymakers will benefit from a more sober reading of the subject in question. A few voices emanating from Minsk are trying to provide just that.
Writing for the Moscow Carnegie Center, Artiom Shraibman, a political commentator with Tut.by, admits that, after 2014, casting doubt on the Kremlin’s expansionist designs is difficult. Yet, looking at the current discord from three perspectives—that of Belarusian society, that of its ruling elite, and that of Russia itself—the “Anschluss” scenario appears unlikely. First, surveys suggest that fewer than five percent of Belarusians support unification with Russia. Moreover, the proponents of such unification are not organized into a political movement. Second, for a long time, talking about merger with Russia has been taboo in Belarusian politics. Belarusian statehood has become a sacred cow even for the Communists; and the authorities have demonstrated their willingness to punish those denigrating it. In turn, the Belarusian political elites are consolidated and extract benefits from sovereignty. Third, since the Afghan campaign of the late 1970s, Moscow has not successfully organized a coup in any neighboring country; nipping off a fraction of a foreign state’s territory populated by separatist or rebel pockets is much easier than wholly overthrowing a stable political regime. For Russia itself, the gamble is not worth taking, Shraibman argues. In the case of Belarus, expenses for the would-be operation itself, the ensuing necessity to subsidize a new region with 10 million people, as well as the inevitable overwhelming international protest and new Western sanctions make trying to annex this neighbor highly problematic for Moscow. If Putin indeed wants to stay in power past 2024, it would be much easier to change the Constitution than to put him at the helm of some new Belarus-Russia polity. By all appearances, therefore, the new bout of tensions between Moscow and Minsk rather spells the intent to save Russian rubles on the integration project than a pent-up desire to incorporate Belarus (Carnegie.ru, January 15, 2019). Already, Shraibman has been challenged by some in the opposition who believe his overly calm reasoning resembles that of an outsider: Belarusian society ought to be agitated to stay vigilant, they assert (Svaboda.org, January 18, 2019).
As for the opposition, some of its members are indeed torn between the bad and the worse—i.e., resisting potential foreign invasion and supporting the much-hated authoritarian leader, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who appears to be on the side of independence (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, January 16, 2019). Yet, the most reputable opposition-minded pundits keep attacking Lukashenka with abandon, suggesting he bears responsibility for Russia’s aggressive stance in the first place. “Lukashenka is much offended by Russian media that accuse Belarusians of nationalism,” writes Valer Karbalevich. “This is a vulnerable spot in Lukashenka’s consciousness, for he spent 25 years fighting nationalism… that in Belarus can only be anti-Russian” (Svaboda.org, January 18, 2019).
The latter statement smacks of opportunistic dedication to increasingly misleading verbal conventions. Yes, on the face of it, Belarusian nationalism is anti-Russian because the label of a nationalist, utterly negative in Russian parlance, has been affixed only and exclusively to Belarusian Westernizers. Such is the tradition. But taking guidance instead from an emotionally neutral definition of nationalism—a commitment to achieving and retaining nationhood—changes the calculus. Moreover, it appears that Lukashenka himself, along with his ardent supporters like Piotr Petrovsky (EurasiaExpert, January 16, 2019) and Alexander Shpakovsky (Riafan.ru, January 18, 2019), are every bit, if not more, nationalistic, than those Westernizers who have had no significant political traction throughout the entire modern history of Belarus. Unlike them, Lukashenka and his spiritual allies do not reject the obvious—i.e., the utmost cultural closeness between Belarusians and Russians. And yet, they steadily militate against Russian annexationist passions. Thus, referring to hysteria in the Russian media, especially TV, Lukashenka asked rhetorically, “Are you not fed up with Ukraine?” meaning, “Are you looking for additional trouble?” This was in response to Russia’s criticism of Belarusian foreign policy as too “pro-Western” and sensationalist Russian TV coverage of some fracas on the Minsk subway as, purportedly, an expression of anti-Russian sentiment. It appears that all the participants of that brawl were actually Belarusians (President.gov, January 18, 2019).
At a recent meeting devoted to the centennial anniversary of the Belarusian diplomatic service, Lukashenka asserted there was no need to change the country’s multi-directional foreign policy. And an official 11-minute video, released in conjunction with this event, invokes contacts with the European Union and the United States, whereas Russia appears only at the 9-minute mark (YouTube, January 10, 2019).
To be sure, Western media has also contributed to the current hype. Never before have there been as many articles written about Belarus as throughout January. Collectively, these publications fit the well-known formula by Gerard Toal, a political geographer: “The traditional study of geopolitics has long been antithetical to the study of local places on their own terms” (Wilsoncenter.org, July 7, 2011). In other words, the reader of all those articles would not extract anything of substance about Belarus itself. Instead, he or she would become concerned about the geopolitical implications of its would-be incorporation into Russia.
That is fine, but as a modern Russian saying goes, “Do not teach me how to live my life, just help me financially.” Indeed, out of almost $20 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) stocks recorded last year, almost $11 billion came from Russia. Austria is the biggest Western investor, with $690 million (National Bank, January 2019). Throughout the first nine months of 2018, Russia’s share amounted to 42.8 percent (Minecon.by, January 2019) of FDI flow worth $7.7 billion, followed by Cyprus (13.2 percent), China (8.8 percent), and Germany (5.0 percent). Belarus has resumed its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and the latter recognizes the necessity to protect Belarusians from the social consequences of internal structural reforms (Naviny.by, January 18, 2019). But Belarus deserves decidedly more attention from the West, including financial institutions, investors, and donors. Just stirring up the hype is inadequate.