The conflict between Russia and Belarus reached a high water mark in the scandalous pronouncements of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the press earlier this month (see EDM, February 6). And these tensions along the Moscow-Minsk axis remain the major focus of the Belarusian media. Lukashenka’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, long scheduled for February 9, in conjunction with a regular meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, is now on hold. Reportedly, this is because the presidents could not coordinate their schedules. No word has been given as to when the meeting will occur (Gazeta.by, February 7).
While the bilateral conflict continues to escalate, some have attempted to soft-pedal these frictions. Hopes for such a smoothing out of tensions were expressed during the February 10 episode of the talk show Pravo Golosa (The Right to Speak Out), which airs on the Moscow-based channel TV-Center (TV-Center, February 10). Although noisy and chaotic, talk shows on state-controlled TV regularly reflect the mood in the corridors of power. This time, Minsk sent a team of four convincing Belarusian speakers who were able to make their point to the audience and outperform their local Russian opponents. The point they made was that Russian oligarchs bear the blame for the lingering argument about the price of natural gas and for blacklisting Belarusian food processors on the Russian market. Belarus has always been Russia’s closest ally, they argued, adding that it is demeaning to have to assure the Russian audience on that subject over and over again. As for the alleged Belarusian whistleblowers issuing reports about an imminent Russian aggression (see EDM, January 24), they are pretenders and provocateurs, the Belarusian commentators contended. But so are the authors published on the Russian online portal Regnum who have been writing fearmongering accounts of Belarus’s infidelity (see EDM, December 12). “Why are you so tenaciously trying to implant the Ukrainian syndrome in Belarusian soil?” exclaimed Vadim Gigin, one of two most articulate speakers from Belarus and himself a talk show host. Indeed, the idea that the developments in Belarus are following the Ukrainian scenario did not receive much support during the Pravo Golosa episode.
Whereas the aforementioned TV event served to calm passions, other developments pointed in a different direction. Thus, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sharply criticized Russia’s decision to set up the formal border zone along the border with Belarus (see EDM, February 6). The press secretary of the ministry accused Russia of treating Belarusians like other foreigners, which contradicts the letter and spirit of the Union State (Tut.by, February 9). Three years ago, Kazakhstan introduced a visa-free regime for citizens of many countries. But no Russian reaction similar to that now directed at Belarus followed. In fact, Belarus is the only country neighboring Russia that cannot offer a transit corridor to those traveling to Russia from a third country by car. Even if these people have a Russian visa, they would have to make a detour, proceeding through the border between Russia and, say, Latvia or Ukraine because the Russian border with those countries is equipped with all requisite passport control infrastructure. In the opinion of Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty, this entire endeavor looks like an urge to penalize Belarus—not so much for Minsk’s achieved improvement of its relations with the West, because nothing tangible was actually achieved, but rather in response to the ostensible change in the atmosphere of those relations (Open Democracy, February 8).
The border is not the only issue riling relations. Following Lukashenka’s warning that Belarus would launch a criminal case against Sergey Dankvert, the director of the Russian food import-control agency, the associates of that agency canceled their regularly scheduled visit to Belarus out of fear they may be mistreated (RIA Novosti, February 9).
In its turn, the main Belarusian daily, Belarus Segodnya, recently published an article with a scathing critique of the so-called “Russian World”—a Kremlin-driven, roughly ethno-linguistic, Russo-centric soft-power initiative to, among other things, promote the Russian language and challenge purportedly “non-traditional” and “obscene” Western values. According to the piece, conditions within the “Russian World” feature a special “kind of specificity: 79 billionaires and 13 percent of people [living] below the poverty line. The glamor of central cities and the ruin of peripheral settlements. Accessibility to health care and education is purely nominal. Some precedents of making it from rags to riches are available, but they are in single digits and mostly pertain to the troubled times of repartition of property under the cannonade of killers’ shots and a jingle of handcuffs accompanying pre-arranged arrests. The social system [under the Russian World] is definitely not unique; rather it is a variety of American capitalism of the late 19th–early 20th centuries [sic]” (Belarus Segodnya, February 3).
The style of writing about Russia in the Belarusian official media is noticeably changing. And in turn, the Russian media, too, has shifted its style of writing about Belarus and expanded the range of sources critical-to-Minsk that it is willing to draw on to make its arguments. For example, while reporting on Lukashenka, Lenta.ru, a mainstream news portal, took trouble to refer to Charter 97, the most radically anti-Russian and anti-Lukashenka outlet of the Belarusian opposition (Lenta.ru, February 9). The quoted publication showcased the opinion of a second-rate opposition activist, in exile in Poland since 2012, about Lukashenka’s current putative fears of a palace coup.
An odd incident involving the Ukrainian writer Sergei Zhadan should also be understood against the background of deteriorating Belarusian-Russian relations. Zhadan’s visit to Minsk was interrupted, late on the night of February 11. Police arrived at his hotel room, whisked him away to the local station, announced that Zhadan was to leave Belarus within 72 hours without permission to re-enter, and placed a respective note in his passport. It turned out that back in 2015, Zhadan was declared persona non grata in Russia; and in view of the common migration space with that country, he is a non grata in Belarus too. But by the evening of the following day, with Zhadan still in Minsk, both the deportation and no-entrance orders were annulled by the Belarusian authorities. Some analysts saw this as a reflection of a tug of war at the helm of power in Belarus that ended up, at least for now, with a demonstration of Belarus’s sovereignty (Tut.by, February 12).
Even if the current conflict with Russia is soon settled, it will be recorded in Belarusian history books as a hallmark of that country’s uncoupling from Russia (Carnegie.ru, February 6).