Nothing is eternal under the moon. Indeed, Belarusian attitudes toward Russia, the country’s meaningful other, are visibly shifting. Similarly, international opinions of Belarus’s national leader are currently exhibiting signs of change. Even the Belarusian opposition is now undergoing a transformation of sorts.
Russia’s commanding position in Belarusian electronic media weakened around 2010, when three main Russian TV channels broadcasting in Belarus were turned into hybrid Belarusian-Russian stations. Today, the newscasts aired on these channels are exclusively Belarusian, and there are several Minsk-based talk shows; but 65 percent of the overall content is still produced in Moscow. “Whether or not you dilute Moscow TV channels, the ‘Russian world’ is still there,” proclaims a recent article by the media expert Pavlyuk Bykovsky (Naviny.by, September 16).
In response to this broader state of affairs, Yaroslav Romanchuk, a neoliberal economist and a 2010 presidential hopeful, warns Belarusian officialdom against practicing the approach “let us do it the way they do in Russia.” According to Romanchuk, this approach is more harmful for Belarus than even ten Zapad 2017–style war games in a row; he cites 12 reasons why this is the case, including that the leading Russian liberals of Boris Yeltsin’s vintage turned out to be “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Salidarnasts, September 18).
Whereas Bykovsky and Romanchuk share their ideas in opposition-minded media outlets, the main government daily Belarus Segodnya and the new discussion portal Sonar2050, entirely devoted to energizing the Russia-Belarus Union State, are on the other side of the barricade. Even so, the former has published an article that distances Belarus from hysteria surrounding the upcoming launch of the Russian movie Matilda, devoted to a love affair of Nicolas II, the last Russian tsar, and the ballerina Matilda Krzesinska. Instigated by the Russian Duma member Natalia Poklonskaya, the former chief prosecutor of Crimea, the campaign in Russia against the movie—which she had not even seen—has strong religious overtones and has already led to acts of terrorism. For example, a driver of a van in Ekaterinburg rammed a movie theater, and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the film director’s St. Petersburg office. As a result, major Russian movie theater networks declined to air Matilda out of fear for their property. “It is hard to believe,” reads the article in Belarus Segodnya, “that events this crazy are unfolding not somewhere in Syria, where civil war is raging, but next door in democratic [sic] Russia.” Such words as “stench of medieval times” and “Inquisition” appear in the article as well as a sense of satisfaction that unlike their Russian counterparts, Belarusian film distributors retain cold blood and will release the movie on September 26 (Belarus Segodnya, September 14).
In turn, an article in Sonar2050 by the Belarusian historian Valentin Starichonok debates the idea, previously presented in the same portal, that in order to succeed, Russia should sideline its hidebound patriotism and formulate and promote its new global missionary project instead. Considering the economic realities of today, particularly the rise of China, whose 2015 GDP exceeded Russia’s by a factor of eight, this idea is far-fetched, believes Starichonok. The author quotes an uncannily prophetic 1918 prediction from Nikolai Berdyaev: “After the decay of Europe and Russia, China and America will reign supreme—two powers that will be able to find points of convergence. The new realm of Chinese-American equality will then emerge that will preclude the rise and fall [of the others].” The same author also reflects on the 1935 poem “Kunlun,” by Mao Zedong, with a geopolitical vision of the future, wherein Mao “did not notice Russia between Europe and China” (Sonar2050, September 19). Indeed, in that poem, Mao only envisions three world regions: Europe, the United States and the East (Poemhunter.com, August 10, 2012).
Some noticeable changes are also occurring in the Belarusian political opposition. The most visible of them may be the dynamic growth of the “Speak the Truth” civic campaign (CTCC) that was registered in May 2017. This is the only affiliation of the opposition that, in the words of the aforementioned Bykovsky, practices “a non-zero-sum game” approach in its relations with the government; whereas the rest of the opposition embraces the utopian winner-takes-all approach and ends up with nothing as a result. In contrast, Andrei Dmitriev, the leader of the CTCC, proposes a strategy of small steps aimed at improving life in Belarus’s regions and localities beyond Minsk (Naviny, August 3). Dmitriev’s five-year plan also aims at introducing “democratic forces” at all levels of legislative and executive power in the country. The author of the plan believes that the ruling authorities are more ready for a dialogue with the opposition than ever before (Zapraudu.info, July 26). Some pro-government analysts observe that the “activities of the CTCC testify to its financial resources” (EurasiaExpert, September 18). Illustratively, Dmitriev and Tatyana Korotkevich, a 2015 presidential candidate, paid a visit to Minister of the Economy Alexander Zinovsky and discussed issues pertaining to small business development (Salidarnasts, September 6).
Finally, international attitudes toward President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus also show signs of change. Lukashenka’s popularity rating is no longer monitored on a regular basis because of the closure of the reliable polling agency that used to measure his public support quarterly (see EDM, September 6, 2016). And yet, Oleg Manaev, the founder of that polling firm, now living and working in the United States, recently posited that “Belarusian society itself legitimizes Lukashenka” (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, July 11). Although Manaev deplores this situation, one can alternatively explain this state of affairs as harmony between society and its leader. In his turn, perhaps the most prominent Western Belarus watcher, David Marples, in an interview with the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, observed that Europe and the US “learned to put up with Lukashenka as the lesser evil.” “ ‘The last dictator of Europe,’ ” Marples further suggested, “turned out to be not exactly the last one and perhaps not a dictator—at least not an accomplished one. And he leads a country in which a sense of statehood appears to be weak” (Svaboda.org, September 18). To be sure, to both scholars, Lukashenka is still a “bad guy.” But while their pronouncements do not undercut this view per se, they challenge some crucial arguments that had been used to back it up since as early as 1995. Nothing, indeed, is eternal under the moon.