In the years following Stalin’s death, a certain type of journalistic doublespeak took shape in the Soviet Union. It allowed those who did not want to taint their public image to convey reasoning that veered off from the Communist Party’s dogma. Apparently, this writing style has outlived Soviet Belarus. Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran Belarusian opposition journalist now in exile, seemingly employed this same strategy in his recent column on September 13 (Pozirk, September 13).
Reading between the lines of Klaskovsky’s central message—that Belarus is more independent of Russia than many believe—five themes stand out. Each is veiled behind concessions to the opposition’s dominant creed: President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is the exclusive root cause of all evil. First, the vigorously promoted argument that Belarus is a country occupied by Russia does not hold water (Pozirk, September 13). Currently, just over 2,000 Russian military personnel are left in Belarus—1,450 at two Russian military installations and 600 at two airfields. The size of this force is consistent with past numbers since the late 1990s. Klaskovsky asserts that Belarusian dependency on the Kremlin has increased; however, this does not amount to a military occupation.
Second, Lukashenka is not entirely Putin’s puppet. The Belarusian president has managed to avoid sending a single Belarusian to join Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Moreover, Lukashenka continues to maintain ties with Kyiv. Why would the Ukrainian government waste time speaking with a Russian puppet?
Third, the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil was not the result of Kremlin arm-twisting. This was a case in which Moscow’s interests perfectly coincided with Lukashenka’s ambitions. The Belarusian president had been considering amending the Belarusian Constitution’s “nuclear-free” clause for several years (TASS, December 27, 2021).
Fourth, Lukashenka is still carving out room for maneuver both inside and outside Belarus. Some oppositionists now consider Lukashenka’s regime inseparable from Putin’s Kremlin. Nevertheless, recent developments point to official Minsk potentially distancing itself from Moscow on some matters (see EDM, September 7).
Fifth, Klaskovsky argues, “Some opponents of the regime have such a strong desire to stigmatize the usurper [Lukashenka] that they extract some sick pleasure from repeating the refrain about occupation, puppetry and complete loss of independence. This view prevents us from objectively analyzing the situation in and around the country. The fact that [Belarusian] statehood has not been lost is an important asset for the prospect of change” (Pozirk, September 13).
Paul Hansbury’s observation about the Belarusian opposition-in-exile nicely dovetails with those of Klaskovsky (Opendemocracy.net, September 14). Hansbury believes that the adopted declaration of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Vilnius-based provisional cabinet on future Belarusian membership in the European Union shows that the opposition is out of touch with realities inside Belarus (Tsikhanouskaya.org, August 6). Tikhanovskaya reaffirmed this commitment in a speech to the European Parliament on September 13 (Agenceurope.eu, September 14). Hansbury asserts that Belarusians have always been divided on whether to gravitate closer to Brussels or Moscow. As multiple Chatham House polls have revealed, currently, the push for Russia appears to be stronger. Hansbury concludes that Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet and her EU patrons had better facilitate unity of the prodemocratic forces rather than divisive causes in Belarus. If not, then the supporters of the opposition-in-exile will continue to “grow increasingly disillusioned with its prospects.”
Apparently, such criticism has fallen on deaf ears in the EU. Its semi-blockade of Belarus has radically transformed economic ties between Brussels and Minsk (Russiapost, July 28). Before the sanctions regime was enacted, the EU and Ukraine accounted for 40 percent of Belarus’s international trade exchange; today, it amounts to just 5 percent (TASS,September 9). Placing blame for this gargantuan change solely on Lukashenka is hardly realistic.
The lack of unity among anti-regime forces goes hand-in-hand with poor prospects for national consolidation. This problem may be potentially more perilous for Belarus’s statehood than for the Lukashenka regime, which the lingering schism effectively helps sustain. Many politicized Belarusians have a rather partisan view of this picture. For example, Siarhei Nauvmchyk, a former member of the Belarusian parliament (1990–1995) and a political emigre since 1996, believes that, due to “the [low] level of national consciousness … of the Belarusian population, on the one hand, and the clearly expressed reluctance of the West to destroy the Russian Empire, on the other,” the current political regime in Minsk will linger for perhaps 20 more years (Facebook.com/siarhiej.navumchyk, September 3). This prediction resonates with Navumchyk’s earlier observation that some 90 percent of Belarusians do not have the “right outlook” for the Belarusian nation (Russiapost, January 13). In this, the Belarusian émigré is referring to those Belarusians that prioritize the Westernizing blueprint for Belarus while denying Belarusian identity to those who do not.
Predictably, the same radicalism is shared by Navumchik’s antagonists. However, their views share the important qualification of being more in line with the Lukashenka regime, especially given its enhanced dependency on Russia. These critics blast Lukashenka and his circle for their inconsistent pro-Russian attitude while demanding elevated status for the Russian language and recognition of Belarusians as a regional grouping of Russians (Facebook.com/ant.pu.96, September 9).
Neither of the two sides acknowledge the Belarusian identity of the other. But presently, more being done to please the pro-Russian side. For example, responding to repeated requests, Lukashenka’s chief of staff, Igor Sergeyenko, announced that, before the end of the year, the Belarusian “Latinka” (i.e., Belarusian written in Latin script) will be removed from road signs. Only Russian and Belarusian Cyrillic will remain (Sputnik.by, September 14). According to a 2022 survey of Belarusian identity funded by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 96 percent of the country’s residents use Russian for everyday communication; only 4 percent of Belarusians believe the Belarusian language is important in defining a person as “Belarusian” (Belorusskaya Natsionalnaya Identichnost, December 2022).
Some would take these results as confirmation of Navumchyk’s judgment that most Belarusians have an “incorrect worldview.” Others, however, would accept Belarusians as they are and suggest that the Belarusian opposition needs to adjust it rhetoric if it hopes to stay even somewhat relevant within Belarus.