Belarusian Political Standoff: Entrenchment on All Sides

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 80

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Source: New Eastern Europe)

On May 12, Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrii Taran stated that, for now, his country did not face any immediate danger of a Russian invasion through neighboring Belarus. Nonetheless, he assured that Kyiv was “meticulously monitoring the situation” and evaluating available plans for responding to such a contingency (, May 12). Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has long guaranteed that Ukraine has nothing to fear from the north (see EDM, April 26); and clearly, in Kyiv’s estimation, those promises appear credible at least for the time being.

Ukraine’s ties with Belarus are multifaceted. In 2020, Ukraine ranked second among trade partners of Belarus. Belarus is Ukraine’s sixth trade partner after China, Poland, Russia, Germany and Turkey (, accessed May 18). Moreover, Belarus received about 100,000 migrants from Ukraine following the conflagration in Donbas in 2014; while Ukraine is still receiving political immigrants from Belarus following the crackdown on post-election protests starting in August 2020. One of the recent solicitors of political refuge in Kyiv is Vitaly Makarenko, who chaired the Mogilev Oblast branch of the Belarusian Popular Front and who is suspected of participation in the alleged uncovered coup plot against Lukashenka (Nasha Niva, May 2).

Also currently residing in Ukraine is one of the shrewdest political analysts of Belarus, Igor Tyshkevich. He recently observed that “Russia does not have its own Medvedchuk in Minsk,” in reference to Viktor Medvedchuk, now under house arrest in Kyiv (see EDM, May 13). Consequently, he posited, Moscow is keenly interested in creating Russia-friendly political factions in Belarus (YouTube, May 14). Incidentally, one such potential party, Soyuz (“Union”), headed by Sergei Lushch, was recently denied registration by the Belarusian authorities (Naviny, May 3), apparently for the same reason that has been valid since the beginning of Lukashenka’s tenure back in 1994: as a political self-preservation strategy, he does not allow anybody to undermine his own monopoly on ties with Moscow.

Alyona Vasylyeva, yet another political immigrant from Minsk and the director of the foundation Belarusian Maidan, established to help Belarusians who fled to Ukraine, published a controversial article titled, “Belarus: Revolution as a Business” (Ukrainskaya Pravda, May 12). In the piece, she contends that there are three cohorts of politically active Belarusians: Lukashenka loyalists; a nationally oriented group that Vasylyeva herself claims to be part of; and the new opposition. According to Vasylyeva, the leaders of the third category (e.g., Victor Babaryko and Valery Tsepkalo) are all creatures of Moscow, imitating an indefatigable fight for democracy and pulling the leg of the collective West in the name of their own status.

A recent interview with Andrei Klimov in Nasha Niva, a mouthpiece of the group Vasylyeva brands “nationally oriented,” echoes some of her observations. Among Belarus’s wealthiest entrepreneurs in the 1990s, Klimov ran afoul of Lukashenka, lost his business and served three prison terms: in 1998–2002, 2005–2006 and 2007–2008. These days, Klimov finds himself in the company of Yury Voskresensky, a former associate of Victor Babaryko’s thwarted 2020 electoral campaign. Jailed in August, Voskresensky was released following Lukashenka’s October 10, 2020, visit to the Belarusian KGB detention center (see EDM, October 21, 2020); since then, he has engaged in setting up roundtables for the willing representatives of the protest movement and the government. Although Voskresensky was branded a traitor by the opposition and, therefore has had minimal success in building bridges between the two sides, his effort continues. Moreover, Klimov calls him “the only bright spot in current Belarusian history.” According to him, Voskresensky is developing a political prisoner amnesty arrangement that Klimov believes the authorities would agree to implement. Much like Vasylyeva, Klimov is convinced that all the leaders of the “new opposition” are Kremlin creatures and that, presently, Lukashenka is a far more reliable protector of Belarus’s sovereignty than Babaryko or exiled former presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Should the latter become president, Klimov argued, she would fall under the Kremlin’s control immediately. However, she and her masterminds never planned to win, he posited. Were that the goal, they would have pressed it on August 16, 2020, a day during which huge crowds of protesters came out into the streets in Minsk but the police presence was scarce. Envisioning the objection—after all Tikhanovskaya had been in Lithuania since August 11—Klimov suggested that she “could [have returned] like [Vladimir] Lenin” did to Petrograd in April 1917. Unlike Lenin, however, Tikhanovskaya did not return. To Klimov, that means seizing power was not planned, and the goal was merely to make Lukashenka sign integration roadmaps with Russia. While Klimov appreciates Lukashenka’s role in sustaining Belarus’s independence, he is strongly opposed to repressions and favors extending an amnesty also to “poor [Alexander] Feduta and [Rygor] Kostusev,” who were implicated in the purported coup but exhibit “no resemblance to evil-doers and bandits” (Nasha Niva, May 11).

In the meantime, however, none of the actors involved in Belarus’s political crisis appear to be changing course. The European Union is preparing a fourth round of sanctions against Minsk, likely to accelerate Belarusian-Russian integration (RuBaltic, May 14). As for the Belarusian authorities, they continue to aggressively prosecute the protestors. A trial of 12 college students is underway in Minsk. The youths have been under arrest since November 12 and stand accused of being local coordinators of protest rallies (, May 14). Additionally, charges have finally been brought against Maria Kolesnikova (, May 13), who headed Babaryko’s electoral campaign. Reportedly, when the authorities brought her to the Ukrainian border to expel her from Belarus last September, she tore apart her Belarusian passport in order to stay (, September 8, 2020). Kolesnikova is accused of inciting activities that undermine national security, a conspiracy to seize state power by unconstitutional means, and of creating and leading an extremist group. She faces up to 12 years in prison.

Against this backdrop of inertia on all sides, one may barely discern the Belarusian Language Association soliciting donations to help it pay monthly rent for the premises it has occupied since 1989. This is the only non-political entity fighting for a full-fledged return of Belarusian to public life. Its overall unpaid rent has reached 20,000 rubles, or $8,000 (, May 14). Notably, almost none of the leaders of the new opposition are fluent speakers of Belarusian. The situation is, in a way, quite an eloquent illustration of where things stand regarding what some believe should be a key trapping of Belarusian identity.