Musings of two Belarusian historians, Yury Shevtsov and Alexander Bely, symbolize the current condition of Belarusians’ cultural divide. Both consider the 1596 emergence of the Uniate Church, preserving the Eastern rite and discipline but submitting to papal authority, an important hallmark in Belarusian history. Yet, they draw contrasting conclusions from it. While for Shevtsov, who believes Belarusian culture is purely a regional variety of Russian, undoing the impact of Catholicism means a return to a genuinely Russian substratum of Belarus (T.me/YuryShevtsov, August 13). For Bely, this is an abomination. He postulates, “To get out of the ‘Russian world,’ we need at least a few hundred thousand fanatically non-Russian people” (Polskie Radio, August 4). Bely also points to an earlier hallmark, the 1385 Union of Krewo (or Act of Kreva), signed in what is today Smorgon District of Belarus’s Grodno Oblast, when, as a result of a dynastic marriage, Roman Catholicism began to spread on Belarusian lands. A Lukashenka loyalist, Shevtsov lives in Minsk, whereas Bely left for Israel several months ago.
Nobody knows for sure how many Belarusians left the country in the wake of the crackdown on the 2020 postelection protests. Most estimates are within the 200,000–300,000 range (YouTube, May 11, 2022). By September 2021, 150,000 Belarusians had already received refuge and were authorized to work in Poland, according to Polish President Andrzej Duda’s speech at the UN General Assembly. He did not specify the period but used the word “recently” (Belsat, November 11, 2021).
According to Artyom Shraibman, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who himself is a Belarusian émigré in Poland, the Belarusian diaspora in Poland remains detached from Russian émigrés. “Belarusians have … managed to build for themselves a parallel infrastructure of businesses, daycare centers, and schools … that you can use without leaving the Belarusian ghetto in Warsaw, Vilnius and several other European cities.” Shraibman observes that many Belarusians in the diaspora are switching to the Belarusian language from Russian. He also believes that, even with the authoritarian rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus is less totalitarian than Russia. According to the Carnegie scholar, not only the scale of repressions and consolidation of the ruling elite distinguish “totalitarian” from “authoritarian” but also a mobilizing role of ideology. And it appears that the imperial and revanchist “Z-ideology” is more dominant in Russia than the pro-Lukashenka, Soviet ideology is in Belarus (Gazeta.by, August 19).
Be that as it may, staying away from Russians abroad is but one aspect of Belarusian émigrés’ existence. Perhaps more important is the fact that they are becoming increasingly detached from their homeland. In Vilnius and Warsaw, the most debated topics are who presides over the Belarusian opposition (see EDM, August 17), whether the idea of armed struggle with the Lukashenka regime is on target (Svaboda, August 15) and, above all, how funds received from Western donors should be distributed. A lengthy interview with Franak Viachorka, who many believe is the eminence grise of the organized opposition in exile, suggests opposition-minded Belarusians are keenly frustrated over these issues. The interviewer representing Zerkalo, the offshoot of the legendary Tut.by cancelled by Minsk in 2020, lambasted Viachorka on financial accountability and the effectiveness of exiled opposition activists so persistently that Viachorka, not usually prone to self-doubt, acknowledged the possibility that “we may lose the fight for Belarusian minds” (Zerkalo, August 17).
This misgiving may not be overblown, as Belarusians at home are facing entirely different issues. Primary areas of concern include the state of the economy under Western sanctions and the potential to become fully involved in the Ukraine war. “Do not believe that I am planning some kind of an attack here and that we will bomb Ukraine from the territory of Belarus and so on,” Lukashenka declared to a group of farm workers in Brest Oblast. “I have no desire for your and my children to fight. In the name of what? We need to calm down. It is not Ukraine per se that is at war today, the entire NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] bloc and America in the first place, are at war with Russia” (Sb.by, August 19). Given that Ukraine has been bombed from Belarusian territory, this pronouncement can be construed as “Belarus itself played no role in that.” During his speech, Lukashenka also insisted that, while the government will continue to assist the Belarusian people in fulfilling their aspirations, they should rely on themselves for the most part, which may be construed as the state’s shrinking social welfare function during economic decline.
With no end in sight to this decline, Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko prefers to look at the bright side. Specifically, he mentioned that the decrease in exports from Belarus gave way to growth as early as May 2022 and that a huge excess of exports over imports will be recorded by the end of 2022, as imports have declined. Exports to Russia have grown, and, in June, reached the all-time monthly peak of $2 billion; Belarusian exports to China have also increased (Belta, August 19). Earlier, Golovchenko observed that, even after the decline in exports to unfriendly countries, their volume still amounted to $3.5 billion in 2021 and that the West is signaling its willingness to resume economic contact with Minsk (Vzglyad, August 14).
While preoccupied with the economy primarily, official Minsk does not forget about the sociology of its own. Thus, according to a telephone survey of 1,001 Belarusians, the most important national symbols of the Republic of Belarus appear to be monuments commemorating World War II—48.6 percent of respondents chose them; the state insignia of Belarus came second with 47.5 percent; and the Belarusian language and literature fourth at 38.6 percent (Belta, June 29) .
The fourth position of the Belarusian language and literature is telling, as is the overall ranking order. Thus, the survey may indeed confirm that the two groups of Belarusians are growing more and more apart.