Belarusians Caught Between Competing Political Visions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 62

(Source: Hannah Valynec,

Executive Summary:

  • Belarusians find themselves torn between two conflicting national agendas—one upheld by the state apparatus and the other championed by the opposition, many of whom are either exiled or imprisoned.
  • The leaders of both political camps are exacerbating Belarus’s polarized political environment, alienating Belarusians loyal to both political projects, including the Western-friendly one.
  • A political entity in Belarus that would be capable of transcending differences in collective memory and geopolitical leanings to emphasize shared values will have the best chance of consolidating the Belarusian nation.

The lack of societal cohesion around Belarus’s future poses a significant threat to the country’s sovereignty. Belarusians find themselves torn between two conflicting national agendas, each with distinct geopolitical implications. The state apparatus upholds one, while the opposition, many of whom are either exiled or imprisoned, champions the other. External support further fuels this antagonism, with Russia backing the state and the West backing the opposition. A glimmer of hope, however, may be found in the fact that the majority of Belarusians do not strongly align with either of these agendas, giving way to a possible third option that would combine elements of both approaches to Belarus’s future.

According to Chatham House’s Belarus Initiative, based on recent online surveys of urban Belarusians, most desire a “more normal country” where they are shielded from abuses of power (BelarusPolls, March 30). While they support the growth of private enterprise, they are not yet prepared for a fully liberalized economy. The surveys suggest that Belarusians’ attachment to the private-sector economy is weaker than not only that of the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Poles but also of the Russians and Ukrainians. The Belarusian public’s most significant departure from the opposition’s vision lies in matters of language and identity. In 2023, for instance, 55 percent of Belarusians viewed Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians as part of a three-prong East Slavic nation, while 41 percent regarded Belarusians as a distinct national community. Additionally, in the same year, 70 percent disagreed with the idea of Belarusian being the country’s sole official language, with only 16 percent in favor. The briefing paper suggests that a political vision capable of uniting Belarusians would embrace diverse identities and foster amicable relations with both Russia and the West.

Achieving such unity seems a distant possibility as the leaders of both political camps are exacerbating Belarus’s polarized political environment. For example, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s recent meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, underscores Belarus’s increasingly aligned worldview with Russia. According to Maxim Samorukov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Putin meets the Belarusian president more frequently than some leading officials of his own country (YouTube, April 9). Lukashenka’s criticism of Belarus’s western neighbors, particularly Poland, and his gratitude to the Kremlin leader for logistical support in rearranging Belarusian exports reinforce this alignment (Belta, April 11). Moreover, Lukashenka’s proposal to use the blueprint of stalled negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul in April 2022 for potential peace negotiations reveals his pro-Russian stance, as the negotiations in question were abandoned due to Russia’s lack of interest in restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity (SB, April 12).

On the opposition front, pessimism prevails. Prominent opposition-minded Belarusians have accused their comrades-in-arms, including those sentenced to long prison terms, of failing to change the regime in Minsk, evoking the maxim that victory has many friends, but failure is an orphan (Nasha Niva, April 4). The title of a recent episode of the Belarusian émigré-hosted talk show “The Clock Is Ticking”—“The Democratic Forces Are at a Dead End: What Can Be Done?”—is emblematic of current sentiments (, March 3). The discussion featured a group of opposition analysts, including Ryhor Astapenia, author of the Chatham House briefing paper, and Artyom Shraibman, a prominent political commentator in the anti-Lukashenka camp. Shraibman tried injecting some optimism in a subsequent episode, highlighting a long-term trend of former Russian satellites gravitating toward the West (, April 1). In a recent article on Western policies toward Belarus, Shraibman advocates for both democracy promotion and continued Western engagement with the Lukashenka regime, suggesting flexible sanctions that could be lifted in exchange for concessions, such as the release of political prisoners (Carnegie Endowment, March 28).

These fairly measured suggestions faced criticism from Shraibman’s more staunch colleagues. In early April, Andrei Kazakevich, introduced as director of the Institute of Political Studies, argued that lifting sanctions on Belavia, Belarus’s state-run airline facilitating travel to Europe, would undermine the broader sanctions regime against Moscow due to visa-free travel between Russia and Belarus (Svaboda, April 4). In response, Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty pointed to inconsistencies in such an approach as it would imply abolishing flights from, for example, Kazakhstan to the West since Russians can travel to Kazakhstan without visas (, April 4). In Kazakevich’s opinion, Shraibman’s propositions to Western foreign policymakers are unrealistic as the European Union is unlikely to adjust its decision-making to deal more effectively with Minsk.

The approach of some countries to the Belarusian émigré community has further exacerbated Belarusians polarizing views on the country’s future. The majority of Belarusians who left the country since August 2020 have resettled in Poland and Lithuania, with Vilnius’ reception being somewhat mixed. Some Lithuanian politicians have labeled certain Belarusian immigrants as “litvinists,” alluding to the belief that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a proto-Belarusian state whose name was usurped by modern Lithuania (Delfi, August 19, 2023). Consequently, meetings with Belarusian figures, including Uladzimer Arlou, in Vilnius have been canceled. (The meeting with Arlou did take place but at a different address; Belsat, March 22.) Other Belarusian immigrants, such as sociologist Aliaksei Lastouski, have faced similar sentiments (, April 11). Additionally, Lithuanian officials question why Belarusian émigrés, having fled the Lukashenka regime, continue to travel to Belarus up to seven times a year (LRT, February 28). Lukashenka himself cast some light on the reasoning behind those trips by promising to prevent those who left Belarus after August 2020 from receiving cheap medical attention at home (Belta, April 2). These reproaches inadvertently play into Lukashenka’s narrative, alienating Belarusians loyal to both political projects, including the Western-friendly one.

Of the two external centers competing for more influence in Belarus—Moscow and Brussels—the one that breaks the pattern by engaging with leaders from both of the country’s two main political projects stands to gain the upper hand. This goes hand in hand with Belarusians struggling to identify either project and searching for an approach that combines different identities and external ties. Similarly, only a political entity within Belarus capable of transcending differences in collective memory and geopolitical leanings to emphasize shared values can contribute to the successful consolidation of the Belarusian nation.