Belarusians Take Their Country’s Fate Into Their Own Hands

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 79

Anatoly Lebedko, Yury Gubarevich, Vitaly Rymashevsky in Washington (Source:

The death of Richard Pipes, one of the United States’ foremost Russian scholars, generated quite a resonance in the Russian media. Some honored him as a respected enemy (Zavtra, May 18); while others lauded him as a preeminent scholar, one of the precious few Westerners able to understand how Russia actually works (NewIz, May 18). In Belarus, that resonance was predictably smaller. But Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Gurnevich was proud to note that he had the privilege to take one of the very last interviews given by Pipes. Now, sharing his musings about Pipes’ passing, Gurnevich confesses that Pipes deeply upset him during his 20-minute interview from a hospital bed (, May 18). Over and over again, Pipes uttered the same sentence, “Russia is not going to break up; your salvation is elsewhere: be curious about politics and be active.” Rethinking his initial disappointment, Gurnevich now suggests Pipes’ message was on target. “Do not look for freebies; make a difference in lives around you; become the masters of your domain. If something is not to your liking, do not complain but strive to change it,” he interprets Pipes’ appeal (, May 17).

When narrowing the scope to interpretations of Belarusian history, a similar view was shared by the Belarusian historian Alona Markava, who works at Charles University in Prague. In 2012, Markava published a Czech-language book, Soviet Belarusianization as a Way to Becoming a Nation, which was subsequently translated into Belarusian and released in Minsk. According to her, Belarusians themselves should actively promote their take on their history. Otherwise, others will continue to interpret and own it (, May 18).

This refrain—take your life into your own hands—offers a prism through which to look at ongoing developments. Two of them immediately come to mind: a new visit by Belarusian opposition leaders to Washington, which began on May 16, and the May 23–25 Minsk Dialogue international forum in the Belarusian capital.

The opposition’s delegation to Washington included Anatoly Lebedko, the chairman of the United Civic Party; Yury Gubarevich, chairing the civic movement “For Freedom”; and Vitaly Rymashevsky, who heads the unregistered Christian Democratic Party. They talked to Congressmen John Shimkus and Christopher Smith, and deputy director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Jeffrey Trimble. The Prague-based Current Time TV channel uncharacteristically began its interview with Lebedko by asking, “So, did you come for grants?” (Golos Ameriki, May 17). “Uncharacteristically,” as the aforementioned TV channel receives its own funding from the United States Congress, not from the government of Belarus, which has repeatedly accused the likes of Lebedko of subsisting on Western grants and being accountable exclusively to foreign donors. Apparently, this has become the normative perception of activity by political figures that have little-to-no clout at home. Illustratively, Lebedko, who has been in politics since 1994, initially as a member of the Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s team and then as deputy chair and chair (since 2000) of a major opposition party, failed to collect the requisite 100,000 signatures required to run for president in 2015.

Ten statements summarize the trio’s message to the West (, May 18; Naviny, May 18). Among the most poignant are: “Do not invest in [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, invest in the opposition”; “A window of opportunity is about to open; and if supported by the West, the opposition may use these newfound opportunities to change the acting regime without the use of force”; “Coordination between Washington and Brussels with regard to Belarus is necessary”; and “We are interested in unity and will promote a single candidate to run in the next presidential elections.”

Given the history of internecine war between Belarus’s opposition leaders over the course of 20 years, a war largely waged for foreign donors’ attention, the last statement is particularly difficult to take seriously. Whereas, the other statements are only marginally less awkward. Consequently, the entire Lebedko-Gubarevich-Rymashevsky trio invokes a standard Russian moniker for pretenders: Children of Lieutenant Schmidt. The reference comes from The Golden Calf, a satirical novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, released in 1931. In it, a group of vagabonds and swindlers pose as children of the 1905 revolutionary Lieutenant Schmidt in order to gain public attention and support.

In fact, Washington and Brussels do pay attention to Belarus and coordinate their Belarus policies. Suffice it to look at the agenda and the list of participants of this week’s Minsk Dialogue forum, “Eastern Europe: In Search of Security for Everybody,” an event without a precedent. In it, more than 350 leading international security experts as well as practicing and former political leaders will take part. These include President Lukashenka of Belarus; Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Thomas Greminger; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs James Appathurai; former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and former Chairman of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) Nikolay Bordyuzha. The forum’s major sponsor is Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (Foundation), with participation of other donors. Such prominent US think tanks as the Rand Corporation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Kissinger Associates, and Stratfor will be represented at the forum by multiple associates, as will be British Chatham House and such Russian entities as Valdai Club, the Institute for Strategic Research, Gorchakov Club, etc. Talking about the rationale behind this forum, Yevgeny Preiherman, the leader of Minsk Dialogue, a non-government organization founded in 2015, with the mission “to offer an inclusive and quality discussion and research platform without geopolitical division lines,” opined that if international confrontation continues to grow, small countries—and Belarus among them—will be victimized first and foremost. Preiherman also stated that all the existing international discussion platforms in Europe have degenerated into mouthpieces of propaganda war so the upcoming forum intends to fill the ensuing vacuum and may become a recurring event (, May 15).

While it remains to be seen how eventful and influential the Minsk Dialogue forum turns out to be, one thing is already certain. Truly concerned Belarusians are positioning themselves to take the fate of their country into their own hands. The counsel of the late Richard Pipes is working.