Belarus’s Disunity and Its Impact on European Security

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 149

(Source: Kyiv Independent)

In 2022, the Day of National Unity was added to Belarus’s calendar as a new official holiday (see EDM, September 28, 2022). It is celebrated on September 17, the same day the Soviet Red Army entered Poland in 1939. Soviet Belarus more than doubled in size as a result. Even Bialystok, well to the west of the Belarusian-speaking areas, became part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was returned to Poland after the war.

The new holiday underscores official Minsk’s efforts to exercise a monopoly on Belarusian identity. At the Minsk Arena on September 17, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered a speech as part of the official celebratory forum, “We Are Belarusians” (Belta, September 17). The speech featured three major themes. First, Lukashenka declared that Belarusians have been the most peace-loving people on the planet. They repeatedly fell victim to foreign aggression in the past but never threatened any other nations themselves. Second, the Belarusian president touched on why the Day of National Unity was established only in 2022. He claimed that it had already been celebrated in 1940, albeit under a slightly different name. After World War II, the decision was made to not to focus on this date out of respect to Poland. National Memory in Poland treats what happened on September 17, 1939, as a result of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact and as the initiation of the fourth partition of the country. According to Lukashenka, the Polish authorities perceived this as Belarusian weakness. Thus, it was eventually decided to make up for the past mistake in reinstituting the national holiday. Third, Lukashenka memorialized the oppression of ethnic Belarusians in Poland between 1921 and 1939.

Belarusians are divided by the opposing Russo-centric and Westernizing versions of national memory (“Split Identity and a Tug-of-War for Belarus’s Memory,” December 20, 2019). The Day of National Unity may be interpreted as the expression of growing official support for the Russo-centric version among Belarusian officials (see EDM, January 26, 2022).

This societal fragmentation disrupts Belarusian efforts to cultivate support abroad. Pavel Matsukevich, former Belarusian chargé d’affaires in Switzerland, now an exiled opposition-minded analyst, illustrated the respective “tragedy of the Belarusian societal schism” by focusing on the two diplomatic tracks that Belarusian representatives pursued at the recent United Nations General Assembly session in New York: the official delegation headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Aleinik and the delegation representing the opposition headed by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (YouTube, September 22). Whereas the former was shunned by most everyone in the West (except Hungary), the latter had multiple contacts with Western diplomats on the sidelines of the event. According to Matsukevich, the two groups “are rowing in opposite directions. That is, the ship called ‘Belarus’ is at best standing still, though most likely it is drifting toward the Russian military. Multidirectional efforts [only aggravate] the situation. While one group is saving Belarus in Russia from sanctions and isolation, the other is saving Belarus with the help of sanctions and isolation. But that only pushes the country further into the same corner, toward the Russian military” (YouTube, September 22).

Some Belarusian analysts have applauded the efforts of the opposition-in-exile. Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran opposition-minded analyst, walked back his criticism of Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet for being detached from Belarusians at home (see EDM, September 20). He now suggests that the “level of Tikhanovskaya’s and her team’s activity is simply fantastic. The Russian opposition does not boast of an equally bright representative with such legitimacy, and they are jealous that Belarusians have Tikhanovskaya” (Gazetaby, September 22).

It is rather unclear as to how official Belarusian delegations interact with opposition representatives in their foreign contacts. A curious encounter took place at the UN session when Aleinik ran into Franak Viachorka, Tikhanovskaya’s primary advisor. The two reportedly shook hands and exchanged pleasantries (Nasha Niva, September 20). What this handshake signified is anyone’s guess, but it has been vigorously discussed in opposition media.

It is equally unclear what caused Lukashenka’s seventh trip to Russia since the start of this year. On September 15, Lukashenka visited Russian President Vladimir Putin at his dacha in Sochi. No media outlet has elaborated on the content of their talks. Most coverage focused on what was announced to the press before the meeting: the prospects of intensified Russian relations with North Korea in the wake of Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia’s Far East (Vedomosti, September 15; see EDM, September 18). This was discussed within the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine as a necessary step in forming a renewed security architecture for a multipolar world free from American dominance.

Two observations, 15 years apart, cast doubts on the notion that Russia and Belarus have been working in concert to establish such a system. On September 19, the Belarusian House of Representatives passed the bill, “On the Suspension of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty with the Republic of Poland and the Czech Republic.” In practical terms, this means that Belarus will no longer provide updates regarding its conventional arms and equipment stocks to Warsaw and Prague and will stop allowing inspections to verify compliance with the CFE Treaty. With respect to other states, Minsk will continue to follow the terms of the treaty (Belta, September 19). The United States, Canada and 28 European countries have signed the CFE Treaty, which came into force in 1992. Russia suspended its participation with respect to all participating states back in 2007 (Rossiyskaya gazeta, July 16, 2007).

This discrepancy belies the preconceived notion that Belarus is an extension of Russia. Today, Russia and Belarus are closer than ever before primarily due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The question remains if the West’s toolbox of approaches to Belarus contains some means to drive a wedge in that cohesion and whether those strategies have yet been put to use.