Belarus’s survival and further development in a tough neighborhood is conditioned by the economy, a sense of nationalism, and geopolitical maneuvering between the major centers of power, Russia and the collective West.
According to Yury Drakakhrust of Tut.by and Radio Liberty, the new geopolitical situation in Europe is a source of both danger and opportunities for Minsk. Thus, a statement made by the Russian ambassador to Belarus that in the upcoming elections Russia will support Alyaksandr Lukashenka is in the realm of opportunities. Never before did Russia issue a statement like this in advance of a major electoral event. Indeed, in 2010, the run-up to the Belarusian presidential elections coincided with the airing of the “Godfather” documentary on Russian TV discrediting Lukashenka. Today, however, Moscow is interested in boosting its military presence in Belarus, whereas the West is interested in minimizing it. Hence there is a possibility to receive dividends from both sides. Drakakhrust invokes the statement by Vladimir Putin from his June 6 interview to Corriere della Sera: “In some countries,” the Russian president told the Italian paper, “…they simply profiteer from misgivings about Russia. They just want to play the role of frontline states that need to be additionally aided, be that in military, economic, financial or any other fashion.” According to Drakakhrust, this pronouncement does not match the attitude of the Central and Eastern European members of NATO because their misgivings regarding Russia are not baseless; rather, the aforementioned statement is in line with the new opportunities for Belarus (Tut.by, June 22).
Drakakhrust’s musings dovetail with the opinions of Stratfor’s George Friedman, which he shared with the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty. Friedman believes that the prospect of Belarus’s annexation by Russia is far-fetched, first because it would exacerbate Russia’s strategic vulnerabilities and second because Lukashenka has developed an effective political structure to oppose the potentially aggressive designs of Moscow. In Friedman’s view, Lukashenka’s demise was falsely predicted on so many occasions it is high time to recognize this leader has been underrated. Moreover, “today, Russia needs Lukashenka more than Lukashenka needs Russia,” he argued (Svaboda.org, June 23).
If Russia’s need in Belarus is indeed at an all-time high, then Minsk’s efforts to enlist the financial support of the West could not be more timely as it might boost donor competition and actually lessen Belarus’s dependency on Russia. Incidentally, the delegation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is to visit Belarus in July to make preparations for the new loan program. The new loan will probably reach around $3.5 billion, much like the previous (2009–2010) one. Also, a new emission of Belarusian Eurobonds worth $1 billion is planned for early 2016 (Tut.by, June 26).
In the meantime, Belarus’s economic situation is tough. Some enterprises selling on the Russian market are facing bankruptcy. Among them are such giants as Strommashina, which produces equipment for construction; Bellegprom, producing textiles; the Minsk tractor factory; and the Gomel agricultural machinery enterprise. The demand on the latter two entities’ output depends on agricultural subsidies within Russia, and these have noticeably shrunk. During the first five months of 2015, real earnings in Belarus declined by 7.7 percent (Ng.ru, June 26).
The population’s reaction to a worsening of the economy, however, would be hard to interpret without keeping in mind that Belarus is essentially part of the Russia-controlled information space. Thus, whereas both in December 2013 and in March 2014, the national survey-based index of the quality of life (the difference between the numbers of positive and negative responses to the question about change in one’s material quality of life over the course of three months) was decidedly negative, the index of expectations (a difference between the numbers of positive and negative responses to whether the country is going in the right direction) increased tremendously (from minus 23 to minus 2) during the same period. According to Sergei Nikolyuk from the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), this was the result of a “patriotic euphoria” that affected Belarusians just like it did Russians in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. Since that time, “patriotic” agitation has somewhat subsided, and that has resulted in the decline in the number of people willing to withstand painful economic reforms for the benefit of: a) a strong and independent Belarus, b) prospects of a better life for the children, c) ditto for oneself, etc. Thus, whereas in 2014, 48 percent of Belarusians evinced readiness to sacrifice for the sake of a strong and independent Belarus, in 2015, only 36 percent did (Naviny.by, June 19).
No less discouraging is the fact that 83 percent of Belarusians using Wikipedia read its Russian-language version, 9 percent read its English-language version, whereas the Belarusian-language Wikipedia is used by only 1 percent (Svaboda.org, June 24). In this regard, some optimism is boosted by the news that in one day care center in the Moscovsky district of Minsk, a Belarusian-language group has been opened; it will be attended by 25 kids aged four and five. This day-care center is the sixth one in the district with a Belarusian-language section (Tut.by, June 24).
Language, of course, is the major marker of ethnic identity in most Old World countries. But Belarus is definitely an exception. Hence the national leadership’s de facto emphasis on civic nationalism, whose pivot is memory about the Great Patriotic War. Thus, on June 22, Alyaksandr Lukashenka participated in the inauguration of the Trostenets memorial, commemorating the fourth-largest extermination camp in Europe—after Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. The International Education Center in Dortmund, Germany, has offered 400,000 euros ($446,000) for this memorial at the outskirts of Minsk (Tut.by, June 23). Also, on June 24, a memorial stone was installed near the former Jewish cemetery at 25 Sukhaya Street, in Minsk, commemorating the murder of 465 Jews deported from East Prussia. All of them were subsequently killed in Trostenets (Naviny.by, June 24).
Civic nationalism is a feasible opportunity for Belarus, whose leadership also seems well adapted to Belarus’s geopolitical situation. Consequently, cautious optimism is justified in regard to Belarus’s sovereignty and bright future.