Belarusian authorities denied the official request of the opposition (see EDM, March 17) to celebrate Freedom Day on March 25. A year ago (April 2020), the government declared that anyone petitioning for the right to hold a public gathering would first have to attain consent from the local police to maintain order, a health care facility to provide ambulances in case of emergency, and communal utilities to clean the area after the event. The organizers of the requested public event would also be required to prepay for all those services (Tut.by, April 3, 2020). This time, only Minsk’s health care system said yes, while the municipal police declined the request, citing the pandemic, the chosen itinerary for the rally (an identical one was deemed perfectly fine back in 2018), and “extremist appeals” published on Telegram channels. On March 23, Minsk city authorities officially rejected the opposition’s request. In anticipation that activists would hold unapproved public gatherings, the Belarusian capital came to resemble a city under siege last week, with an extraordinary number of police wagons parked in its streets. As a result, the entire March 25 celebration was scaled down to mainly just private cars honking sporadically, fireworks set off in several residential quarters, and displays of the white-red-white flags. Altogether, about 200 people were arrested, including 136 in Minsk (Tut.by, March 25).
Four days prior to this non-event, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered a speech at Khatyn, in conjunction with the 78th anniversary of the tragedy that befell this village in World War II (Khatyn is one of over 5,000 Belarusian villages burned together with their residents during the Nazi German military occupation). In his speech, Lukashenka once again asserted that the “genocide of the Belarusian people during the war was conducted under white-red-white flags” because Belarusian collaborators used them (Tut.by, March 22). In his interview with the newly resuscitated Belarus “special project” of Deutsche Welle, Alexei Miller, a prominent Russian historian, acknowledged that while Lukashenka is putting historical memory to political use, overall, the Belarusian version of that memory is “decent.” Unlike in Ukraine and the Baltic States, Nazi collaborators are not glorified, and the theory of German and Soviet equal responsibility for the war—that, in Miller’s view, was put forward by the European Union to please some East European elites—is not embraced by Minsk (Deutsche Welle, March 23).
Concurrently with the mournful ceremony at the Khatyn memorial, in relatively nearby Vilnius, Lithuania, the Kastus Kalinovsky Forum took place, organized by the Lithuanian Seim (parliament). Along with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the informal leader of the Belarusian opposition, many representatives from the EU and the United States participated, including Julie Fisher, the recently appointed US Ambassador to Minsk, who is yet to arrive in the Belarusian capital. Tikhanovskaya doubled down on her appeal to the West to help organize negotiations with the Lukashenka government (Tut.by, March 22).
To Yauheni Preiherman, who heads the Minsk Dialogue, the negotiations idea comes across as a “childish fantasy” considering that neither the EU nor the US have any meaningful conduits of influence on the situation in Belarus (Gazeta.by, March 24). In his turn, Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Relations observes that the EU’s current stance vis-à-vis Minsk is overly restrained to begin with. In 2010, repressions in Belarus were less significant than now, but the EU’s response was stronger then than it is at present (Svobodnyye Novosti, March 24).
Meanwhile, the first 37,000 tons of Belarusian gasoline recently were exported via the Russian port of Ust-Luga instead of Lithuanian Klaipeda (Tut.by, March 24). This development was clearly tangible and not purely rhetorical, unlike the Kalinovsky Forum. Yet that is not to say that rhetoric does not matter. Evidently it does, and last week’s verbal exchange between Minsk and Washington is proof.
On March 25, the US Embassy to Belarus issued a statement congratulating “all Belarusians on the 103rd anniversary of the declaration of the Belarusian People’s Republic of 1918… Currently, Belarusians of all ages are standing up for the right to determine the destiny of their country. In attempting to have their voices heard, many pay a heavy price as the regime resorts to intimidation, violence, and lethal force to maintain its grip on power” (By.usembassy.gov, March 25). The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in the genre of parody, using some of the same language but attempting to turn the tables: “We take the opportunity to apologize for not congratulating you recently on the 160th anniversary of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, whose flag is still dear to many Americans’ hearts.” “Together with the American people, Belarus is impatiently awaiting the day when an ordinary American will be able to freely walk around the Capitol building [in Washington, DC].” “We sincerely wish that the American people unite and not stumble on the stairs leading to the American Dream” (Mfa.gov.by, March 26).
Two observations come to mind in conjunction with such an unusual riposte. First, the foreign ministry’s jabs unmistakably resonate with Vladimir Putin’s much-publicized response to Joseph Biden’s “killer” comment as well as with Beijing’s recent statement that “the US is not qualified to speak from a position of strength” when criticizing China (see EDM, March 18, 22; BBC, March 19). Second, of more direct relevance to Belarusian-US relations is certainly the upcoming (in April) decision by Washington whether to continue freezing its US sanctions on Belneftekhim (originally imposed in March 2008), a Belarusian oil-processing conglomerate, or to unfreeze them, which is likely under the current situation. Should the latter happen, then, in the words of Preiherman, the chance that the US ambassador will actually arrive in Minsk will be minimized (Gazeta.by, March 24). Preiherman’s colleague Dzianis Melyantsou seconds his opinion: “If the foreign ministry already has information about the forthcoming unfreezing of sanctions against the Belarusian petrochemical industry, then […] Minsk has nothing to lose. Under these conditions, it makes no sense to expect the restoration of a full-fledged diplomatic presence and the speedy normalization of relations” (Facebook.com, March 27). Based on current trends, this may well be the case.