On February 13, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met for the fourth time over the course of two months (President.gov.by, February 13; Belta, February 6). As widely predicted, the agenda of their negotiations revolved around months-long unresolved economic issues. Notably, earlier this month, Russian Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin alleged that one member country of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is blocking the Moscow-led regionalist organization’s decisions, so “there is a sense like we are in an elevator that got stuck” (Vzglyad, February 1). Most commentators agree the country Oreshkin was alluding to is Belarus, which appears to be trying to use the EEU impasse as a tool to cajole Russia into compromising on its oil tariffs hike.
Following Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s December 13 “ultimatum” to Minsk, declaring that further financial support to Belarus would be contingent on the latter’s adoption of stricter Union State integrationist measures (see EDM, January 14), media around the world began raising the alarm that Belarus was in danger of losing its sovereignty and becoming incorporated into the Russian Federation. As recently as last week, news outlets from countries as far-flung as Finland (Helsingin Sanomat, February 7) and Japan (Asahi Shimbun, February 5), not to mention Russia and Belarus themselves, trumpeted such “Crimea” scenarios. But Minsk and Moscow have been attempting to cool those passions (see EDM, January 15, 24). On the one hand, Lukashenka suggested that the problems should not be “hyperbolized,” for even if Belarus does not receive compensation from Russia for the aforementioned oil tariff increase (commonly referred to in the media as Moscow’s “oil tax maneuver”), this is no catastrophe (Naviny, January 10). On the other hand, Putin’s assistant Yury Ushakov assured a leading Russian newspaper that “the issue of Belarus’s sovereignty had not been raised during the negotiations to date” and that, therefore, popular passions have been excessive (Izvestia, February 6).
Yet, Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran of Belarus’s independent journalism, observes that Russian media has been most responsible for this growing anxiety (Naviny, February 6). Hardly any outlet in Russia refrained from speculating that Putin might take over as head of the renewed Russia-Belarus Union State as a way to extend his tenure in power beyond 2024 (when his presidential term constitutionally expires). Klaskovsky even cites Yulia Latynina, a renowned liberal Russian journalist, who said that “Belarus is a tasty morsel” for the Kremlin and suggested that “the next Krymnash is just a matter of time.” The term Krymnash (a fusion of Krym nash or “Crimea belongs to us”) has become Russian shorthand for forcible nationalistically driven territorial annexations—such as Crimea in 2014.
Klaskovsky is on target. Large portions of the Russian media, including Regnum, EaDaily and others, have long been repeating ad nauseam that Minsk is a parasite and a traitor-in-waiting, ready to pursue the “Ukrainian scenario” of selling out to the West. Many Russians outside the capital actually like Lukashenka better that their own leaders, so there is a big audience to sway. Perhaps most explicitly, Dni.ru recently referenced the “righteous indignation” that Russian fans of Lukashenka purportedly expressed in response to an article describing Minsk’s rapprochement with the West. Point-by-point, the newspaper refutes the positive image of the Belarusian leader among most Russians, trying to reveal him as the turncoat he purportedly truly is (Dni.ru, February 7).
Lenta.ru has also been pushing this campaign forward. Specifically, the news outlet writes,
On January 31, speaking at a briefing at the [Washington, DC–based think tank] Atlantic Council, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Oleg Kravchenko declared there would be no limits on the number of American diplomats in the republic. At the open portion of the briefing, he positioned Belarus as a bridge between Russia and the West (About ten years ago, a similar idea used to be promoted by Ukrainian politicians with an intent to boost ties with NATO). However, at the closed-door part of the meeting, the tone of the Belarusian diplomat changed somewhat. According to some sources, Kravchenko proposed to conduct NATO exercises in Belarus and to invite to Belarus American specialists on social network analysis and on Internet control. Experts that Lenta.ru queried called this information quite reliable. By all appearances, Belarus has already made its choice (Lenta.ru, February 5).
Curiously, the article that this quote is from also features a picture of Jamestown President Glen Howard and former US Army Europe commander Benjamin Hodges, taken after the two took part in a wreath laying ceremony at a war memorial in Minsk. The picture is meant to imply some sinister aspect to Belarusian-American ties, considering that Hodges, “now posing as an analyst,” is a (retired) lieutenant general with combat experience in various global hot spots.
The above message about the alleged closed-door session has been reverberating across the Russian-language media. It is little wonder then that Nasha Niva, a mouthpiece of Belarusian Westernizing nationalism, called the Ministry of Defense to find out if and when joint Belarusian-US exercises would take place in Belarus. The paper was rebuffed by the ministry’s press secretary, Vladimir Makarov, who recommended it take guidance from official Belarusian sources (Nasha Niva, February 7). In turn, the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty opined that, besides being rude, Colonel Makarov might actually not be aware of such plans (Svaboda.org, February 7).
The actual question to address, however, is why all the fuss. By virtue of being closer to the events in question than the anonymous experts of Lenta.ru, this author knows for sure: The Atlantic Council’s briefing on Belarus (Atlanticcouncil.org, January 31) did not have a closed-door session. Moreover, had it occurred, it is unlikely Lenta.ru would know what was talked about there and most probably would not even know that it did take place. As such, Lenta.ru’s revelation is arguably not actually a lie, it is something else entirely—an insidiously disruptive form of nonsense.
In his seminal (yet mischievously titled) work On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005), philosopher Harry Frankfurt explores the difference between simple lies and the titular concept. As he argues, the transmitter of the former knows how things really are, whereas the purveyor of the latter is entirely indifferent to the truth—guided instead by the desire to misrepresent what he/she is up to.
Thus, at least in one respect, the new stage of Russian-Belarusian tensions is qualitatively different from previous stages. With Lukashenka markedly preoccupied with information security (Naviny, January 31), one is left to wonder if this topic came up in his conversations with Putin.