A bewildering array of divergent opinions on Belarus emanates from its closest neighbors. But for a relatively small and landlocked country committed to retaining and developing its statehood, it is vital to pay close attention to all those various viewpoints. Three concurrent recent examples highlight the issue.
Lithuania has rejected the outcome of a commercial tender to determine the best contractor for the 165-kilometer natural gas pipeline between Lithuania and Poland. Administered by AB Amber Grid, the tender had favored the Belarusian company Beltrubapravodbud, assisted by the Kaunas-based firm KRS. But Lithuania’s Department of State Security did not endorse that choice; consequently, the second-best offer will be given a green light. Needless to say, Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the Lithuanian government of meddling in commercial relations on frivolous grounds. The Lithuanian commentator Vitis Jurkonis attributed the decision to justifiable suspicion that the Belarusian company was dependent on Moscow—which, effectively, confirmed the charges of the Belarusian authorities that the decision in Vilnius was made on political grounds (Svaboda.org, July 31).
That same week, the Polish journalist Witold Jurasz, who served as chargé d’affaires in Minsk between 2010 and 2012, gave two extensive interviews regarding what he sees as shortcomings in Poland’s policy towards Belarus. Both were given to media outlets harshly critical of the Belarusian government. In his interview with the website Reformation, Jurasz called the “absence of secrets” the “best-kept secret of Poland’s foreign policy.” By that Jurasz meant an unsophisticated fixation of Polish diplomats on Belarusian democracy. The former envoy to Minsk contended that this democracy-first approach negates the possibility for something closer to a realpolitik policy, which he endorses. Of the three possible future scenarios for the country—1) Belarus as integral to the collective West, 2) Belarus as a Russian province, and 3) Belarus between Russia and the West—Jurasz maintained that the first one has to be discarded as unrealistic. By extension, the third scenario is the one to fight for (Reformation, July 26).
It is a fallacy, Jurasz believes, to consider any Polish diplomat in Minsk a loyal friend of the opposition. After all, a Polish diplomat should promote the national interests of his/her country first and foremost. That requires nurturing a relationship with the authorities. The Belarusian opposition is weak and infiltrated by the KGB and Russians. And they made a crucial mistake in December 2010, in the wake of a contested election, to lead a crowd of angry protesters to the government compound in downtown Minsk. Those protesters consisted predominantly of intellectuals, with no industrial workers whatsoever participating. As a result of the crackdown on that rally, which should have been predictable, the West imposed harsh sanctions on Belarus that were neither in the interest of the West nor of Belarus itself—only in the interests of Russia, Jurasz argued (Reformation, July 26).
As for the “power vertical” in Minsk, Jurasz claimed that the ruling system is highly functional and has enlisted many true Belarusian patriots. The fact that Belarusian officials are not democrats does not make them traitors. Belarus, Jurasz asserted, has the potential for an “economic miracle,” which is presently much less likely in either Russia or Ukraine. Jurasz particularly praised the Belarusian foreign ministry, which “works excellently.” Belarusians are the only neighboring nationality with whom Poles have no skeletons in the closet, he contended, by which Jurasz meant many fewer contradictions over official “historical policy” than with Ukraine or Russia. In contrast, “50 years of psychotherapy” is required to resolve Poland’s historical issues with Russia; whereas, in Ukraine, the authorities have begun to memorialize the nationalists responsible for mass killings of Poles in Wolyn, during World War II. At the same time, Jurasz criticized Polish right-wing radicals, who saw the absence of bilateral problems as a problem itself and began to actively invent them. With this in mind, they resuscitated the memory of Romuald Rajs (a.k.a. “Bury”), who killed Belarusians in eastern Poland back in 1946 (see EDM, March 26). Their reasoning, Jurasz maintained, is much like that of Volodymyr Viatrovich, in charge of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, who says, “yes, they [Ukrainian nationalists] killed children, but…”
In his later interview with the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, Jurasz bemoaned Poles’ scarce knowledge of Belarus, which he attributed to the indefatigable activity of those foreign policymakers who have been busily engaging in Belarus’s “liberation” for the last 25 years. The major beneficiary of that preoccupation has been Russia. “Alyaksandr Lukashenka most probably will not become a democrat. But if he became one, it is (again) Russia that would benefit from that, not the pro-Western opposition or the West itself.” Jurasz also complained about the fact that once he became a Polish diplomat in Minsk, he realized his embassy had failed to cultivate relations with Belarusian bureaucrats at least on a par with what the Czech embassy had accomplished. While speaking with Radio Liberty, Jurasz also referred to Belarusians as the “most Western people” amongst Poland’s eastern neighbors. That pronouncement became the title of his interview (Svaboda.org, July 31).
It is, of course, not just in Poland where bilateral problems are sometimes invented. Russia has been even more “successful” in this area. “Nationalists Make Russophobe Pole a Hero of the Belarusian People” is the title of an essay recently published by an online analytic portal based in Kaliningrad, Russia. The historical personality in question is Kastus (Konstanty) Kalinovsky, one of the leaders of the 1863 uprising against Russian authorities on Belarusian lands, executed in Wilno (Vilnius). Kalinovsky’s ethnicity and interpretation of his views are indeed a matter of historical controversy. Even the Belarusian Westernizers are not unanimous on this account: for example, Valery Bulgakov, the author of the authoritative book History of Belarusian Nationalism (2006), does not believe Kalinovsky was a Belarusian patriot. However, the major motive of the aforementioned article is not historical debate. Rather, it is to insinuate the “deficit of national heroes” in Belarus and to cast the “Kalinovsky cult” as a virulently anti-Russian pursuit. In this regard, the opening of the Kalinovsky Café in downtown Minsk is seen as a vicious undertaking by Belarusian nationalists (RuBaltic, July 26).
It seems that the cacophony of perspectives on Belarus, embraced and promoted by its closest neighbors, would alone generate a sufficient workload for the Belarusian foreign ministry. The fact that its personnel are referred to as highly professional—by Jurasz and indeed quite a few others—bodes well for Minsk.