“Getting Out From ‘In-Between’ ” was the suggestive title of a 2018 RAND Corporation study devoted to the former Soviet republics that became members of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative. The EaP just celebrated its tenth anniversary; and according to some not quite impartial observers (Rubaltic.ru, May 15), the jubilee was a fiasco. Reportedly, Georgia and Ukraine rejected the original summit declaration, as it did not say a word about the prospects of their accession to the EU. After that clause was included, Georgia and Ukraine did end up agreeing to sign the document, but then Azerbaijan balked because the declaration did not openly back its territorial integrity.
As for Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was no-show for the second time. Lukashenka was first invited to the November 2017 EaP summit, but he sent his foreign minister instead. The same happened this time around. As Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by explained, both times Lukashenka declined to go because the results of Belarus’s rapprochement with the EU have not been particularly impressive. Shraibman sees three modest accomplishments: the growth of EU technical assistance to Belarus, the opening of local branches of two major European banks, and an improvement in Brussels’ and Minsk’s ability to talk to each other. In the eyes of the Belarusian government, however, these do not warrant Lukashenka’s presence at the summit, especially considering that the visa simplification agreement has still not been signed after five years of negotiations. Currently, it is Lithuania that stands in the way, in protest against the construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant in Astravyets, about 50 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital. Moreover, negotiations on a basic agreement defining mutual relations have not even started yet, and trade between Belarus and EU has not grown. Certainly, Brussels is not satisfied with the human rights situation in Belarus, but, above all, there does not seem to be enough political will on the EU’s part (Tut.by, May 17).
Apparently revealing Minsk’s dissatisfaction with the European bloc, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei emphasized in Brussels that “one should invest more in Belarus [and] aid [its] economic development, thereby sustaining Belarus’s sovereignty and independence.” In the words of Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran Belarusian opposition journalist, Makei’s candor about the confrontation between East and West in Europe was unexpected. “This is a problem for us because we are situated between two large camps, and we are suffering because of their mutual confrontation,” Makei is quoted as saying. While the foreign minister’s words are hardly a revelation—they have been uttered before—it is the provocative interpretation that matters. “The point is,” writes Klaskovsky, “that Makei does not mention the alliance with Russia. Instead of ‘we will die for Moscow,’ he calls things by their proper names: we are suffering from this confrontation. This phrase will probably provide a pretext to Russian great power [sic] media outlets to once again chastise Makei as a traitor to Slavic brotherhood” (Naviny, May 14).
Chastising, however, emanates from all sides and is apparently organic to a zero-sum contest over the “in-between” states. It particularly shows up in strident debates on social media. Thus, the Belarusian scholar Dmitry Bolkunets, who works for the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, a liberal and generally Western-friendly education and research center, reveals his indignation (on Kkaskovsky’s Facebook page) over what he sees as excessive praise of Makei. In reality, Bolkunets asserts, the Belarusian foreign minister only “serves the regime” that perpetrates human rights abuses (Facebook.com/klaskouski, May 14). Similar indignation emanates from a recent Foreign Policy interview with Andrei Sannikov, a 2010 presidential hopeful now residing in Poland. According to Sannikov, “Lukashenko started his rule by destroying Belarusian identity… By taking away the language, culture, and history, he is already selling Belarus, piece by piece, to Russia” (Foreign Policy, May 10).
Once an identity has been established and internalized, however, it is admittedly difficult to destroy. And in this context, a recent interview published in Nasha Niva, the most avowedly Westernizing and belarusophone media outlet, is particularly noteworthy. The paper’s interviewee is 45-year old Minsk resident Andrei Khomenok, who exhibited a red flag and a portrait of Joseph Stalin in the window of his apartment on Partizansky Prospekt, a major thoroughfare in Minsk. Khomenok knows there were repressions under Stalin; his own grandmother fell victim to those. However, he praises the “breakthrough in economy, politics and culture” made under Stalin’s rule and dreams that Russia will rise again. “Wait,” says the interviewer, “we are not Russia.” To which Khomenok replies, “Great Russia, Little Russia, White Russia—how come we are not [simply] Russia!?” (Nasha Niva, May 15). Among those castigating his worldview on the Facebook page of Yulia Cherniavskaya, a blogger and a specialist on Belarusian culture, some revealed that the worldview itself is actually quite popular (Facebook.com, May 16).
Whereas Sannikov and Moscow-based liberals routinely militate against the allegedly pro-Russian Lukashenka regime, Modest Kolerov, the editor of Regnum, a “patriotic” Russian outlet, writes that “in beautiful, heroic and sacred Belarus, […] bureaucratic nationalism has no other path but that chosen by Ukraine, and Belarus is already following the Ukrainian path” (Facebook.com/modest.kolerov, May 6). Alexander Shpakovsky, a Belarusian government-friendly commentator, in turn, suggests that Kolerov is just a talking head of Russian financial capital. “While the West is faking concern over Belarusian independence and flattering our president, threats, insults, and fake news are emanating from Russia… Who stands to lose is clear. Russia destroys the image of the guarantor of the Belarusian state […], which is dangerous for our country and for Russia, too. I am amazed that under such conditions, Lukashenka has enough political wisdom to keep our state in the pro-Russian orbit” (Shpakovsky, May 7).
One is tempted to agree with Shpakovsky, if only in part. Perhaps it is not the fact of keeping Belarus in the Russia’s orbit that is so noteworthy as much as the ability to remain at the helm of a state split by such a striking cacophony of opinions about the very essence of Belarus as a nation. Those commenting on Belarus need to be aware of that ambient environment.