Difficulties of Belarusian National Consolidation in International and Domestic Setting

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 42

Freedom Day celebrations, Minsk, March 24, 2019 (Source: Belsat)

While Belarus’s self-awareness is generally on the rise (see EDM, March 19), it never stops being influenced by a wide spectrum of domestic and international affairs. Thus, a tussle between the Russian ambassador to Minsk and the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) continues to reverberate in the media (see EDM, March 19, 25). Russia’s first official reaction was to call upon the Belarusian government to treat Ambassador Mikhail Babich “more respectfully” (Naviny.by, March 15). The second statement of the Russian MFA was more conciliatory, citing experiences of resolving mutual problems (Lenta.ru, March 21). In his turn, the head of the Belarusian foreign ministry, Vladimir Makei, called upon Russian partners to work collaboratively and stop leaking needlessly negative information to the mass media (Lenta.ru, March 21).

Predictably, the Russian “patriotic” media outlet Regnum’s seemingly personalized vendetta against Minsk received a boost. Thus, the publication’s contributor Yury Baranchik unleashed a barrage of three disparaging articles, the first of which (Regnum, March 15) mocks President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s idea of constitutional amendments (EDM, March 14). In the second article, titled “Mikhail Babich has Opened the Belarusian Abscess” (Regnum.ru, March 16), Baranchik points to “collusion” between the Belarusian MFA and the “pro-Western Neo-Banderite” (a reference to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist now glorified in Kyiv) opposition and suggests Makei should be fired. The article contains a caricature of Lukashenka counting US dollars. The third article (Regnum, March 22) suggests that Ambassador Babich “took control of the information space of the Republic of Belarus.” Baranchik is a Belarusian citizen affiliated with Regnum. In March 2017, he was apprehended at the request of the Belarusian authorities (Lenta.ru, March 17, 2017), who accused him (along with three other Belarusian journalists) of instigating inter-ethnic hatred (see EDM, December 12, 2016), but a Moscow district court denied the extradition request (Belgazeta, March 23, 2017).

Relations with Russia also sustained some damage when five Belarusian media outlets—all of them privately owned—declined to participate in a press conference that Ambassador Babich held in conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. One of these outlets is Tut.by, the most popular news portal in Belarus. In a joint statement, they underscored that they were by no means ignoring Babich, but were just declining to participate in the specific event devoted to the annexation of Crimea (Tut.by, March 18).

Along Belarus’s western flank, ambiguous signals have been coming from Poland. On the one hand, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance issued a statement acquitting Romuald Rajs (a.k.a. Bury) of the crimes committed in 1946 when the detachment led by this officer of Poland’s Home Army, reportedly murdered 79 Belarusians. In 1948, Bury was convicted and hanged by the Communist Polish state. It is unclear what the status of the acquittal actually is, but both official (Belta.by, March 12) and opposition-minded Belarusians (Svaboda.org, March 12) protested, and the Polish ambassador in Minsk was summoned to the MFA (Belta.by, March 12). On the other hand, President Lukashenka received an official invitation to visit Poland in conjunction with the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, whereas Vladimir Putin of Russia was not invited (Tut.by, March 20). It is unclear how Lukashenka will wriggle out of the situation. And not just out of fear of retribution but also because much of Belarusian society and Lukashenka himself embrace the memorial cult of the “Great Patriotic War” (1941–1945), inseparable from the Russian-Soviet perspective on it.

Piotr Rudkovsky, the director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a Western-funded research unit, challenges this perspective on Belarusian history at large. In a recent interview with Radio Liberty, Rudkovsky admitted that, despite his Soviet-style formative experience, Lukashenka has made concessions to the alternative view on history (Svaboda.org, March 21). This includes permission to celebrate Freedom Day (March 25), that is, the 101st anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) in Grodno. The event occurred on March 23, with about 4,000 participants, and included a concert (Naviny.by, March 23). A celebration also occurred in Minsk on March 24, at one of six sites officially designated for rallies. At the same time, Minsk city authorities rejected the request to affix a memorial plaque to the building at 9 Volodarsky Street, where, in 1918, a foundational BPR document was signed. One year ago, the authorities agreed to affix the plaque, but then changed their mind, allegedly due to “public petitions” (Naviny.by, March 22).

Such petitions are real, as are arguments about history that occur all the time. Just recently, Nasha Niva, a mouthpiece of the Belarusian Westernizing opposition, protested against the eighth grade Russian literature textbook that qualifies the 1863 Uprising (on Belarusian lands) as Polish. In response, the Ministry of Education provided a lengthy justification of that qualification (Nasha Niva, December 16, 2018). And just days ago, the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty wrote about the official attempts to “de-glorify” Kastus (Konstanty) Kalinowski, one of the uprising’s leaders, whom Westernizers call the only figure in Belarusian history that does not split society (Svaboda.org, March 19). This might not be quite accurate, as even some historians of Belarusian nationalism from among the Westernizers themselves (like Valer Bulgakau) expressed the view that Kalinowki was essentially a Polish activist. At the same time, Elvira Mirsalimova, an activist of the Russia-leaning movement Soglasiye (Consensus) published a manifesto, according to which the “national idea” of Belarusians, i.e., their raison d’être as a national community, is that they are Russians—yes, White Russians, but Russians still (Soglasie.by, March 19).

On March 25, several opposition activists carrying white-red-white flags were apprehended as they attempted to march from October Square, in downtown Minsk, to the aforementioned building on Volodarsky Street (Naviny.by, March 25). A day earlier, Zmitser Dashkevich, one of two most disobedient opposition activist was apprehended, as well (Sputnik.by, March 25). And on March 23, some vandals painted blue Stars of David across one of the monuments in Kuropaty, where executions took place under Joseph Stalin (Tut.by, March 23). Collectively, all these events effectively illustrate the ambient environment that makes national consolidation of Belarusians so difficult to attain.