Dueling Visions of Belarus’s Future

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 11

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Executive Summary:

  • Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has asserted that expanding economic integration
  • The population is split between the Russo-centric and “Westernizing” views on independent Belarus, with Belarusians seemingly outgrowing the former while being unable to embrace the latter fully.
  • A clearer view of the two dominant narratives in Belarus and the population’s feelings on both are critical for Western foreign policymakers in trying to better understand how official Minsk operates.

Belarusian commentators Artyom Shraibman and Ryhor Astapenia, both in exile in Poland, recently shared meaningful musings about their native country. Their musings seem to be aimed at dispelling popular stereotypes about Belarus and, therefore, deserve a closer examination by Western foreign policymakers. Shraibman’s January 19 article in Zerkalo, the offshoot of Tut.by (closed in May 2021), was triggered by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s umpteenth public dismissal of the notion that expanding economic integration with Russia does not deprive Belarus of its sovereignty (Zerkalo, January 19). During his January 18 meeting with the leadership of the Council of Ministers, Lukashenka characterized Belarus’s relationship with Russia as entirely unique in global geopolitics. The Belarusian leader asserted, “As for individual statements, including in the media, that Belarus is allegedly losing its independence, they are groundless. … We are not losing anything. On this sovereign territory, which belongs to our people, only we make decisions, and we only and exclusively make decisions that benefit us” (Belta, January 18).

Shraibman believes that, formally speaking, Lukashenka is correct. The Belarusian analyst argues that this is the case “because he is the front-runner, if not in the entire world but then in the post-Soviet region, in ducking and dodging the agreements uncomfortable for him, including agreements with Russia. He knows that he has not ceded a single formal lever of control over Belarus to Moscow, and he is ready to be proud of it” (Zerkalo, January 19). For Shraibman, the real problems begin with trying to flesh out the state of Belarusian sovereignty. He poses several rhetorical questions in discussing this issue. “Could [Lukashenka] have told [Russian President Vladimir] Putin on February 23, 2022, as he had previously sworn in an interview with [Ukrainian journalist Dmitry] Gordon, that Minsk was not giving the go-ahead for Russian troops to cross the border with Ukraine? Of course, theoretically speaking, he could. He is not deprived of this right by any agreement with Moscow. … But could he do this in practice? He could try. But how long after that would he occupy his living space in Ostroshitsky Gorodok?” Even on less principled issues, Lukashenka’s decision-making powers would soon run into Moscow announcing that Belarusian milk exports have suddenly spoiled, that the Russian Ministry of Finance cannot provide new installment loans, and that Russia’s Baltic ports and railway lines no longer have the capacity to transport Belarusian potash.

Shraibman concedes that the above may not amount to a tragedy and that genuine Belarusian sovereignty may be rebuilt once the Russian Empire crumbles. He worries, however, that if the current situation lasts, the more difficult it will become to undo the actual merging of the Belarusian and Russian economies, information spaces, and militaries. Shraibman, who often takes the “Westernizing” view on Belarus, concludes that, consequently, the image will be erased from the memory of the entrepreneurial class, the military, bureaucrats, and ordinary Belarusians that Minsk can work with more than just one external partner (Zerkalo, January 19).

This raises a question regarding how ordinary Belarusians position themselves in relation to the two predominant visions of independent Belarus, the Westernizers standing in opposition to Lukashenka and the Russo-centric Belarusians whose foremost spokesman is Lukashenka himself. A recent interview with Ryhor Astapenia, a sociologist directing Chatham House’s Belarus programs, casts some light on this question (Euroradio, January 16). Since August 2020, Astapenia has directed 19 online surveys of Belarusians at home. Recently, he and his associates conducted up to 20 in-depth interviews (it is unclear where they were conducted) to determine the Belarusian population’s attitudes toward the Russo-centric view, which is dominated by the primacy of public property, an authoritarian style of governance, and the dominance of the Russian language, and the Westernizing take, which falls in line with economic and political liberalism and the supremacy of the Belarusian language. Astapenia observes that Belarusians “have outgrown the former vision but have not grown up to the latter one.” More specifically, Belarusians are tired of Lukashenka and in favor of more democratic governance. They are reluctant, however, to switch to one element of the same package—that is, predominantly speaking Belarusian. Belarusians embrace the neo-Soviet identity much like Lukashenka does. They would like to be politically neutral, but neither vision calls for neutrality.

Astapenia’s musings call into question the monopoly of the Westernizing vision that Shraibman promotes. One Euroradio listener sent a message during Astapenia’s interview to the effect that Belarus’s integration with Europe is bound to “reduce Belarus’s population fivefold,” apparently through outmigration, and bring high European tariffs on everything, including utilities (Euroradio, January 16). While smacking of propagandist hyperbole, the listener’s message seems to coincide with how many Belarusians think.

Contradictions in how the West views these public sentiments in Belarus have hampered efforts to achieve key policy objectives. For example, just a couple of months ago, the team of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, head of the opposition’s “transition cabinet” that enjoys the privilege of close contact with Western leaders, issued a message of gratitude to the German government for its decision not to send a new ambassador to Minsk (Pozirk, November 9, 2023). At the same time, the German Bundestag adopted a resolution that the top priority of Berlin’s policy vis-à-vis Minsk is the release of political prisoners (Pozirk, November 8, 2023). The West’s reluctance to maintain ties with Minsk is at odds with the aforementioned priority and with the realities of Belarusian public opinion—a contradiction that is too apparent to overlook.

A clearer view of the two dominant narratives in Belarus and the population’s feelings on both are critical in understanding how official Minsk operates (see EDM, January 19). Western foreign policymakers should take note as to how the Westernizing and Russo-centric perspectives affect everyday life in Belarus. An echo chamber of Tikhanovskaya and her entourage’s opinions will result in an incomplete picture and faulty policies.