On February 18, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka visited Moscow and held talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. In a statement to the media, Lukashenka mentioned that military-political issues have taken center stage due to “our Western partners […] scaring the whole world that tomorrow we will attack Ukraine, encircle and destroy it” (President.gov., February 18). Both leaders pointed to Western economic sanctions as instances of unfair competition and a violation of international law. Subsequently, journalist Andrei Kolesnikov of Kommersant ruffled feathers during a brief press-conference. Kolesnikov directed two questions: a playful one to Putin (“Did you sleep well last night, when Russians were scheduled to invade Ukraine?”) and a somewhat cheeky one to Lukashenka (“You recently said that if the West continues to be aggressive, you will rule Belarus forever. What are the current chances for the Belarusian people to lose you?”). Lukashenka replied, “We will now consult the Elder Brother [i.e., Putin] and decide” (YouTube, February 18).
Now that the Russian military extended its stay in Belarus—contrary to statements made just days earlier (see EDM, February 16)—and in light of Moscow’s recognition of the two Russia-backed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine, Minsk’s freedom of maneuver has diminished even more. That said, the escalating showdown over Ukraine could shift Belarus out of the limelight, which would work to Minsk’s benefit.
Before the start of their February 18 meeting, Lukashenka and Putin both talked about the necessity to minimize the effect of sanctions. The achievements of 2021 were to be a stepping stone in that regard. Belarus’s economic growth last year stood at 2.3 percent (compared to the predicted figure of 1.8 percent). Moreover, in January–September 2021, exports of Belarusian goods and services amounted to $34.9 billion, while imports totaled $32.2 billion; compared to the same period in 2020, exports increased by 32.3 percent (by 36.7 percent for the entire year), while imports grew by 29.6 percent. As a result, exports exceeded imports by $2.7 billion; in January–September 2020, the difference was just $1.6 billion (Belmarket, December 30, 2021; BelTA, February 18, 2022). Nonetheless, some pessimistic experts warned that this year, the full impact of the sanctions will reveal itself (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, December 23, 2021).
Seasoned Belarus-watchers know that since 1997, Belarus has been a world leader in attracting ultimately false predictions of its imminent economic collapse; since that time, the country has lived under sanctions of varying degrees of harshness, albeit with some intermissions (TASS, October 12, 2020). Likewise stable has been the belief among many Western foreign policymakers that sanctions would make life so much worse for Belarusians that the population would grow more enthusiastic about regime change. Such a reasoning, however, has also never materialized. To a significant extent, Russia cushioned the blow for years; and today, China’s contribution is on the rise. That, however, is only part of the story. In divided societies—and Belarus is a glaring example of deep societal divisions (SN, August 16, 2021)—external economic pressure frequently facilitates the mobilization and expansion of the leadership’s political base, in part by eroding and destroying the opposing camp.
As a case in point: In November 2021, the British think tank Chatham House conducted its sixth online poll of Belarusians. The survey confirmed yet again that Belarusians perceive Russians as the national group closest to them. The results additionally uncovered that devoted supporters of Lukashenka purportedly account for 27 percent of Belarusians, while his devout opponents make up 30 percent of the population, and 43 percent vacillate in their opinion of the Belarusian president (Svaboda.org, December 20, 2021). Yet polling carried out online and targeting mainly urbanites cannot but downplay the number of Lukashenka’s supporters. This is because they are more likely to live outside the largest cities and be less computer-literate; whereas those among them who are active internet users are less inclined to participate in a survey bearing all the marks of an oppositional undertaking. So, if even a survey with inherent limitations like these still estimates the share of Lukashenka loyalists at a figure as high as 27 percent, this provides food for thought.
Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty offered his analysis recently. “Sociologists at Chatham House used the metaphor of the echo chamber to characterize the situation,” writes Drakakhrust. “People from each camp hear only the likeminded, they do not even want to hear someone else’s unacceptable, hated views… The opposing groups do not have common communication platforms…They watch, read, and listen to different media outlets. After the abolition of TUT.BY, there is essentially no national media outlets in the country that, to one degree or another, still integrate Belarusians of different political views and provide national communication” (Zerkalo, February 12). That article drew fire from all sides.
First, a columnist of the main government newspaper, Belarus Segodnya, rebuked Drakakhrust in terms akin to those of Stalinist-era denunciations. Along with labeling Drakakhrust a “traitor,” the critical piece casts doubt on any numerical equivalency of regime loyalists and the opposition for, ostensibly, the simple reason that the appeal to abolish the white-red-white flag collected 103,000 signatures (Belarus Segodnya, February 15). Condemnations emanated from the other side, too. Thus, guests on a talk show aired by Belsat accused Drakakhrust of a moral equivalence fallacy just for drawing attention to the existence of a large group loyal to the regime (Belsat, February 17). Many critics on social networks and in opposition media articles asserted that those loyalists are “in reality” a small minority (Svaboda.org, February 17).
The case of the vitriolic response from all sides to Drakakhrust’s analysis is indicative of something no less grave than a danger to Belarusian statehood. While national consolidation remains distant, and shortsighted moralists on both sides of the societal divide maintain a stranglehold on the population, Russians notably enjoy the position as the friendliest perceived group. Meanwhile, economic sanctions further augment the societal chasm inside Belarus. It is surely no coincidence that during the short period between 2016 and 2019, when Western sanctions were suspended, horizontal ties (i.e., societal cohesion) progressed among Belarusians as never before (Carnegie.ru, February 10). By no means does this insinuate that brutal repressions should not elicit international reaction. But the kind of reaction that is employed surely matters.