Following the forcible Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the value of boosting Belarus’s sovereignty began to outweigh the value of democracy promotion as the sole and unwavering basis of the West’s policies toward this East European country since 1995. This overturn in value preferences, in turn, triggered a de facto policy shift. Nonetheless, candid reflections over this change have been hard to come by. Most commentators continue to cling to the inertia of viewing Belarus as a disobedient child, and precious few venture into the uncharted territory of examining Belarus’s own sovereign opinions about the West.
In the meantime, Belarusians have not been mincing words in reaction to the various signals coming from the West. For instance, online social networks in Belarus registered a burst of online indignation in response to a February 18 article appearing in Slate magazine that briefly described a United States National Security Council (NSC) Principals Committee reportedly gaming out a potential US retaliation to a Russian nuclear strike on the Baltic States—a scenario that envisaged firing several nuclear weapons at Belarus. While the government-run media’s coverage of the Slate story avoided mentioning that Belarus was specifically identified as a simulated target for US nuclear strikes (Belta, February 22); the opposition media did not ignore it and posted an emotionless report on the subject (Tut.by, February 23). The revelation about this alleged nuclear war gaming exercise within the NSC undoubtedly worsened Belarusians’ popular attitude toward the United States. According to one explanation of the episode by the Belarusian arm of the Russian Sputnik press agency, “Although the Pentagon is unlikely to consider Belarus a threat, the Americans […] do bear in mind the collective defense obligations that Belarus has to Russia… That is, in planning a war against Russia, it is objectively necessary for the Americans to destroy the Belarusian state… In this situation, the Russian nuclear umbrella is a guarantee of security for Minsk, which, of course, does not negate the need to seek diplomatic compromises with the United States” (Sputnik.by, February 25).
Perhaps an even more awkward situation arose in relations with the European Parliament (EP), whose delegation, on recent a visit to Minsk, canceled a meeting with the members of Belarus’s House of Representatives (HR) 15 minutes prior to its scheduled beginning. The three-person EP delegation (two Lithuanian lawmakers and one Swede) arrived at the major government compound in downtown Minsk. The EP delegation declined to use the front entryway, however, and asked to be led through the compound’s internal passage from the governmental offices, preferring this to the public street entrance. At the time of the delegation’s arrival, some repairs were being made to the internal passage, so the hosts declined the request. In turn, the EP delegation canceled the meeting with Belarusian parliamentarians. When asked about this incident by Zmitser Lukashuk, the editor-in-chief of Euroradio, a Western-funded Minsk-based media outlet, Petras Auštrevičius, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament, explained that since the EP does not recognize the legitimacy of the Belarusian legislature, they could only enter through the back door (Facebook.com, February 26) Yes, they were willing to meet, “but the building has different entrances,” the visiting European lawmaker declared. Adding to the awkwardness of the situation, Auštrevičius then hinted that his delegation was still ready to meet with their Belarusian counterparts somewhere else in the city and possibly have a dinner; but this time, it was the Belarusians who said no. The chair of the Belarusian parliamentary commission on foreign relations, Andrei Savinykh, claimed, “We held out a hand, [but] it remained empty” (Тut.by, February 26).
An avalanche of mocking commentaries followed on social networks, including by such well-known personalities as Dzianis Melyantsou of the Minsk Dialogue forum (Facebook.com/melyantsou, February 27); Oleg Gaidukevich, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (Facebook.com, February 26); Alexander Shpakovsky, a government-friendly expert (Facebook.com, February 26); and many others. Yet, the episode in question is rather emblematic of the EP’s entire Belarus policy. Yes, it wants to prop up Belarus’s sovereignty, but it does not want to extend any friendly gestures to the undemocratic regime, despite the government’s effective resistance to annexation by Russia. A recent publication by the Brussels-based think tank Center for European Reform with the well-meaning title “Is the Time Ripe for the EU to Rethink Its Relations With Belarus?” displays this tired incongruity (Cer.eu, February 24), which perhaps could have been overcome if European foreign policy makers agreed that Europe’s geopolitical concerns should trump political correctness.
Ambiguous signals have also recently emanated from Poland. On February 23, in the Polish town of Hajnówka, near the border with Belarus, a memorial march took place for the second time (see EDM, March 26, 2019) to commemorate the so-called Cursed Soldiers, the underground anti-Soviet/anti-Communist heroes of 1944–1956. In 1946, one of these soldiers, Romuald Rajs (nom de guerre “Bury”), killed 79 Belarusians (including women and children) collectively accused of aiding the Soviets. These people perished inside their homes that Bury’s detachment set on fire (Ipn.gov.pl, June 30, 2005). Numerous relatives of those killed still reside in and around Hajnówka. Polish journalist and former diplomat Witold Jurasz harshly criticized this year’s march as an expression of the total lack of a coherent “eastern policy” on the part of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party. According to Jurasz, Warsaw has not offered Minsk anything but words, while the attempt of the former foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski to develop relations with Minsk was torpedoed by the state intelligence (Agencja Wywiadu) and homeland security agencies, which are not entities vested with foreign policy responsibilities yet effectively push Poland’s Belarus policy exclusively to “fight for democracy.” According to Jurasz, only the US ambassador in Warsaw has any real ability to infuse Warsaw’s Belarus policy with national interest, which should be characterized by support for Belarusian statehood and, therefore, a willingness to develop versatile ties with the existing political regime in Minsk (Onet, February 23).
In summary, much has been demanded from Belarus by its harshest critics in the West. But as the Biblical parable of the mote and the beam suggests, policymakers should be wary of such criticism—however valid—devolving into hypocrisy, self-righteousness and censoriousness.