Even Under Pressure, Belarus Defies Clichés

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 47

Presidents Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin, St. Petersburg, April 3 (Source: Kremlin.ru)

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s April 3 meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, in St. Petersburg, seems to have finally resolved the drawn-out (since January 2016) argument between the two countries about the price of natural gas. According to the new agreement, Belarus will repay Russia $726 million, accumulated as a result of Belarus paying $107 instead of $132 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas. As early as April, Russia will increase the amount of duty-free oil sold to Belarus so that the yearlong amount will be equal to $24 million tons, thus ensuring full-capacity work at Belarusian refineries. Beginning in the third quarter of 2016, Russia reduced its oil supply to penalize Belarus for its underpayment on natural gas. In 2018 and 2019, Russia will apply discounts to the gas price. Moreover, Moscow will refinance about $800 million of Minsk’s debt on its loans to make it easier for Belarus to repay what it owes for Russian gas imports (Naviny.by, April 4).

The aforementioned dispute had lasted so long that it began prompting questions among many analysts about whether Russia, which in the past showed interest in Belarus’s stability, was now instigating disarray. Might Russia be forestalling a resolution to the bilateral quarrel so as to arrest Belarus’s rapprochement with the West and to convert this country into a foothold in the Kremlin’s confrontation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? Yury Tsarik of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies believes that was Russia’s goal (Naviny.by, March 29). Tsarik suggests that prior to the opposition’s Freedom Day rally (March 25) in Minsk (see EDM, March 27), Lukashenka received a heavy dose of disinformation from the Belarusian KGB about alleged militants preparing subversive acts under the guise of demonstrations; the KGB personnel are tightly linked to their counterparts in Moscow, he adds.

A somewhat different picture was painted by Mikhail Malash, a Minsk-based businessman and a political commentator. He believes that the West is no longer interested in regime change in Belarus. The only interested party is Russia, which has been persistently pushing the narrative that Belarus is “following the Ukrainian path” and Lukashenka is following in the footsteps of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Like him, he is too soft on nationalists and wants to sit on two chairs. Thus, Russian society is being prepared for having to “rescue” Belarus from the Ukrainian trap. Given such a disposition, Lukashenka’s crackdown on the March 25 rally served the sole purpose of undermining Moscow’s narrative and thus depriving Russia of a pretext for intervention in Belarus (Belvpo, March 31).

The two-chairs metaphor and the ensuing necessity to choose one of them is a pigeonhole favored by analysts on both of Belarus’s geopolitical flanks. The gist of Lukashenka’s foreign policy, however, has been a willingness to avoid this very decisive choice—an understandable prerogative of any sovereign country to maintain vital bonds with all of its neighbors.

The second stereotypical narrative, particularly tenacious in the West, favors a return to viewing Belarus as a country on the frontline of the struggle between democracy and autocracy (e.g., Freedomhouse.org, March 28). This Manichean worldview has been far detached from reality all across the countries hitherto targeted for democracy promotion. In each of them, internal divisions shaped the political landscape no less and perhaps more than autocratic regimes per se. For example, in Ukraine, palpable historical memory in the west is at loggerheads with that in the east, where, say, a monument to Ukrainian partisan nationalist leader Stepan Bandera arouses different emotions even without Russia’s interference.

While in Belarus there is no equivalent of Galicia or Crimea, it is also a divided country. The protesters who gathered in the streets for the March 25 Freedom Day invoked the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR), formed in the last year of World War I. The Council of the BPR is still a Belarusian government in exile, now headed by Ivonka Survilla of Canada. Survilla routinely congratulates her compatriots on March 25 via the Belarusian opposition media. Like some of her BPR-connected predecessors, Survilla is the daughter of a person who collaborated with the Nazi administration that occupied Belarusian territory during World War II (Gorodskoi Zhurnal 1976). In that sense, she may be like Chrystia Freeland, the foreign minister of Canada, who honors the memory of her grandfather, a former editor-in-chief of a Nazi newspaper (Globe and Mail, March 7). Dmitry Isayonok, a Minsk journalist, has just written an open letter to Survilla. In that letter, he suggests that in order to arrive at a national consensus in general and about Joseph Stalin’s repressions in particular, not only spiritual descendants of Soviet Belarus should publicly repent but also the descendants of Nazi collaborators. “As your supporters like to repeat, Belarusian people suffered from two totalitarianisms… But did the Council of the BPR have its own 20th Congress?”—an allusion to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party that, in part, recognized Stalinist crimes. “Also, use caution when declaring that communism inevitably leads to Kuropaty [i.e., to mass murder]. By the same logic, Belarusian nationalism […] leads to Trostenets,” i.e., a Nazi concentration camp on the southeastern outskirts of Minsk where 206,500 people lost their life (Imhoclub, March 25).

The Minsk entrepreneur Michael Sender revealed further problems with the democracy-versus-autocracy narrative and its application to Belarus. He suggested that those Western-oriented people like himself who are willing to seize power in Minsk, would not be able to hold on to that power for as long as two days. They would quickly succumb to the 100,000 “law enforcers” who have been thoroughly educated to target the opposition Belarusian Popular Front and the like, he suggested. At the same time, cornered by economic decline, Lukashenka is presiding over slow but steady economic reforms despite his own statements to the contrary. “Engaging in double-dealing, that is, saying there would be no reform and conducting it at the same time is a hell of a job; but it would become unfeasible if public protests are raging in the street.” Sender’s suggestion: Do not rock the boat; the situation is Belarus is no good but still better than in some neighboring countries. Disrupting that process would lead to an even worse situation, he concluded (Kyky, March 31).

In summary, Belarus defies familiar clichés, so formulating a sensible Belarus policy must steer clear of them too.