In a surprising move, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka did not end up going to Kiev, Ukraine, to celebrate the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Rus, a common legacy of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, solemnly celebrated in all the three East Slavic countries (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2013/07/30/ic_articles_112_182507/). Observers could not come up with a definitive explanation for Lukashenka’s no-show in Kiev on July 27–28, where he was supposed to meet not only Viktor Yanukovich but, most importantly, Vladimir Putin as well as the Serbian and Moldovan presidents, who also attended the celebration. If Lukashenka wanted to be conspicuous by his absence, he achieved that goal. His nonappearance was an obvious affront to Putin and also to Kirill I, the patriarch of Moscow and all Rus. Unlike Ukraine, where alongside Christian Orthodox places of worship integral to the Moscow Patriarchate there is an autocephalous (independent) Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in Belarus all the Orthodox parishes are administered by the Russian Church. At a time when Orthodoxy is gaining stature in Moscow, and when highly publicized efforts at achieving Slavic (actually East Slavic) unity are being made, Lukashenka’s decision to skip the Kyiv ceremony could not help but acquire symbolism—particularly poignant if one also keeps in mind that Lukashenka comes across to many in Russia itself as the staunchest East Slavic consolidator.
Moreover, Lukashenka had the gall to issue a public appeal to Kirill to modernize the Russian Orthodox Church’s ritual: According to Lukashenka, sermons are too long and too archaic, forcing those attending to stand, which is tiresome for the elderly churchgoers (http://udf.by/news/politic/84175-zachem-lukashenko-nuzhen-konflikt-s-cerkovyu-i-kostelom-v-godovschinu-krescheniya-rusi.html).
Yet, one more significant failure of East Slavic and Eurasian integration in recent days has been the decision of Uralkalii, Russia’s biggest producer of potash, to suspend its export operations through the Belarusian Potash Company (BPC), a trader established jointly by Uralkalii and Belaruskalii, Belarus’s own potash producer (http://news.tut.by/economics/359570.html). Both production companies were supposed to coordinate their exports and conduct them only through the BPC. Uralkalii motivated its decision by the fact that Belaruskalii had previously sold some of its products on its own. In its turn, Belaruskalii put forward a counter accusation, pointing out that in May 2013, Uralkalii sold only 20 percent of its products through the BPC. Such a failure at export coordination, whereby the Belarusian and Russian potash producers become competitors, is no less striking a failure than Lukashenka’s no-show in Kiev, simply because the formation of the Eurasian Union, the brainchild of Vladimir Putin, is supposedly in full swing.
Apparently, Lukashenka’s willingness to stay in control not only as “Belarus’s only politician,” but also in control of Belarus’s most important production units is unabated. It remains unclear what props up Lukashenka’s brinkmanship with Russia, especially given that the western flank of Belarus’s foreign policy remains relatively stagnant. In the past, Lukashenka exploited Russia’s neo-imperial fears by making friendly gestures to the European Union. This time, however, there is a visible deficit of such gestures, and, for example, nine people qualified as political prisoners by the West remain jailed. Yury Shevtsov, an independent and well-published pundit, whose viewpoints are close to those of the Belarusian government, believes, however, that Lukashenka has already achieved a victory over the EU. The futility of EU sanctions has become obvious to every European policymaker, and only face-saving considerations and Brussels’ red tape prevent the EU from changing its Belarus policy, he argues (Author’s interview, Minsk, July 30).
One indirect sign that the West’s Belarus policies have missed the mark yet again is a situation within the Belarusian opposition, which remains disunited. Whereas the Belarusian Popular Front, Belarus’s oldest party, welcomed Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei’s July 22 visit to Brussels (http://news.tut.by/politics/359244.html), a more radical opposition group slammed the EU for allowing Makei to participate in the foreign ministers’ meeting (http://www.belaruspartisan.org/politic/237395/).
More signs of discord show up on a daily basis. For example, Stanislaw Shushkevich, independent Belarus’s first leader, called Oleg Manaev, the founder of the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), a traitor for conducting the national surveys in Belarus and for publishing their results. Under a “dictatorship,” Shushkevich argues, opinion polls cannot be trusted. IISEPS is the most trusted pollster of Belarus, it uses Western funding, was denied registration in Belarus in 2005 and is registered in Lithuania. In June 2013, the Belarusian parliament criminalized conducting public opinion polls without a registration. Under such conditions, calling Manaev a traitor matches the accusations leveled at him by Lukashenka, the point that Manaev used in his response to Shushkevich. (http://news.tut.by/politics/359347.html). Manaev believes that conducting polls in countries with authoritarian regimes is even more important than in democratic countries because in the latter there are multiple conduits for expressing public opinion anyway. According to Manaev, the role of the fear factor is exaggerated, especially given that there are multiple ways of controlling for it—for example, by asking multiple complementary questions that are by no means scary to respond to (like questions about state paternalism or whether or not the presidential hopeful the respondent voted for won the race). Manaev notes that the surveys by IISEPS are regularly slammed by both the officialdom and the opposition. But equally regularly, both evince readiness to quote IISEPS when some results of its surveys are to their (the opposition’s or the government’s) liking. Manaev is committed to reporting the true opinions of Belarusians without pleasing any of the interested parties. Manaev’s international reputation is upheld by his current temporary position at the Slavic Research Center in Sapporo, Japan.
Based on personal impressions, the city of Minsk, to which Manaev will return in November, appears to be a well-functioning European metropolis whose residents take advantage of every aspect of modern civilization. What is particularly impressive is a multitude of niches where Belarusians can realize their aspirations and even become rich. Definitely domestic politics is not one of those niches, but recognizing Belarus’s vitality in the face of hostile and often ostensibly brotherly (but suffocating) Belarus policies of the country’s neighbors would be a reasonable, if belated, step in attuning those policies to reality.