Alyaksandr Lukashenka loves to deviate from a script when delivering a speech. His rhetoric frequently includes what might be termed “gaffes,” some genuine while others seemingly more calculated—a form of damage control. Thus, in his most recent address to the nation, the Belarusian leader declared that Russia has itself to blame when some former Soviet states turn their back on it (see EDM, May 2). The same speech included criticism of Russia not buying wine from Moldova, followed by a peculiar pronouncement on Georgia: “Their premier is much like our Kobiakov [Andrei Kobiakov, Belarus’s prime minister, born in Moscow]. But whereas ours is Russian 100 percent, the Georgian premier is 75 percent Russian. We were sitting with him at the table and tasting their Georgian wine. The man unwound and, nearly with tears in his eyes, began to talk to me about his attitude toward Russia. Did anybody talk to him? No, it was easier to shove [the country] out so now they are trying out American anti-tank weaponry” (President.gov.by, April 24).
Four days later, the office of Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the Georgian prime minister, issued a statement clarifying what he actually said to Lukashenka during their meeting (Tbilisi Media, April 28). Of the two points contained in this clarification, one is decidedly serious: Despite a warming of Georgian-Russian ties, as exemplified by 1.5 million annual Russian tourist arrivals, Tbilisi continues to insist on several red lines with Moscow, regarding which there can be no compromise. These are sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. The second point of clarification informed that, in Kvirikashvili’s family, only his grandmother was ethnically Russian, so him being three quarters Russian was entirely incorrect.
One has to understand, however, that these “off the cuff” remarks were vintage Lukashenka, who again appears to have succeeded in killing two birds with one stone. He criticized Russia, but he sweetened the pill at the Georgian prime minister’s expense. Renouncing one’s Russianness is viewed particularly negatively in the current hyper-charged “patriotic” climate in Moscow, so Lukashenka’s criticism of Russia was drowned out by this separate outrage regarding Kvirikashvili. Immediately, both the Georgian opposition and Russian “patriotic” media outlets took the bait. Thus, the former Georgian minister of culture, Nika Rurua, declared that “a person, full of such cordial and sentimental attitude toward the enemy should not rule Georgia.” Whereas, Eurasia Daily strongly suggested that “for the sake of salvation, the Georgian people should get rid of their venal elite and delegate their best sons and daughters to positions of power,” implying that Georgia’s best are Russia-friendly by definition (Eurasia Daily, April 30).
Mirror reflections in broader Belarusian discourse are also quite notable. Unlike Lukashenka’s “gaffes,” those are not deliberate but spontaneous. Still, they often provide food for thought. Thus, following his five-day visa-free visit to Belarus, the veteran Belarus-watcher David Marples suggested in an interview with the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty that “Europeans now cut Belarus some slack. That is, they close their eyes to […] human rights, whose violations [Europe] now ignores for the sake of retaining its distance from Russia, whereby independent Belarus acts like a buffer [between Russia and Europe]. This attitude is troubling,” Marples asserted, “as no improvement in the area of human rights has occurred during the last 15 years” (Svaboda.org, May 4).
In contrast to Marples, who criticizes the West for putting geostrategic interests ahead of “European values,” Elvira Mirsalimova, a pro-Russian political activist from Vitebsk, criticizes Russia for neglecting its soft power in Belarus (Vitbich.org, May 2). “In independent Belarus, dozens of Western foundations are active, but where are the Eastern ones?” she asks. “Belarusians can easily receive a Pole’s Card, which gives them the right to free education, health care, a stipend and employment in Poland; but where is a Russian’s card or [an identical document] from the Union State [of Russia and Belarus]?” Belarusian youths are easy prey for the West, Mirsalimova laments.
Such symmetrical reasoning, i.e., focusing on the failings of external actors—in one case, of the European Union, and in the other case, of Russia, both of which appear to have lost vigilance and left Belarus to its own devices—is remarkable in at least two ways.
First, it is all too easy to parry or retort. One might remind Mirsalimova that her lament reflects 500 years of history. Just as Western winds tend to be dominant in temperate latitudes, so ideas about governance, society, fashion, and even social mores and taboos have generally come to Eastern Europe from the West—Marxism being no exception to that rule. Likewise, one can point out to Marples that, in Western Europe’s policies, geostrategic interests have often trumped much-touted European values for a long time, including when Belarus—and not, say, Azerbaijan—was singled out as the broader region’s worst human rights offender. Even pro-Western Belarus-based commentators have made this point on a number of occasions (see EDM, December 6, 2017). Little wonder that after the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine (2014), this same trend gained the upper hand yet again, this time implying that Belarus’s statehood is more important in the eyes of the West than its deviations from Western-style democracy.
Second, Belarus’s ruling elites—and to an ever-increasing extent, ordinary Belarusians, too—seem to be pointedly enjoying those alleged failings of their Western and Eastern mentors alike. They do not want either the structural or identity-based orthodoxy of the Russian world or that of Western universalism—Samuel Huntington’s term reflecting the phenomenon he castigated in his 1997 book Clash of Civilizations. Belarusians want freedom of maneuver while recognizing their cultural proximity to Russia and underlying dependencies on it, rooted in the Soviet past. At the same time, Belarusians know all too well they are dependent on the West in the areas of know-how and, quite possibly, to be able to retain their statehood. For Belarus, therefore, sitting on two chairs is no metaphor for infidelity. Rather it is an existential choice.