President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a press conference, on April 10, for Belarusian state-run media (Belta, April 10). Among the topics broached were the idea of changes to the constitution, the project of the new Law on Information, and March 25 Freedom Day as a would-be official holiday. Regarding the Constitution, Lukashenka suggested that some prerogatives of the president ought to be transferred to the “other branches of power.” However, “the time for these changes has not yet arrived.”
As for the new proposed information law, Lukashenka’s overarching idea is to protect Belarusians from “destructive information.” According to a lengthy interview by Deputy Minister of Information Pavel Lyogky to Tut.by, three major changes are expected (Tut.by, April 12). First, online media outlets like Tut.by would be called upon to register with the ministry much like old-style media but on a volunteer basis. Non-registered media might, consequently, not be allowed access to important events like Lukashenka’s press conferences and/or to institutions of power.
The second change has to do with rejecting comments of anonymous Internet users on discussion forums about released articles; specifically, those users would be rejected who cannot be traced to a certain IP address. This possible change in the law has elicited both critical and ambivalent reactions. Some, like Tut.by’s founder, Yury Zisser, believe that the users willing to maintain anonymity would simply leave Belarusian online media resources and switch to those using domains of other countries, notably Russia (Facebook.com/yzisser, April 12). In contrast, Dmitry Zhuk, the new editor of Belarus’s main daily, Belarus Segodnya, likened the anonymous commentators to Stalinist-era snitches, informing the authorities about their neighbors’ and co-workers’ disloyalty (Svaboda.org, April 8). Even some opposition-minded commentators disagree with Zisser. Thus, Dzmitry Gurnevich of Radio Liberty thinks that a purge of anonymous commentators from public forums would help fight bots and trolls that have become a true scourge (Svaboda.org, April 10).
Finally, the new law envisages a mandate for all TV channels, including regional ones, to air at least 30 percent of content produced in Belarus. The way Lukashenka put it during his press conference was, “I am asking you kindly and I categorically demand, too, that you make our TV better. […] I want to watch only my [Belarusian] channels. I am too much of a nationalist in that sense” (Belta, April 10).
Apparently, Lukashenka’s self-declared nationalism does not rise to making March 25 a national holiday. As long as I am president, this is not going to happen, asserted the Belarusian leader, because “we already have Independence Day [commemorated on July 3], and had we not won then, no statehood would exist for sure.” Lukashenka was referring to July 3, 1944, when Minsk was liberated from the Nazis by the Soviet Red Army. As for the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR), in Lukashenka’s words, “there is no understanding yet in Belarus what it is and what role it played. […] On the one hand, the founders of the BPR wanted unity for the country. On the other, they solicited help from the German Kaiser” (Tut.by, April 10).
Soviet-era history textbooks habitually painted the BPR as treasonous. And their first piece of evidence was always the BPR leadership’s “telegram to the Kaiser”—that is, to the last German emperor, Wilhelm II. This is peculiar, believes Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty, because although it thanked Kaiser Wilhelm for “liberation,” the telegram was sent when the German occupation of Belarus was an accomplished fact. Under this condition, the document actually pursued the goal of attracting the occupier’s attention to the BPR. If anything, it was the BPR’s other telegram—that to United States President Woodrow Wilson—sent on the eve of the Germans’ departure from Minsk (December 10, 1918), that might be considered a true reputation killer from the Soviet point of view. After all, in this message, the leaders of the BPR explicitly asked the US to preempt the second coming of the Red Army (which took place in late December 1918). However, the latter telegram has never been invoked by official critics of the BPR; so the appeal to the World War I Germans went down in Soviet historiography as the trademark of the BPR’s transgressions. It is, however, even more peculiar that the “telegram to the Kaiser” can be seen as an eternal or at least lasting symbol of Belarusian efforts to achieve full independence. In that sense, Minsk’s non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Belarusian president’s visit to Kyiv during its war with Moscow-backed separatists in Donbas, and the sending of Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei to London at the height of the current crisis in Russian-British relations are all “Lukashenka’s telegrams to the Kaiser,” Drakakhrust posited (Svaboda.org, April 11). To these “telegrams to the Kaiser” one could even add the official press agency’s decision to publicize Makei’s April 13 meeting with Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Vladimir Socor (Belta, April 13).
But the symbolism of old-time labels and pronouncements coming out of Minsk has additional importance. In a recent article titled “The Solitude of a Half-Blood,” veteran advisor to President Vladimir Putin of Russia Vladislav Surkov wrote that “100 years of solitude” will befall Russia in the wake of its admittedly rejected attempts to become an integral part of the West (Globalaffairs.ru, April 9). And in the avalanche of responses to this piece, Kirill Koktysh’s remark is worth mentioning. Born and raised in Minsk and an associate professor at Moscow’s Institute of Foreign Relations, Koktysh suggested that Surkov’s “100 years of solitude” assertion is a paraphrase of the following famous 1900 dictum by Vladimir Lenin: “Before we can unite… we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation” (Facebook.com, April 12). In other words, any coalition is cohesive when and only when its participants have common interests; and that becomes possible only when those not meeting this condition are excluded. This represents a flexible formula that, in fact, seems to capture the current fragile state of international affairs in general and Belarus’s continuous attempts at self-determination in particular.