Ideological Arguments in Belarus: Is the Cold War Back?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 72

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Source: espanarusa.com)

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka gave an interview to the Russian TV channel NTV on April 13. In it, he assigned most of the blame for the current crisis in Ukraine to its previous government—specifically, to its lack of attention to the Ukrainian economy and to combatting pervasive corruption. “One should not attribute these phenomena to Americans, to the West at large or to Russia,” said Lukashenka. He specifically blamed the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych for fleeing the country instead of dealing with the existing problem, which would have been “to either negotiate, or forcibly disperse, or give money” to those gathered on the Maidan in Kyiv (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2014/04/13/ic_articles_112_185199/).

And yet, according to Lukashenka, the West has contributed to the destabilization of Ukraine, and “the Americans let Ukraine down.” By that he meant that the amount of aid offered to Ukraine by the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is minuscule and with strings attached. For example, steep price hikes at the behest of the IMF for natural gas delivered to people’s homes will lead to public discontent and to blaming the current government. And the Ukrainian government will not be able to attribute the hardship solely to the “revolution.” Lukashenka expressed an opinion quite contrary to Russian government policy on two issues. Repeating what he had said on a previous occasion (see EDM, April 3), he stated that the federalization of Ukraine would lead to its split; and he also voiced support for acting president Oleksandr Turchynov of Ukraine who “perceives the situation correctly” and is reportedly concerned about the incendiary activities of the right-wing radicals. Lukashenka dismissed a possible Russian threat to Belarus’s independence on the grounds that in Belarus it would be pointless to protect Russian speakers “as our entire country is Russian speaking” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2014/04/13/ic_articles_112_185199/).

A Russian threat to Belarus, however, continues to be a popular topic. The April 8 episode of the Prague Accent talk show of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL) was devoted to it (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/25325297.html). The central question posed to the three participants (two of which were Minsk-based) was whether or not pro- and anti-government Belarusians would be able to overcome their differences in the face of such a threat and defend their country together. Alexander Sinkevich, a government-friendly coordinator of the online analytical portal Cytadel (cytadel.org) and a Minsk businessman, opined that ethnic nationalism with more than a tinge of Russophobia as well as etatism with an authoritarian bent can hardly befriend each other. Moreover, he argued, it is the Westernizing nationalists with a Russophobe image who jeopardize Belarus’s independence the most because, as the example of Ukraine shows, government’s attempts to become a stooge of the West elicit hostile reaction from Russia. According to Seweryn Kwiatkowski, a Minsk blogger, the government loyalists and the Westernizers ought to compromise. Specifically, the Westernizers should cut back on rhetoric about the “bloodthirsty regime” whereas the loyalists should use the themes of Belarusian history and culture cultivated by the Westernizers. It appears that some documentaries broadcast by Belarusian TV actually fit this approach. For example, there was a series devoted to Kastus Kalinowski (1838-1864), a hero of the 1863 Polish uprising within what is now Belarus. Yet after the film was shown, Russia’s portal Regnum criticized Lukashenka for sheltering “extreme Belarusian nationalism.” In his turn, Zmitser Gurnevich, an associate of the Warsaw-based TV channel Belsat and the talk show’s third participant, expressed the view that the heirs of West-Russism—a 19th century trend of thought, in bitter conflict with the Westernizing platform of Kalinowsky—have gained a foothold on Belarusian TV. As Gurnevich pointed out, these individuals increasingly use the pronoun “we” when talking about Belarus and Russia, the two countries that become inseparable in the West-Russist mindset.

Why indeed do Belarusians trust Russian TV channels, was the question addressed by Valer Karbalevich, a Minsk-based associate of the BSRL. According to Karbalevich, despite the fact that the Internet allows one to familiarize oneself with all sorts of viewpoints, certain propaganda stereotypes, exploited by Russian and Belarusian TV alike have swayed most Belarusians. This particularly pertains to the opinion that the Maidan rally in Kyiv was organized and maintained by “fascists.” Despite 23 years of independence, writes Karbalevich, Belarusians still live within the “value domain” of Russia. For example, a thesis that Crimea is on Russian soil is perceived by most Belarusians as an axiom. A low level of national self-awareness among Belarusians contributes to their vulnerability to Russian propaganda. For example, one of the main accusations leveled against the nationalists on Kyiv’s Maidan was their desire to retain Ukrainian as the only official language in Ukraine. Belarusians tried to imagine themselves being subjected to such a monolingual existence and became indignant (svaboda.org, April 9).

Against the backdrop of these arguments, Alexander Sinkevich’s attempt to assess winners and losers of the events in Ukraine is revealing. Sinkevich ranks what he perceives as the gains and losses of four specific entities—Belarus, Russia, the European Union, and the US—on a -10 < 0 < +10 scale and then determines the sum total. For example, for Belarus, the positive aspects include a higher probability (than before the Ukrainian crisis) that Russia will now cancel its export tariffs on refined oil, the likelihood of Belarusian industry filling the niches previously occupied by Ukrainian producers, and a strengthening of Belarusian air defense. The negative aspects to Belarus are the situation undermining Eurasian integration trends, a narrowing of the Ukrainian market, the threat of a world war, and the threat of chaos spilling outside the borders of Ukraine. The sum total appears to be slightly negative. In fact, the only entity with a total gain, according to Sinkevich, appears to be the United States. The US gain purportedly consists of the receding threat of a consolidation of Northern Eurasia, a possible war between US competitors, the weakening of the EU and Russia, and new control over a part of the Ukrainian economy (http://cytadel.by/articles/krizis-integratsii-i-myagkoj-sily).

Considering that mutual demonization was integral to the Cold War, one may suggest that certain dimensions of that war are already back. Regrettably, there is a possibility that other dimensions will stage a comeback as well.