On March 1, for seven hours, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka fielded questions from journalists and political commentators (President.gov.by, March 1). Relations with Russia were the major refrain of the entire “big-time conversation” (bolshoi razgovor), which is how the event was labeled. While stating yet again that “Belarus would never be apart from Russia,” Lukashenka reproached the large eastern neighbor for “accusing us of freeloading.” He also declared with confidence that “98 percent of Belarusians would vote against incorporation of Belarus into Russia,” if asked about that in a referendum. “Belarusians want to be with Russia but would like to live in their own apartment,” observed Lukashenka. In fact, this assessment closely tracks with polling done by independent sociologists in September 2018: 2.7 percent of Belarusians probed declared they would support being absorbed by Russia (Svaboda.org, January 28). Instead of all this talk about Belarus joining somebody, let us “incorporate Russia into Belarus,” Lukashenka suggested jokingly.
During his seven-hour question-and-answer session, the Belarusian leader revealed he no longer expects Russia to compensate Belarus for its so-called “oil tax maneuver” (OTM—see EDM, January 14, 15, February 14), at least not in the near future. Moreover, he suggested that once modernization of Belarus’s two refineries allows them to reach 92–95 percent depth of refining (the fraction of crude oil converted to useful products), the country will be able to afford to buy oil elsewhere. Come next year, Lukashenka also envisages “one more battle” with Russia about natural gas prices, on top of that over OTM. But he expressed concern that Russia has not yet entered the respective negotiation process. “We do not want to live off Russia’s largess, we want to work with them like equal partners in a frontier-free market,” stated Lukashenka, alluding to the long-standing Belarusian desire to operate under the same hydrocarbon prices that Russian entities do (President.gov.by, March 1).
Lukashenka also revealed he will be running for president again, which hardly anybody doubted. But he assured he “would not be hauled off to the next world from the presidency” and would not “retain his seat for the sake of his children.” Somewhat sensationally, Lukashenka also predicted that incumbent Petro Poroshenko will win the presidential elections in Ukraine. Some of Lukashenka’s most colorful responses were to questions posed by Yaroslav Romanchuk, a linguist-turned-neoliberal-economist and a 2010 presidential hopeful, and to Zmitser Lukashuk of Euroradio, a Western-funded news portal registered in Poland and broadcasting from Warsaw. Romanchuk’s question concerned economic independence and the allegedly hostile attitude of Belarusian law enforcement agencies to private business. On the first issue, Lukashenka stated that, in today’s world, nobody is quite independent economically, even Russia. On the second issue, Lukashenka assured the audience that law enforcement does not go beyond the demand that corporate taxes are paid in full. Once again, Lukashenka cautioned against the introduction of elements of economic shock therapy, particularly with regard to agriculture. In these remarks, Lukashenka alluded to concerns that Belarusian farmers might not be able to effectively compete under unshackled market conditions—a belief also widely held throughout the West with respect to their own farmers, as illustrated, for example, by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Pointedly speaking in Belarusian, Euroradio’s Lukashuk, in turn, emphasized the necessity to develop a Belarusian identity by way of expanding the use of the native language, founding a university with Belarusian as the language of instruction, and by celebrating the 101st anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) at the Dynamo, Minsk’s largest sports stadium. The BPR was a short-lived but first historical attempt at Belarusian statehood, albeit under German military occupation back in 1918. The first public celebration of the BPR’s anniversary took place in 1990. Ever since, commemorations of Freedom Day, every March 25, have been entirely opposition-sponsored events. From 2000 to 2017, these celebrations led to confrontations with the police and multiple apprehensions of those rallying under the white-red-white banner of the BPR (which also used to be Belarus’s official flag from 1992 to 1995). In 2018, for the first time, the opposition-minded community was given an opportunity to celebrate Freedom Day peacefully, near the opera house in downtown Minsk, where a concert took place (see EDM, April 2, 2018).
In his 40-minute response to Lukashuk’s question, Lukashenka, who used Belarusian phrases intermittently in his Russian-language response, declined the request to assign the main stadium of the Belarusian capital to the aforementioned celebration and suggested it should take place at Bangalore Square, some three kilometers north of downtown. This is the place Minsk authorities officially designated to the rallies. He also expressed his lack of support for a Belarusian-language university, suggesting that although private investors could set one up, the present-day demand for schooling in Belarusian is satisfied by the existing establishments. Finally, Lukashenka referred to his government having honored the victims of those executed, under Joseph Stalin, in Kuropaty, a patch of forest at the northern edge of Minsk. But he suggested that those who have been rallying for months against the restaurant located next to that site (see EDM, June 20, 2018) are being unjustifiably hostile to this establishment’s owners and operators.
“If one draws a judgment about the big-time conversation from just Russian-media headlines,” observed Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by, “it would seem that, for seven hours straight, Lukashenka was deserting Russia, but during the intermission suddenly agreed to a common currency with it” (Tut.by, March 2). Indeed the latter was taken at face value by a Russian “patriotic” online newspaper amidst habitual accusations of Belarus abusing Russia (Vzglyad, March 1). Much of the opposition-minded Belarusian media, meanwhile, lamented a lack of new ideas presented during the president’s marathon session with reporters. Furthermore, they suggested that Lukashenka only employs his “soft Belarusianization” rhetoric to scare off Russia and does not genuinely care about Belarusian identity (Svaboda.org, March 2). The latter accusation, of course, disregards the fact that Luashenka’s government has instead been accentuating civic nationalism, particularly since ethnic-identity nationalism continues to have little traction in Belarus (see EDM, January 21, 2014; November 1, 2018).
Paradoxically, suggestions by Shraibman and others that Lukashenka’s March 1 pronouncements contained nothing new or that the big-time conversation was not even worth watching rather confirm the exact opposite. Belarusian media and online social networks parsed every sentence uttered by the president. Whereas the lack of groundbreaking revelations may actually be a sign of stability, which Belarusians en masse eminently prefer to upheavals of any nature.