On September 23, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei spoke at the most recent United Nations General Assembly session in New York (Facebook.com/belarusmfa, September 23). Opposition-minded commentators focused on what seems to be a contradiction between two refrains of Makei’s speech. On the one hand, he stressed that Belarus never initiated hostilities in Ukraine, facilitated truce talks between Russia and Ukraine and continues to favor the cessation of hostilities. On the other hand, Makei expressed “understanding” of Russia’s “partial mobilization” decision and, moreover, of Moscow’s original decision to launch the “special military operation.”
Contradictions, however, do not exist in the abstract. What passes as a contradiction from a moral standpoint usually also has a profound geopolitical dimension. Both Makei’s theses appear to be grounded in this realm. As World War II continues to be referred to in Belarus as a war alien to Belarusians, or ne nasha voina (i.e., waged by powers external to Belarus), Minsk views the ongoing war in Ukraine through the same lens. Yet, it is equally apparent that, in the current environment, Belarus’s eastern neighbor provides the only lifeline for its economy. In the words of Artyom Shraibman, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “this is integral to the standpoint that forced Minsk to sit on two chairs. The authorities of Belarus chose it from the very beginning of the war and still adhere to it. Lukashenka does not want to fully identify with Moscow as this runs contrary to even his interests. At the same time, he cannot directly condemn the Kremlin’s policy due to increased dependence” (Zerkalo, September 23).
A week before Makei’s speech, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered remarks in Minsk in conjunction with a new national holiday, the Day of People’s Unity (see EDM, September 23, 2019). On that day, the Soviet Red Army advanced into Poland and extended the Soviet frontier some 300 kilometers to the west. For most Western observers, this was done in compliance with the Soviet-German non-aggression pact signed by Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop on August 23, 1939; the pact formally established the spheres of influence in Eastern Europe for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For the Poles, the agreement signified the fourth division of their country, adding to those that took place in 1772, 1773 and 1795. For Belarusians, however, the 1939 Soviet army’s campaign spelled further unification within their Soviet republic. Minsk initially celebrated this date, but in 1949, it was discontinued, apparently not to offend the Poles, who until 1989–1990, lived in a Soviet satellite state.
Today, such considerations have been cast aside. Moreover, the decision was made to sacrifice relations with Poland on the altar of Minsk’s perennial tug of war between two versions of Belarusians’ collective memory, the Russo-centric version and the Westernizing one—hoping the former will eventually triumph, while the latter falls into oblivion (see EDM, December 20, 2019). Poland’s alleged role in steering the 2020 post-election protests in Minsk has not been forgotten either. On Belarus’s history, Lukashenka declared, “We will remember … and remind everyone that in an alliance with the East Slavic neighbors, the Belarusian lands developed. Within Kievan Rus’, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and in the embraces of the West … we perished, we rotted as a nation. We were robbed, destroyed as an ethnic group both in the era of the Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) and during the 20-year-old Polish order in our Western lands [1921–1939]” (President.gov.by, September 17). Lukashenka also referred to more specific Belarusian grievances, such as “Polonization”; the alleged torture of Belarusians at the Polish concentration camp in Bereza-Kartuzskaya; Belarusians dying for the liberation of Poland as servicemen in the Soviet army and so on.
The anti-Polish messaging of the Belarusian authorities has found particular support from two Russians, Alexander Nosovich, a Kaliningrad-based journalist administering the RuBaltic.ru website, and Aleksandr Dyukov, a historian, who is continuing his crusade against the glorification of Konstanty Kalinowski—the leader of the 1863 uprising against Tsarist Russia on Belarusian lands (T.me/nosovich, September 21). On the basis of his archival findings, Dyukov portrays Kalinowski as an offspring of Polish nobility who desired to wrest Belarusian peasantry from Russian influence (T.me/historiographe, September 22).
According to Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Lukashenka’s dressing down of Poland, going far beyond his escapades against other Western countries, has to do with the Belarusian leader’s desire to “bring back the people’s love” for their leader by way of exploiting Belarusian nationalist sentiment. So far, only the Westernizing opposition has succeeded, however modestly, at this by naming Russia as Belarus’s archenemy, since Belarusians fought many wars as citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Rzeczpospolita.
In Drakakhrust’s opinion, Lukashenka decided to do the same by focusing on the Polish threat. The journalist identified as many as seven courses of anti-Polish actions in Belarus: introducing the Day of People’s Unity; rebranding of Kalinowski; accusing Rzeczpospolita of discrimination against Belarusians; rebranding the Polish Home Army (HA) as the perpetrator of genocide against Belarusians; the destruction of some HA cemeteries in Belarus; considering the expediency of demanding reparations from Poland (curiously, at the same time, some Polish officials have discussed reparation demands from Germany); and the potential repression of Belarusian citizens who have obtained the so-called “Pole’s card” (Karta Polaka), which confirms their belonging to the Polish nation and offers incentives for moving to Poland. Back in 2017, Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus’s only Nobel Prize laureate, quipped, “Give them tanks, give weapons, and in Belarus, the Catholics will kill the Orthodox or anyone” (see EDM, June 15, 2017). On this, Drakakhrust wrote, “Curiously, Alexievich did not identify the hypothetical opposing forces as rich and poor, educated and uneducated, or as supporters of Lukashenka and his opponents. She noted precisely the division by faith, or as they sometimes say in Belarus, between the ‘Polish’ and ‘Russian’ faiths. The fact that this division has had a great conflict potential was instinctively felt by the writer Alexievich, and the politician Lukashenka instinctively felt, and feels, that too” (Zerkalo, September 23).
At a minimum, the above shows that a true understanding of Belarus requires nuanced knowledge of its history and geopolitical situation. Merely distinguishing between the “good” and “bad” guys is not enough.