Moscow’s increasing pressure on Minsk to hew the pro-Russia line is proving to be counterproductive in three ways: First, it has prompted President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to take on even more independent positions—and owing to what Vladimir Putin is doing, he is not the “last dictator in Europe” any more. Second, Russian pressure is radicalizing national feelings among the Belarusian people, who resent the Kremlin’s assumption that they will passively follow Lukashenka and that Lukashenka will passively follow Putin. And third, it is leading ever more governments in Europe to rethink their approach to Belarus, exploring ways of going beyond the isolation that the European Union has imposed on Lukashenka’s regime.
None of these is, as yet, irreversible, but the current shift in Belarusian attitudes toward Moscow and the increasingly pro-Ukrainian and pro-European attitudes of the Belarusian opposition mean that Lukashenka has less room for maneuver than either he or Moscow may think. That, in turn, means that ties between Brussels and Minsk are likely to expand either because Lukashenka changes his approach or because he is forced from office by an increasingly nationalistic Belarusian electorate.
For most of the last two decades, Moscow has operated under the assumption that Lukashenka has nowhere to go but in a Russian direction. This assumption has only been strengthened by the West’s abhorrence of his rule, as well as out of commonly held convictions that Belarusians are not really a nation separate from Russians and that Moscow has enough assets in Lukashenka’s regime to prevent that country from going astray. More often than not, analysts in the West have left such convictions unchallenged.
But Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has changed all parts of this equation, opening the door for Lukashenka to look elsewhere—if only to keep himself in power. The past year’s events have shown that Belarusians are not Russians, whatever Putin says, and they raised questions about whether the assets on which Moscow has long counted are still as effective as they once were. As a result, Moscow commentators and the Russian government have become increasingly shrill in arguing that Belarus must join Russia and do so by the end of this year or face “liquidation,” as Eduard Birov wrote in Vzglyad earlier this month (Vzglyad, April 7).
That apocalyptic view has been promoted by officials and analysts close to the Kremlin, infuriating Lukashenka and angering Belarusians. Not only has Lukashenka lashed out at the idea that his country will ever vote itself out of existence, but reportedly he also has banned from entering Belarus some of the Kremlin advisors who are pushing this line—an unprecedented and, from Moscow’s point of view, highly offensive step given that he is supposedly Russia’s closest ally in the world (Nr2.com.ua, April 13).
But the impact of Putin’s heavy-handedness on the Belarusian population is far greater and ultimately much more counterproductive to Moscow’s interests. Ever more Belarusians are now saying they are prepared to defend their country against Russia, something that few would have felt the need to declare only a year ago, even if they felt that way privately. And a growing number of Belarusians are training to fight alongside Ukrainians against Russian aggression in southeastern Ukraine.
Typical of the new militancy of Belarusian nationalists is the statement last week by Dmitry Bondarenko, the leader of the European Belarus movement, to the effect that “if necessary, we will defend the independence of Belarus with arms in our hands.” Presumably, he would not have said this if he did not believe that it may be necessary and, much more importantly, did not think that it would resonate with a large number of Belarusians. Saying it if either of those things were not true would be political suicide (Charter97, April 6).
In an interview, Bondarenko said that “Russians must understand that the independence of Belarus will not be given up easily—there will be resistance.” Moreover, he continued, “we will find support from thousands of Ukrainian volunteers […] as well as help from the civilized countries. The West will not look calmly on an invasion of Belarus after Ukraine, because this would be a direct threat to the Baltic countries and Poland, which are all NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] members” (Charter97, April 6).
More immediately, Moscow is worried about the increasing intensity of anti-Russian attitudes among Belarusians in general and young Belarusians in particular in the wake of the Ukrainian events. In a Svobodnaya Pressa commentary, Vladislav Maltsev talks about “Minsk’s Banderite Underground” that he says is not only shaping public opinion in Belarus but preparing young Belarusians to fight in Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region encompassing Donetsk and Luhansk provinces) alongside Ukrainian forces (Svpressa.ru, April 11).
According to the Moscow observer, “there has been a qualitative and quantitative growth in the presence of the Belarusian opposition movement in the Internet and especially on [online] social networks. The overwhelming majority of groups in the latter bear a clear anti-Russian and russophobic character […] and [their rhetoric] ‘dehumanizes’ Russians, by giving them animalistic and barbaric characteristics as opposed to the ‘civilized Belarusian and Lithuanians’ who must unite with Ukrainians in order to ‘throw off the yoke of barbaric and wild Muscovy’ and ‘return to the ranks of the European family of civilized peoples’ ” (Svpressa.ru, April 11).
Some young Belarusians have already gone to fight in Donbas, and others are receiving training, Maltsev says, in what are supposedly “sports camps” but whose real purpose is the preparation of anti-Russian fighters. Among Belarusian groups, ranging from the relatively moderate Art Syadziba, Alternativa, and Budzma Belarusami to the more nationalistic Maldy Front and Molodezh BNF, there is increasing support for fighting Moscow, even if it requires going abroad. This is certainly not the outcome Putin hoped for in Belarus when he began his intervention in Ukraine.