Moscow-based commentators have long complained about the paucity of pro-Russia political parties in the former Soviet republics, especially around the time of elections or periods of instability there or when the Russian government has a specific agenda it hopes to promote in those countries. Consequently, many Russian observers were delighted recently by what they viewed as the creation of a pro-Russia party in Belarus. Such an organization, they hope, will help generate support among Belarusians for the country’s integration with the Russian Federation. But for many reasons, this new “party” is not in a position to do that. Indeed, it may even be counter-productive, driving Belarusians away from Moscow’s position. As a result, the Russian government has compensated by making increasingly hyperbolic promises about what Belarusians can expect if they agree to join Russia and positing equally extreme predictions of a disastrous future if they do not.
Almost all Russian and Belarusian analysts agree that support among Belarusians for union with Russia, in decline over the last several years, has fallen still further during the protests this year, even though the protesters and their leaders constantly repeat that they are in no way anti-Russian. The reasons for this, the analysts say, is that Moscow’s support for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whom the protesters would like to oust, has alienated many. Moreover, the Belarusians—themselves newly energized and consolidated as a nation (albeit not necessarily politically) because of the protests (see EDM, October 14)—want to reap the benefits of that development rather than sacrifice them for any supranational union (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 14).
That reduces Moscow’s options. Using force to absorb Belarus would isolate Russia completely from the West, and conspiring with Lukashenka alone would guarantee that Moscow would face a powerful movement against itself from Belarusians (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 21). The Kremlin could change sides and support the Belarusian people against the embattled sitting president, but that would not ensure that society at large would agree to union. And in any case, such a move would set a precedent that is anathema to the Kremlin—that populations have the power to oust unpopular rulers (Snob.ru, October 14). Other options, such as promoting a Donbas-like secession, also seem unlikely to work (Dailystorm.ru, September 30; see EDM, September 10). Moreover, for domestic reasons, ever fewer Russians are interested in annexing Belarus or pursuing imperialistic ventures abroad (see EDM, October 6); Russian President Vladimir Putin would like to suggest that the Belarusians themselves want that outcome (Thinktanks.by, September 23).
For all those reasons, the rise of a pro-Russia political party in Belarus would appear to be what Moscow wants and needs. And on October 2, the Kremlin seemingly saw its wish come true when the “Rodina” political movement was set up and announced as its goal the formation of a pro-Russia and pro-Orthodox political party. This political organization will seek Belarusian integration into the Russian Federation and the promotion of Christian Orthodox values among Belarusians and Russians, both now and after a union (Zavtra.ru, Katyusha.org, October 2).
The Rodina movement calls for expanding its ranks and promoting its agenda by establishing branches in each of the Belarusian oblasts. It seeks to counter what it views as pro-Western propaganda that has “infected” the Belarusian people and to take part, directly or indirectly, in any upcoming Belarusian elections, including potentially another presidential vote in the near future. It has already named a central committee and a leader, selected the Zapadrus.by portal as its voice, and sought cooperation with other smaller movements like the Polots Branch Belarusian Literary Union (Polvetvby.wordpress.com, September 8) and the Belarusian Republic Party of Labor and Justice (Ross-bel.ru, September 21; Rpts.by, accessed October 15).
But as even its backers in Russia recognize, there are compelling reasons to think that this new movement, even if it is eventually registered as a party, will not be able (at least on its own) to play the role they would like it to. Rodina has received extensive coverage in Russia, but almost none in Belarus, so few Belarusians know much about it. Its positions are extreme, even for Russian nationalists, on cultural and religious issues. Its website has been taken down, almost certainly by the anti-Lukashenka Cyber-Partisans (Thinktanks.by, October 11). The faction’s leadership has already proven fractious, with one group managing to push out another in the first two weeks. And it is divided on the message it needs to send because its short-term goals, gaining support from within Belarus, and its longer-term ones, promoting Orthodox nationalism and union with Russia, presently work against one another. Even those Moscow commentators who would like this Belarusian movement to succeed acknowledge as much (Materik.ru, October 5).
As a result, the Belarusian Rodina “party” is likely to remain at the margins—available for Russia and those in Belarus who support Moscow to use on occasion. But it will almost certainly be incapable of unilaterally shifting Belarusian opinion in Russia’s direction. The failure of this throw of the dice is not without consequences. In recent weeks, it has prompted Moscow to step up its efforts, sending two messages to Belarusians: the residents of that republic, its official media outlets say, will be much better off if they ally with Russia and much worse off if they do not. The negative narrative has not changed much in content even though the volume has increased, but the positive messaging has become ever more baroque. A prime example of the latter are reports in Moscow-based outlets saying that Russia will make available its ports and connecting railways to Belarus so that Minsk can escape any Western sanctions regime or blockage of trade by Poland and Lithuania (Eurasia.expert, October 11).
Moscow analyst Konstantin Eggert draws an important conclusion from this attempt to create a new party in Belarus and to change popular opinion there via propaganda. However powerful Russia may appear to some, he writes, it is no longer able to achieve whatever it wants in the former Soviet space—not so much because of Western opposition but because the local societies and governments are becoming ever more capable of resisting (Snob.ru, October 14).