On August 1, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka paid a working visit to Kamenets district in Brest oblast, right on the border with Poland. His major task was to personally observe harvesting operations—one of Lukashenka’s hobbies derived from his professional background. Still, after having lunch with a group of combine harvester operators at the edge of one such field, the Belarusian leader also shared some of his observations on the developing situation in and around Belarus (President.gov.by, August 1).
According to Lukashenka, Belarus’s major problem is no longer the economy; it is demography. Frankly, more people are needed in Belarus. In that regard, the country is in a pickle. While its total fertility rate (average number of births per one woman) is dismal at 1.5 and matches Europe’s average, the excess of its average death rate (13 per 1,000) over average birth rate (9 per 1,000) is also not an outlier in Europe. Nevertheless, Belarus has lost quite a few people to the post-2020 outmigration, which, in many cases, was politically motivated. In that sense, Lukashenka’s assurance that “we will always aid families with multiple children” and that “social welfare package in Belarus” is superior to other countries did not sound all that persuasive (President.gov.by, August 1).
On international issues, Lukashenka’s remarks were entirely off the cuff. He likened Russian tactical nuclear missiles, more than half of which have already been placed in Belarus, to the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant calling both national security props. He then shared critical remarks about Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, noticeably differentiating between the Poles from the other two national communities. Whereas all of them, according to Lukashenka, “went berserk,” the Baltic countries were referred to exclusively as America’s henchmen (prikhvostni); the Poles, however, were given slightly more respectful treatment. As if extrapolating his demographic worries, Lukashenka mentioned that “Lithuanians have annihilated their country: 4.5 million people lived there whereas now barely two million do.” In truth, Lithuania’s official population was 2.8 million in 2022, whereas in 1989, 3.6 million people lived in the country (Prb.org, accessed August 8). Thus, as usual, Lukashenka employs a bit of hyperbole here (President.gov.by, August 1).
His message on Wagner seemed more consistent. According to the Belarusian president, a contract army is to be “actively set up in Belarus.” In that regard, those Wagnerites that came to Belarus may become that army’s foundation. As for the Suwalki Gap–related scare across the border, Lukashenka dismissed the notion that either the Wagner Group or official Minsk generally entertain any aggressive designs regarding this strategic chokepoint.
As on many previous occasions, Lukashenka lashed out at the United States, which allegedly “needs humiliated and downtrodden Europe, annihilated Russia and an open access to China.” US officials, he observed, frequent Warsaw, and as one of America’s staunchest ally, Poland is here to cause trouble (President.gov.by, August 1).
From that, he switched to remarking on the so-called “Pole’s card” (Karta Polaka), a document that confirms one’s belonging to the Polish nation. This card may be given to individuals who are Polish according to certain criteria defined by Polish law. The Pole’s card facilitates preferential treatment of a person resettling to Poland and/or soliciting a residency permit, employment and naturalization. Instituted in 2007, by 2019, about 140,000 citizens of Belarus had obtained the card, half of which resided in Grodno oblast where Pole’s card holders accounted for 6.4 percent of the total population (Kowalski, “Karta Polaka na Białorusi w świetle danych demograficznych,” 2020).
In this regard, the new citizenship law instituted in Belarus on July 11 requires that citizens of Belarus inform the authorities about any foreign document that may signify loyalty to another state. It also allows the authorities in Minsk to deprive a person of Belarusian citizenship in case their activity is considered “extremist” by a Belarusian court (Neg.by, July 14). When a question about Pole’s card holders was asked by one of the attendant farmers, Lukashenka responded ambiguously. On the one hand, he mentioned, “We have already clipped their wings.” On the other, he acknowledged that he personally knows some people in Grodno who work for the government and yet “keep that card in their pockets.” Thus, he suggested that it would not be prudent to take measures too far and concluded that “we are treading carefully on this issue.” Consequently, it is becoming clear that, under the present level of confrontation in Europe, the issues of loyalty to the state have come to a head, and that does not bode well for community organizers from among self-identified Poles who have resided in what is now Belarus for many generations.
In the meantime, the European Union imposed the seventh package of sanctions on Belarus, banning the import of crucial parts for military equipment and travel to the EU for 38 law enforcement officials and propagandists, as well as economic ties with three industrial enterprises, including Belneftekhim, the state-run petrochemical conglomerate (Zerkalo, August 3).
Considering that sanctions arouse controversial reactions (see EDM, August 2), the way some émigré Belarusian experts chose to rationalize the new package appears noteworthy. Thus, Valer Karbalevich writing for the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty suggested that, since June 2022, when the previous package was introduced, “Belarus did not distance itself from Russia, nor did the political repressions stop; on the contrary, Lukashenka’s dependence on Moscow increased, and the terror against dissent intensified” (Svaboda, August 4). While there is hardly any doubt that repressions within Belarus have not subsided, it is unclear how Minsk could possibly distance itself from Moscow when the EU market for Belarusian goods and western transit routes for Belarusian exports were terminated (Russia.Post, July 28).
According to Alena Kudzko, director of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, Slovakia, and a native of Belarus, sanctions may not have achieved much in the short-run, but in the long-run they will make the “life of Lukashenka and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin more complicated.” To the argument that sanctions push Belarus closer to Russia, Kudzko’s response was that “Lukashenka is moving towards Russia not only [emphasis added] due to Western sanctions.” Furthermore, “Lukashenka destroys civil society not only [emphasis added] in retaliation for sanctions” (Svaboda, August 3).
If anything, such a seeming reliance on logical fallacies speaks for itself. Apparently, Belarus is far from being at the forefront of Western foreign policymakers’ attention at this point, which, ironically, could push Minsk even closer to Moscow.