Political Posturing, Facts on the Ground and the West’s Belarus Policies

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 103

Belarusian-Russian border (Source: Radio Svabodo)

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s putative role in reversing Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow is now on everyone’s mind. Preempting alternative opinions, some opposition analysts have already posited that Lukashenka’s role in that saga was purely “technical” (Zerkalo, June 24). Today, Lukashenka himself offered a detailed account of his role (Belta, June 27). This account will be scrutinized in due course. But there are broader issues whose analysis brooks no delay.

One fundamental fact about Belarus that Western policymakers have rarely taken seriously is that the Republic of Belarus is a divided country. Moreover, its internal division is not merely a transient effect of propaganda; rather, it has deep historical and geographic roots. On his map of the eastern border of Western civilization, Samuel Huntington showed Belarus as a cleft country. If this fact had been internalized, perhaps there would be less temptation to make sweeping generalizations about Belarusians. However, due to the inherent demands of their profession, politicians would likely still cling to this practice.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the exiled Belarusian democrats, is no exception. In the preamble to her interview with the Ukrainian television channel 1+1, she was introduced as “president of Belarus” (YouTube, June 19). In the interview, she reflected on “liberating our country.” For that purpose, she observed, the Kalinowski regiment, a military unit composed of Belarusian volunteers fighting on the Ukrainian side, may not be enough, and strong support within the country is required, including that of the Belarusian army. When asked if she would turn to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for help, Tikhanovskaya’s responded, “I do not rule it out.”

In the meantime, Valery Tsepkalo, Belarus’s other 2020 presidential hopeful, claimed in lengthy tweets that “we are currently examining various scenarios for power transfer in Belarus” (Twitter.com/ValeryTsepkalo, June 17); he also lambasted the National Endowment for Democracy for rejecting his funding request (Twitter.com/ValeryTsepkalo, June 20) and criticized the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for including members of Tikhanovskaya’s “transitional cabinet” in its Contact Group. According to Tsepkalo, these individuals do not represent anyone in Belarus, but they live well enough to consume black (sturgeon) caviar (Twitter.com/ValeryTsepkalo, June 21).

As a refreshing and sobering contrast to the above, Andrei Vardamatsky, one of Belarus’s most seasoned sociologists, in Warsaw, presented his analysis of Belarusians’ attitudes based on the national survey he conducted in May 2023. The representative sample consisted of 1,000 Belarusians, both urban and rural, who were contacted by phone. While face-to-face interviews constitute the most reliable survey technique, phone interviews are considered the next best option and preferable to online surveys (conducted by Chatham House), as in the former case, the survey organizers are in control of the sample group, whereas online polls deal with self-selected respondents.

According to Vardamatsky, the only key variable that bonds Belarusians is their reluctance to be united with Russia as one state (only 8.7 percent want that, up from the usual 5 percent). Other attitudes are markedly less unanimous. “More Than Half of Belarusians Support Integration With Russia” is the title of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s report from the survey presentation (Svaboda, June 20). Indeed, 53.5 percent are in favor of some kind of institutionalized ties with Russia, whereas only 22.7 percent said the same about the European Union. When the question was reformulated, 60 percent opted for either current-level or tighter integration with Russia. Vardamatsky called this outcome a challenge. “It is important for us to understand,” he acknowledged, “if this is temporary, or if the attitudes of Belarusians to Russia will further improve. … Also, has the Russian narrative already reached its limits in Belarus?” (Euroradio, June 23).

Be that as it may, the picture painted by Vardomatsky is at odds with the opposition’s political statements. The latter assumes unanimity and resolve that the former does not demonstrate.

A similar ambiguity pertains to the way in which the causes and consequences of the ongoing security buildup in Belarus are discussed. Recent analysis by Artyom Shraibman, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a case in point (Carnegie Politika, June 23). Shraibman maintains that Lukashenka’s fear of outside aggression may act as a trigger of fateful developments, as after the deployment of nuclear weapons, Belarus is a legitimate target for the West, especially if Western policymakers decide to penalize Russia without targeting Russian territory.

While Shraibman’s portrayal of Lukashenka’s fear as a self-fulfilling prophesy may be reasonable, his suggestion that “the objective process of the militarization of the Belarusian opposition and Ukrainian sabotage activity in Russia led Lukashenka to … alarmingly paranoid conclusions” is questionable. Sure enough, Lukashenka is an authoritarian leader who has been at the helm of power since 1994, while the opposition detests him. Still, a security buildup as a reaction to something “objective” (i.e., natural and unavoidable) can hardly pass for paranoia. After all, Shraibman dutifully explains that the reaction in question was conditioned by the alleged sabotage at the Machulishchi airfield (see EDM, March 8) and by breaches of the Russian border in Belgorod as well as Moscow’s inexplicably calm reaction to drones over the Kremlin. That is why since the beginning of May 2023, Minsk has been safeguarding its border with Russia almost as much as its western borders.

Shraibman reasons that, if Lukashenka realized that 800–1,000 Belarusian volunteer fighters are insufficient to invade Belarus, that these fighters are integrated into Ukrainian military units and that Poland and the West in general are not interested in invading Belarus, Lukashenka’s fears would recede. This is true; however, it is equally true that Lukashenka’s reactions and those of an opposition-minded analyst-in-exile are understandably—not to abuse the term “objectively”—different. Besides, the original report about the alleged training of Belarusian anti-Lukashenka fighters in Poland came not from Warsaw itself and not from the likes of Tikhanovskaya—it came from The Times of London, which could not but boost Lukashenka’s misgivings (Times, June 18). The Wagner “mutiny” has validated those doubts as well (Svaboda, June 24).

This is not to deny that the democratic aspirations of some Belarusians fighting Lukashenka’s autocracy are key policy underpinnings. Yet, no less important is the realistic assessment of facts on the ground, and unfortunately, there has been too little of that in the West’s Belarus policy toolkit.