Nikolai Statkevich, a leader of the opposition Belarusian National Congress, warned in late December 2018 that, if Moscow sends troops into Belarus in an effort to annex it, Belarusians would resist and ensure that their country would not be “a second Crimea” but rather “a second Afghanistan” (Charter 97, December 31, 2018). Given the history of the Belarusian partisan movement during World War II (see EDM, January 30, 2015; February 6, 2015), that sounded like a serious threat, one that Vladimir Putin would have to take into consideration. But Statkevich’s assertion ignores a major change in Belarus that makes such resistance unlikely: the disappearance of Belarusian villages on which such a struggle could be based and the concentration of Belarusians in Minsk and a few other cities.
At present, despite the assumptions of many to the contrary, Belarus is not the predominantly rural country it once was. Instead, 75 percent of its people now live in cities (Newizv.ru, January 14, 2019). And over the last decade, a significant number of Belarusian villagers—1.5 million or more, according to some estimates—have fled even further, to work abroad in Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Approximately one million have gone to Russia, and 500,000 emigrated elsewhere (Tut.by, November 14, 2018). The situation is now so dire that even the Belarusian government, whose authoritarian and hyper-centralist policies have contributed to the disappearance of many villages and now threaten to eliminate larger district centers as well, has commissioned studies to consider what must be done to hold people in the countryside (see below). Officials fear that this rural depopulation may start to threaten the national security of Belarus.
Those concerns by the authorities have been echoed by opposition groups and academic specialists, who see depopulation of the countryside as a threat to the nation’s security in other ways. Belarusians in the villages are more likely to speak Belarusian and maintain Belarusian identity than those who move to the cities, they argue. And a country that faces radical income, health and development differences between the capital and the surrounding regions is likely to face the kind of social and political tensions that will, over time, undermine any political system (Zautra.by, December 11, 2018).
Minsk journalist Aleksey Alekseyev describes the problem in stark terms: “In the majority of Belarusian regions, the incomes of the population are much lower, sometimes by orders of magnitude, than in Minsk. The low purchasing power of the residents of the provinces drives away business, and the low pay forces people to emigrate from the country or to move to the capital and its environs. As a result, the regions are aging and falling into depression, unemployment and drunkenness.” Those had always been problems, he says, but they have grown worse both because of economic problems and because the government has no policy in place to deal with them (Zautra.by, December 11, 2018).
Alekseyev further cites the conclusions of Belarusian economist Sergey Chaly, who noted that the situation had been intensified by the economic decline of 2015–2016 but has not recovered along with the rest of the economy in the ensuing years, an indication of deep structural problems. Instead, the economist suggested, “the gap between Minsk and the regions has not fallen” over that period but rather “increased.” Every region except Minsk is subsidized; and other experts say that if this process continues, “half of Belarus’s GDP” will soon be produced in Minsk. The reason will not be because companies are registered there (as is the case in Russia, with companies predominantly registered in Moscow) but because that is where economic activity is actually increasingly concentrated (Zautra.by, December 11, 2018).
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government has backed new research on the regions and, intriguingly, has even helped sponsor a scholarly study on how other countries have addressed regional inequality (Beroc.by, 2018; Zautra.by, December 12, 2018). However, the regime’s halting steps in this direction—for instance, encouraging businesses to move back to rural areas by creating developmental “clusters”—have not yet had the impact that many were hoping for. Outmigration from rural communities continues and may even be accelerating, leaving large parts of the country unoccupied and putting new pressure and strains on the cities in general and Minsk in particular (Zautra.by, December 13, 2018).
On the one hand, what is happening in Belarus is typical of the entire post-Soviet space: the collapse of agriculture and the propiska (internal passport) system means that there are fewer jobs in rural areas but also fewer constraints on moving from villages to cities or even emigrating altogether. That phenomenon is unlikely to be reversed or even slowed in many of these countries. In Russia, for example, 36,000 of the villages still designated on official maps of the Russian Federation have one resident or fewer, and 20,000 have no people in them at all (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 9, 2019), and experts are already projecting that the 2020 census will show a rural Russia with no people at all (Newizv.ru, October 14, 2018).
But on the other hand, Belarus’s problems are more troubling. The depopulation of the villages threatens not only the national language and national identity, issues that the Belarusian opposition and intellectual community raise on a constant basis (see EDM, November 1, 2018), but also makes it more difficult for the government in Minsk to maintain a military force. Historically, most Belarusians in the armed services have come from rural areas. Furthermore, an empty countryside could make it much more difficult to mobilize a defense in case of a Russian move. Indeed, given how vacant some regions of Belarus have now become, it is not beyond the realm of imagination that Moscow might at some point try to create or threaten to create a pro-Russia entity within the current borders of Belarus.
Countering that, as Ukraine’s experience with Donbas has shown, could be extremely difficult for Minsk, particularly if—and unlike Ukraine—the region involved had almost no Belarusians living in it.