Preconceived Notions Obscure Signs of National Consolidation in Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 47

BPR Centennial Concert, Minsk, March 25 (Source: RIA Novosti)

Three Belarusian opposition activists, including 2010 presidential hopeful Vladimir Neklyaev, were preventively arrested in Minsk, on March 21, while walking on the street. At least one of them received a ten-day sentence (, March 22). All three—Neklayev, Vyacheslav Siuchyk and Maxim Vinyarsky, were members of the organizing committee of the March 25 celebration of the centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) (see EDM, January 25). Unlike other members of the BPR centennial celebration committee, however, these three activists were bent on organizing a rally that the city authorities did not allow—in contrast to the officially sanctioned concert and meeting in downtown Minsk. Neklayev, Siuchyk and Viyarsky were joined in their planning by well-known opposition leader Nikolai Statkevich. But Statkevich was reportedly sitting home to avoid arrest (, March 21).

Unlike in the past, Statkevich has lost the support of much of the Belarusian opposition over his obstinate stance regarding the holding of a BPR rally. In addition to Zmitser Dashkevich’s suggestive statement several weeks ago (see EDM, March 7), Siarhei Dubavets, the former editor of Nasha Niva, the opposition’s mouthpiece, recently weighed in, publishing the article “The Last Attempt to Understand Statkevich” (, March 21). In it, Dubavets first tears Statkevich’s pro-rally arguments to pieces. To that, he adds, “I understand that after [President Vladimir] Putin’s reelection, the Russian people want the expansion of the Russian world… This is the key part of the president’s mandate… The expansion may begin as soon as tomorrow, and maybe this upcoming night like it did in Crimea. And with armored troop-carriers in the streets, the possible referendum will bring about the same results as down there. This is the context of the ‘concert v. rally’ conflict. Consolidation […] is the only aim all nationally minded Belarusians should focus on today. All the other ambitions, individual advantages, habits and traditions should be sidelined.”

A comment by Dzianis Melyantsou, an opposition-minded journalist, alludes to what the advantages might be. When Arsen Sivitski, a political commentator, posted to his Facebook page the publication “To Prevent the Possible Sabotage of the Russian Federation During the Celebration of the BPR’s Centennial” (InformNapalm, March 23), Melyantsou remarked, “Goodness gracious! The main provocation [ought to be expected] not from the Moskali [a moniker of the Russians] but from the radicals for whom the worse it gets, the better. Their unauthorized procession will run into police batons—and voilà, the Americans resume sanctions, and only the right people will go to the capitals of the free world. Whereas the wrong people will only travel to Moscow. No Russian secret agents are needed when useful idiots are around” (, March 23).

Often attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the term “useful idiots” denotes persons perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they do not fully understand. A cacophony of responses to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s pronouncements during his March 21 meeting with youths at one of Minsk’s theaters highlighted a similar phenomenon: overexposing one’s own preconceived ideas while reacting to somebody else’s. Thus, for those on Lukashenka’s side of the barricade, what he said seemed to finally put to rest the debate over the BPR, which Lukashenka reportedly wants to send to the dustbin of history (e.g., EaDaily, March 20). Whereas, to many in the opposition, Lukashenka exposed his usual perfidy: one should have been more vigilant all along (Belsat, March 21). Yet, careful analysis of Lukashenka’s speech does not uncover reasons for either of the aforementioned reactions. “They tell me that I am doing what the leaders of the [opposition] Belarusian Popular Front were talking about,” remarked Lukashenka. “My goodness, talking is all they did, and by talking the way they did they antagonized Russians, Ukrainians and everybody else. In contrast to them, I am doing things but calmly.” As for the BPR, two pronouncements deserve attention. The one that many in the opposition pounced on: “Yes, one needs to know the BPR’s history, but it is not worth being proud of.” The second one was, “We should not judge them [BPR’s leaders and their attempts to curry favor with German occupiers] too harshly. After all, we were not there and psychologically did not experience what they did” (YouTube, March 21). The latter is much like a professional historian’s caution against judging the past based on present-day attitudes and experiences.

So why all those reactions? However paradoxical it may seem, they are due to the non-committal nature of Lukashenka’s pronouncements. He perplexed not only those who expected unequivocal directives and positive reinforcement, but also those who anticipated stern denunciations and negative reinforcements. Consequently, both sides fell back on what “they had known all along”—i.e., their preconceived notions.

Lukashenka’s March 22–23 visit to Georgia may have given a reprieve to the doomsayers on the opposition’s side. As the Russian political scientist Sergey Markedonov points out, “for Belarusian elites, national interests of the Republic of Belarus are no less important than talks about the union with Russia and Eurasian integration. And it is abundantly clear that Lukashenka is not ready for ‘added confrontation’ with the West by way of unilateral support of Moscow’s stand on ethno-political conflicts, whether in Abkhazia, Donbas or Karabakh” (Telegraph, March 23).

In any case, whether or not the BPR’s centennial delivered national consolidation per se, softening the government’s stance to it was a step in the right direction. Besides, Belarusians are not lacking in other opportunities. March 22 marked the 75th anniversary of the tragic events at Khatyn, one of many Belarusian villages that German Nazis and their collaborators from some neighboring countries burned to the ground, together with villagers themselves (, March 22). Commemorating the tragedy of Khatyn unequivocally brings most Belarusians together.