President Lukashenka’s Rhetoric and Belarus’s Future

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 36

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s seven-hour marathon with reporters, on March 1 (see EDM, March 7), continues to reverberate in the media. Most of the discussions fall within one of four discernible themes.

The first has to do with Lukashenka’s expressed proposal to revise the constitution. He had first broached this idea in 2016. The president raised the issue again in 2018, but then a revolution engulfed Armenia that spring (see EDM, April 23, 24, 2018), and Belarusian authorities mentioned nothing further about any would-be constitutional amendments until Lukashenka’s back-and-forth with the media two weeks ago. According to commentator Artyom Shraibman of, the pause resulted from a seeming resemblance between Lukashenka’s constitutional amendment proposals and those actually implemented by Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan prior to his fateful attempted transitioning from president to prime minister in April 2018. Sargsyan’s constitutional changes shifted the center of power from the presidency to the head of government, which would have effectively extended his leadership but instead sparked widespread anger and resulted in the so-called “Velvet Revolution” that forced him to resign. While it is far from certain that Lukashenka plans to adopt similar amendments to the Belarusian constitution, his proposals do seek to broaden the decision-making powers of the government and of the parliament and possibly amend the electoral procedure. During his March 1 press conference, Lukashenka for the first time indicated the desirable timeframe for those changes: 2020–2023. This suggests Lukashenka is trying to ensure that an eventual change at the top will not lead to a national crisis, with powerful external players taking advantage of it. The idea makes sense if only because under the super-presidential system currently in place, even an illness of the head of state could easily lead to serious paralysis of the “power vertical.” Shraibman believes that the constitutional amendment process should be closely monitored because it could provide some of the clearest indications of what Belarus may look like after Lukashenka (, March 6).

The second common subject of media discussion is Lukashenka’s sudden prediction that incumbent Petro Poroshenko will win this month’s presidential election in Ukraine. Commenting on the issue, Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty reminds his readers that, in early September 2016, Lukashenka correctly predicted the electoral success of Donald Trump (, September 11, 2016). The United States, however, is far away, whereas Ukraine is next door; therefore, Lukashenka’s prediction regarding Poroshenko sounds more like wishful thinking. But why would Lukashenka throw his rhetorical support behind the wartime leader of Belarus’s “geopolitical antipode?” After all, while Russia and Belarus are officially the closest of allies, Poroshenko’s Ukraine has been a covert and overt target of Russian aggression and partial occupation since 2014. Drakakhrust offers a three-part explanation. First, Lukashenka is a conservative and Poroshenko is a known quantity, unlike the entirely inexperienced Volodymir Zelensky and the politically unpredictable and ever-shifting Yulia Tymoshenko. The second reason is that Ukrainian leaders (as well those of other post-Soviet countries) with close connections to the West have, in the past, repeatedly interceded on Lukashenka’s behalf. This is something former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko notably used to do, and so did Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili. Incidentally, unlike Lukashenka’s warm relations with Yushchenko and Poroshenko today, his rapport with the more pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych (who fled Ukraine during the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution) left much to be desired. At one point, Lukashenka even accused Yanukovych of “being infested with lice”—paraphrasing the Russian idiom proverka na vshivost’, which, loosely translated, implies a loyalty test. In 2011, the then–Ukrainian president failed this “loyalty test” when he disinvited Lukashenka from a 25th anniversary commemoration of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown disaster because the head of the European Commission at that time, José Manuel Barroso, had conditioned his own participation on Lukashenka not being allowed to attend (, September 2, 2011). The third possible reason why Lukashenka might wish for Poroshenko to win, according to Drakokhrust, is geopolitical. The worse relations are between Kyiv and Moscow, the more Minsk is appreciated in the Kremlin as Moscow’s only European ally (, March 3).

The third subject of discussions prompted by Lukashenka’s press conference derives from his own reaction to how the Russian media later responded to his pronouncements. These have been, according to him, fake news responses (, March 5). Notably, he criticized the media outlets’ tendency to prematurely accept his jokingly expressed commitment to a common currency with Russia at face value. “We need to resolve the lower-level problems first,” observed Lukashenka. For example, why is it that Russian rubles are used in 80 percent of our trade exchanges with Russia, not in 100 percent? That means that Russia expects Belarus to pay the rest in the “enemy’s currency”; and if so, what is the point of talking about a single (Russian-Belarusian) ruble? Lukashenka also accused Moscow of not allowing Belarusian machine-building products to compete on the Russian market while at the same time increasing its own exports of such items to Belarus. “They are just not interested in integration,” concluded Lukashenka, “but would like to blame us.” And when Belarus tries to negotiate with the West, Russians become hysterical, he asserted. “But why? If Belarusian products are not allowed into the market and we are called freeloaders and squeezed out of the market whenever possible, do we need to hide under the baseboard and sit there?” Lukashenka questioned (TASS, March 6).

Finally, the fourth subject of discussions has to do with the Belarusian leader’s vivid exchanges with opposition-minded individuals represented at the press conference. On several occasions, Lukashenka appealed to his former political critics—such as historian Valentin Golubev, one of the founders of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Oleg Trusov, the former chairperson of the Belarusian Language Society and, from 1990 to 1996, a member of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus who opposed Lukashenka’s crucial policy moves at the time. Pointedly, during the March 1 questions-and-answer session, both of these seasoned members of the opposition looked happy to be on friendly terms with the head of state. Hence, a vigorous debate ensued as to whether or not they betrayed the cause of the opposition under the premise that Lukashenka defends Belarus’s independence. In other words, while some think this premise is false, others believe it (, March 1, 6).

It is hard not to frame this latter debate within a broader context of the tug-of-war between intellectually and politically immature rebels and veteran advocates of national consolidation. Indeed, the woeful lack of such national consolidation has long hampered the development of Belarusian statehood.