Public Intellectuals Muse about Belarus and Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 63

Svetlana Alexievich (Source:

Two informative interviews on issues related to Belarus were published in mid-April. Given by Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs and the chairman of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, as well as Svetlana Alexievich, the 2016 Nobel Prize laureate in literature, they furnish versatile and, at times, counterintuitive food for thought when considering where this East European state is headed.

Lukyanov, Russia’s top-ranked political commentator (Actual Comment, April 13), was interviewed by the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty. He emphasized a “fantastically high role of domestic factors” in the foreign policies of Russia and the United States. According to Lukyanov, Russian-US tensions are “not the most important and momentous element” of the ongoing reconfiguration of international relations, aiming at establishing a new global balance of power without descending into a world war. In part, Lukyanov agreed with the opinion of the liberal Russian pundit Leonid Radzikhovsky that Russia’s current foreign policy is “a matter of public relations and psychotherapy for the general population.” But for Lukyanov, this is an oversimplification. While Russian foreign policy is indeed instrumental to national consolidation, it is “the absence of a serious domestic political discourse and a lack of multiple political actors inside the country that lead to hypertrophy of the role that foreign policy plays as it strives to make up for this absence.” As Lukyanov asserted, “the room for flexibility of Russia’s partners will continue to broaden,” so Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan will be able to ever increasingly afford to distance themselves from Russia, and the latter will be taking this in stride. Overall, in today’s world, blood oaths of loyalty are no longer appropriate, so loyalty becomes more situational as a result. That pertains to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), too. Suffice it to look at Turkey, which “behaves as if NATO does not exist at all,” Lukyanov argued. Overall, in “the art of playing around friendship and alliances, even [Russian President Vladimir] Putin cannot outperform [his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr] Lukashenka,” which is why the Belarusian leader’s gamesmanship will continue (, April 18).

Whereas, in her interview to, Alexievich acknowledged that, if invited, she would like to meet Lukashenka out of sheer interest. Still, she admitted she does not trust people in power and does not believe in their moral transformation. Perhaps it would only be possible, “if Russian tanks show up at our border… Perhaps only in that case will our leaders sustain a shock and begin to change.” Alexievich perceives Lukashenka as an ill-mannered person, although she acknowledged that some ordinary Belarusians actually appreciate that. But, she insisted, that is because in Belarus there is such an abundance of “red men”—individuals who have not yet overcome their reliance on or support for socialist paternalism. And such people typically also dislike Alexievich. While the Belarusian writer tends to approach this reality philosophically, she did not expect the disparaging comments directed her way by Tatyana Tolstaya, a Russian writer and a scion of the famous Tolstoy family. Specifically, Tolstaya declared that awarding Alexievich the Nobel Prize was a “spit in the direction of literature and one more [example of] promotion of politics, journalism, and [politically] correct and topical themes.” Alexievich also confessed in her interview that she was hurt by a rumor, repeated by teachers at the secondary school she once attended in rural Belarus, that former United States President Barack Obama called the Nobel prize committee in favor of Alexievich, and thus she was “awarded [the prize in literature] for selling out her Motherland” (, April 19).

Alexievich clearly does not realize that public figures like herself cannot insulate themselves from these kinds of negative popular attitudes, and she is not particularly adept at such sociological reasoning (see EDM, July 13). As a journalist and a public intellectual, she rather has a flair for mixing the doctrinaire with the melodramatic. In the late 1970s, when she lavished praise on Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, she acknowledged she “feels the need to quote him—not out of a desire to simplify her journalistic work but out of infatuation with his personality, with the words he uttered, and with the thoughts he processed” (, October 22, 2015). But now that Alexievich is a committed Westernizer and a liberal who believes “the time of [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Boris] Yeltsin was the time of hope,” who vehemently rejects “the collective Putin,” and who does not trust the Belarusian government, she sees Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei as a “tragic figure.” She told, “It is unclear what [Makei’s] desire for a different Belarus will culminate in… [The Belarusian foreign minister] is one of those in power [in Minsk] who are able to think, but everything in this country is decided by one man [that is, President Lukhashenka],” and that man offers no hope for Alexievich. So, the only way out of Belarus’s predicament, according to the Belarusian Nobel laureate, is “to nudge society toward a confrontation by leveraging education and the young generation” (, April 19).

It is precisely such an outcome that those in positions of power work hard to prevent. Thus, according to a recent article by Belarusian Deputy Minister of Information Pavel Lyogky, the ongoing revision of the Law on Information is meant to defend the public order. Lyogky proclaims that Belarus’s new law draws guidance from European experience, especially from the 2017 German Hate Speech Law, which demands that social media sites move quickly to remove hate speech, fake news, and illegal material from their service. Identical measures are being proposed in France. According to Lyogky, the registration of Belarusian electronic media outlets would boost their sense of social responsibility (Belta, April 15).

However, because of the clumsy actions of the Russian state communications regulator, which inadvertently blocked an estimated 16 million IP addresses in a massive operation to block the Telegram instant messaging app, even government-friendly Belarusian commentators are calling for caution. They suggest looking for a balance between security and freedom of speech (2050Sonar, April 19). But of course, this is always easier said than done.