Whenever Belarus’s vulnerability to Russian expansionism is discussed today, two points are raised most frequently: a) Vladimir Putin may be looking to extend his tenure in power beyond 2024 by taking over as president of the Union State of Russia and Belarus and b) Belarus is highly dependent on Russian aid. A recent discussion at the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL), titled “Russia as a Ventilation Window [Fortka] to Civilization for Young Belarusians” (Svaboda.org, July 19) highlighted one more point—arguably equally important, if not more so. Specifically, the discussion revealed the utmost dependency of younger Belarusians on Russian sociocultural networks.
The participants of the BSRL-hosted conversation made several main assertions. First, as has been documented for decades, pro-European leanings of the youngest Belarusians invariably appear to dwindle with age. As one of the discussants quipped, these leanings are “more compatible with life on a different planet” than in the actual country of Belarus. Second, the Belarusian market of cultural innovations is not self-sufficient. Belarusian entertainers, like the video blogger Vlad Bumaga or the singers Max Korzh and Tima Belorusskikh, became popular in Belarus only after they first made a splash in Russia, not the other way around. Third, as far as cultural innovations and business practices from third countries are concerned, it is primarily through Moscow channels that Belarusians are exposed to them. Whereas earlier this was the case due to politics, today this is due to market forces. Fourth, out of 26,000 Belarusian college students studying abroad (10 percent of all Belarusian university students), 60 percent do so in Russia. Fifth, in the eastern part of Belarus, the labor markets of Smolensk, Pskov and other Russian cities are more accessible than that of the Belarusian capital—at least based on the number of help-wanted ads available in the city of Vitebsk (Svaboda.org, July 19).
If Belarus watchers take the aforementioned Russia-dependency indications into account while also reflecting on their implications, many habitual attitudes and opinions on Belarus will not withstand scrutiny. Take, for example, Belarusian authoritarianism: like any national leader, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka presides over a community. But what if a sizable number of members of that community behave as a part of a larger (trans-border) socio-cultural whole, as the discussion at the BSRL effectively insinuates? In other words, if opinion-makers are systematically sought abroad rather than from within, the only way to make up for this deficiency is through a vertical chain of command—the so-called power vertical. In this regard, whether onereveres or despises the person at the top of that vertical, his personality clearly has a consolidating effect on the rest of society. It is not by accident that Vladimir Dzelendzik, the owner of the Belarusian mineral water company Darida and one of the most successful Belarusian businessmen, not only calls upon Lukashenka to stay away from Vladimir Putin’s integrationist zeal but also concedes that without Lukashenka Belarusian statehood might have long been lost (Nasha Niva, July 22)
It is true that, back in 1994, Lukashenka came to power under the slogan of restoring ties with Russia, not breaking them. But this was the overwhelming public demand at the time, rooted not only in the disorder and economic decline of the early 1990s, but also in two centuries of Belarusian history. Also, prior to 2014, Russia’s expansionism was largely not seen as specifically targeting Belarus. Moreover, in the 1990s, Russian liberal reformers Yegor Gaidarand Anatoly Chubais displayed a condescending attitude toward Belarus and were leery of its elected leader, who might easily have won a would-be electoral contest for president of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Their misgivings may go a long way in explaining why Moscow and Belarus never fulfilled their integrationist mandate formulated in the Union Treaty of 1999 (including a single currency and a single legislature). After all, Lukashenka’s not-so-tacit resistance to further integration dates back to more recent times.
Valer Karbalevich, Lukashenka’s most dedicated detractor, dutifully claims that Belarusian society has outgrown the Belarusian president; and if Lukashenka had had “enough common sense to retire in 2010,” he might have been retained in national memory as a positive figure (Svaboda.org, July 20). But now it is too late, Karbalevich argues. This, however, does not sound persuasive. After all, it is not certain how a less authoritarian leader might react to Russian expansionism, given that the national community he is expected to lead may not be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of retaining independence. And as for Lukashenka, he actually strengthened Belarusian statehood in an adverse environment informed by pervasive and multifaceted dependency on Russia.
If this is the case, relevant expectations ought to be set appropriately, wishful thinking should be put to rest, and many well-worn political clichés deriving from both exaggerated expectations and wishful thinking are due for reconsideration.