Stitching up the Belarus Archipelago

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 48


Recently the Belarusian service of Deutsche Welle (DW) published an article entitled, “The Belarus Archipelago: How to Overcome the Divide in Belarusian Society?” which presents a roundup of opinions of influential Belarusians all representing one side of the divide and yet concerned about the danger it posits to Belarusian statehood (Deutsche Welle—Belarusian service, March 23). For at least two decades, the proportion of Belarusian society intermittently labeled “democratic,” “Westernizing,” “liberal” and “nationalist” has been estimated at 25–30 percent. In any case, this proportion is well above the share of Belarusians who trust the opposition. According to the estimates of the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), terminated in 2016, the latter barely reached 11 percent in 2014 (, October 2, 2014), and it is extremely unlikely to have increased since then. Apparently, there are quite a few people who trust neither the “regime” nor the opposition. Yet, the social divide is a reality. In Belarus, there are two official languages, two flags and coats of arms, two journalist associations, two writers’ unions, two trade union associations, and even two Belarusian-language Wikipedias. One of those uses what it calls classic orthography (going back to Bronislav Taraszkewich, the author of the first textbook of Belarusian grammar, published in 1918), while the other is written in the official orthography emanating from the 1933 language reform conducted in Soviet Belarus.

According to one of DW’s interviewees, philosopher Vladimir Matskevich, the major reason for the divide inside Belarus is that, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the authorities never conducted a thorough de-communization. The split was then exacerbated by the referendums of 1995 and 1996 that added Russian as an official language, replaced Belarus’s flag and emblem with modified Soviet-era insignia, and deprived the parliament of power in favor of the president. In distinction from Matskevich, the founder of IISEPS, Oleg Manaev, believes the divide in Belarus goes back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, when the upper strata of society spoke Polish and was mostly Catholic, whereas the lower strata was mainly Orthodox and oriented toward Russia. According to Alexander Feduta, who used to serve as Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s first press secretary and then switched to the opposition, neither side of the divide can win because “the Belarusian regime is not overly rigid whereas the other side is too disunited.” However, Feduta noted, “[O]vercoming the divide is necessary because Belarus’s sovereignty is threatened and an internally divided country cannot withstand external threats.” Still, Feduta argued that “Belarusian society can unite only when both sides of the divide stop pursuing each other’s destruction.” The DW article specifically singles out and highlights this latter remark (Deutsche Welle—Belarusian service, March 23).

Monitoring the dynamics of publicized and unusual or unforeseen contacts within Belarusian society as well as between its influential opinion makers and foreign officials leads to a preliminary conclusion that the “lines of force” and paths to cohesion or disintegration do not always agree with the traditional descriptions of the divide. First, groups embracing extreme views have solidified, including the believers that Belarus is actually Russia (see EDM, March 26), on one side, and those seeing anybody negotiating or communicating with the authorities as a traitor (see EDM, March 14), on the other. Second, much of society is pervaded by multiple channels of communication. Thus, on March 25, Artyom Shraibman, representing an avowedly liberal, West-friendly (but not nationalist), and privately owned media organization, the most popular news outlet in Belarus, interviewed the state secretary of Belarus’s Security Council, General Stanislav Zas, who in December 2018 was nominated general secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (, March 25). Previously, such interviews showed up only in state-run media.

During a relaxed conversation, General Zas commented on the Information Security Conception, developed by the Belarusian Security Council and signed by President Lukashenka on March 18 (, March 18). Among other things, Zas recognized a link between “cultivating and propagating” the Belarusian language and information security. While Zas is opposed to implanting Belarusian into public life by decree, he expressed satisfaction that Belarusian youths are beginning to come around to using Belarusian, which is becoming fashionable and so “we” need to carefully promote this trend. Zas is also in favor of developing a genuinely Belarusian perspective on history and of discussions about this perspective. Likewise, he is in favor of unconstrained access to all government officials by the media. With this in mind, he plans to annul the requirement for every bureaucrat to obtain prior permission from his/her boss in order to speak to the press. While the latter sounds promising, the practice of publicly dressing down and firing officials by the president of Belarus—such as was recently on display in Mogilev Region during Lukashenka’s visit to a dairy farm (, March 26)—may limit officials’ enthusiasm for contacts with journalists even if a formal constraint is lifted.

Other unusual contacts have recently included meetings between the members of the opposition and the Russian ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich. So far, Babich has met with the co-chairs of the Speak the Truth civic campaign, Andrei Dmitriev and Tatiana Korotkevich, the latter a 2015 presidential hopeful (, March 15), as well as the 2010 presidential candidate and liberal economist Yaroslav Romanchuk (NashaNiva, March 25).

A certain restructuring is underway in the ranks of the opposition. Specifically, the young and efficient organizers of the Freedom Day (March 25) celebrations tend to depoliticize those events, filling them with concerts and other forms of entertainment. Whereas, opposition party activists are striving to retain their relevancy (, March 26). The latter proves difficult because of intrigues, vanity, posturing and self-promotion that have long become pervasive in their ranks. Eduard Palchis, one of the actual organizers of the 2018 and 2019 Freedom Day celebrations, writes at length about this phenomenon on his Facebook page, which received hundreds of likes within hours of being posted (, March 29).

In summary, while Belarusian society is divided, the problem no longer seems intractable. New enthusiasts from both sides are engaged in building bridges, while radicals, political demagogues and opportunists in Belarus are increasingly marginalized and losing credibility.