Testing Belarus’s Character From Inside and Out

US Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) arrive by rail in Pabrade, Lithuania, 15 kilometers from the border with Belarus (Source: AFP)

A battalion of United States military forces has arrived at a training area in Pabrade, Lithuania, 15 kilometers from the Belarusian border. The 1st Armored Battalion of the 9th Regiment brought 30 Abrams main battle tanks, 25 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 70 wheeled vehicles. The unit will stay in Lithuania until the spring of 2020 to participate in Operation Atlantic Resolve (Lrt.lt, September 25). Vilnius has already assured Minsk that the operation poses “no military or other threats to the sovereignty of Belarus” (Tut.by, October 28).

Yet, President Alexander Lukashenko has ordered the Belarusian Ministry of Defense and the Security Council to come up with a response to the deployment of US military assets near Belarus’s border. “This, of course, is an armored fist. Do not downplay its value. Still, 30 tanks and 30 armored vehicles are simply ridiculous against the Belarusian army. But we, as I often say, carried out four modernizations of our army, and we perfectly understood what fists would be created at our borders and what kind of adversary, God forbid, we could face,” the Belarusian leader said. While Lukashenka called the transfer of troops “a precedent,” he emphasized that the Belarusian Armed Forces will not engage in saber-rattling (YouTube, October 28).

The US military has been serving on a rotational basis in the Baltic States and Central-Eastern Europe since 2014. It had not yet been deployed as close to the Belarusian border as in Atlantic Resolve, but on the whole, there does not seem to be anything extraordinary about the transfer of three dozen Abrams tanks. So what prompted the sharp Belarusian reaction?

“The tension is largely phony,” explains Andrei Porotnikov, an opposition-minded military expert. “The arrival of the American battalion may be an occasion, but [it is] not the reason for the statements made by official Minsk. Most likely, the true reason is […] in the sphere of Belarusian-Russian relations, which are in a state of permanent crisis. It is possible that this way Minsk is trying to improve its negotiating position. It shows that, despite all the difficulties and disagreements with the Kremlin, it remains a vigilant ally of Moscow” (Tut.by, October 28). “Lukashenka’s pronouncement is his proactive response to Moscow,” opines yet another opposition-minded expert, Alexander Klaskovsky. “To wit, your [Russia’s] help and additional presence are not needed. So although official Minsk’s militant rhetoric is formally directed against NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] […] Lukashenka is more sensitive to the Russian threat than to a mythical threat of NATO” (Gazetaby.com, October 28).

Indeed, the groundswell of accusatory rhetoric leveled at Lukashenka from the Russian side (see EDM, October 30) is not subsiding. Most recently, Russian media pounced on a couple of sentences Lukashenka happened to utter in his interview with the Kazakhstani press agency Khabar. Addressing the lengthy historical stateless existence of both Kazakhs and Belarusians, Lukashenka had this to say:

The important [common feature of the two countries] is that they have always been whipped by someone, as I often say. Someone forced us, someone tried to get us on our knees. Especially Belarus. All these wars are not our wars. During the […] War of 1812, Napoleon [Bonaparte] proceeded to Moscow and then retreated through Belarus. Everything was plundered… Then World War I. We got to the point where only a narrow strip remained of Belarus, as a part of the eastern provinces was given to Russia and the western part […] was transferred to Poland under the Riga Treaty. Then, World War II, which we call the Great Patriotic War [GPW]. Belarus was completely wiped off the face of the earth. These were not our wars. But we were going through hell (Khabar, October 25).

A loud outcry emanated from the Russian media: “Lukashenka Called the GPW ‘not our war’ ” (Vzglyad, October 26); “Lukashenka Renounced the GPW” (Ura.ru, October 27); “Lukashenka Refused to Consider GPW Our War” (Mk.ru, October 26); and “Lukashenka Publicly Disowned the GPW” (Obozrevatel, October 26) read some of the headlines. In reality, however, Lukashenka hardly disowned anything. Rather, he pointed to the obvious: all the wars that were raging on Belarusian lands were initiated by forces external to Belarus. However, the eagerness to pounce on any ambiguity whatsoever in Lukashenka’s pronouncements is telling. On Monday (November 4), Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev joined the choir. “We should by no means cast a shadow over the feat of our ancestors who defended their land, whether they lived on the territory of modern Russia or Belarus,” said Medvedev, adding, “They did protect their land from invaders. This is not participation in other people’s wars. Therefore, it is very strange for me to hear such words” (RIA Novosti, November 4).

In the meantime, two major events with the potential to affect Belarus’s sense of self have been under way. One of them was the decennial census, conducted from October 4 to October 30. Aside from counting Belarusians, the most crucial questions (the responses to which are expected with a measure of anxiety) are how many people called Belarusian their mother tongue—in 2009, 53 percent of Belarus’s population did, whereas in 1999, 74 percent did—and how many people pointed to Belarusian as the language in which they communicate at home. In 2009, 23 percent did, whereas in 1999, 37 percent did. (NashaNiva, September 8, 2010).

The second major event is the registration of candidates for the November 17 parliamentary elections. Registration ended last month, on October 17. Currently, candidates are campaigning, taking advantage of guaranteed five-minute-long TV appearances. The only two opposition-minded deputies presently in the parliament—who won their seat in the last elections, in 2016—have been denied registration due to allegedly forged signatures. Non-party members had to collect 1,000 signatures in support of their candidacy. Altogether, 531 candidates have registered, out of 703 applicants (Tut.by, October 31). In their respective precincts, they compete for a total of 110 seats. Out of 74 petitions of unregistered candidates, only two were satisfied (Tut.by, October 27). Based on their TV appearances, some registered opposition candidates did express their anti-regime views. For example, Volga Kavalkova appealed to her fellow citizens to prevent Belarus from ending up as part of Russia, which she called a “hostile country,” and criticized the powers that be (YouTube, October 30). Fifty-three registered candidates are below 30 years of age, including one African-Belarusian, one LGBT activist, and one beauty queen (Tut.by, October 30).

In summary, Belarus’s character is undergoing tests both inside and outside the country.