Perhaps for only the second time ever, sharper criticism of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been emanating from Russia than from his domestic opposition. A somewhat similar situation took place in the summer and autumn of 2010, when the three-part Godfather documentary castigating Lukashenka was aired on Russian TV. While the Belarusian opposition has certainly not gone silent, its arguments—pertaining to Lukashenka’s handpicked parliament and unwillingness to cede personal power—have grown somewhat blunted because of their constant repetition. In contrast, the tone of condemnation from Moscow is high-pitched, although it also follows a well-worn theme: infidelity. “Why is Belorussia [sic] not in a hurry to strengthen a union with Russia but is ready to be friends with the USA and Poland?” is a subtitle of a lengthy essay published recently on Lenta.ru, one of Russia’s premier news outlets (Lenta.ru, October 24).
The author of the aforementioned Lenta.ru article, Alexei Griazev, claims that “the closer it gets to signing documents on deeper integration between Russia and Belarus, the more actively Western politicians contact Minsk. For the first time in 20 years, two high-ranking American officials paid a visit almost back to back, and now Lukashenka is also talking about possibly joining the European Union.” The latter assertion alludes to a counterfactual remark the Belarusian president made a week earlier to the effect that “we [Belarus] never thought about joining the EU,” but if we joined, “the EU would not have any problems whatsoever with Belarus” (Tut.by, October 18).
“In addition,” continues Griazev, “there are reports from Poland about the creation of a new international format that will unite Washington, Warsaw, Kyiv and Minsk.” This is in reference to the September 24 Warsaw meeting of Paweł Soloch, in charge of Poland’s National Security Bureau, and United States National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who succeeded John Bolton (Defence24.pl, September 24). During that meeting, the putative start of the “Quad,” a new security format, was reportedly discussed, building on an August 31 meeting in Warsaw of Bolton with his colleagues from Poland, Ukraine and Belarus (EDM, September 3). According to the Lenta.rupiece, such a putative “coalition” is driven by Poland’s historical obsession of being “a European outpost, called upon to bring the light of Western civilization to the wild East” (Lenta.ru, October 24).
Griazev’s essay also refers to three other conduits of Belarus’s purported ongoing Westernization. One of them is the government’s changing domestic policy regarding Belarusian nationalism, which has reportedly been upgraded from its erstwhile marginal status to a “socially acceptable” movement. Because this movement glorifies Belarus’s past within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita), it plays into Warsaw’s hands, Griazev asserts. The second such conduit is Ukraine, on whose territorial integrity Lukashenka continues to insist. The third conduit, according to the article, is the Minsk Dialogue Council. “Officially, it claims to be an expert platform designed to present Belarus as a peacemaker squeezed between Russia and Europe. But in reality, European and American politicians and experts talk [at Minsk Dialogue forums] about containing Russia and the need for a non-aligned policy for Belarus” (Lenta.ru, October 24).
The more relations between Minsk and the West warm, Griazev observes, the harsher Minsk’s statements about Moscow become. For example, Belarus states that the main obstacle to deeper integration with Russia is the latter’s reluctance to make price concessions on oil. “Recently, Russia has also been accused of restraining integration within the Eurasian [Economic] Union. Finally, Minsk flatly refused to deploy a Russian military base on the territory of the republic.” In practice, this means, the piece concludes, that if “Belarus’s foreign policy, as it has been shaped over the past five years, does not change, Russia will pay for its ally’s continued movement toward the West—that is, toward a new Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth” (Lenta.ru, October 24).
Related criticism of Poland’s eastern policy recently showed up on RIA Novosti (RIA Novosti, October 21). But meanwhile, in Warsaw, such Russian accusations are perceived as wholly unjustified. “Suggesting that Poland is Russia’s competitor in Belarus is a flattering opinion and one should be happy about it. However, I think that this suggestion is untrue,” observes Leszek Szerepka, Polish ambassador to Belarus in 2011–2015. “Our capabilities in Belarus are incomparable to those of the Russian side” (Rzeczpospolita, October 26). For example, the Polish “Konstanty Kalinowski” Scholarship Program, which used to fund Belarusian university students in Poland, has shrunk; the same holds true for official support from Poland of Dom Białoruski(Belarusian House) in Warsaw, an institution calling itself the Belarusian opposition’s embassy in Poland. Belsat, a Belarusian digital TV channel broadcasting to Belarus, annually fights for deficient Polish funds; and Charter97, a radical opposition media outlet headquartered in Warsaw, has failed to secure Polish funds altogether. On the other hand, it is true that the Karta Polaka (Pole’s Card), a document that recognizes its bearer’s Polish origins and enables visa-free travel to and employment in Poland, was obtained by about 137,000 Belarusian citizens since 2008—while being condemned by Minsk (Rzeczpospolita, September 26). And it is also true that, in 2018 alone, 137,000 (a coincidence) Belarusian citizens received a residency permit in the EU, and 90 percent of these people have moved to Poland (Tut.by, October 25).
In the meantime, Minsk is trying its best to ensure oil imports from Kazakhstan. Reportedly, the respective agreement is ready but still needs to undergo some technical procedures in both countries (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 24); whereas the previously agreed-upon $600 million loan from Russia will no longer be issued to Belarus (Gazeta.by, October 25). Also, experts friendly to the Belarusian government have intensified their criticism of Russia’s approach to integration, accusing Moscow of acting as a neoliberal profit maximizer and a promoter of socially disastrous shock therapy. In contrast, they argue, Belarus maintains a social welfare state but suffers from the ambiguities and uncertainties of Russian policies (Imho.club.by, October 28). It is precisely arguments like this that suggest the undergoing changes in Belarus’s international relations are driven not so much by insidious geopolitical actors but by the national interest of the Republic of Belarus.