On July 3, Belarus officially commemorated Independence Day, and the month also marks the 17th anniversary of the declaration of sovereignty in the late Soviet era. In contrast to previous years, the authorities are now offering a new form of patriotism: the promotion of national culture and pride is being combined with a new movement for support of the Lukashenka government and celebrating what is described as the economic success of the past decade and the flourishing of the current state. The creation of a new public association called “Belaya Rus’,” a pro-government organization formed in several centers simultaneously, could prove decisive in forthcoming elections to the Belarusian Parliament or municipal elections.
July 3 was initially chosen as Independence Day to sustain the link with the events of World War II, specifically the liberation of Minsk from German occupation in 1944. This year, there was an initiative from the government to continue the cultural action “For Belarus!” that was associated with the controversial reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in March 2006. It was followed by the president’s speech advocating a bond with the people through public associations, official trade unions, and the like. On March 25, the Lukashenka government commemorated the anniversary of the 1918 national republic for the first time.
The new propaganda campaign is now well under way. Aleh Praleskouski, head of the main ideological section with the Presidential Administration of Belarus, noted that the public and cultural program “For an Independent Belarus!” began on March 25 with a concert at the Minsk domestic airport. The most significant factor, he added was “the feeling of patriotism and unity in displaying love for Belarus and national pride.” He acknowledged the ideological basis of the movement (www.belta.by, July 4). On June 29, Uladzimir Rylatka, first deputy minister of culture, reported that some 30,000 people would take part in a gala concert sponsored by the national public and cultural movement “For an Independent Belarus!” on July 3 (www.news.tut.by, June 30).
The results were quite impressive, with the main concert in Minsk attended by Lukashenka, after some 200,000 people had watched a military parade down Masherau Avenue (Belorusskie novosti, July 7). Altogether, about 450,000 people took part in official celebrations in Minsk, which included a concert featuring Belarusian and Russian singers, and a fireworks display that was preceded by the singing of the national anthem (www.belta.by, July 4). Similar events took place in different cities, many several weeks earlier, including concerts in Homel (June 4, 8) and Zhlobin (June 9) (www.homel-region.by, June 9).
Simultaneously, the public association Belaya Rus’ was formed after a series of founding congresses in Hrodna, Minsk, and other cities. The Minsk city public association declared two basic goals: assistance in the construction of a strong and flourishing Belarus, and assistance in creating the conditions for uniting the progressive forces of society on the basis of the ideology of the Belarusian state in order to procure political and social stability, and the dynamic economic and spiritual-moral development of society. The associations include prominent government and parliamentary personnel, university rectors, and acclaimed athletes and cultural figures (Belorusskie novosti, June 22, and July 2).
What is one to make of these events? Two conclusions can be drawn. First of all, the Lukashenka regime has evidently dropped its reluctance to the formation of a “party of power,” recognizing that a besieged and isolated regime requires strong public support from within. Belaya Rus’ officially is not a political party but clearly has the potential to become one.
Second, the two phrases “For Belarus!” and “For an Independent Belarus!” offer seemingly harmless calls to national pride while barely concealing an obvious question: independence from what? One observer, Yaroslav Romanchuk, has pointed out that although the president has never stated it explicitly, it is plain that the two slogans are offered to distance Belarus from Russia while extolling the achievements of the present regime: “Lukashenka is trying to convince the population that the tsar is good” (Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, July 6). Along with the “new nationalism” should be placed the transformation of the national capital Minsk into a model city, including the futuristic new library, new shopping centers, and plush new buildings occupied by banks and foreign car manufacturers.
Belarusian citizens are hardly immune to such changes, but they are cognizant that the period of economic stability is rapidly coming to an end. Lukashenka also is facing the sternest test of his leadership in an emerging energy crisis, the uncertain relationship with the Moscow leadership, and an alarming balance of payments deficit with Russia, which is currently offering to build the new nuclear power station in Belarus (Itar-Tass, June 25).
Under these circumstances, it is perhaps pointless to question the sincerity of the official campaign “For an Independent Belarus!” or the formation of the new public association, Belaya Rus’. The government that has repressed opponents and manipulated elections and referendums now wishes to persuade the public that it has the best interests of Belarus at heart; and a leader who once regarded the native language as subversive and a tool of the opposition has reincarnated himself as a closet nationalist. However, the entire campaign is intended to bolster the Lukashenka regime and shore up support against an ostensible threat to the independence of Belarus, and thereby to the authority of the “president for life.”