The Lingering Debate Over Belarus’s Historical Narratives

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 182

(Source: РВИО)

On November 23, the latest summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was held in Minsk. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan snubbed the meeting over a rift with the Kremlin. The leaders of the five other members—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan—were present, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his speech, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared, yet again, that “the dismantling of the unipolar or … Western-centric” world order is underway. He highlighted that “Poland’s military budget is growing by leaps and bounds and looks to reach 4 percent of GDP [gross domestic product] next year.” For Lukashenka, this belies the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s constant declarations that it is strictly a defensive alliance. The Belarusian president concluded, “Against this backdrop, complaints about the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in our country … are absurd. … We simply learn the so-called ‘diplomatic etiquette’ from those who have made the language of force the global trend.” Lukashenka called upon the CSTO members to become more united in facing the dangers emanating from the West (Belta, November 23). This appeal is unlikely to resonate as strongly in Bishkek, Dushanbe, and Astana as it does in Moscow. Lukashenka’s assertive speech underlines changes in Belarus that have seemingly elevated Minsk’s role as a leader in the anti-West coalition. The situation in and around Belarus, however, is more nuanced than it may seem based on official declarations, as the contest for primacy between the Russo-centric and Westernizing historical narratives of the Belarusian nation rages on.

Belarus is experiencing more robust economic growth than predicted (see EDM, November 8), with a sizable contribution coming from the entrepreneurial class. In Minsk, the share of tax revenues from the private sector was 77.2 percent in 2022 (, July 21). Perhaps minuscule in terms of GDP, small businesses are increasingly being established in rural areas, often run by individuals originally from Minsk and other large cities. This economic growth and the recent progress on possible EU membership for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have pushed some observers to consider the possibility of Belarus joining the 27-member bloc at some point in the future. Jakob Wöllenstein, head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s Belarus office, suggested that if Belarus could somehow change its leader, its accession to the European Union would be much easier than that of the current candidates states (Svaboda, November 24).

The Belarusian population is split on the idea of future EU membership. In June 2023, the Warsaw-based Belarusian Analytical Workroom, headed by Andrei Vardomatsky, conducted a telephone-based survey of 879 randomly selected respondents. Among those without a college education, 55 percent support Belarus’s close alliance with Russia, and 21 percent support the possibility of EU membership. Among those with a college education, around 45 percent support Moscow and Minsk’s close relationship, and 35 percent support EU membership. Other noteworthy results reveal that 56 percent of college-educated respondents do not support Russia’s war against Ukraine, while 32 percent do. Those without a college education who support and do not support the war accounted for 43 and 44 percent, respectively (,October 20). Neither group favors the Belarusian army joining Russia’s war effort: only 5 percent of college-educated respondents and 12 percent of those without a college education support such a development. Additionally, opposition-minded media has tried to push the narrative that the Russian military presence on Belarusian soil signals that the country is being occupied by Russia. According to the survey, 69 percent of college-educated respondents and 74 percent of those without a college education reject this view (, October 20). Overall, the survey seems to reflect the notion that Belarusians with more education tend to be at least somewhat more supportive of the West.

The Belarusian government’s “politics of memory” also plays a key role in affecting public attitudes. Belarus’s closeness to Russia, partly maintained due to Western sanctions, means that, out of the two contesting narratives of Belarusian history (see “Split Identity and a Tug-of-War for Belarus’s Memory,” December 20, 2019), the Russo-centric narrative is being vigorously promoted at the expense of the Westernizing narrative. As a reflection of the Russo-centric narrative, a monument to Prince Alexander Nevsky (1221–1263) was recently erected in downtown Minsk (Vzglyad, November 18). Nevsky is one of the pivotal figures of early Russian—not Belarusian—history. He is glorified for his victory in the Battle on the Ice at Lake Peipus (Chudskoye Ozero) over forces of the Livonian Order and Bishopric of Dorpat. In that battle, Nevsky represented the Novgorod Republic and the Grand Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal. Nevsky’s victory halted the eastward expansion of Roman Catholicism. Belarus straddles the Orthodox-Catholic divide and prides itself on the peaceful coexistence of both denominations. In this context, Nevsky’s cult appears alien to Belarus’s national identity. In addition, Belarusian author Vladimir Korotkevich’s novel The Ears of Corn Under Your Sickle was recently removed from secondary school curriculum (NashaNiva, November 9) precisely because it praises Konstanty Kalinowski, who is considered a hero by the Westernizing discourse of Belarusian history and increasingly rejected by the champions of the Russo-centric narrative.

The Belarusian population’s disinterest in the upcoming elections for the opposition-in-exile’s so-called “Coordination Council” underscores the current weak position of Belarus’s Westernizers. According to prominent Belarusian journalist Alexander Klaskovsky, now an émigré in Czechia, Belarusians at home are hardly paying any attention to these elections (Pozirk, November 20). Artyom Shraibman, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, currently in exile, estimates that no more than 20,000 émigrés are expected to participate in the vote (YouTube, November 12).

The Belarusian nation remains divided between the Russo-centric and Westernizing interpretations of history. Despite this, those Belarusian still in the country have managed to carve out a niche, wherein if they do not challenge the political regime, life remains relatively normal. For now, the Russo-centric narrative will likely retain its primacy, while the Westernizing discourse, undergirded by a “multi-vector” approach to foreign policy, may gain its second wind once external pressures (e.g., the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions) are resolved.