In his essay, “A Map of the World: The Return of Geopolitics,” Sergei Karaganov, a Russian pundit, analyzes the newly acquired legitimacy of geopolitics that, until recently, used to be “provincial,” “politically incorrect,” and even perceived by some as a vestige of Nazi ideology. Karaganov claims, “Moscow is skillfully conducting its geopolitically inspired foreign policy game. It contributes opportunities and adds significance to the country whose economic assets are not great and whose identity crisis does not allow it to take advantage of its cultural heritage and soft power” (http://www.globalaffairs.ru/pubcol/Karta-mira-Vozvraschenie-geopolitiki-15917). Karaganov’s suggestion that geopolitical arguments are no longer politically incorrect smacks of exaggeration. At least when it comes to Belarus, both Russia and the European Union de-emphasize a geopolitical tug of war. Thus, Maira Mora, the EU’s envoy to Minsk, stated that “the choice between East and West that Belarus reportedly ought to make is a spurious choice.” At the same time, Mora dodged the interviewer’s question about the EU’s potential to match Russia’s financial aid to Belarus by pointing out that “money is not the means of systemic and steady modernization” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/eu/2013/06/10/ic_articles_627_182012/).
It seems, however, that European strategists have realized that given the magnitude of Russia’s aid, “the EU has no real and efficient leverage on the Belarusian regime” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/eu/2013/06/08/ic_articles_627_181998/). Minsk understands this, too. Thus, both sides resort to half-measures that fall short of improving mutual relations. For example, Vladimir Makei will only remain off the EU’s visa ban list for as long as he stays Belarusian foreign minister (http://news.tut.by/politics/352346.html). Also, Minsk made no substantial promises to Dunya Miatovich, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) representative for the Affairs of Freedom of Mass Media, during her visit to Belarus on June 5. Although the very fact that the visit occurred may be seen as significant since Miatovich had previously been denied a Belarusian visa several times (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2013/06/05/ic_articles_112_181966/). The observers in Minsk no longer think that the high-level invitation to Belarus to participate in the November 2013 summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) in Vilnius is an adequate incentive to release political prisoners. It could be that the criticism of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament regarding Justas Paleckis’ report about Belarus contributed to this new pessimism. In his report, Paleckis claimed that the human rights situation in Belarus has improved (see EDM May 31); but during his May 24 online conference on the website of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, Paleckis acknowledged that the respective formulation would be changed (http://naviny.by/rubrics/eu/2013/06/08/ic_articles_627_181998/).
Just as Maira Mora dismissed the issue of a geopolitical choice for Minsk, so did Alexander Sourikov, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, who said that “Russia is not worried about Belarus’s attempts to improve its relationship with the EU” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2013/06/07/ic_media_video_112_7817/). Yet at the same time Sourikov observed that the EaP is “much less attractive than the Eurasian integration project.” According to Sourikov, the EaP benefits amount to $600 million, whereas the Eurasian project implies Russian domestic prices for energy and therefore annual savings in the billions of dollars (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2013/06/07/ic_news_112_418520/). Indeed, according to the estimate of the Minsk-based Liberal Club (LC), Russia’s integration bonuses to Belarus have already amounted to $70 billion–$100 billion since Belarus became independent.
Indeed, Russia dominated Belarus’s information space during the first week of June regarding the prospects for and implications of a Russian military airbase in Belarus (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2013/06/09/ic_articles_112_182006/). In a recent interview with Belorusskaya Voyennaya Gazeta, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian army Oleg Krivonos opined that “locating the most modern means of combat aircraft and air defense systems in Belarus has to do with a response to the deployment of US missile defense in Europe” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2013/06/10/ic_articles_112_182009/). This statement came despite Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s remarks on May 10 that the airbase has nothing to do with ballistic missile defense (BMD) and is no antidote to the United States’ plans to locate the elements of the BMD shield in Poland
Russia’s dominance of the Belarusian information space was deepened by two other circumstances. First, from June 19 to June 23, the 15th World Congress of the Russian Press will take place in Minsk. Two hundred and fifty representatives of the Russian diaspora from more than 60 countries will participate (http://www.belta.by/ru/all_news/society/Vsemirnyj-kongress-russkoj-pressy-projdet-19-23-ijunja-v-Belarusi_i_637540.html). This forum has taken place outside Russia multiple times before. But this year’s location is notable due to the fact that there is no influential Russian community in Belarus. As pervaded by internecine fights as the Westernizing Belarusian opposition currently is, even this group is more cohesive than the Russian community has ever been, although some attempts at its consolidation were undertaken in the 1990s. Instead, spoken and written Russian is the overwhelming communication medium of the members of Belarus’s ethnic majority itself—a situation that hardly exists anywhere else besides Russia itself.
The second circumstance was the intensification of essentially geopolitical battles for the historical memory of Belarusians. In this regard, the most recent essays by Belaruskaya Dumka magazine Editor-in-Chief Vadim Gigin and Belarusian political scientist Vsevolod Shimov are of interest. Thus Gigin’s major message is that the 1863 Polish uprising against Russia (to the extent it affected what is now the Republic of Belarus) was a genuinely and consistently Polish effort hostile to Belarusian peasantry and Orthodox clergy, who were terrorized and victimized by the Polish rebels (blog.belta.by/?p=1229?). Shimov’s message is more conciliatory. He concedes that Belarus has both Old Russian and Lithuanian (Grand Duchy) roots, and he is just against overemphasizing the latter at the expense of the former (http://www.sb.by/post/148580/). Nonetheless, both commentators raise their voices against the Westernizing blueprint of “Belarusianness” embraced by the opposition.
In summary, the fight for Belarus continues, but this is no equal fight. The Westernizers will eventually have to take this into account by “allowing” Belarusians to embrace the image of their history that strikes a chord with them. The cause of democracy is not going to be sacrificed as a result. Rather, it will gain.