Toward a More Belarusian Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 96

(Source: Charter97)

Belarus’s independent voice is growing louder. On June 27, the Belarusian embassy to the United States organized a reception on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. More than 100 American guests participated in the reception, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bridget Brink, who made a friendly speech immediately following remarks by Charge D’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Shortly thereafter, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Oleg Kravchenko shared congratulatory remarks at the reception organized by the US embassy in Minsk, in conjunction with US Independence Day (US Embassy, July 1). No such high-ranking Belarusian official has delivered a speech at the US embassy in Minsk since the mid-1990s. The media, however, kept mum, apparently not to inflame passions on Belarus’s eastern flank., one of Russia’s more balanced online news platforms (unlike “patriotic” Regnum, EaDaily, and many others) confirmed such passions are real. It shared its concern about the popularization of the Belarusian language. The article also noted with disapproval instances of local authorities being rebuked after complaints were made that these officials had issued a Russian-language response to a petition written in Belarusian. And it bemoaned successful complaints in Belarus against city bus drivers who adorn their cabins with Russian flags or ribbons of Saint George—symbols of Russian military glory. Last but not least, “three Belarusian adherents of the Russian world [Russkiy Mir]” (see EDM, December 12) are still awaiting trials in jail. It appears that “today’s Belarus cannot be compared to [the country it was] ten years ago in terms of ‘growth of national consciousness.’ ” The latter word combination is put in quotation marks as some sort of a falsehood because “Belarusians are [just] Russians of higher quality,” as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself used to say—though no longer does (, July 1).

Alexei Venediktov, the director of Russia’s liberal radio channel Ekho Moskvy, remarked, “Belarus does not exist in Russia’s [information] space except in times of crisis” (Euroradio, July 14). If Venediktov’s observation is true, then the time of crisis is already upon us. Venediktov noted that Lukashenka talks of the historical Principality of Polotsk as the cradle of Belarusian statehood in the 10th century (, July 1). Having visited Polotsk on Lukashenka’s advice, Venediktov received an earful about the dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and about Euphrasinia Polotskaya, a daughter of the Vitsebsk prince, considered a sacred figure from the Belarusian past. Moreover, Venediktov left Belarus committed to interviewing Lukashenka—next time, he intends to ask him about Belarusian history, identity and the differences between Belarusians and Russians (Euroradio, July 14).

Some Russian critics—as reflected in the aforementioned material, let alone on the pages of Regnum (June 20)—identify a “soft Belarusianization” (SB) of Belarus. As Artyom Shraibman, the political commentator of, declared, the Belarusian authorities expanded the scope of permissible nationalist sentiment as “a reflex reaction of the state organism to the external challenge,” i.e., to the fact that “the sense of Russian national greatness has been getting up from its knees too stridently” (, July 6). Shraibman lists multiple signs of SB. First, in July 2014, Lukashenka made a speech in Belarusian for the first time in many years. Second, in July 2017, he spoke about 1,000 years of Belarusian history, not a history traced back to just 1917. Third, the Pahonia (“pursuit”), the coat of arms deriving from the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but delegalized as a national symbol of Belarus in 1995, is now on sale all around Minsk. Moreover, the former Belarusian ideologue-in-chief, Igor Buzovsky—now in charge of the administration of the central district of Minsk—speaks sympathetically about the Pahonia as well as about the likewise delegalized white-red-white flag, which is now omnipresent in the country. Fourth, Belavia has become the official air carrier of Alexander Mikhalok’s rock band, which only recently was a symbol of the anti-Lukashenka opposition (YouTube, July 13). Fifth, employees of the A-100 network of gas stations have switched to speaking Belarusian with their clients. Shraibman surmises that Belarus is “more cohesive than we used to think” and “only the current political framework stands in the way of cooperation between all sorts of people who want to see a more Belarusian Belarus.”

Yet another sign of the country’s independent voice is the fact that, on July 5–9, Minsk hosted a session of the Parliamentary Assembly (PA) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with 700 delegates from 57 countries in attendance. Besides being able to conduct this session in Minsk, Belarus won three other victories. First, it prevailed over Lithuania, whose draft resolution about the danger allegedly posed by the Belarusian nuclear power plant currently under construction, received support from only eight countries; whereas 20 voted against the resolution and 29 abstained. Among those not only voting but also speaking against the resolution was Sweden, formerly a persistent critic of Belarus (, July 7). Second, although the PA adopted a resolution criticizing Belarus for deviating from democratic norms, that resolution did not make it into the final declaration (, July 9). Third, Belarus did not support Russia’s attempt to exclude a resolution on the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity from the session’s agenda (, July 6). In that regard, the words Lukashenka used to admonish the delegates of the 19th World Congress of the Russian Press (which also took place in Minsk) are noteworthy: “You have become the main components of hybrid wars,” exclaimed the Belarusian leader (, July 12).

On July 13, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense declared it would forward invitations to international organizations and neighboring countries to monitor the Belarusian-Russian joint exercise Zapad 2017 (Interfax, July 13). One week earlier, meeting with a US Congressional delegation led by Senator Roger Wicker, Lukashenka observed that while there is no crisis in the bilateral relationship, there is a deficit of ideas (Belta, July 6). Considering that Belarus’s independent voice is now being heard as never before, while the West’s policies toward Belarus are increasingly being recognized as ineffective (, July 12), it was Lukashenka’s way of saying “the ball is in your court.”