Belarus’s location between Russia and the collective West is not a consequence of political considerations—it is a fact of geography. Likewise, the cultural proximity between Belarusians and Russians represents another objective reality, encouraging at least some Russian elites to entertain ideas of ever “tighter integration” (or what many read as the “incorporation of Belarus into Russia”). The difficulty arises from figuring out how to properly deal with these realities. Unlike place and proximity, a response to this question is a matter of choice and, therefore, does have a political aspect to it.
Essentially, there are two options. The first implies keeping the possibility of annexation a permanent focus of public attention and ceaselessly agitating about its dangers. The second option is to boost Belarusian identity, develop the economy in ways that would lessen its dependency on the Russian market and aid, foster ties with the rest of the world, and try to make incorporation of Belarus into Russia as challenging for the latter as possible. And Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rhetoric since March 2014 apparently signifies that some combination of these two options is possible, as well.
From this perspective, the approaches of Belarus’s political regime and the domestic opposition cannot possibly differ more. Thus, without much fanfare, the government has been fostering a business-friendly environment in Belarus (see EDM, June 4). A small country, devoid of exceptionally fertile soil, Belarus has become the world’s fourth-largest exporter of cheese and cottage cheese—after the European Union, the United States and New Zealand (Naviny, May 31). And though its share of the Russian market has been declining (Belvpo, March 7), Belarus has successfully boosted dairy exports to China (Ncmps.by, May 31). Revenues from high-tech exports are also on the rise. Moreover, Belarus continues to capitalize politically on its previous initiative of becoming a venue for international negotiations, while regular Minsk Dialogue forums every year attract foreign policy experts from around the world. Belarus is trying its best to defend national interests while patiently conducting negotiations with Russia about the future parameters of their economic relationship. At the same time, Belarus has introduced a visa-free regime with 80 countries of the world despite, on Russia’s demand, having to abide by an arcane regulation, according to which visitors without a Belarusian visa cannot enter Belarus from Russia or proceed from Belarus to Russia even with a Russian visa (Belarus.by, January 2019). This author has recently experienced the implications of that ruling when (arriving from the United States), instead of proceeding from Minsk straight to St. Petersburg, Russia, he had to first fly to Riga, Latvia, and only then on to St. Petersburg. While obviously inconvenient for some visitors, this visa arrangement is an effective (though unstated) expression of the foreign policy differences between Russia and Belarus.
The Belarusian opposition’s approach to Russia’s pro-integrationist agitation, on the other hand, is patently alarmist. Particularly unsettled are those residing abroad. Thus, Vladimir Neklyaev, a Belarusian author and a 2010 presidential hopeful, now on a stipend in Sweden, writing a novel about the Belarusian national poet Janka Kupala, compares June 21, 2019 (the target date when further economic integration steps between Russia and Belarus will be announced), with June 22, 1941 (when the Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union). According to Neklyaev, Vladimir Putin of Russia will incorporate Belarus not because he needs it. For he reportedly does not need Crimea either. What he wants is a “monument” to himself—i.e., an established legacy. Neklyaev calls upon Lukashenka to stop the secrecy regarding his government’s ongoing negotiations with Russia and to wake Belarusians up from a lethargic sleep so that the people will be ready to resist (Belprauda, June 5).
The same frenetic style marks Pavel Usov, a Belarusian political commentator based in Poland. After Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei suggested that the ongoing integration talks with Russia represent routine work, the details of which will be disclosed in due course, Usov launched into a long diatribe suggesting that such words can only emanate from “a pitiful low-level bureaucrat, not from a statesman. This only means that ‘talks’ are destructive for Belarus and its people, destructive for its sovereignty. By trying to keep mum, Makei is hiding information that can determine the fate of Belarus; and by doing so, he is committing treason. …the entire regime and its every minister have worked diligently to eliminate the country! This is the logical outcome of Lukashenka’s rule” (Usov, June 4). Meanwhile, in a recent interview with the Polish-based outlet Charter97, Nikolai Statkevich, Belarus’s most well-known opposition fighter, laments the West’s vastly improved treatment of Lukashenka and its decreasing support for the opposition (Charter97, June 6).
Some domestically situated opposition-minded commentators are more reserved. For instance, Alexander Klaskovsky suggests that Russia is putting pressure on Belarus in line with the Leninist slogan that “politics is a concentrated expression of economics.” Yet, he pointedly does not think that the annexation of Belarus under the aegis of extending the presidential tenure of Putin in 2024 is likely. Rather, economically tying Belarus to Russia is more probable for the foreseeable future (Naviny, June 6). Still, he argues in a later article, Vladimir Putin’s June 7 assertion that there are no plans to unify Russia and Belarus should be taken with a grain of salt. Putin believes that Belarusians and Russians are one and the same people, Klaskovsky points out; thus, incorporation may again become topical in the future (Naviny, June 7). In other words, hysteria may be too much, but vigilance remains important.
In any case, Belarus and its defenders clearly face a conundrum. Not talking at all about the possibility of the country losing its sovereignty to an expansionist Russia is not an option, because this possibility objectively exists. However, endlessly agonizing over this putative outcome as a way to discredit the only agency that can conceivably stand in the Kremlin’s way may be even more damaging in the long run.