What Can Be Done to Slow Down Belarus’s Eastern Drift?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 23

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa (right) (Source: TASS)

On January 22, Belarusians identifying as pro-Western (as opposed to those who identify as Russo-centric) celebrated the 160th anniversary of the so-called Kastus Kalinowski uprising on Belarusian soil. Thus, Belarusian émigrés organized a performance in front of the Russian embassy in Warsaw in commemoration. The performance involved improvised gallows and a scarecrow—after all Kalinowski himself was executed in Wilno (present-day Vilnius) on March 22, 1864 (Malanka, January 24).

Kalinowski has long become one of the most divisive figures in Belarusians’ collective memory. A quintessential Belarusian hero for one side, he is a cruel Polish colonizer for the other—with Alexander Dyukov’s recently published book, The Unknown Kalinowski, boosting the latter image. Although a Russian historian by trade, Dyukov has presented his archive-based discoveries in Minsk on numerous occasions. In June 2022, the Belarusian authorities closed the Kalinowski Pub in Minsk. This closure became a symbol of the official policy of Belarusian historical memory swinging back to Russo-Centrism (see EDM, January 26, 2022).

In all fairness, ironclad certainty on the actual role of the Kalinowski-led Belarusian peasantry in the 1863–1864 anti-Russian uprising is absent even on the Westernizers’ side. For example, Valer Bulgakau, who expressed doubts on Kalinowski’s belonging to the pantheon of genuinely Belarusian figures in his 2006 book, The History of Belarusian Nationalism, also invoked his doubts most recently on his personal Facebook page. He wrote, “The harsh truth is that the majority of today’s Belarusians are the descendants of those who did not join the uprising” (Facebook.com/ValerBulgakau, January 24). In response, some of Bulgakau’s friends of the Westernizing persuasion expressed their indignation at his remark.

Recently, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the recognized leader of the Belarusian “democrats” in exile, recorded a speech on the occasion of Kalinowski’s birthday, noting that “his struggle continues to this day,” and called for “bringing the cause of the rebels to fulfillment.” For his part, Dyukov immediately responded: “Taking into account that the only thing Kalinowski and his militants really succeeded in was the murder of Belarusian peasants, Tikhanovskaya’s statement can be viewed as a public call for terrorist activities” (T.me/historiographe, February 2). Interestingly, in her recorded appeal, Tikhanovskaya cautiously “edited” the original content of the Kalinowski letter. The original reads: “Only then, people, will you live happily, when Moskal will no longer be over you”—Moskal being a pejorative term for a Russian. However, Tikhanovskaya rendered the quote to read: “Only then, people, will you live happily, if there is no foreign power over you” (Niva Nasha, January 22). In response, many members of the same community that castigated Bulgakau heaped scorn upon the oppositionist leader.

Since February 2022, the Kastus Kalinowski Regiment (KKR), consisting of a couple hundred Belarusian émigrés, has been fighting Russia as part of the Ukrainian army, and Moscow has finally drawn public attention to it. Previously, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka spoke about this formation of Belarusian volunteers with a mixture of irony and anxiety. In the meantime, the patriarch of the Belarusian opposition, Zyanon Paznyak, met with the KKR during his unexpected trip to Ukraine in January 2023 (Gazetaby, January 31). Tikhanovskaya, however, has not, as the KKR does not recognize her authority.

In such a way, the KKR has become, if not an independent subject of politics (which its leadership openly strives for), then certainly an object of increased attention. Moreover, each party—Moscow, official Minsk and the exiled Belarusian opposition—is trying to extract its own benefits from invoking this volunteer grouping. On February 2, the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, averred that the Ukrainian authorities are “feeding, arming, and allowing the Belarusian opposition to undergo a trial by fire at the front against the Russian Federation, in particular through the notorious KKR, which they support and … declare that it will later solve similar problems in Belarus itself” (Ex-Press, February 4).

Lavrov’s public statement belies the question: Why is Moscow suddenly talking about the KKR, while the regiment has been fighting against Russia for quite some time? In Alexander Klaskovsky’s opinion, the Belarusian opposition’s most seasoned political commentator, previously, the Kremlin did not consider it expedient to provide free publicity for the enemy and to admit that representatives of brotherly Belarus were fighting against Russian forces. However, when it became known that Kyiv had offered Lukashenka a non-aggression pact (Zerkalo, January 24), and when Lukashenka himself resorted to a restrained tribute to the Ukrainian leadership (see EDM, January 25), the calculus in Moscow changed and the Kremlin decided to candidly characterize the situation (Telegraph.ph, February 2).

Against the backdrop of these developments, and considering the internecine fight within the exiled opposition, their minuscule influence at home leaves little hope for the oppositionists to ever gain power in Belarus (YouTube, February 1). As such, it becomes increasingly counterproductive to ostracize official Minsk. This is one of the ideas shared by Pavel Matsukevich, former Belarusian chargé d’affaires in Switzerland and now an exiled political commentator (Gazetaby, February 1). Yes, human rights are important, writes Matsukevich, but we are now facing a danger of a higher caliber—namely, a potential loss of Belarusian statehood. To drive home this idea, he refers to the ancient Chinese idiom “sacrifice a plum tree to save a peach tree”—that is, accept a small loss in order to make a greater gain. Matsukevich’s appeal to Western foreign policy decision-makers, therefore, is no new sanctions on Belarus and no blocking of official contacts with the Belarusian government.

The exiled political commentator also pins hopes on an unavoidable “transit of power” in Minsk. Although it will occur within the scope of the ruling elite, this process will make it easier for the West to maintain connections with Belarus.

In the meantime, Lukashenka is touring “exotic” destinations, including Zimbabwe and the United Arab Emirates (Svaboda, January 31). “I want to thank the Americans and the entire Western world for imposing sanctions against us. Otherwise, not Belarusian tractors, but rather American and German ones, would be standing on this huge field,” Lukashenka declared in Harare after presenting Belarusian agricultural machinery as a gift to Zimbabwe (Belta, January 31). Although not necessarily the most masterful political satire, the Belarusian president’s statement leaves some room for interpretation.