What Drives Belarus’s Rapprochement With the West?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 125

Minsk Dialogue Initiative (Source: Belarus in Focus)

The sudden sacking of United States National Security Advisor John Bolton just days after he returned from his high-profile visit to the Belarusian capital tempted some observers to try to draw conclusions from this incident regarding the future of Belarusian-US ties. Surely any such attempts at deductive analysis is likely to excessively overvalue the impact individual officials below the level of a head of state or government have on a country’s foreign policy. And indeed, barring some extreme circumstances, it is unlikely that Belarus’s ties with the West will experience any sort of major setback in the foreseeable future. At least this is what some Moscow-based observers of Belarus believe.

Yury Baranchik, the editor of Regnum, is a case in point. Like many Russian and some Belarusian pundits, he recently established his own Telegram channel, titled “Bulba Prestolov” (T.me/bulba_of_thrones, accessed September 16), a pun on the Russian translation of the HBO series Game of ThronesIgra Prestolov. In Belarusian, “bulba” is a potato; and Russians often stereotype Belarusians as potato growers. In his recent piece devoted to Belarusian elites, Baranchik expressed the view that Westernization has advanced immensely in the corridors of power in Minsk. Moreover, Belarusian bureaucrats and Western “agents of influence” are so intermingled that “it is no longer possible to see where the power vertical ends” and the networks created by those agents begin. The prime example, according to Baranchik, is the Minsk Dialogue Initiative (MDI), which he sees as an extension of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Baranchik characterizes the supposed MDI-MFA symbiosis as the “single legal sociopolitical institution of Belarus,” and he sees the MDI leaders as an irreplaceable talent pool for the future Belarusian elite. To Baranchik, Yauheny Preiherman and Dzianis Melyantsou of the MDI are replicas of Oleksiy Goncharuk. Prior to his appointment as prime minister of Ukraine (on August 29), the 35-year-old Goncharuk was in charge of the Better Regulation Delivery Office, funded by the European Union. This is a tested way to shape new elites that are ostensibly detached from militant nationalism but effectively embrace its goals. Such a coupling of government bureaucracy and Western agents of influence has transformed the Ukrainian elite, Baranchik claims. And the same process has already gone far enough in Belarus that the ensuing degradation of Russian influence is inevitable unless a total replacement of the Belarusian elites takes place, the Regnum editor contends. Understanding of the true scale of Belarusian elite transformation is absent in Belarus itself, and only some Western intelligence agencies (as well as, of course, Baranchik himself) have a genuine grasp of it, he asserts (Telegra.ph, September 9).

Most definitely, this narrative is redolent of hyperbole. Baranchik is a Belarusian citizen who used to work for the Presidential Administration in Minsk but was fired, moved to Moscow, and now has a vendetta against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Baranchik was once even apprehended by Moscow police on an extradition request from Minsk, but that request was subsequently denied by a Russian court (see EDM, February 14, 2018).

Still, not everything reflected in a funhouse mirror is altogether false; some elements of reality show up, too, however distorted. That contacts between Minsk and the West are more vigorous and mutually satisfying than they used to be is a fact. And the MDI is, in actuality, a reputable entity that is about to conduct its second major forum on European security, with participants from all over the world, including Russia. It is not an extension of the Belarusian MFA but enjoys the latter’s support and benefits from Western funding.

What has been transpiring in Minsk is rather in line with the Westernization of Belarusian identity itself. In the not-so-distant past, Belarusians had only a vague idea of their own pre-Soviet roots and en masse saw themselves as White Russians—a prong in a three-pronged Russian Commonwealth descending from the Kievan Rus. But today, more and more Belarusian people identify with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), a medieval Eastern European state that waged wars against Muskovy (Russia). Over the course of the last decade alone, monuments to the GDL’s statesmen have appeared in the cities of Slonim, Lepel, Vitebsk, Grodno and Lida. Belarusian entrepreneurs often fund these landmarks. Thus, the monument to Duke Gedymin (Lithuanians call him Gediminas), which opened in 2019, was entirely funded by Beltex Optic, a Belarusian subsidiary of the Lithuanian firm Yukon Advanced Optics Worldwide (Svaboda.org, August 21). Soon, a monument to Duke Mindoug (Mindaugas) will be erected in Novogrudok.

Rather than an outcome of some insidious Western indoctrination, this evolution of national memory is an inevitable response to pervasive Russification. Indeed, the Russian language, Russian channels of information, Russian investment and a Russian-like outlook have diluted Belarusians’ sense of being a community apart from Russia so much that the pendulum has finally begun to move in the opposite direction. It continues to do so despite official statements to the contrary, like the recent article about Belarus’s historical policy in Navukova Dumka, the journal of the Presidential Administration (Svaboda.org, September 13).

For Belarusians to adopt a collective identity of themselves, an accepted sense of detachment and/or difference from Russia and Russians is a necessary prerequisite. That does not necessarily spell hostility, but it does, by its very nature, reflect some degree of alienation. One overt indication is a mass switch to Belarusian on street signs even as Russian still dominates everyday communication. This appearance of the Belarusian alphabet in public places has prompted resistance from some groups like Grazhdanskoye Soglasiye (Civic Consensus). Headed by Artyom Agafonov, this group recently established its online media outlet Belrussia.by, which, among other things, markets the country’s name as “Belorussia.” Even though it is accepted in Russia as a lexical norm, it is unlikely this word form will regain popular support in Belarus. As one government-friendly Belarusian commentator rightly asserts, “A Belarusian voter is naturally calm and steers clear of all sorts of extremes. I feel it myself as I grow older. That is, fighters for the Belarusian language and fighters against it can be equally irritating” (Shpakovsky, September 5).

It remains to be seen how these attitudes will reflect themselves in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for November. But the electoral campaign is about to begin.