Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 2

By Andrei Piontkovsky

In recent years every political spring in Russia has arrived hand in hand with euphoria over Russian-Belarusan reunification. Politicians of all shades make elegant speeches about brotherhood, Slavic unity, integration in the post-Soviet space and so on. With the sound of peals of church bells and blessings of priests and Alyaksandr Lukashenka merrily tossing glasses over his shoulder in the background, countless historical charters and treaties are signed.

It is high time to sweep up the broken glass and attempt to take stock. I predict that the current annual paroxysm of Russian-Belarusan fervor–which has come unusually early this year, beginning as it did in late December–will once again clearly demonstrate what has been obvious to more perceptive observers for some time–that Russia and Belarus will never be united into one state. Of all the states in the CIS, only Belarus represented a serious opportunity for reintegration with Russia but without “enforced friendship.” Yet Russian politicians destroyed this opportunity themselves.

In order to digest the recent chain of events, we need to go back a little and ask ourselves why the Soviet Union broke up, and what the forces within the Soviet republics were which drove it toward its disintegration. There were two such forces. First was the nationalist oriented intelligentsia, which firmly opposed the local party apparatchiks. The intelligentsia managed to get most of the population behind them in the Baltics, Georgia and Armenia, and the independence of these republics became inevitable and irreversible. In Ukraine, Rukh had the support of about 20 percent of the population, mainly in the western regions. In the other republics, nationalist forces had negligible influence. This is why the republics–including Ukraine–were willing to sign a new union treaty in Moscow in August 1991.

The situation changed dramatically after the August coup. Having come up against what they justly saw as chaos and shambles in Moscow, the Ukrainian party bosses–followed by their Central Asian counterparts–came to the conclusion that their interests would be better served by complete separation from Moscow, and, moreover, that they could effect this separation with impunity. When Leonid Kravchuk and his entourage joined forces with Chernovyl and other nationalist leaders–whom they had incarcerated in prison camps for decades–to present a united front, Ukraine’s independence and the collapse of the USSR were inevitable. The republican party leaders, sensing that they were now the supreme authority, soon got a taste for their new position.

In Belarus, independence came out of the blue. There was no broad nationalist movement with independence as its mission, as there was in the neighboring Baltics. Zenonas Pozniak’s “National Front” really emerged only after the formal declaration of independence, and, even at its peak, never enjoyed a popularity of more than 10-15 percent. Pozniak’s tough anti-Russian rhetoric was a hindrance to a growth in support. The majority of Belarusans were genuinely well disposed toward the Russians and, more than the inhabitants of any of the other republics, felt themselves to be citizens of a union state.

The second potential pillar for independence was also missing: No local apparatchiks were willing to seize the power which had slipped from Moscow’s grip. The Minsk party nomenklatura, panic-stricken following its own support for the coup, lost its bearings and basically handed over power–or at least the semblance of power–to the liberal intellectual Stanislav Shushkevich, who had neither a political structure nor mass support behind him. And, unlike their colleagues in Kiev, the local apparatchiks were not ready for ideas of independence. They were too servile, too conservative, too provincial. From the very beginning there was something ephemeral and fickle in Belarusan independence.

Shushkevich soon lost power, but it was not the old nomenklatura which took it back. The presidential elections were won by an energetic young man who appeared out of nowhere and began to reinstate Soviet symbols and speak enthusiastically and lyrically about Slavic unity and brotherhood. These speeches, spoken in an unlikely Russian dialect, were music to the ears not only of the Belarus’ gullible countryfolk, but also of egg-headed Moscow’s intellectuals.

Most of the 20th century’s dictators have been poorly educated, but brilliant natural psychoanalysts. This seems to be an essential quality for a difficult calling. The “great Slav” Aleksandr Lukashenka is no different. He knows perfectly well which buttons to press, what sweet integrationist speeches appeal to the collective unconscious of the Russian political class. The Russian political “elite” suffers from a deep inferiority complex, delusions of great-power grandeur and an obsession with “axes,” “strategic triangles” and other unifying structures. Pushily offering themselves left, right and center as strategic partners, they are unable to find a reciprocal offer.

They were naturally quickly seduced by the adroit flatterer from Minsk. Even President Yeltsin agonized over his desire to exorcise the “Belovezh complex” and go down in history as the man who created a great power rather than destroying one. Belarus’ debts were written off, customs posts were removed–prompting an immediate flood of contraband–and Moscow opened its arms wide for future matrimonial embraces with the great Slav. But Moscow forgot one rather important circumstance. Relying on the political and economic dividends gained from Moscow as a result of his pro-unification rhetoric, Lukashenka began rapidly to construct an authoritarian regime and a new class which he needed to support him–a political and intellectual staff indebted to him personally, and to him alone, who quickly grew to like the taste of power in a small independent European state. Power offered these former insignificant bureaucrats not just the opportunity to call each other “your excellency,” but also a road to riches through all sorts of dubious “foundations” set up by the president’s administration. For the first time in Belarus’ history there appeared an autocratic group of people who had a vested interest in the existence of an independent Belarus.

The moment of truth came in November 1996. Lukashenka found it necessary not only to dissolve parliament and the Constitutional Court, but also to destroy the opposition morally, to deliberately humiliate it with the help of the old comrades from Moscow–the very people to whom Lukashenka’s opponents had been appealing. These “comrades”–then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev and others–helped Lukashenka remove from the political scene not the anti-Russian Pozniak but politicians who were very well disposed toward Moscow: chairman of the Belarusan parliament Semyon Sharetsky, former Premier Vyacheslav Kebich, and chief justice of Belarus’ constitutional court Valery Tikhinya–the very people who had a real chance of actually uniting Russia and Belarus. In November 1996 Belarus became finally and irreversibly an independent state.

In September 1938, Adolf Hitler–Aleksandr Lukashenka’s idol and mentor in questions of “building presidential authority”–rubbed his hands in glee after seeing off Daladier and Chamberlain, and exclaimed “What nonentities!” The “Slavic wonder,” as his ecstatic worshippers in Moscow call him, has every reason to repeat the words of his cherished mentor again and again with reference to Russian politicians.

Every spring, Lukashenka will offer new, ever more grandiose and ridiculous structures–a “union state,” “transferable currency,” “joint bodies.” But the great integrator will never agree to the simplest thing–incorporating Belarus into the Russian Federation as one or several subjects of the federation. Dictators never agree to become provincial leaders.

Driven by irrational complexes rather than reason, Moscow will agree to any ruinous folly. The only hope lies with Viktor Gerashchenko, chief of Russia’s Central Bank, who presumably will still not go ahead with a creating a single currency between two money-printing centers. Otherwise it will not only be the Belarusan people who, as Lukashenka has already promised him, “will live in poverty but not for long”–but the Russian people too.

In its affair with Lukashenka, Moscow accelerated the collapse of Commonwealth of Independent States and also has placed under threat the already fragile structure of the Russian Federation (what with Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Ingushetia and so on). But Moscow has not gotten and will not get anything in return, apart from political and economic obligations to support the sovereign regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka.

Andrei Piontkovsky heads the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think-tank.