Who Should Speak on Behalf of Belarusians?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 104

Belarusian President Lukashenka walks by his military officers (Source: Website of the President of Belarus)

In-person polling in Belarus by opposition-minded sociologists has been considered taboo for quite some time. At the beginning of July 2022, the results of two national surveys, both using indirect polling techniques, were publicized: an online survey conducted in June 2022 by Ryhor Astapenia of Chatham House (Svaboda.org, July 7) and a mid-May 2022 telephone survey conducted by Andrei Vardomatsky of the Belarusian Analytical Workroom (YouTube, July 6).

Despite different polling techniques, the results have a lot in common. For one, in both cases, most respondents (85 and 85.1 percent, respectively) would not like the Belarusian army to join Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. For another, both surveys show parity between the number of those in favor and against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, with a slight majority supporting the latter. Additionally, on the issue of geopolitical preferences—that is the choice between the European Union and Russia—the advantage goes to the Russian Federation, according to both surveys. Moreover, according to Chatham House, the pull of Russia and the European bloc has slightly increased (Belarusians became even more geopolitically polarized), but willingness to integrate with the Kremlin increased slightly more. Thus, in June 2022, 37 percent of those polled by Chatham House preferred Belarus’s union with Russia, whereas in September 2020, only 27 percent did; the numbers for EU support are 9 percent in 2020 and 18 percent in 2022 (Svaboda.org, July 7).

Astapenia explained a seeming contradiction among many Belarusians who oppose Russia’s war on one hand but who endorse union with Russia on the other: “For many Belarusians, Russia is part of their identity and their culture. It is therefore difficult to reject them even under the influence of strong shocks” caused by the unwelcome war. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shares Astapenia’s view: “In our everyday life, we may often condemn the act or behavior of a person close to us, be that a relative or friend. But does this undermine closeness, do we necessarily break off relations with such a person? Not necessarily. … The same is true in relations between peoples (Zerkalo, July 7).

However, since few Belarusians aspire for full unification with Russia, the war has affected Belarusian attitudes in different ways compared to Ukrainians and Russians. According to Vardomatsky, in the Ukrainian and Russian cases, people have consolidated around the national flags, which shows up in the extremely high approval ratings for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their respective countries. In contrast, Belarusians are “consolidating without a flag”—that is, support for their president does not bring people together. Rather, Belarusians common reluctance to participate in the war is what unites them. On that, both supporters and detractors of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are agreed. In Drakakhrust’s opinion, this commonality pertains to the Belarusian nomenklatura just as much as to the Belarusian general public. Bureaucrats in Belarus fear both enforced participation in the war and enforced unification with Russia (Udf.by, July 5).

On his Facebook account, Drakakhrust juxtaposed two pronouncements. The first was by Putin from his July 1 online speech for participants of the Grodno-based forum of Russian and Belarusian regions: “Unprecedented political and sanctions-related pressure from the so-called collective West is pushing us to speed up the unification processes.” The second was the June 21 pronouncement of Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, regarding the canceled referendum in South Ossetia: “The question was raised there about unification; that is how it was worded. This is a legally problematic issue that should be rectified. That is, Russia cannot unite with anyone” (Facebook.com/Yury.Drakakhrust, July 3). Advocacy for unification in one case and denial of that same phenomenon in the other come across as intensely ominous to the Belarusian ear.

Indeed, it is not by accident that Lukashenka delivered the first 600 words of his 5,000-word July 3 speech devoted to Belarus’s Independence Day in Belarusian, something he seldom does. Not only that, he also referred to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as “the first Belarusian state” (President.gov.by, July 2), part and parcel of the historical narrative supported by Belarusian Westernizers (today’s opposition). The Grand Duchy of Lithuania is usually juxtaposed with the pro-Russian narrative whereby Belarus is simply seen as one prong in the three-pronged community encompassing the ancestors of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. That means, even today, muted expressions of some form of distancing from Moscow continues to be a significant issue for Minsk.

Meanwhile, leaders of the exiled opposition also think in terms of consolidation around the flag, not the official national flag but rather the white-red-white one used recently in protest. They set out to achieve this back in March by encouraging international recognition of Belarus as a temporarily occupied country, in which Lukashenka is portrayed as a tool of the Russian occupiers (Belsat, March 23). Several justifications were provided. Based on surveys, Belarusians en masse do not support the Ukraine war, and yet, the country’s land is being used by the Russian invaders. Belarusians therefore should not bear any responsibility for the war. The so-called rail-track war within Belarus (see EDM, April 12) and the Kalinovsky platoon fighting on the Ukrainian side may also be construed as indicators that Belarus itself is occupied.

With all this in mind, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Pavel Latushko announced their plans to convene the “congress of Belarusians” abroad and declare the formation of the national liberation movement (Svaboda.org, July 5). Not everyone in the opposition supports such a course of action, and so far, not a single Western country has severed diplomatic relations with Minsk. Yet, that may change if the Belarusian army enters the war, which still remains to be seen. Furthermore, the case can easily be made that Belarusians are simply divided, and therefore, Lukashenka himself and his regime are no less Belarusian than the exiled opposition leaders. While portrayed domestically as intolerable, surveys conducted by the Belarusian opposition itself are replete with evidence corroborating this conclusion.