On November 22, Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian documentary filmmaker and a TV talk show host, made a public appearance at the Palace of the Republic in Minsk. Immediately before the gathering, a dozen or so opposition-minded youths demonstrated in front of the venue, bearing slogans like “Solovyov—hangman, go away!” However, many more members of Solovyov’s audience heading to the meeting with their idol, fended off those demonstrators by chanting “Rossiya, Rossiya, Rossiya,” calling the protesters nasty names and even engaging in fist fights with them. Some members of Solovyov’s audience suggested that the critics ought to first rise up to his level and only then judge him (Tut.by, November 26).
With his trademark cynicism, Solovyov is a skilled professional and one of the principal pro-Putin opinion-molders. His Sunday talk show is widely seen by Russian-speakers inside and outside Russia, definitely including Minsk. Somewhat paradoxically, Solovyov’s formative experience coincided with Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and included three years (1990–92) spent in the USA.
During the meeting in Minsk, Solovyov was rationalizing the Kremlin’s worldview and heaping scorn on the West – it is always ready to mentor “us” but is in fact the origin of the Inquisition, Napoleonic invasions, national socialism, and communism. He also responded to questions and notes from the audience. One of the handwritten notes read: “Take us in, like you did Crimea; we are so eager for that,” to which Solovyov responded: “This is out of the question. Yours is a beautiful country and you are a wonderful people, so you ought to determine your future yourselves” (Naviny.by, November 21).
Following Solovyov’s appearance, an avalanche of emotional publications and postings inundated the entire opposition media and social networks. Their refrain has magnified concern over Belarusians’ susceptibility to Russian propaganda and inadequate national pride. The aforementioned note indicating some people’s eagerness for Belarus to be annexed by Russia like Crimea took center stage in those discussions. One online newspaper suggested that the authorities should find the author of that note and charge him/her with undermining national statehood, in accordance with article 361 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (Salidarnasts, November 26). Occasionally, the participants of discussions tried to step back to figure out why is it that “we” are so fixated on that particular Kremlin propaganda hitman. As the Belarusian-language blogger Stas Karpau pointedly stated, “all this wailing over Solovyov is more dangerous than Solovyov himself” (Stas Karpau, November 26).
In the meantime, two talk shows on Russian TV aired episodes entirely devoted to criticism of the Belarusians, who supposedly follow in the footsteps of Ukrainians in their pending betrayal of Mother Russia. One of the episodes was aired by TV channel Zvezda, a network run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. It slammed Belarus for conniving with nationalists instigated by Poland and the USA. The second episode was aired by Channel One of Russian TV and was devoted to the book “History of Middle-Age Europe from the Fifth to the 15th C” by Oleg Trusov, a Belarusian historian. This book was criticized for an approach reminiscent of the Ukrainian Hrushevsky school of thought, according to which the true descendants of Kyivan Rus are actually the Ukrainians and/or, in Trusov’s case, the Belarusians, because they used to live in “European” states such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In contrast, he argues, Russia is an “Asiatic” entity, hailing back to the Tatars, the entity that simply usurped the name of Rus. Unlike the first episode to which no Belarusians were invited, this one was attended by the Belarusian historian Nina Stuzhinskaya, who was appalled by the harsh verbal attacks of the talk show host. Again, the verdict was that Belarus is following in the footsteps of Ukraine and is about to betray Russia.
Artyom Shraibman, a commentator of the privately owned Tut.by news-and-analysis portal, opines that, first, two episodes on two Russian TV channels aired just two days after the November 22 Lukashenka–Putin meeting in Moscow are scarcely a coincidence. If anything, this is a sign that the Belarusian leader failed to extract concessions from his Russian counterpart, be that on oil deliveries, curtailed since the beginning of the third quarter, or on border controls for automobile transit (EDM, November 9). Second, Belarus’s own TV policy is rigid in that there is no non-state TV channel and that the quality of the available TV product yields much to Russian TV (Tut.by, November 27). In his turn, Dmitry Olshansky, a Russian journalist of national-patriotic strand, suggests that in Belarus, Russia is repeating the same mistake it made in Ukraine, whereby it was the West that worked at the grassroots level, while Russia was only talking to bosses; no wonder there is no organized pro-Russian movement in Belarus (Umplus, November 26).
Russia’s “wife abandonment syndrome” appears to coincide with a new bout of Europe’s hesitations over its Belarus policy. The November 21 visit by the European Council’s Political and Security Committee showed a resumption of human rights rhetoric, whereas the practical visa simplification process launched by the EU and Belarus in 2013, expected to be effective in 2015, is still in suspense. After a year without sanctions, economic aid to Minsk is still contingent on the fulfillment of political demands and that triggers disillusionment in Europe (EurasiaExpert, November 23). Some in the Belarusian opposition continue to accuse Europe of colluding with Minsk behind the back of the opposition and obligingly inform their Western sponsors as to who in the opposition has ties to the KGB (Naviny.by, November 23). Above that, the fact that Europe’s Belarus policy impasse coincides with a decline in Russian aid is a real challenge to Belarus’s foreign policy.
Much like correlative conjunction exercises for students of English, Minsk has three options: both, either/or, and neither/nor. Given the structure of Belarus’s economy, “both” (Russia and the West) is definitely the preferred option while “either/or” is impractical and “neither/nor,” which is what the situation is heading to, may be outright hurtful. One is left to hope that practicality and realism will prevail on the part of Europe before long.