Belarus-watchers, including policymakers, can do more to understand several important facts about Belarus as a national community. First, Belarusian nation-building is still a work in progress. Second, the Belarusian national movement was a latecomer compared with those of the Russians and Poles and was less successful compared with their other neighbors. Third, Belarus’s geographic position between Poland and Russia plays a major role in crafting Belarusian national identity. In the 1922 play “Tuteishiya” (Locals) by Janka Kupala, two prominent characters are a Russian scientist and a Polish scientist. Both are locals, however, the Russian refers to Belarus as Russia’s Severozapadnyi Krai (northwestern fringe), while the Pole calls Belarus Poland’s Kresy Wschodnie (eastern periphery). As Pavel Tereshkovich, an expert on Belarusian ethnography, attests, up until the beginning of the 20th century, Belarusians used multiple names for all surrounding ethnicities. Still, they did not have a common name for themselves (Svaboda.org, October 4).
The 20th century, particularly following World War II, eroded the cultural symmetry emanating from Belarus. Today, Belarus is much closer to Russia than to Poland. The overwhelming use of Russian in everyday communication throughout Belarus explains a significant part of this picture. Still, other sentiments nurtured by lasting contact with neighbors linger. In 2015, one year before the government’s closure of one of Belarus’s most reputable polling firms, the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), a national survey conducted by IISEPS revealed that the index of social distance between Belarusians was at its lowest for three ethnicities: Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles. The index represents a weighted average of Belarusians’ professed readiness to cultivate a relationship with a representative of a respective group (IISEPS, June 2015).
Many Belarusians who emigrated to Poland following the 2020 post-election protests prefer to stay there. A recent Polish survey reported that as many as 45 percent of those Belarusians (out of over 100,000) are willing to remain in Poland for good (Zerkalo, October 4). This willingness appears to be motivated by more than just politics. The same survey found that 52 percent of respondents believe Belarusian ought to be declared the only official language of Belarus as soon as possible, while only 11 percent believe Belarus should remain a bilingual country (Centrum Miroszewskiego, October 3). Over 75 percent call Poland the most friendly country to Belarus, and 61 percent name Russia the most unfriendly. Such opinions stand in stark contrast to the survey results obtained in Belarus by the Belarusian opposition (e.g.: EDM, June 27; OpenDemocracy.net, September 14). This is a clear representation of the lasting divide within Belarusian society.
This divide is deepening between pro-Russian Belarusians and the “Westernizing” ones, which is not a good omen for nation-building. Two recent events highlight this trend. In the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament), a recent discussion was held about the so-called “Litvinism,” or how to handle the common legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania between Lithuanians and Belarusians in such a way that neither’s national image is offended (Svaboda, October 6). Most active Belarusian Westernizers have left the country. As such, at the discussion in Lithuania, the Belarusian side was represented entirely by pro-Western emigres.
Around that same time, a Russian-Belarusian forum took place at the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences in Minsk titled “Russia and Belarus: Common History and Shared Destiny.” The forum engaged about 300 participants, including government officials and members of both parliaments. Confronting historical falsehoods was a central theme of the conference (Soyuz.by, October 3), with papers presented on “New Facts About the Activity of the Polish Home Army in Western Belarus after the Great Patriotic War” and “Historical Memory as a Target of Information War in the Contemporary World” (Reform.by, October 3). One of the forum’s adopted commitments is to prepare joint Russian-Belarusian history textbooks. The conference sought to monopolize the memory politics of Belarusian history with the Russo-centric narrative (see EDM, January 26, 2022). This interpretation has been dominant in Belarus ever since the end of World War II, though dominance does not mean total monopoly.
Some in the opposition attribute organizing the forum to Aleksandr Dyukov, a Russian historian and head of the Historical Memory Foundation. Dyukov has completed extensive research on the life of Konstanty Kalinowski (1838–64) (Reform.by, October 3). A Belarusian national hero, according to the Westernizing narrative, Kalinowski has been portrayed by Dyukov as a Polish rebel whose Belarusian identity was, at best, phony (Rulit.me, November 21, 2021). It seems, however, that the forum has a more broad-based undertaking than merely highlighting Dyukov and his work.
Other voices in the opposition have tried to counteract this narrative. For example, Valer Karbalevich of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty used the case of Karabakh to make the point that “Russia can easily abandon an ally in a dramatic situation” (Telegra.ph, October 2). According to Feodor Lukyanov, one of Russia’s premier political commentators, by promoting a multipolar world, Moscow has to acknowledge that multiple centers of power can now compete for influence within the post-Soviet space (Telegram.com/EurasiaExpert, October 2). Belarus is apparently exempt from this reasoning as a critical geopolitical asset and as part of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Be that as it may, Belarus’s Westernizing narrative has an uncanny ability to reassert itself following dramatic historical collisions. It has been demonstrated thrice in Belarusian history (1921–1928, 1988–1994, and 2015–2020) and may occur again. A recent survey showed that no more than one-fourth of Belarusians trust official media (Bawlab.eu, October 7). As such, Western policymakers need to be patient and stop treating Belarus as a mere extension of Russia.