Words Matter: Belarus and Its Western Neighbors

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 80

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (Source: Delfi)

“Not merely tanks and weapons can kill, words can too,” wrote archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the leader of Belarusian Catholics, in his resentful letter to Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize laureate in literature. “The war that Russia started in Donbas is on Russia’s conscience,” Alexievich said in her interview to the Russian liberal TV channel Dozhd (Rain). “The same war can be initiated in Belarus. Just deliver tanks and weapons to the country and Catholics will kill the Orthodox and whomever” (Tut.by, June 10). Following an outcry in the media (Naviny.by, RIA Novosti, June 10) and an uproar on social networks, some well-meaning champions of Alexievich, like the founder of the most popular private Internet news portal Tut.by, Yury Zisser, began to reason with her accusers. In Zisser’s opinion, Alexievich made an awkward statement by suggesting that Belarus could so easily descend into sectarian conflict, which is at loggerheads with the main thrust of her literary work. However, Zisser argues, the uproar that followed is largely indicative of a passionate desire for self-assertion on the part of those whose contribution to posterity is modest, to say the least (Facebook.com/yzisser, June 11). While things may or may not be this innocuous, Alexievich’s pronouncement did not appear entirely out of the blue. In 2006, she clearly expressed her view that Alyaksandr Milinkevich, that year’s opposition front-runner in the presidential race, would not be popular in Belarus because his manners come across as “too Polish” (Svaboda.org, January 31, 2006). While “Polish” and “Catholic” are no synonyms, they have a long history of being perceived as such in Belarus.

President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė made yet another awkward pronouncement, this one regarding Belarus at large. On the eve of her visit to Estonia, she stated that “Estonia is very important to us, just as Latvia and Poland, for they all make up the eastern frontier of NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], so challenges and threats are common [for all of us]. Among those are the presence of Russia and Belarus on our eastern borders […] and the utilization of Belarus for various experiments and aggressive games directed against the West” (Tut.by, June 6).  Grybauskaitė’s remarks referred specifically to the upcoming Zapad (“West”) 2017 Russian-Belarusian military exercises, which other regional countries have also expressed unease about. But the idea that the objective fact of geography—i.e., the presence of Belarus as Lithuania’s immediate neighbor—is a challenge and a threat was not expressed in any other government’s pronouncement. On the contrary, all of Belarus’s other neighbors within NATO are in the midst of a honeymoon of sorts with Minsk. This impression is evident from the May 30 interview with Konrad Pawlik, Poland’s ambassador to Belarus. While speaking to Tut.by, he acknowledged that the political situation in Belarus has calmed down. Ambassador Pawlik further asserted that if there exist some red lines for Belarus not to cross, those issues should be discussed behind closed doors and not, by any means, openly. He reminded that when NATO’s Anaconda war game took place, in Poland, in 2016, Belarusian and Russian observers had a chance to observe them, and he expects the same transparency from the upcoming Belarusian-Russian exercises. He denied any concerns on the part of the Polish government or society regarding those exercises and declared, in ostensible contrast to Alexievich, that “no complicated historical issues” divide Poles and Belarusians (Tut.by, May 30).

Considering the common threats faced by Poland and Lithuania, the tenor of Lithuanian pronouncements on Belarus can hardly be more different from the Polish. In part, this is due to Vilnius’s long-standing opposition to the construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Station (BNS) close to the Lithuanian border. On June 6, the Lithuanian ambassador in Minsk was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The Belarusian MFA demanded an explanation for the wording of Grybauskaitė’s insulting statement. Minsk underscored that one cannot choose one’s neighbors and that Grybauskaitė’s statement does not serve regional security; rather, its intention is to boost Lithuania’s recognition among its NATO partners (Mfa.gov.by, June 6). Two days later, the foreign ministry spokesperson in Minsk stated that Vilnius had actually adopted a law that declares the Belarusian nuclear plant a threat to Lithuanian national security. But after all the foreign ambassadors to Vilnius and to Minsk were invited, several weeks in advance, to visit the BNS site on May 26, the Lithuanian MFA sent an invitation to Vilnius-accredited ambassadors for the ministry’s own event scheduled for the same day. In the meantime, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently issued a report attesting to a high level of security at the BNS (Tut.by, June 8).

Why is it that Lithuania’s attitude toward Belarus is so demonstrably different from that of Poland, Latvia or Ukraine?  This is the question posed by Artyom Shraibman, a rising star within independent Belarusian journalism. His response is twofold: First, he begrudgingly agrees with the official line coming out of Minsk, arguing that Vilnius’s desire to attract the attention of more influential NATO members appears too obvious to ignore. Shraibman admits, “Two times two is four, no matter who confirms that.” Second, he asserts that Vilnius feels deeply offended by its loneliness in regard to the BNS and its own inability to create a united European opposition to it. Thus, a sense of being abandoned by the West on this issue fuels emotions in Lithuania that are difficult to contain (Tut.by, June 7). And on a separate note, apparently Lithuanian frustrations are exacerbated even more by the unprecedented level of outmigration from this Baltic State: 900,000 people, or almost a quarter of the population, have left Lithuania after it achieved independence (BNS, April 4). Whereas, Poland and Ukraine also see Russia’s behavior as an existential threat, and that is precisely why they favor and encourage any indication of Belarus’s independent policy and maintain the best possible relations with this Eastern European country.

Ongoing frustrations and tenacious regional grievances are perpetual nuisances in the overall European tug of war between the major global centers of power. And yet, the government in Minsk appears to have a clearer understanding of this truth than some of Belarus’s western neighbors—or even some Nobel Prize laureates.