Monday, July 2, 2018

Lukashenka Now Invoking Russian Threat Domestically to Build Support for Himself

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 1 – For several years, Artrem Shraybman says, Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his government have told Western diplomats that Russia may swallow up Belarus unless Minsk gets support from their countries in at least the form of Western tolerance for his repressive moves.

            But now, at a time when ever more Russian commentators are talking about the annexation of Belarus and the ways it might boost Russia’s power and Putin’s standing, the Belarusian leader is talking about this threat not just to foreigners but to his own people, the Carnegie Moscow Center analyst says (

            Lukashenka’s remarks suggest he is really afraid that Moscow will annex his country (, a fear entirely understandable given talk in Moscow about how much such an action would strengthen Russia and boost Putin’s popularity (

             But Shraybman suggests that the explanation for Lukashenka’s action lies somewhere between a genuine fear and a conviction that such arguments will work with his own population, an indication that he now views Belarusian patriotism and even nationalism as forces as useful to himself and possibly as too strong to ignore.

            Lukashenka has done relatively little to develop real defenses against any Russian move, the analyst continues, but he and his entourage are increasingly nervous because “Moscow today is an elephant in a china shop,” unpredictable and dangerous and thus quite possibly a threat to their rule and their country.

            “The fundamental unwritten rule of Belarusian politics always was not to allow the appearance in the country of a significant force which would be more pro-Russian than Lukashenka,” Shraybman says. That would give Moscow too great a temptation to use it against the Belarusian leader.

            And consequently, “even at times of the most serious conflicts, support for Lukashenka must appear in the eyes of Moscow a lesser evil in comparison with all available alternatives.” Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenka decided that he needed to defense himself “from more aggressive elements of the ideology which Russia was pushing from outside.”

            In the judgment of Minsk, “the imperial-patriotic discourse coming from Moscow was poorly compatible with the image of a Belarus balancing [between Russia and the West].” And consequently, Lukashenka has taken three steps:

            First, he has promoted “the so-called soft Belarusianization,” providing more support to a national agenda and forming “an informal tactical alliance” with his quondam opponents within the country. 

            Second, Lukashenka has cracked down on “the most obvious Russophile activists, people who by their words and deeds demonstrate greater loyalty and sympathy to the Russian course than to the Belarusian one,” as in the case of the three Regnum journalists.

            And third, “and the most interesting part of this trend – a gradual expulsion of Russian influence from historical memory” in Belarus by promoting national symbols and anniversaries and opposing Russian efforts to define holidays like May 9. 

            So far, however, Shraybman says, “this doesn’t mean that Minsk is seriously concerned about the prospects of being swallowed up by Russia and has undertaken a broad campaign to distance itself from its main ally.” Lukashenka has generally limited himself to superficial and symbolic moves rather than substantive ones.

            He hasn’t moved closer to the West economically or even by following Western recommendations on laws and human rights, and he hasn’t reduced Belarusian dependence on trade with Russia. It remains where it has been for a decade. And all three of his moves are in fact less than they appear.

            For example, “the state doesn’t want to increase the use of Belarusian in the educational system or even spend money for publishing laws in both languages and not just in Russian.” And it hasn’t significantly cut back the amount of Russian programming on Belarusian television and doesn’t appear likely to.

            “If Lukashenka really believed that the existence of the country hangs by a hair and its swallowing up is not beyond the hills, it would be logical to expect more decisive steps to lower this threat,” Shraybman says.  But at present, he appears to be invoking the Russian threat because he doesn’t have a better one to use with the Belarusian people.

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