Staunton, February 16 – The Belarus government has changed the country’s coat of arms from one with a map showing Belarus at the western edge of Eurasia to a new version displaying the country on a map at the eastern edge of Europe, a move some are dismissing as meaningless but one that says a lot about Minsk’s current aspirations.
Many commentators are dismissive of this change, particularly since Belarus, almost alone among the post-Soviet states, has under Alyaksandr Lukashenka retained Soviet-era symbols, including its flag and coat of arms, and since the only changes in the coat of arms being made now are in the map and the color scheme of the still-Soviet remainder.
(For pictures of the two coats of arms and comments both positive and dimissive about what Minsk has done, see gazetaby.com/post/simvolicheskie-strasti-chto-ne-tak-s-belorusskim-g/160681/, gazetaby.com/post/gosudarstvennyj-gerb-izmenyat-po-prosbe-grazhdan/160673/ and svaboda.org/a/30431026.html.)
It may be that some Belarusians, let alone others, won’t even notice the change, but three groups will; and their reactions will be important politically. First, Moscow will view this as yet more evidence that Belarus is trying to escape Russia’s grasp and become part of Europe, a small piece of evidence perhaps but a serious one.
Second, officials in Europe and the West more generally will see this as an indication that Lukashenka is serious in his pursuit of closer ties with the EU and the US and is prepared to take steps in that direction, small steps perhaps but steps in the right direction as far as their governments are concerned.
And third, Belarusians both in the population and in the government will see it as an indication that Lukashenka is prepared to make changes and may even feel compelled to do so. His government explained the change as it has and the Soviet regime did as being at the request of the people. That may be more true now than it was in the past.
On the one hand, that may spark fears among officials that the ice is melting and that Belarus is going to change more fundamentally than just with a new map on its coat of arms. On the other, it may lead the Belarusian opposition to press even harder for other changes, including perhaps most immediately for a return to the flag of independence.
If either of those things happen, Belarusian politics will be transformed; and the hopes many have had for a Belarus truly independent of Moscow will be encouraged. How Moscow will react, of course, remains to be seen and will likely be profoundly affected by how Belarusians and the West view what some may dismiss as a meaningless move.