Thursday, February 13, 2020

Integrating Belarusians into the Russian Federation Would Be Very Difficult, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 6 – Most discussions about what might happen if Alyaksandr Lukashenka agreed to have Belarus become part of the Russian Federation focus on the reaction of the West or of other post-Soviet states and assume that the Belarusians would more or less passively accept such a new state of affairs.

            But Rosbalt commentator Mikhail Petrovsky, on the basis of interviews with three leading Belarusian experts and his own research, says that Moscow would face serious problems with Belarusians if they were absorbed into Russia and that these problems might vitiate any positive consequences of such an action (

            Even if “’many’” Belarusians might welcome a union with Russia, “’many’ still does not mean ‘a majority,’” the Rosbalt commentator says. And consequently, should Lukashenka and Putin agree on a union, Moscow would find itself with far fewer allies on the ground than it might hope given that Belarus doesn’t have a Russian community committed to “’return.’”

            Instead, the situation would be “just the reverse,” he continues. “Some Russians, when going on pensions, more to the neighboring republic because there it is cheaper, more comfortable and more secure to live given Belarusian prices.”

            More to the point, the Belarusians, “in contrast  to the Russians” aren’t antagonistic to Europe: “Belarus is the world leader in the percent of the population with Shengen visas,” and “people understand that if their country is included in the Russian Federation, they would lose all this,” something that declaring that “’Crimea is ours!’” won’t provide compensation.

            Some in Moscow think that these problems could be compensated for by giving the Belarusians a great deal of autonomy, but that would not only create a bidding war with Belarusians but encourage other non-Russian nations within the country to demand greater autonomy as well, raising the question of “the real federalization of the rest of the RF.”

            Three Belarusian leaders with whom Petrovsky spoke only add to this list of problems. Olga Karach, head of the Our Home civic campaign in Vitebsk, says Belarusians would be “drowned” economically in the much larger country but would gain greater freedoms given that Belarusian law is far more repressive than Russian.

            But that works against Moscow, she says.  Belarusians included in Russia would likely behave as children do when a strict teacher is replaced by a “softer and more liberal” one – they would act in the most insubordinate ways. They would protest more, and officials would engage in “sabotage.”

            And that is all the more likely, Karach continues, because over the 28 years of independence, Belarusian officials have come to view inclusion within the Russian Federation as “the most unfavorable scenario.” They have gotten used to being big fish in a little pond rather than small fish in a big one.

            Alena Anisim, a member of Belarus’ House of Representatives, says that another factor working against Moscow in the event of unification is that “Belarus has always been different from Russia mentally.” They have positive views of law and democracy, they are more informed by Christianity, and they don’t want to tell others how to live.

            More to the point, she continues, “even in Soviet times, few Belarusians considered Russia their motherland.” As a result, Moscow would not be restoring something if it tried to make Belarusians into Russians but working to create something entirely new, a far more difficult task.

            And Belarusian political analyst Sergey Martselev says that another important difference is that Belarusians are more committed to multi-culturalism and tolerance than Russians, although they have not experienced the impact of the influx of culturally different peoples from Central Asia and the North Caucasus.

            Few Belarusians are going to want to serve in the Russian military given the history of dedovshchina on an ethnic basis there and the lack of any interest among Belarusians of fighting wars abroad. “Why should they die for alien interests?” 

            And the two nations have a very different attitude toward public and private hygiene,  Martselev says. Belarusians are committed to cleanliness and order in themselves and in the world around them; Russians are much less so.

            Consequently, even though some in Belarus’ force structures might welcome inclusion, many won’t. “In the case of the annexation of Belarusian territories, Russia will thus get a number of internal threats, ranging from sabotage and ending with diversionary actions” by those who remain patriots.

            “In general,” Marselev says, “the ‘average’ Belarusian may speak Russian and even watch Russian propaganda. But he is a villager in his way of thinking. He poorly tolerates those who come as guests but feel themselves to be masters.” Moscow needs to think about all this because its real problems will only begin if it tries to annex Belarus.

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