Friday, November 28, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘Russia Can Lose Belarus’

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 28 – Analysts and officials in both Moscow and the West have long operated under the assumption that Russia will always be able to retain Belarus as a reliable satellite. But recent statements by Alyaksandr Lukashenka and actions by Belarusian nationalists are raising questions about that assumption.


            In an article yesterday on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal entitled “Russian can lose Belarus,” commentator Andrey Polunin  says that the anti-Russian attitudes which dominate Ukraine are spreading to Belarus and that the loss of Belarus could be entail far greater costs to Moscow than many assume (


            Polunin points out that in recent months, Belarusian nationalists have become more active than the “systemic” opposition, Lukashenka himself has spoken in defense of Ukraine against Moscow, and the Belarusian media has been filled with articles criticizing Russia and raising questions about Mensk’s current tight relationship with Moscow.


            “All this,” the commentator says, “recalls the Ukrainian scenario,” and thus deserves close attention. Specifically, he says, it is time to ask “how probable is it that a Maidan will occur in Mensk and that Belarus like Ukraine will choose a pro-Western course with a complete break in relations with Russia?”


            Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian Studies at Moscow State University, told Polunin that a Maidan in Mensk was becoming “ever more probable,” not because of the actions of the nationalists but because of the position of Lukashenka and his regime.


            Most Belarusians are not inclined to rock the boat, he said, but “Belarusian elites themselves have taken up the theme of nationalism in order to protect themselves … and they have begun an era of ‘soft Belarusianization’ of the country.” That is “even more dangerous” than the Ukrainization Kyiv carried out earlier because the Ukrainian version was so crude.


            Mensk is acting in a much more sophisticated and careful way, gradually increasing Belarusianization in much the same way and with the same results as the story about the difference between a frog thrown in boiling water and one put in water that gradually is heated makes clear.


            Nonetheless, Bezpalko says, the situation can change very quickly.  “One must keep in mind that Ukrainization cannot be reduced to the question of language alone.  This is a change of identity which is much more dangerous.” Many who are now Ukrainian nationalists speak Russian, and their language doesn’t prevent them from being so.


            That shift in identity without an immediate shift in language is precisely what one should be worried about in the case of Belarus, the Moscow scholar says.


            He adds that the Belarusian case presents yet another threat: Because Belarusians do not have a national tradition of dissent of the kind that Ukrainians do, young Belarusians may soon decide that Belarusian nationalism is “a fake.”  But that in fact is not something that makes the situation better for Russia but rather worse.


            If young Belarusians turn from nationalism, they are likely to become “supporters of globalization, European integration and will view European values as an alternative to the Russian cultural-civilizational ones, including gay parades,” Bezpalko says.


            He added that in his view, Russia’s loss of Ukraine was not so disturbing as many think and that the potential loss of Belarus could be much more serious than many now imagine.  In the case of Ukraine, Moscow can stop providing the kind of assistance it has been providing over the last 20 years and walk away.


            But the situation with regard to Belarus is “somewhat different.” Belarus is “the single true ally of Russia in the near abroad,” an ally which relies on Russian military power and has opened its territory for Russian bases. If Belarus turned away from Moscow, the situation would be dire indeed.


            “In the case of the loss of Belarus, we would completely return to the borders of the 16th century and this would be our strategic loss.” 


            Tamara Guzenkova, the head of the Moscow Center for Research on the Problems of CIS and Baltic Countries, also spoke with Polunin. She said that “anti-Russian and pro-Western attitudes are intensifying in Belarus,” something that can be seen both in the official media and especially on the Internet.


            She suggested that there were two reasons for this. On the one hand, the West, which had been seeking to find a champion among what she described as the “uncharismatic” Belarusian opposition, has now turned its attention to Belarusian civil society and its online manifestation.


            And on the other, the shift in Belarusian attitudes reflects Lukashenka’s reaction to the Ukrainian crisis, one in which he has had to take into account Belarus’ location between Russia and the West, the upcoming presidential elections in Belarus, and his need to refinance his debts next year.


            According to Guzenkova, “the real tragedy for the Belarusian people consists in the fact that because of the way political realities have taken shape, any pro-European rhetoric a priori automatically is transformed into anti-Russian language.” And that is leading ever Belarusians to think that they stand before a choice.


            That is, “either with Russia or with the West,” and when the question is posed that way, there is a very “serious danger” that Russia could “lose” Belarus.

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