A specter haunts Belarus. He is not a brutal autocrat who oppresses his own people, flouts international law and threatens the country’s neighbors. Nor is it the international isolation of Belarus or the rapid collapse of the country’s economy. At least not if you read Russian media.
According to a growing number of pro-Kremlin commentators, the specter haunting Belarus is the threat of “Belarus”, that is, the promotion of Belarusian language, history and culture.
In a recent long essay for APN, a Kremlin-related publication with a nationalist bent, political commentator Sergei Shiyenko argued that, like Ukraine before it, Belarus is trying to “synthesize a new ethnicity and a national statehood project on an anti-Russian basis”.
According to Shiyenko, “Belarus is the cornerstone of the concept of creating a new nation from an isolated part of the Russian people under a state that was accidentally created at the beginning of the 20th century. Without Belarus, nation building will come to a standstill, the “Republic of Belarus” will lose its meaning. “
It was not an isolated reference. A recent information in APN called Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya a “defender of Belarus”, noting that she “was in favor of expanding the use and popularization of Belarusian language and culture” .
Elsewhere, an article in Rubaltic.ru claims the Francisak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society, a civic organization established in 1989, sought “forced Belarus from all spheres of public life, including the education system”. And in an essay by Regnum, commentator Sergei Atyemenko Noted that Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power in 1994 promising “the end of criminal and violent Belarus” of the country.
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These increasingly frequent references to Belarus share several common and historically inaccurate threads.
Just like the claims about Ukraine made by Vladimir Putin in his infamous July 2021 essay, the authors of these articles on Belarus generally argue, wrongly, that Belarus is indistinguishable from Russia. They also claim that, like Ukraine, Belarus is an artificial nation created during Soviet times. And they falsely claim that, like in Ukraine, Belarusians’ desire to be a sovereign nation with its own history, culture and language is driven by malicious and irrational “Russophobia”.
Given Russia’s growing military, economic and political footprint in Belarus, the stories about creeping Belarus may at first glance seem irrational. After all, Russia’s dominance over Belarus is arguably stronger than it ever was.
Russia and Belarus recently completed Zapad-2021 military exercises, the largest in Eastern Europe in four decades. This year, the two countries have also conducted a record number of joint military exercises, with constant rotations establishing a de facto permanent presence of Russian troops in Belarus. Moscow and Minsk are also in the process of establishment three joint training centers, including one in the Belarusian region of Hrodna, near the Polish and Lithuanian borders.
Economically, Belarus remains heavily dependent on Moscow, with its economy effectively supported by the import of heavily subsidized Russian oil and the export of refined petroleum products, as well as the export of potash fertilizers. Kremlin-linked tycoons, meanwhile, are expanding their presence in Belarus.
Politically, Lukashenka’s international isolation made him more dependent than ever on the Kremlin. And just to be sure, Putin’s regime is now actively put the pieces in place to ensure that Moscow controls the Belarusian legislature through pro-Kremlin parties.
Despite Russia’s unquestionably strong position in Belarus, the fears of pro-Kremlin commentators of Belarus are driven by trends in public opinion that show a deterioration in traditionally positive Belarusian attitudes towards Russia.
Based on a November 2020 report Chatham House Poll, 33.3% of Belarusians say integration with Russia would make Belarus more corrupt. Meanwhile, 39.4% say it would mean the end of the Belarusian state, and 45% say Belarusians can only improve their identity in a fully independent country.
Likewise, a survey carried out by the Center for Oriental Studies (OSW) based in Warsaw in late November and early December 2020 have shown that 43% of Belarusians see Russia as the greatest threat to Belarusian sovereignty and territorial integrity, the highest figure among any of the countries featured in the survey.
A clear reassessment of the country’s history and national identity is also underway. A growing part of the Belarusian public now looks at the European history of Belarus prior to its incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1796. In particular, they look to the centuries when present-day Belarus was part of the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
From last year OSW survey, 62.2% of Belarusians think their country should be inspired by periods when they were not ruled by Russia, with 39.7% citing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 6.3% identifying the Polish Commonwealth Lithuanian and 16.2% citing the People’s Republic of Belarus, the short-lived attempt to establish an independent state in 1918. Meanwhile, only 28 percent named the Soviet Union.
As the Kremlin tightens its grip on the Lukashenka regime, the Belarusian people are turning increasingly to the west. Seen from Moscow, it may look like an anti-Russian campaign by Belarus. But in reality, what we are witnessing is a European nation rediscovering itself. Like the Ukrainians before them, the Belarusians are continuing the break-up of the Soviet Union today.
Brian Whitmore is a Non-Resident Principal Investigator at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, Assistant Professor of Practice at the University of Texas at Arlington, and host of The Power Vertical Podcast.
Wed Sep 8, 2021
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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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