The Birth of Belarusian Nationalism

In trying to bring Belarus and Russia together, Lukashenko may have awakened his country’s citizens to how independent they really want to be.

People carry a giant Belarusian historical white-red-white flag during a rally against a Belarusian-Russian integration project in Minsk on Dec. 7, 2019.
People carry a giant Belarusian historical white-red-white flag during a rally against a Belarusian-Russian integration project in Minsk on Dec. 7, 2019. Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

“You asked me why I am against the integration? Just take a look at Russia. Corruption is everywhere. You cannot do anything without bribe or having good krysha.” Maria, who prefers to go by a pseudonym, used the Russian word that literally means “roof” but is broadly used in post-Soviet states to describe illicit protection or patronage. She was sitting with her friends in the cozy kitchen in a block of flats in the Belarusian city of Brest. The owner of the apartment, Yauhen Skrabutan, is a declared opponent of President Alexander Lukashenko, labeled “Europe’s last dictator,” and a supporter of the country’s pro-democracy movement.

Maria admitted that, unlike for Skrabutan, politics is not essential to her. She prefers to focus on the challenges of everyday life, like avoiding any food from Russia, especially meat and dairy products, because of their low quality. To her mind, anything that comes from Russia is worse than its Belarusian or EU counterpart. “The roads there are horribly devastated, the food is awful, dirty, and mess lies everywhere, and corruption is overwhelming. Russia is not the country where I want to live and raise my children in the future,” Maria concluded firmly.

This is not an isolated opinion, even in Belarus, which is commonly perceived as the most Soviet-nostalgic and pro-Russian public in Europe. (As Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, the director of Belsat TV, an independent channel broadcasting from Poland to Belarus, told me this fall, “Belarusians have been intensively Russified for the most of two decades of Lukashenko rule. For instance, there are only seven Belarusian-language schools, six of which are in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and only two of them are secondary schools.”) Yet according to survey data from the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, only 7.7 percent of respondents would support entry of their homeland into Russia—a prospect that seems increasingly on the table as Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold frequent meetings to discuss deeper integration.

Far from the kitchen in Brest, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Dec. 7 and in St. Petersburg on Dec. 20, Lukashenko and Putin met to negotiate the 31 road maps of deepening integration of the two states.

The first meeting was held in connection with the 20th anniversary of a union treaty meant to create the Union State of Russia and Belarus. At the end the gathering, the two sides put out no formal declaration, but the then-Russian minister of economic development, Maxim Oreshkin, stated that both sides were close to finalizing the agreement—which would apparently integrate the countries’ agriculture, telecommunication, and customs policies. However, the details were not publicly announced. In September, the Russian newspaper Kommersant claimed that the deal also included creating common civil and tax legislation. With key differences over oil and gas prices still unsettled, both Russian and Belarusian officials have said negotiations are still pending.

As the two leaders held their discussions, about 1,000 protesters were marching in Minsk, where chants of “Long live Belarus” and “Independence” were loud and constant. Some of them ripped portraits of the Russian president off walls around the city. “We are observing the generational renewal in Belarus,” Ales Zarembiuk, the chairman of the Poland-based NGO Belarusian House, told me in December. “Half of Belarusians no longer remember the Soviet Union, and there is no nostalgia for this reason. Young people have iPhones, access to the internet, travel to the West. … They want to live as their European peers do.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be part of Europe, though, either. “The striking aspect of Belarusian public opinion is that it is exceptionally volatile in terms of geopolitical orientation,” Romaszewska-Guzy pointed out. “Survey results can vary by up to several percentages from month to month.” Given Belarusians’ strong experiences of war and history, the “basic goal is to adapt to changing political environments and somehow survive.”

Indeed, added Piotr Rudkouski, the director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, “The vast majority of Belarusians stick to the idea of independence, but given weak national identity, this attitude may easily change. The public opinion in Belarus is more pro-Russian, pro-Orthodox, and anti-Western.” Some kind of Belarusian identity apart from those factors has been relatively hard to find.

But that may be changing. A few years ago, it would be unimaginable to find stores on Belarusian streets selling folk handicrafts. Now they are everywhere. Young people are more enthusiastic about wearing T-shirts with patriotic emblems like “Pahonia,” the Lithuanian/Belarusian historical coat of arms, or even vyshyvanka, a type of folk embroidered shirt. Lukashenko himself appeared in a blue one on a television spot presenting him as a hardworking farmer mowing a field of grain.

As for the rise of nationalism, it appears that Lukahensko might have realized that the Russification of the past several decades has been a mistake. At the end of the 1990s, he might have dreamed of becoming the head of joint Russian-Belarusian state, but now he is striving to survive as an independent leader. In this struggle, he must see potential for turning Belarusians back into his allies by playing up national identity and distinctiveness from Russians.

The transponder attached to the windscreen beeped in time with the car crossing sensors. The main road connecting Brest with Minsk is broad and extremely well-maintained. A newly introduced electronic toll collection system called “BelToll” works perfectly. Traffic is low, but omnipresent cameras, police patrols, and hefty fines cause drivers to comply with speed limits and other traffic rules strictly. Belarus is proud that, unlike in Russia or Ukraine, citizens say, roads here reach global standards, and one can travel comfortably without the risk of blowing out one’s suspension.

In general, Lukashenko likes to boast about the economic successes of his country, the development of its infrastructure, and the increase in citizens’ living standards. In 2019, Belarus took 49th place (38 in 2018) in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. It even performs better than some European Union countries, including, for example, Greece (79).

The capital itself shines with perfectly clean streets, newly constructed office buildings (even though they resemble nothing so much as the communist behemoths of yore), and Chinese electric buses. Meanwhile, in the mid-2000s, Lukashenko realized that to boost the economy it was necessary to invest in the tech industry. In 2006, the government opened a high-tech park nicknamed “Belarusian Silicon Valley,” which now boasts more than 30,000 software engineers. One of the world’s most popular online multiplayer video games World of Tanks and the internet communications app Viber were both developed in Belarus.

However, whereas IT specialists can earn up to $2,000 or more per month, the average wage nationwide is still around $450. According to Aliaksandr Klaskouski, the head of analytical projects at the BelaPAN news agency, this is a problem. “Authorities have been trying to introduce different reforms to our Soviet-style economy. Their strategies were based on Chinese credits, upgrading oil refineries, creating the IT industry, and diversifying export markets.” The plan, he said, was successful in the short term but insufficient in the long run.

“The ‘golden decade’ of Belarusian development is gone,” he continued. The country is still economically dependent on Russia, thanks to Russian energy subsidies and unlimited access to its market. Moscow can intimidate Minsk by limiting its purchases of Belarusian goods, raising the price for the natural gas, and the like. Although Lukashenko desires that money, it is clear that he does not want to become just another governor of a Russian province.

To that end, some observers believe, he might try to take advantage of the country’s emerging national identity. It is remarkable, for one, that Belarusian authorities have generally refrained from using force and dispersing the demonstrators violently. That stands in stark contrast to reactions to previous bouts of protests, including in 2006, 2011, and 2017, when protesters were variously roughed up, detained, and in some cases killed.

“At the moment, Lukashenko allows protests as a bargaining tool in negotiations with Putin. This is supposed to be a warning signal: ‘Look out what’s going on in here. We don’t want second Kyiv in Minsk, right?’ Otherwise, me and the other organizers of the demonstrations would have already been arrested,” said Paval Sieviaryniec, the co-leader of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party and the organizer of the protests, in mid-December. (Two weeks later, he was sentenced to 45 days of jail.)

Yet whether Minsk does let some protest proceed is almost beside the point, depending on what Russian intentions in Belarus really are. For Rudkouski, the “Kremlin is not ultimately determined about the annexation of Belarus, be it gradual or instant. There are not many in the Kremlin establishment that dream of new annexations. Economic technocrats, for example, strongly dislike this idea.” Public opinion, meanwhile, is not in favor either, according to a survey by the Russia Public Opinion Research Center conducted in January 2019: Only 17 percent of Russians would like Belarus to accede to their country. Putin, Rukouski argues, “is not blind to the costs that any violent annexation will certainly involve. Acquiring one more area with a high potential of separatism would be a too irrational step for quite a pragmatic establishment.”

Romaszewska-Guzy isn’t so sure. She believes that Putin’s aims are strictly political, not economic. “He urgently needs [a] new international success.” The win in Crimea has already passed, and the broader war in Ukraine has turned out to be a disaster. “Then imagine that Russian border guards step on the Belarusian-European Union frontier in Brest! It would be something spectacular.”

Whereas Lukashenko’s aim of holding on to power is clear, Putin’s ultimate goals are less so. He’s unlikely to want to try to fully incorporate Belarus into Russia, as was the plan in Crimea, but to transform it into a puppet state entirely subjugated to Kremlin’s rule. In turn, Belarus’s factual status would become similar to Abkhazia or South Ossetia, even though it would remain a formally independent entity. Moscow is moreover determined to achieve this target with minimal economic costs and thus force Belarus to rely less on Russian economic aid.

Colorful swirls flow from the nostrils of a big hairy animal and flood the whole world with fanciful spots in all shades of the rainbow. “This is what our bison looks like after LSD. Doesn’t it sound like our daily Belarusian reality? Stoned bison,” said a young man, laughing as he sips a craft beer and shakes a spray can. His mural covering the wall of a former factory plant is about 100 meters long and several dozen high. It is so vast that it is impossible to embrace it all at once. Kastrycnickaya (“October” in Belarusian) used to be a typical, dull industrial street on the outskirt of Minsk’s city center. A few years ago, though, it started to transform into a small hipster district. But for the language, it would be hard to distinguish it from other artistic neighborhoods in Berlin, London, or Paris. Young people can enjoy creative freedom here; authorities treat it as a safety valve that helps prove that Belarus is a normal European state. Sitting here, it is easy to forget about the Russian threat looming over the horizon.

“[The] Ukrainian revolution was a great lesson for our society,” Sieviaryniec said. “After 2014, many people have begun to realize the value of independence—from football fans … to housewives attending Belarusian-language courses. Lukashenko … tries to cheat and dodge between East and West, but for the first time for decades, he must take into account us.”

Tomasz Grzywaczewski is a journalist in Poland.

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