It is an open question whether the Belarusian authorities really believe the Kremlin poses a threat to the country’s sovereignty, or whether they are simply attempting to dress up their usual repressive behavior in pretty packaging for the West. According to Western diplomats, on the eve of large-scale opposition rallies, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry preemptively explains away the harshness with which security forces may react to protesters as the desire to prevent “provocations” from the east.

Now this specter is being summoned at home, with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko telling local officials in the Mogilev region in a speech devoted to the economy: “We are on the front line. If we don’t survive these years, if we will fail, it means we will have to become part of some other state, or they will simply wipe their feet on us. God forbid they unleash another war, like in Ukraine.”

There are two possible explanations. Either Lukashenko seriously fears Russia swallowing up Belarus, or he has simply decided it is a convincing argument for his audience at this point in time.

Judging by the actions of Belarusian authorities in recent years, the truth is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, Minsk doesn’t appear to consider the Russian threat sufficiently serious, because it has not adopted any long-term strategies to counter such a threat. All steps taken in this direction are limited and timid. But Lukashenko and his elites do appear to be a little nervous, as though they sense that Moscow is the bull in the regional china shop.

The basic unspoken rule of Belarusian politics has always been to prevent the emergence of a meaningful force at home that could be more pro-Russian than Lukashenko. It would be dangerous to give the Kremlin such a lever over Belarusian authorities in case of a serious conflict with Russia. Even during their most serious fallouts, supporting Lukashenko should appear to Moscow to be the lesser evil compared to all possible alternatives. 

However, after the start of the Ukraine crisis, Minsk decided it was time to defend itself against the most aggressive elements of Russia’s external propaganda. The patriotic and imperial discourse emanating from Moscow became less compatible with Belarus’s balanced image: it wants to be friends with all of its neighbors, even if they are enemies to each other.

The first element of this defense is the so-called soft Belarusification of local authorities, making them more loyal to the national agenda, and an informal tactical alliance on such issues with former domestic opponents. 

The second element is the fight against the most ardent Russophile activists in Belarus: people who demonstrate more loyalty and sympathy to Russia’s path than to Belarus in both word and deed. Hence the arrests of three Belarusian writers working for the Russian REGNUM news agency, who were tried for inciting national hatred, though only one was convicted (and received no prison sentence). Another example is the handing out of prison terms for Belarusian volunteers returning from fighting in Ukraine against Kiev.

The third and perhaps most interesting part of this trend is the smooth displacement and isolation of Russian influence on historical memory.

It was only this year that the government managed to take a few steps in this direction. The Belarusian opposition was allowed to hold a concert rally in central Minsk for the centenary celebrations of the anti-Bolshevik Belarusian People’s Republic’s declaration of independence in 1918. The first monument to the leader of the late eighteenth-century anti-Russian uprising, Tadeusz Kościuszko, was dedicated, and the ceremony was held by local authorities in concert with opposition activists—each gathering under their own flags. And the St. George ribbon seen for several years at official Victory Day events on May 9 has been replaced by the red and green of Belarus.

On the other hand, Minsk is not pursuing closer political and economic relations with the West at the level that would be necessary if it truly considered its dependence on Moscow to be a threat. Russia’s dominant position as Belarus’s main trade partner has fluctuated around the same levels since the early 2010s, despite dozens of programs and plans forwarded by the authorities to diversify exports.

Admittedly, Lukashenko asked European Commissioner Johannes Hahn on a recent visit to facilitate access for Belarusian goods to the EU market. But at the same time, he does not want to pursue the reforms that would make it possible for his country to reorient its economy away from Russia.

There are no attempts, for example, to implement Western recommendations on the freedom of the press, the right to assembly, or fair elections. Even cosmetic concessions in these areas could increase the potential for developing relations with Europe. Minsk is not even going to remove the longest-standing irritant to those relations: the death penalty. A moratorium on the death penalty would be a simple step to demonstrate sincerity on the part of Minsk and open new doors in Brussels. 

As far as Belarusification is concerned, the authorities prefer for grassroots activities to take place rather than organizing anything themselves. The state does not want to expand the use of the Belarusian language in the education system, or to allocate money for the publication of laws and documents in both languages, rather than in Russian only.

The same approach applies to the dominance of Russian TV. Lukashenko has called for more Belarusian content on the airwaves, but a new media law has a limited and modest 30 percent quota for national programs because there are no resources available to fund more than that, and the Belarusian state does not plan to allocate money to create more Belarusian content.

Steps such as exiting from alliances with Russia or curtailing military cooperation are not even worth mentioning here: they can be dismissed, given the reasonable fear of crossing a red line and angering Moscow even more. 

Ultimately, however, if Lukashenko believed that his nation’s sovereignty hung in the balance and that annexation by Russia was not far off, it would be logical to expect more decisive steps aimed at mitigating that threat. So far, Belarusian authorities at various levels simply react to certain external stimuli without any sense of purpose or overarching strategy.

It is still too early, therefore, to interpret Lukashenko’s bold statement as a sign of fear of future occupation, though it does reflect a growing sense of apprehension over Russia’s unpredictable and ever-changing role in the region. Lukashenko could not find a better bogeyman than the possible loss of independence and a war “like in Ukraine.” It is the specter that haunts Eastern Europe today.

Whether the Belarusian leadership has a long-term strategy for its relations with Russia is a difficult question to answer. But if any consistent behavior can be identified, it is a symbiosis of adjusting to Moscow’s changing moods, the reciprocal sovereignization of foreign and domestic policy, probing for various options, and a constant desire not to cross the Kremlin’s unspoken red lines or anger Moscow to the point of no return. In all of this, there is no running away to the West, nor digging foxholes and waiting for Russian tanks.

By:
  • Artyom Shraibman