Popov: “Lukashenko is repeating Yanukovich’s mistakes”

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July 3, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ

Translated by J. Arnoldski

On July 3rd, Belarus celebrates Independency Day, the main holiday of Belarusian statehood. On this occasion, a military parade was held in Minsk which Alexander Lukashenko addressed with a speech on the need to enhance the country’s military strength since “military force remains one of the main arguments in the arsenal of international relations.” Lukashenko most likely had in mind the increased military activity of the NATO bloc on the borders of Belarus and Russia, and in particular NATO’s deployment of four additional battalions to Poland and the Baltic states which has been announced by the North Atlantic alliance’s leadership.

The head of the Belarusian state was gratulated on this occasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. Putin noted the positive dynamics of the states’ bilateral cooperation in various fields.

These words require some explanation. On the one hand, a positive dynamic can be seen in the trading of various goods between the two countries. For example, Belarus managed to preserve and even increase its share of agricultural products on Russian markets. This is linked to the effects of the food embargo against Ukrainian goods in effect since January 1st, 2016 and especially to the responsive sanctions against EU states. But overall, trade between Russia and Belarus has shown a negative trend. The real downturn was 2015 when a sharp decrease in mutual trade operations was recorded. The export of Belarusian goods to Russia amounted to $10,389.1 million in 2015 as opposed to $15,181 million in 2014. Imports from Russia also dramatically decreased from $190.2 million in 2014 to $17,144.2 million in 2015 (this data is according to the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus). 

This negative trend was demonstrated even within the first months of 2016. According to the data of the National Statistical Committee of Belarus, the volume of trade with Russia for January-April 2016 amounted to 88.1% of what it was during the same period last year. Moreover, imports from Russia to Belarus especially sharply declined, amounting to only 85% of the level of the previous year. Despite the reduction in imports of Russian products, Belarus maintains a negative balance of trade with Russia of -1,769,956.3 thousand US dollars. This is due to the high energy consumption of the Belarusian economy which leaves it dependent on the delivery of energy supplies from Russia. Oil and gas are the main types of products imported from Russia.

This overall negative dynamic is related to macroeconomic factors such as the fall in oil prices and, accordingly, the decrease in the purchasing power of Russian citizens. The Belarusian economy is of an export-oriented character and the main market for Belarusian manufactures is Russia. Thus, the “sagging” of markets in Russia has negative consequences for Belarus.

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Belarus has been compelled to seek new markets, especially for its high-tech products, in particular those of the military-industrial complex. Over the last two years, the supply of Belarusian military-industrial complex products to neighboring Ukraine has expanded mainly due to the demand of the so-called “Anti-terrorist operation” in Donbass. This causes discontent and anger among patriotic circles in Russian society as well as among those in Belarus themselves who support integration with Russia and who constitute the overwhelming majority of Belarusian society. 

Thus, President Putin’s words on the positive dynamics of bilateral cooperation reflect reality only given the caveat that things could be much worse. A number of critical issues and contradictions have accumulated in relations between the two countries. Nevertheless, as before, Belarus remains the closest ally of Russia.

These words apply not only to interstate relations, but also to the societal sphere. The fact that Russia and Belarus established the Union State 20 years ago in April 1996 is first and foremost a merit of the closeness, or rather kinship of Belarusians and Russians. Belarusians are the western branch of the Russian people. Although the ideology of a “special Belarusian nation” (similar to the “separate Ukrainian nation”) took root during the decades of Soviet rule, the majority of Belarusian society continue to see themselves as part of one great Russian people. It was these public sentiments that brought Alexander Lukashenko to power. They also keep him bound to the integration project with Russia. In order to maintain electoral support, Lukashenko is compelled to demonstrate commitment to integration or at least a a form of imitation of such.  

Perhaps the most negative aspect of bilateral relations is the sphere of ideology. During the first years of Alexander Lukashenko’s presidency, Belarus developed itself within the framework of the Soviet ideological model. Then elements of Belarusian nationalism (so-called “Lithuanianism” – litvinstvo) began to infiltrate state ideology and the education system. In recent years, nationalist elements have become all the more noticeable in the spheres of ideology, science, education, and the information policies of the Belarusian state. On the one hand, this is conditioned by the isolation of Belarusian society from the great homeland, formerly the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the example of neighboring Ukraine with its long traditions of radical anti-Russian nationalism is also a source of influence. Belarusian authorities also support nationalist tendencies in society insofar as such is beneficial for justifying their own legitimacy. The lack of real integration with Russia is justified by a striving to maintain sovereignty and cultural identity. Hence the paradox: despite prevailing pro-Russian moods in Belarus, there is practically no political force oriented towards Russia. Almost all of the Belarusian opposition is oriented towards the West. 

Here the analogy with neighboring Ukraine before the Euromaidan is obvious. The southern and eastern regions of the country’s social support for closer ties with Russia was used by the Party of Regions and its leader Viktor Yanukovich for their own electoral purposes. Real pro-Russian movements and parties (the Russian Movement of Ukraine, the Russian Bloc Party, etc.) were absorbed or eliminated as dangerous opponents. On the other hand, President Yanukovich secretly supported the neo-Nazi party Svoboda (which emerged out of the Social National Party of Ukraine). Yet this flirting with nationalists (neo-Nazi ones at that) turned out to be costly for President Yanukovich. His mistakes are begin repeated by President Lukashenko in incorporating a portion of Belarusian nationalists of an anti-Russian orientation (the “Lithuanianists”) into power structures. 

The underestimation of the ideological factor and preoccupation with production spheres is a distinctive feature of Soviet and post-Soviet elites. This eventually led to the collapse of the USSR and resulted in the Euromaidan in Ukraine. This can also lead to the collapse of contemporary Belarusian statehood. Belarus needs a new ideology reflecting the interests of the country, supported by a majority of society, and drawing from on the historical past. This ideology, Russian unity, means perceiving Belarus as part of the larger Russian nation. A group of social activists united around the editorship of the website “Western Rus” (whose editor-in-chief is Igor Zelenkovsky) is laboring to promote this ideology. Unlike “Lithuanianism” (an artificially constructed ideology), “Western-Rusism” (zapadnorusizm) represents a worldview rather than an ideology. Lithuanianism is supported by a social minority, the pro-Western layers of Belarusian society oriented towards the opposition against President Lukashenko. Western-Rusism, on the other hand, has much wider support among broad layers of Belarusian society, but it is still not organized into a party or a movement. This is simultaneously a plus and a minus.

The danger exists of the Ukrainian scenario being repeated in Belarus when one part of the country will impose its own will upon the other. In the Ukrainian example, this meant the western part of the country and partially Central Ukraine imposing itself upon the southern and eastern regions. The majority of the population in Belarus naturally and unconsciously perceive themselves to be part of the larger Russian world (the central idea of Western-Rusism). However, this majority does not possess its own political structures and is forced to rely on the acting government as the only alternative to the opposition’s radical anti-Russian propaganda. The analogy with the situation in Ukraine before the coup d’etat, as we wrote above, is thus relevant.  

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