Russia-Belarus Union in Crisis: Part 2 – Lukashenko’s Maidan

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March 20, 2017 – Fort Russ –

By Eduard Popov – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

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Continued from Part 1 

The crisis of the Union State: the further from Russia, the closer to the West

Starting around 2010, the Union State entered a new, unfortunate phase of its development which is ongoing to this day. In Belorussia’s foreign and domestic policy, new powerful tendencies emerged which gradually came to replace the previous model. These changes were so deep that they at times have given the impression of a revolution.

In the foreign policy sphere, these changes consisted in changing the Eastern (Russian) vector of integration out for a Western orientation. In the evaluations of my Belorussian colleagues, this became definite around 2013, i.e., a year before the Maidan in Ukraine and the West’s imposition of the anti-Russian sanctions. Visits by Belorussian leaders to Western countries, particularly the US and EU, became more frequent and the head of Belorussia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makey, came to be called the main Belorussian “Westernizer.” As a result, sanctions on representatives of the Belorussian leadership were gradually lifted. In 2008, Belorussia refused to support Russia’s peacekeeping action in Georgia and refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But the single most painful case in Russian public opinion was Lukashenko’s refusal to support Russia’s actions in returning Crimea, which was “gifted” to Ukraine in 1954 by communist leader Nikita Khrushchev. Belorussia’s refusal to support Russia in Crimea also has a reverse side: support for Ukraine’s actions, including Kiev’s punitive operation in Donbass.

Individual experts, including Belorussian specialists, have noted that the punitive operation against the people of Donbass would have been impossible without technical assistance provided to Ukraine by Belorussia. In particular, Belorussia has delivered fuel for military vehicles to Ukraine, and apparently munitions and missile systems used to shell Donbass cities have also come from Belorussia.

These profound changes also affected the sphere of state ideology. If Alexander Lukashenko’s first two presidential terms (he has been president uninterruptedly since 1994) were marked by a kind of Soviet ideology (Lukashenko’s famous expressions is “Belorussians are Russians with a quality mark”), then subsequently this was replaced by a mild version of “Lithuanianism” (a form of Belorussian nationalism declaring Belorussians to be the heirs of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania hostile to Muscovite Rus as a medieval state). The famous historian from Belorussia, Alexander Gronsky, wrote the following for Fort Russ

“Belarusian authorities are trying to divide historical understandings and thus break this common history. Textbooks on Belarusian history, for example, teach of two states, part of which was made up by Belarus: Lithuania and Poland. Ancient Rus, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union, of which Belorussia was also a part, are taught only in courses of world history. Belarusian “unity” with Polish-Lithuanian history is imposed upon students without any mention of unity with Russian history.”

The Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belorussia has consistently pursued a policy of isolating Belorussian history from common Russian and Soviet history. Parallel to the invention of Belorussian heroes (the Polish leaders of uprisings against the Russian Empire are often declared to be Belorussian national heroes), a desacralization of the historical heritage of Belorussia and Russia is ongoing. The Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia, for example, has been prohibited from being called “patriotic” (i.e., a national liberation war or war waged for the Motherland) in Belorussia. 

Meanwhile, according to the appraisals of Belorussian scholars and public figures from the Western Rus movement, approximately two-thirds of the population believe Belorussians to be part of the Russian people (Belorussians being “Western Russians”) or, in the very least, very closely related peoples.

Since around 2013, Belorussia has observed a de facto ban of using the St. George ribbon, the symbol of the victory of the Russian and Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War. In 2014, this ban became widespread. The St. George ribbon is one of the symbols of common Soviet victory, and rejecting this symbols ideologically links Alexander Lukashenko’s regime to the Nazi regime in Ukraine.

This ideological “revolution” in Belorussia might be explainable by a desire to distance themselves from Russia while the collective West is waging war against the latter. At the same time, Alexander Lukashenko, whom Belorussian society is fairly tired of, fears falling under the influence of his stronger neighbor. Having begun his political ascent with slogans for re-integration with Russia, Lukashenko is now concerned with preserving his own personal power. President Lukashenko sees a threat to his personal power in the wishes of the majority of Belorussian society for closer and more real integration with Russia. 

Part of this ideological turn in Belorussia has comprised repression against Russophile intellectuals. Perhaps it was their publications exposing “dirty” trade with Ukraine that was the real reason behind the arrest of three scholars and experts in Belorussia, Yuri Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin, and Sergey Shiptenko. But coincidence or not, the arrest of these scholars began during the visit of a delegation from Poland’s senate and parliament to Minsk. The arrest of Polish politician and leader of the Zmiana party, Mateusz Piskorski, was semantically continued by the arrest of these three Belorussian scholars. The charges brought against them, such as “inciting national hatred”, are absurd. According to some fragmentary testimonies, the scholars are faced with prison sentences of up to eight years. It must be admitted that the moral blame for this political repression, besides the Belorussian authorities, is also borne by representatives of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented that these arrests are a domestic affair of Belorussia. The more or less same evaluation was given by Russia’s Ambassador to Belorussia, Alexander Surikov. In both Belorussia and Russia, Zakharova’s statements have been perceived as a carte blanche for repressing pro-Russian forces in Belorussia.

A Maidan in Belorussia: Will Alexander Lukashenko outplay the West and neo-Nazis? 

Despite Russia’s significant assistance, the Belorussian economy is experiencing hard times with a trend towards further deterioration. According to reports from Belorussia, there are regular delays in the payment of salaries. In those enterprises where there are no delays, workers are left simply sitting at their workplace, i.e., the company does not have any orders to fill and people are not being fired, but are being deprived of all bonuses, being paid the base salary and then forced to sit through the entire working day. 

The deterioration of the socio-economic situation in Belorussia has been observed in recent years, but it became especially noticeable in 2016. As a result, a protest movement is currently spreading across Belorussia, the specific occasion being Lukashenko’s signing of Decree #3 on so-called “spongers,” or unemployed citizens or citizens working abroad. The essence of the decree boils down to “spongers” having to pay taxes for maintaining the state apparatus. This decree sparked waves of outrage across the country, since it affects approximately 470,000 people. Thousands of protesters have come out on the streets of Minsk and other cities. Characteristically enough, these numerous (up to 1,000 people) protest marches have taken place in small towns. In the Belorussian cities of Brest (a regional center), Bobruysk, and Orsha, people have gone out on the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the “spongers decree.” In Molodechno, around 500 people came out to picket, which is an enormous number for such a small town.

Many of the protesters have stated that these are not opposition rallies, but attempts to reach the government’s ear. Gathered crowds have told their stories of not being able to find work in their city. 

On March 15th, reports announced a second wave of “sponger marches” from Minsk and other small Belorussian cities. In particular, in the regional center of Grodno around 1,000 people have gathered, which is rather many for such a city. The authorized march in Minsk itself gathered more participants than was planned. The question thus arises: just how many participants will come out to the “March of Will” on March 25th? 

The second characteristic feature of protests in small towns is that they have been held without the participation of professional opposition figures who receive Western grants and possess extensive networks around the country as well as experience in organizing mass protests. In other words, the protests in Belorussia’s provinces have been organized without professional organizers.

In Minsk itself and other large cities, rallies have been held mainly under the slogans of Belorussian Russophobic nationalists. Pro-Russian slogans are rarely heard insofar as pro-Russian organizations have long since been snuffed out by authorities. A particularly frightening trend for Belorussian authorities is that the marches are being participated in by the social strata that constitute the social base of President Lukashenko, i.e., workers and civil servants. Even more frightening is the fact that Belorussian neo-Nazis have become one of the organizing centers of the marches. This is an organized force, unlike the pro-Russian forces that have been dispersed by the Belorussian government. Therefore, Belorussian workers are compelled to protest under the banner of neo-Nazis, insofar as they have no other alternative. This is a frightening analogy to the Ukrainian Maidan.

The pro-Western, Russophobic opposition has partially managed to ride the wave of Belorussians’ protests against the government’s social policies and against President Lukashenko personally, except for in small towns. The pro-Western opposition lacks broad support in society, but the “spongers decree” has given it a wonderful opportunity to lead social protests. 

The “spongers marches” have not subsided for days, which comes as a complete surprise for the government. The authorities are trying to revise the decree, but are afraid to cancel it insofar as such would be perceived in society as a manifestation of weakness in the face of street protests.

The Belorussian police are frankly afraid of ending up in the position of the Ukrainian Berkut police force which first fought neo-Nazi militants on Kiev’s streets only to then be betrayed by the government. Yet Berkut was “closer to the people” than the Belorussian KGB (intelligence and counter-intelligence). 

Meanwhile, in the coming weeks and months, there will only be more mass protest actions. The annual March of Will will be held on March 25th, and April 26th is the day of the Chernobyl Liquidators March. The “spongers marches” are a dress rehearsal before a Belorussian Maidan. 

President Lukashenko has hurried to blame the organizing of these so-called “marches of disgruntled Belorussians” on foreign forces. Lukashenko rather clearly hinted that the protests were being organized in the interests of Russia, who supposedly wants to subjugate Belorussia to its influence. However, even Belorussian authorities have realized the absurdity of these accusations. Now they are announcing another source of instability in Belorussia – Ukraine. Belorussian official television even compared the “spongers” to the Maidan, which caused outrage in Ukraine. 

In fact, the Ukrainian factor is important here. On November 17th, Alexander Lukashenko told Russian journalists of a flow of smuggled weapons from Ukraine. Lukashenko’s statement was confirmed by numerous, albeit sensationalist Belarusian media. Belarusians’ concerns are understandable: the flow of weapons is passing through the very long (1200 km in length) border with Ukraine which, by definition, cannot be tightly controlled. Objectively, Belarus’ border guard is incapable of covering all of the holes and blocking the supply channels. What’s more, not only weapons, but also Belarusian and Ukrainian neo-Nazis who fought among the punitive battalions in Donbass might be rushing into Belarus from Ukraine. 

In September 2016, Belorussia’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makey, announced that the number of refugees from Ukraine in Belorussia has reached 160,000. For a country of 9.5 million, 160,000 is an enormous figure. Belorussian authorities subsequently stated that they are incapable of controlling the long border with war-embroiled Ukraine. The arms flows which Lukashenko mentioned from last August and the migrant influx compel us to in all seriousness consider the scenario of a Belorussian Maidan being prepared by Ukraine. The main force of a future Belorussian Maidan, as in the Ukrainian one, of course, would be neo-Nazis. According to various estimates, the total number of Belorussian citizens who have passed through Ukrainian battalions is estimated by the Belorussian opposition to be up to 200 people. Belorussian (and Ukrainian) neo-Nazis’ goal is overthrowing Lukashenko’s regime, constructing a Nazi state (or states) in Belorussia and Ukraine, and then exporting the ideas and fighting forces of a white Nazi revolution to Europe.

The victory of the neo-Nazi Maidan in Ukraine has given a powerful impetus to overthrowing Lukashenko’s regime, who is too inconsistent for them in his sympathies or antipathies towards Russia and is losing social support in the face of Belorussian workers. Or, conversely, overthrowing Lukashenko is becoming a powerful incentive for Ukrainian neo-Nazis. In any case, the main threat to Lukashenko comes from neo-Nazis. 

That being said, following the second wave of “sponger march” protests, the author received a message from friends in Belorussia close to law enforcement authorities. In order to provide a more accurate picture of what is happening, let us reproduce its main points. “A large number of people are being detained in the Belorussian countryside for participating in protest actions. The author’s source found it difficult to name the approximate number of detainees, but estimated a minimum of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people. Not only police stations and detention cells, but also courts are working in emergency mode. Arrests are happening literally every hour. Despite the unleashing of repression, people are still going out to protest as if they have nothing to lose. It seems as if the authorities and Lukashenko personally have lost legitimacy in the eyes of society.”

Nevertheless, Belorussian authorities are continuing their policy of confrontation with Russia which threatens further deterioration in the socio-economic situation and the growth of protest actions. Negotiations with the West are being held at the same time.

On March 15th, a delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly headed by Christine Muttonen arrived in Belorussia, where Belorussian authorities held a series of negotiations with the delegation that were marked by mutual friendliness. A working meeting was held with the speaker of Belorussia’s lower house of parliament, Vladimir Andreychenko, and the vice-speaker of the Council of the Republic, Marianna Shchetkina.

During a meeting with the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Belgium, Didier Reynders, Alexander Lukashenko called the European Union an “empire” and stated literally the following: “The EU is the most powerful pole alongside China and the United States of America. The European Union is a strong pillar for the planet. If it disappears, there will be trouble. So I don’t accept all your ‘Brexits’ and nationalist movements.”

Lukashenko did not name Russia among the “poles”, even though it is thanks to Russia that the Belorussian economy has kept even relative stability. It is safe to assume that these high-ranking guests from the EU arrived to admonish the “last dictator of Europe” not to use force to disperse the protests. In other words: to be ready to surrender to the mercy of the victors. Or they came to “forgive” all of President Lukashenko’s “sins and crimes” as long as he takes a tough anti-Russian stance. It turns out that the West is willing to turn a blind eye to any “violations of human rights” in order to support a Russophobic leader for Belorussia.

In our opinion, the most realistic scenario will nevertheless be a different one. Alexander Lukashenko is too odious of a figure for Western politics. Western politicians and intelligence will therefore reach agreements with more “sane” representatives of the Belorussian leadership behind his back who are to then “ditch” Lukashenko and win power in Belorussia. We witnessed something similar in Ukraine when the head of the presidential administration, Sergey Levochkin, played against his boss, President Viktor Yanukovych, in favor of the Euromaidan and the West. 

Alexander Lukashenko in turn believes that he has drawn appropriate conclusions from the mistakes of Yanukovych, who dared to go against integration into the EU and NATO in the last moment. In this case, let us recall the sad experience of Muammar Gaddafi who committed one fatal mistake: believing that “Western partners” have decency. We all perfectly remember what ended up happening to him.

The Ukrainian experience should not be discounted. We can recall the events immediately preceding the coup in Ukraine: talks between the foreign ministers and their deputies from France, Germany, and Poland, and Ukrainian President Yanukovych. The heads of European diplomacy assured Yanukovych’s personal security. However, not even a few hours had passed when, after signing the document bearing the signatures of European ministers, there was an assassination attempt on the head of the Ukrainian state. Europe’s guarantees did not last more than a few hours.

Is this script prepared for Lukashenko? Belorussia’s leader finds himself between the hammer of popular protests and a neo-Nazi Maidan and the anvil of Western sanctions. The narrow loophole of salvation appears to be taking a tough anti-Russian stance, breaking all ties with Russia, and joining Ukraine. But in this case, Alexander Lukashenko’s days of political power would be numbered. Knowing the fate of Gaddafi and Milosevic, it is safe to predict that imprisonment or even death following a coup awaits him.

The only way out for Lukashenko and all of Belorussia is a thorough purging of the state apparatus of those advisors embroiling it with Russia and Belorussia’s own people – the pro-Western party in the leadership, a kind of collective Levochkin – abolishing the anti-people decisions, and establishing closer integration with Russia for the sake of saving the Belorussian economy.

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Perhaps I am wrong, but I am a cautious optimist in regards to Belorussia. Yet the main hope is not the wisdom of the government, but the wisdom of the Belorussian people – that very thing which the Ukrainian people lacked. 

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