More than two decades under Lukashenka, Belarus has become a unique state in Europe. It is a hybrid of Soviet past and pro-Russian present. Yet, the authorities emphasize the country`s independence from Russia from time to time. Prof. David R. Marples from the University of Alberta shares his opinion how the current Belarus moves forward in both internal and external dimensions. 

 

Huseynov: Some commentators report the so-called Belarusization that has been taking place in Belarus. What does the concept of Belarusization mean under Lukashenka regime? Is it noticeable for domestic audience and outsiders?

Marples: Belarusization or ‘soft Belarusization’ as it is often termed, is a means of acceptance of the existence of a Belarusian state based on certain conditions. It signifies more recognition for a Belarusian history distinct from that of Russia, reexamination of certain key events of the past—such as the birth of the independent state on March 25, 1918—and various symbols and signs indicating the support for the modern, civilian state that is commonly accepted among the Belarusian people. 

I would say there are two key provisos to this general picture: one is that despite symbolic use of Belarusian on public transport, at shopping malls, and even sometimes in official speeches, this is not a national or nationalistic phenomenon along the lines, for example, of some of the movements and political parties in Ukraine that emerged during and after Euromaidan. Minsk still has Lenin in Independence Square, Kalinin further to the east, and a large bust of Dzerzhinsky opposite the KGB building. 

Second, there is a political element in the rhetoric and practice of Belarusization, which is to expropriate the policies of the opposition, and most importantly the Belarusian Popular Front, which posed the most serious threat to the former Communist state in the late 1980s and retains some influence over the younger generation in particular, albeit the fact that for the past nineteen years it has been divided into two parties. The political threat from the Popular Front is symbolic rather than actual, but for some time, the government has been described as anti-Belarusian and the Belarusian language as the voice of the opposition. That is no longer the case, but the change is very superficial and contrived because it stems from the political elite rather than the grassroots society.

Belarusization is also an acknowledgement by the central authorities that Belarus is not Russia and has now survived twenty-six years as an independent state. I think domestic audiences have seen and welcome the phenomenon, whereas outsiders who visit Belarus regularly would certainly notice the difference from about ten years and even five years ago. Outsiders entering Minsk for the first time would likely note the symbols of the Second World War, the wide streets, but also many new modern buildings, western hotels, coffee bars, and shopping centers. The changes are palpable. Minsk is also the only locale that is growing in population, a showpiece. The villages in particular are beginning to disappear in a republic that only fifty years ago had a rural majority. 

 

Do you think any changes in Belarus can happen from within as long as the country firmly remains in Russia`s orbit? Even if the opposition gets stronger and achieve a regime change, can that mean change in foreign policy orientation as well?

I think minor changes can and have happened, the most notable to date being the 5-day visa free regime and the fairly lax border relations between neighboring towns of Belarus and Lithuania, and Belarus and Poland. But Belarus has made no serious attempt to break away from its commitments to Russia through various organizations such as the Customs Union and CSTO. Two Russian military bases remain in Belarus and the large Zapad-17 military exercise last year involving Russian and Belarusian troops was the most significant to date. Russian media is predominant in Belarus and helps to shape public opinion, particularly on events in Ukraine. 

The Belarusian opposition has experienced numerous phases but I would rank it today as weaker than in the past. It is weaker because there is no individual leader who one could single out as a potential threat to the Lukashenka regime. Political parties have always been weak since independence. The political leaders have been undermined by arrests, fines, emigration, harassment, nonregistration of parties and movements, etc., and they have largely failed to regenerate themselves so that some have been around as long as the president. 

Yet they are also potentially stronger because there are now some unifying ideas and concepts, and the international situation is far from stable. Some in this situation favor rapprochement with the government to help preserve national security; others prefer a more militant stance; while still others perceive common unifying issues such as Belarusian 100th independence celebrations or gradual recognition of the Kurapaty burial ground, the site of NKVD executions in 1937-41.

Younger people seem more and more distant from the government, which only matters if they take up political activism. They may do so if the economic situation worsens (as it did in 2017) or if they believe that Belarus is too close to the sorts of policies embraced by Russia and may be asked to take part in Russian-led foreign adventures. But if their economic and personal situations remain stable, there is little incentive to take part in actions that might result in the sort of horrors witnessed in Ukraine since 2014. At the moment I do not see any sign of regime change, and while official Belarus seems irritated by Russian policies, it is also wary of breaking ties and provoking foreign invasion. That is today’s reality. 

 

What is and could be the role of Belarus in the present West-Russia relations? Is it very harmful for the country or Minsk can actually get some dividends from the current confrontation?

Minsk already has attained some dividends in improving the image of the Lukashenka regime without improving—and in some ways even worsening—the human rights situation. I was criticized by another analyst, Grigory Ioffe, recently, for failing to acknowledge that the EU’s human rights policies are uneven and that other countries, specifically one in the Caucasus, with worse human records than Belarus, do not receive the same adverse criticism. But he is not comparing like with like. Central Europe is not the Caucasus, a region that has been plagued by national and civil wars since the late 1980s. In Belarus one has serious violations of human and constitutional rights in a peacetime situation and with no visible outbreaks of internal conflict. 

The EU appears prepared to maintain the suspension of sanctions because Belarus has been a useful mediator in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, taking on a statesmanlike peacemaking role. Belarus has never, on the other hand, singled out Russia for exacerbating the conflict by providing the rebels with arms, food supplies, and other materials, or for invading and annexing Crimea, or for allowing its allies to violate the ceasefire in Donbas—admittedly both sides have done that. In short, Lukashenka has been a beneficiary of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, though he has never looked for alternative solutions beyond the two protocols in Minsk (September 2014 and February 2015). 

Lukashenka’s policy for years has been to exploit EU-Russian divisions to increase his flexibility and options as president of a buffer state. But as a self-admitted ‘Orthodox atheist’ who perceives Belarusians and Russians as one people, there are strict limitations in how far he is prepared to go. The key goals for the president are self-preservation and maintenance of power. In that regard he has been successful, largely because Russians cannot see a better alternative, but also because elections are carefully controlled, and the opposition traditionally has been divided.