The tenth of July 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the time Alexander Lukashenko became president of Belarus. On 10th July 1994, he won the run-off presidential election, becoming a demiurge and, at the same time, a hostage of the new political system of independent Belarus. This election turned out to be the first and the last democratic ballot in the history of the young post-Soviet republic. The anniversary received coverage in some Belarusian media, but the foreign ones ignored it totally. Yet, the Western media did not hesitate to inform instantly about the early release of Ales Bialiatski, one of the most recognisable political prisoners, on 21st June 2014. In general, Belarus is given media coverage only at the time of presidential election and a few other events throughout the year, and is not present in the international public discourse on other occasions. The last couple of months have been no exception, especially given the situation in Ukraine. Hence, it is worth examining what has been happening in Belarus during the last six months.
A master of double game
For obvious reasons, the authorities in Minsk could not stay indifferent to the situation in Ukraine. At the very onset of the conflict, Belarus wanted to remain neutral, claiming diplomatically not to interfere in its neighbours’ internal affairs. For a long period of time, the authorities in Belarus even wished to act as a mediator between the new government in Ukraine and the ruling elite in Russia. Nonetheless, as the situation developed, especially after the “referendum” in Crimea, Belarus was expected to make a clear stand for one of the sides of the conflict – obviously the Russian one. Yet, Lukashenko demonstrated his ability to play a double game. On the one side, he strengthened his pro-Russian rhetoric, mouthing platitudes about the Belarusians and Russians sharing the same fate and about the eternal friendship between these two nations. Thus, Belarus was the only European state that at least seemed to defend Russia in the international arena. It was one of the few countries which voted against the UN resolution calling Crimean referendum invalid. In this way, the Belarusian president strengthened the pro-Russian trend, which is strategic for his country.
At the same time, Lukashenko actively played the Ukrainian card in the game with the West. In his public speeches and interviews (not only for the Western media), he highlighted the importance of territorial integrity of Ukraine, expressed opposition to its federalisation, and promised to cooperate with any government elected in Ukraine. Generally, the pro-Russian position of the Belarusian president did not stop him from meeting the acting president of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov in critical moments and lending him support. This strategy paid off: friendly relations with Moscow were not damaged, Russia granted Belarus the next loan of $2 billion for the period 2014-2015, and the relationship with the West slightly improved, as reflected by the invitation of Lukashenko to Kiev to participate in Poroshenko’s inauguration.
Ukraine as a warning
Nevertheless, it was far more important to make use of the events in Ukraine in the field of internal politics in Belarus than in the international arena. The president was once again able to prove to the masses that the lack of a nationwide consensus and the conflict of corrupt clans of politicians and oligarchs inevitably lead to a crisis and to demonstrate that Belarus, thanks to the wisdom of the nation and stability of the system, would never face a split in the society or a civil war. He had the opportunity to threaten the society with the opposition (or the “fifth column”). As the first shots were fired and the blood was shed in eastern Ukraine, the president immediately changed his rhetoric, positioning himself as the only person who is able to guarantee state’s independence. In one of his speeches, Lukashenko stated that without the Belarusian language and culture the Belarusians would not constitute a nation and that Belarus would fight to the death with any aggressor, irrespective of what part of the world it came from – an explicit message for Russia and something unthinkable for the broader opposition in Belarus. Threatening the society with the opposition – directly – and with Russia – indirectly – as well as a firm position on Ukraine also paid off: the Belarusian leader quickly gained in popularity.
Russia: the greatest ally, the greatest threat?
It should be emphasised that the decisive steps taken by Russia in eastern Ukraine seriously frightened the president and his closest circle. There is nothing to be surprised about: given the growing support for the pro-imperialist politics of Vladimir Putin, what would stop Russia from taking a similar action in Belarus in a little while? While Ukraine could count on the support of the EU and the US, who would support Belarus? Fortunately, for the time being, these questions are only rhetorical, which is something the Belarusian elite understands better than anyone else. This can be illustrated by the use of St. George’s ribbons during the Ice Hockey World Championship held in Minsk in May 2014, or rather by the ban on the use of this symbol, to be more precise. For years, the ribbons had stood for the “victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War” and had been used in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine during all important celebrations related to World War II. However, the symbol took on a new meaning when it started to be used by separatists in eastern Ukraine. Then, the ribbons became widely associated with the separatist movement (especially in the West). The reaction of the authorities was instant: they had all the ribbons and posters depicting them removed from the streets of Minsk on 9th May, the Victory Day, which was also the opening day of the Ice Hockey World Championship, although there was no official ban. The activists of pro-Russian organisations, which the authorities had not paid much attention to before, started to be treated almost like the democratic opposition. On 1 July 2014, on the eve of the Independence Day (and the visit of V. Putin to Minsk), the president of Belarus held a significant part of his speech in Belarusian, which had not happened since the 1990s.
The opposition struggling for a common stand
The representatives of most parties and the opposition reacted in a predictable way: the leaders supported Euromaidan, visited Kiev several times, as well as called upon the Belarusians to support the Ukrainian nation and to organise similar actions in Minsk. Yet, the voice of the democratic opposition reached only a narrow circle of the civic society in Belarus. In addition, the authorities used it against the opposition. According to numerous researchers and analysts, the crisis in Ukraine overshadowed the preparations for the 2015 presidential election, an event which is significantly more important. The question is whether the opposition would start preparing for the election if it were not for Ukraine. The fact is that the democratic movement was substantially weakened after the 2010 presidential campaign, when some of its leaders were sent to prison and the majority of activists were intimidated and had to leave the country. This objective factor is accompanied by a subjective one which can be even more important in the time of a crisis: no willingness to cooperate and to reach an agreement even within one’s own (small and weak) community as well as the inability to draw conclusions from previous campaigns. And so some parties and democratic movements have already announced a boycott of the upcoming campaign and the decision not to participate in the farce called “presidential elections”. The remaining part has just started talks concerning potential cooperation and the nomination of a joint candidate of the opposition. This configuration does not bode well for the democratic movement in Belarus.
A new liberalisation game?
Numerous experts construed the early release of Ales Bialiatski as a sign that Minsk was ready to improve its relations with the West. Yet, such “liberalisation” is nothing new. It is part of the game played by the authorities before any presidential campaign, the period 2008-2010 being a good example. If the authorities in Minsk really wanted to improve the relations with the West, they would have released Ales Bialiatski and other political prisoners before the beginning of the Ice Hockey World Championship, an act that would certainly not have gone unnoticed by the international community. Well, the authorities wanted to prove once again that they did not pay much attention to the opinion of the international community. This might have also been a signal that political prisoners would remain a bargaining chip against the West. Because of the fact that foreign-exchange reserves are dwindling at an alarming rate, what Minsk really needs is new loans. Being dependent on Russian loans only – especially given the situation in Ukraine – seems to be highly disadvantageous and dangerous for the authorities. It appears that the West slowly agrees to play this game: the relations with the EU and US are growing in intensity on a higher and higher level. In a way, such cooperation is more profitable for both parties than no cooperation at all.
In the face of the current international situation, it appears that Belarus will not receive much attention in 2014. It will stay in the shadow of the dynamically changing situation in Ukraine and the events in the Middle East. This will suit Lukashenko and his supporters as it will enable them to engage in internal politics without much publicity. Sufficiently good relations with the East and the West as well as the growing support for the president will create favourable conditions for the preparations for the next “elegant victory” in the 2015 presidential campaign. The authorities in Minsk will choose who they are loyal to depending on the changing geopolitical situation, keeping political prisoners in jail as a bargaining chip. There is no sign that the opposition will strike a broad agreement concerning the participation in the presidential campaign this year. Presumably, 2014 will be a futile year. In 2015, Belarus will probably be present in the international discourse for two reasons: the presidential election and the beginning of the functioning of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). While the first reason is pretty obvious, the situation related to the EEU may surprise us. The only “ideology” behind the new integration project in the post-Soviet area is the Russian oil and gas. The success of the EEU will come down to the price Belarus will have to pay for these resources.
Translation: Maciej Zgondek