Our local Heads of Office are turning their attention to Belarus: Joanna Maria Stolarek discovers the spirit of Polish Solidarność on the streets of Belarus. Sergej Sumlenny reports on unexpectedly cautious, neutral and ambivalent responses from Ukraine. And in Moscow, President Aljaksandr Lukashenka remains the partner of choice, Johannes Voswinkel writes.
The spirit of Polish Solidarność on the streets of Belarus
A view of Belarus from Warsaw by Joanna Maria Stolarek, Head of Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw.
Looking at images coming in from Belarus, many Polish people are forcibly reminded of events in their own country 40 years ago, when Solidarność was fighting for freedom. The Polish people stand in solidarity, members of the opposition are finding sanctuary in Warsaw and the government is seeking to position itself as a key player in shaping European policy towards Minsk.
Poland has always had a very special relationship with its neighbour Belarus, not least due to their shared history – Belarus was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This connection still runs through the relationship between the two countries to this day. At around 300,000 strong, the Polish minority is the second-largest national minority in its neighbour to the East after the Russian minority. In turn, a growing number of Belarusians live in Poland. It is estimated that around 200,000 of them currently live, work and study in the country, not including Polish citizens who entered the country with a “Karta Polaka”, or Poland Card. Since the protests, more and more people from Belarus have sought protection from political persecution in their neighbouring country.
The start of the protests in Belarus took many Polish people back to August 1980, the strikes at the shipyard in Gdansk, the fight for free elections and the creation of the first-ever free trade union, Solidarność, particularly as the Belarusian opposition had for years been present and active in Poland, for instance in the “Belarusian House” diaspora centre in Warsaw. The comparisons came quickly, followed by assent and openly voiced support. Large swathes of the population have been closely following events in Belarus, cheering on the opposition; there have been demonstrations of solidarity with the protesters. This was also the case in Gdansk, on the 40th anniversary of Solidarność.
The particular role played by women, who have taken much of the initiative in organising the protests in Belarus, prompted former female dissidents to publish an open letter of support to the Belarusian women in their actions:
“We know how hard it is to reconcile the role of mother and the role of opposition activist. We know how much courage, strength and resilience this takes. We know how motherhood provides the political police with a tool of repression. We know that it often creates impossible dilemmas. Today, we just want to say how much we sympathise with your protests and demands. To tell you how much we identify with your hopes and dreams. We share your dream of living in a free and democratic country, where human rights and citizens’ rights matter. We are in absolute awe of your courage, your spiritual strength and your love of your homeland”.
Largest opposition media source reporting from Warsaw
Alongside the established State broadcaster BelsatTV, which has been reporting from Warsaw since 2007, opposition media have found refuge in the Polish capital. Among them is one of the most important sources of information: NEXTA. It is under this name that blogger, YouTuber and influencer Sciapan Pucila coordinates the activities of the protest movement and provides frequent updates on the situation in Belarus.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s first official overseas trip took her to Poland from her place of exile in Lithuania. She met Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, addressed the University of Warsaw and received a special prize from the Economic Forum in Karpacz. The meeting with Morawiecki on 9 September saw the Belarusian diaspora in Warsaw given a new home. The Belarusian House is soon to move from its current cramped quarters into a beautiful villa. A highly symbolic gesture.
None of this, however, changes the fact that the Polish government’s official reaction to the announced election results in Belarus was somewhat low-key. This is partly because the course of events was so dramatic and the situation was unclear to many countries besides Poland. There was initial uncertainty as to whether vigorous appeals should be made to President Lukashenka. This lack of decisiveness was thrown into sharp relief by the strength of the position taken by Lithuania, which has unmistakably taken over from Poland as the greatest advocate of the Belarusian opposition in the region.
Poland’s role as mediator?
Polish policy towards Belarus has now achieved something that seemed impossible just a short time ago. Players in the deeply divided and hostile political situation sat down around the same table. Government coalition and opposition parties talked of specific aid measures, going beyond party political divides. On 14 September, Prime Minister Morawiecki presented representatives of all parliamentary groupings with the planned and existing activities of the Polish government aiming to support civil society and the free media in the country. This was in fact the second cross-party meeting of this kind and an unambiguous political signal to Minsk.
The Polish-Lithuanian government consultations in Lithuania, which were attended by the Polish Prime Minister, were used to bolster Poland’s role as mediator. Above and beyond this, Morawiecki intends to table a proposal for a “Marshall plan” for Belarus on behalf of the Visegrád countries at the forthcoming meeting of the European Council. The project encompasses a wide range of measures – principally in the field of economic aid – to be offered to Belarus should it hold a fresh and properly conducted round of elections. “The sovereignty of Belarus is our priority”, the prime minister is quoted as saying.
After years of little or no foreign policy activity, the Polish government is trying to get back in on the act. It aspires to be a significant partner on the international scene and to be a key player in shaping European policy towards Belarus. The fact that Lithuania has already taken the lead role has not gone down well with Warsaw. Measures such as the Morawiecki Plan, which will offer persecuted Belarusians fleeing their home country to Poland immediate support to set themselves up, are designed to be seen as flagship projects.
How will the other member states see Poland’s role with regard to Belarus? Will they accept the “Marshall plan”? What is Poland’s position within the EU, after years of simmering tensions due to the country’s increasing rule-of-law deficits and isolation at European and international level? The breach of the principles of free democracy, restrictions on civic freedoms, including the role of the media, have to some extent undermined Poland’s legitimacy as a shining example of transformation and democracy for its neighbours to the East. That is one side of the story. The other is that the Belarusians look at Poland and its 40 years of Solidarność and do see it as a positive example of transformation – not least in view of the country’s economic success.
Ukraine: half-hearted solidarity and mistrust
Sergej Sumlenny, Head of Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kyiv, reports on Ukraine’s unexpectedly cautious, neutral and ambivalent reactions on the part of Ukraine to events in Belarus.
In Ukraine, the Belarusian protests have principally received the support of the pro-Western liberal forces. For instance, the organisers of Kyiv’s LGBTI Pride arranged a series of solidarity actions and flew the white, red and white flag of Belarus over Kyiv, towed by a drone. Weekly solidarity activities were held outside the Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv, predominantly arranged by feminist groups.
Interestingly, the usually ultra-patriotic and anti-Russian groups mostly took a neutral or even a pro-Lukashenka stance. For instance, the right-wing nationalist group “Tradition and Order” published a series of statements in support of the Belarusian dictator, describing him as a respectable national leader and defender of national interests. Even the moderate nationalists voiced criticism of the protesters and even made jokes about those who had been beaten and arrested, describing them as “too soft and naive”.
Lukashenka, the convenient neighbour?
Against the bitter backdrop of the Maidan Square protests in Kyiv in 2014, this attitude may seem utterly bewildering to Western observers. It can be explained by the fact that for many years, Lukashenka has enjoyed a reputation in Ukraine as a “moderate”, “convenient” and “exemplary” neighbour. His foreign policy walked a line between the EU and Russia. For instance, despite his dependence on Russia, Lukashenka has never recognised the annexation of Crimea. He has also managed to avoid having Russian troops stationed on Belarusian soil, a very important issue to Ukraine. For reasons of his personal economic interests, Lukashenka went so far as to support Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion of Donbas, by selling fuel made from Russian oil to the Ukrainian army. The certain stability in the North that the Lukashenka regime thus safeguarded for Ukraine was extremely important to the country, far more so than the uncertain success of the Belarusian opposition movement.
Former Ukrainian opposition lacks foreign policy commitment
It is therefore hardly surprising that the Belarusian opposition’s foreign policy statements were what mattered most to Kyiv, rather than its calls for democracy and liberalisation within Belarus. Presidential candidate Swjatlana Tihkanovskaya made no friends in Kyiv, for instance, when she dodged the question as to which country Crimea belongs to by saying “Crimea is Ukrainian territory de jure and Russian territory de facto”. Her statement that Belarus should not turn its back on Russia was met by furious reactions on the Ukrainian political scene – she was expected to say something entirely different. Even appeals by Nobel laureate Swjatlana Alexijewitsch to the “Russian intellientsia”, in which she described the Russians as a “sister nation”, unleashed a wave of irate comments. In Ukraine, “sister nation” is seen as an insult, as this rhetoric was the basis of Ukraine’s subordination under Moscow’s central leadership for decades. It is hence incomprehensible to many Ukrainians that Minsk continues to be deaf to clear messages in favour of moving away from Russia and closer to the EU and NATO, as seemed self-evident to the Ukrainian opposition movement in 2014.
Reticence from government circles
Support for the beleaguered Belarusian opposition has been equally half-hearted in Ukrainian government circles: unlike governments of the EU member states, neither Ukrainian Prime Minister Shmyhal nor President Zelensky have taken a clear stance and condemned the falsified elections. There has been no mention of the possibility of talks with Tsikhanouskaya or even recognition of her as a legitimate representative of Belarus. It was not until the protests and brutal clashes had continued for several weeks that Ukraine allowed members of the Belarusian opposition to travel to the country. These travel arrangements did not, however, include political asylum – Belarusians may only spend up to 90 days in Ukraine “visa-free” and for tourism purposes. While Minsk has been reproached several times in recent years for being “too neutral” in the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow, Kyiv is clearly now overwhelmingly neutral and focusing instead on its own interests rather than on a European democracy agenda further away from home.
Russia: Belarusian President Aljaksandr Lukashenka is still the partner of choice
A view of Belarus from Moscow by Johannes Voswinkel, Head of Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow.
The Belarusian protests took Russia by surprise and show that for the Kremlin, geopolitics is the measure of every reaction, first and foremost. The decision allows observers to draw conclusions concerning Russia’s future internal development.
If many Russians see any of the former Soviet republics as never having lost its internal connection to Russia, that republic is Belarus. The country is predominantly Russian-speaking, pro-Russian and economically dependent on Russia and lacks a strong national movement that could offer a credible alternative to Russia, as in other republics. Belarusians were seen as a population of Slavic brother- and sisterhood, closer than all the rest. That is now changing.
In the days immediately following the Belarusian presidential election of 9 August, reports in the Russian media were predominantly cautious. Taken unawares by the vehemence of the protests, the government apparently had to decide what position to take. In the most important matters of foreign policy, the major Russian television channels usually cover events from the official Kremlin point of view. But this time, there were no instructions, or metodichki, from above. Some channels described the protesters as “bandits”, others gave them a platform. One message was certainly clear: Belarus is not Ukraine with its Maidan Square revolution, it is an entirely different animal.
The hired thugs of external forces?
It was not until over a week later that journalists of the state-controlled Russian broadcasters started putting across the image of an attempted “orange” revolution in Minsk, against Russian interests. In Russian reports and commentaries, the Belarusian insurgents became a gang of hired thugs doing the bidding of hostile external forces: NATO, the US government, the Polish and Lithuanian neighbours. The protesters in Minsk were now lumped in with their counterparts from Kyiv’s Maidan Square and even referred to by some as “fascists”. This new reporting orthodoxy followed the Kremlin’s decision to back Lukashenka.
Admittedly, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had congratulated Lukashenka on his victory the very day after the election. Over the next few days, however, the Kremlin waited to see what turn events in Minsk would take. The situation was highly complex and Lukashenka’s conduct unpredictable: would he yield or even step down, or was he determined to stay where he was? With a kind of stalemate emerging between protesters and President and the latter giving every indication that he would hold onto presidential office to the last, Moscow decided to support him. Putin issued this message in an interview at the end of August: “by request of Aljaksandr Lukashenka, I have created a reserve unit of Russian law enforcement officers standing by to be sent to Belarus”. Politicians of the two countries met several times for talks. Russia promised Belarus a new credit line of 1.5 billion dollars. The Belarusian leadership allowed Russian journalists to travel to the country, as a special propaganda unit to tutor Belarusian editors in the art of propaganda.
Calls for solidarity
Russian citizens’ gestures of solidarity with the protesters in Belarus have been few and far between. Opinion polls showed a clear majority of Russians in favour of backing Lukashenka. Most people in the country, however, followed events without strong adverse reactions, as in the case of Maidan Square, while continuing to keep their distance. On 9 September, Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Swjatlana Alexijewitsch, member of the executive committee of the opposition coordination council, published an open letter to representatives of the Russian intellientsia calling for support. In response, Russian artists, economists and journalists signed a letter describing Russia’s support of the Lukashenka regime as a “loss of trust and of an excellent neighbourly relationship built up over centuries” and called for dialogue between the parties in power and in opposition.
However, Putin had made his decision. To start with, the protests played into the Kremlin’s hands as they weakened Lukashenka, an unpopular partner as he was seen as too unreliable. The opposition protest movement in Belarus, on the other hand, lacks clear leaders and a visible influence on Lukashenka’s elite circles. The USA and the European Union are too busy with their own concerns or too weak to enter into any large-scale engagement. Russia had a free hand: it would first work with Lukashenka whilst attempting to use the momentum produced by the current weaknesses of the Belarusian President to secure concessions for the two countries to edge closer together. The constitutional reform announced by Lukashenka could also be an opportunity for Russia to structurally embed its own influence. Simply the hope of an impressionable successor to Lukashenka would not be enough, as whoever comes next could soon decide to leave Moscow’s gang and, like Lukashenka before him or her, tread a careful line between East and West.
Influence yes, integration no thanks
Moscow appears to be striving to ensure Belarus’s formal sovereignty whilst seeking as much influence as possible. The full integration of Belarus into the Russian Federation seems unlikely, due to the unpredictable consequences. Moscow has no wish to give the opposition’s protests in Minsk the additional mobilising effect of the national fight for freedom. However, Lukashenka will try to sell himself for the highest possible price, by encouraging the Kremlin to see him as the last bastion of a pro-Russian outpost holding strong against the West. At the same time, it is not clear whether he can actually implement concessions at home. As a partner, he continues to be unpredictable – due to his strengths as much as his weaknesses.
From a domestic policy point of view, the protests in Belarus are a warning sign for Russia. They raise the possibility that Moscow could find itself in Minsk’s current position come the Russian presidential elections of 2024. As far as Russia’s leadership is concerned, these unexpected and ongoing protests in its neighbouring country, whose population has historically been seen as particularly accepting and conflict-averse, must have come as a shock. Putin’s support for Lukashenka is a preview of how the Russian regime could react to signs of mistrust from below: not with dialogue, maybe a few minor promises, but other than that, the full might of the State. Any rejection of the President would be seen by the Kremlin as a fundamentally anti-Russian act against which the State and loyal citizens must be defended by all possible means.