The political crisis in Belarus seems to have entered the stage of unstable equilibrium both inside the country and along its perimeter. A system in this position accelerates away from steadiness if displaced even slightly. As Yauhenii Preiherman, who heads the Minsk Dialogue platform, opined, the crisis has approached a fork in the road: either the situation deteriorates to the point of no return or it stops escalating (Belmarket, August 26). This is not a particularly optimistic assessment, and yet it still presumes some small window of opportunity.
Perhaps the best indication that Preiherman may be right is actually the fact that the intransigence on all sides has reached an apogee, but clearly none have managed to achieve any of their stated goals. For example, arrests and de-registrations of non-governmental organizations (NGO) with Western funding can hardly progress indefinitely simply because fairly soon, there will be no targets left that might seem even remotely legitimate. More than 600 people currently behind bars in Belarus are deemed political prisoners, and a release of some of them seems imminent, even without Western sanctions.
At the same time, the authorities have undertaken a massive effort to displace the Westernizing version of Belarusians’ collective memory from secondary school textbooks. Some of the main planned revisions include: a) Stalinist repressions are exaggerated; b) Kastus Kalinovsky (1838–1864), a Belarusian national hero in the Westernizers’ eyes, was actually Wincenty Konstanty Kalinowski, an ethnic Pole, who called upon Belarusians to recognize Poland as their natural home and to fight the Russian yoke; and c) the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with Belarus as its part was but a fragment of Belarusian history (SB.by, September 1). It is, however, far from certain this effort will gain momentum. After all, in 2019, the Belarusian government itself sent a delegation to the burial of Kalinovsky’s remains in Vilnius (Nasha Niva, November 22, 2019) not because Minsk suddenly betrayed its own article of faith, but because it realized that one-sided dependency—i.e., a dependency on Russia—was about to reach a critical level. The same holds true in regard to having allowed the public celebration of the centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic in March 2018 (see EDM, March 28, 2018). In other words, it is not ideological purity or an academic search for truth but palpable national security concerns that stand behind the Belarusian government’s selective approach to national memory.
Meanwhile, the situation on the Polish border, where twenty-seven men, four women, a 15-year-old girl and a cat—all from Afghanistan—remain stranded for more than three weeks (News Bel, September 2; Gazeta.pl, August 19), has more than a touch of tragicomedy about it. It is clearly a tragedy for those stranded but a theater of the absurd when it comes to mutual Belarusian-Polish obduracy. Bilateral negotiations are overdue. The Belarusian side is exploiting Western ambivalence regarding the inflow of potential refugees. On the one hand, they are illegal immigrants, and Minsk has long declared that with Western sanctions imposed on Belarus, it will no longer safeguard the European Union’s frontier. On the other hand, in the West itself, denying those migrants entry is often castigated as racism and intolerance. This ambivalence was on full display when the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis was interviewed by the United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) in late July. “Have any [of the Iraqi refugees that crossed the Lithuanian border from Belarus] received asylum in your country?” asked Mary Louise Kelly of NPR. “Not a single one,” responded Landsbergis.” An awkward silence followed as the NPR corresponded seemed torn between criticizing Vilnius for intolerance and castigating Minsk for instigating the inflow in the first place (National Public Radio, July 23).
As for Western sanctions on Belarus, their only “achievement” to date has been to perpetuate Belarus’s dependency on Russia. According to Siarhei Bagdan, a Belarusian historian now working for Freie Universitaet Berlin, the most harmful effect of sanctions is the rerouting of transit export flows from Belarus to Russian ports. In his view, this “undermines the foundation of Belarusian statehood more than anything else,” including any roadmaps of Belarusian-Russian integration (Svaboda.org, July 31). And at the same time, Lithuania is being deprived of revenues emanating from both Belarusian transit and from China’s earlier plans to expand the port of Klaipeda (BNS, September 3).
Even Zianon Pazniak, the father of modern Belarusian nationalism, the founder of the Belarusian Popular Front and a sworn enemy of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is now calling upon the West to “suspend economic sanctions against the people of Belarus [and] stop the policy of total economic blockade, in which only dictators survive but the people suffer.” Much like many other observers, Pazniak sees Moscow as the sole beneficiary of Western sanctions on Minsk (Svaboda.org, September 4).
On September 9, Lukashenka will meet his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, for the fifth time this year. Initially, Vladimir Semashko, the Belarusian ambassador to Russia, announced that all integration roadmaps, now called “Union State programs,” will be signed on that day. But expectations were subsequently dampened, as had been the case multiple times before. The independent analyst Artyom Shraibman observes that integration is now trumpeted more by Minsk than by Moscow; he also thinks it is not so much the endorsed programs that will matter as their implementation. In any case, the programs will make Belarus and Russia even closer than they are today. Just like the aforementioned Bagdan, Shraibman believes the rerouting of transit routes from Belarus via Russia may prove to be even more fateful than the Union State programs per se, and the same holds true about the recent deployment of a joint Air Force and Air Defense training and combat center near Grodno with an unknown number of Russian military and combat equipment, including aircraft (Carnegie.ru, September 3). In the meantime, the political movement Soglasiye (Consensus), a staunchly pro-Russian affiliation, has launched an appeal to the Belarusian authorities to recognize Crimea as part of Russia (Soglasie.by, August 31).
The need for thoughtful Western policies toward Belarus—ones rooted in objective and depoliticized knowledge about the country, not in wishful thinking or the self-interest of sponsored groups—is now perhaps more acute than ever.