Belarus 2016: Dangerous distance

Analysts and journalists professionally engaged with Belarus complain about stagnation. They say that they could “copy” and “paste” fragments of old texts to create a new analysis. For it all happened before. There was the “intensified harassment of the opposition”; there were the subsequent “thaw waves”; there was the “tightening of the screws” and “opening up to the West.” Belarus’s policy is a predictable sine wave so the weariness is hardly surprising.

Why the Belarusian apathy? The last twenty-seven years of Belarusian politics were dominated by one man – President Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko has built a very efficient repressive apparatus, destroyed the opposition and satisfied the social expectations of the citizens. Even his staunch opponents point out that building a modern Belarusian society, a society whose representatives say they are not Russian but Belarusian, should be counted among the achievements of Alexander Grigoryevich. Belarusians have their own distinct culture and national identity. It’s hard to achieve fermentation in a country such as Belarus. When a few years ago I worked (along with Andrzej Brzeziecki) on Lukashenko’s biography, his former colleagues and young opposition activists emphasized that “he is a clever player”. For more than a quarter of a century the game of the Belarusian leader (called a policy of balance) was based on the maximum use of Russia (cheap loans, the supply of energy on preferential terms). But when there was a crisis in relations with Moscow Lukashenko put on the air of “a politician opening up to the West”. His actions were, of course, deceptive, he never kept the word given to Brussels.

In 2016, Belarus did not surprise anyone. Once again the analysts would say: stagnationy. The country is currently undergoing a phase of “warming relations with the West”. This thaw is not caused by the desire to liberalize the regime or implement reforms. It is lined with fear. Lukashenko is aware that the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is becoming increasingly interested in integration projects conducted on the post-Soviet territory (the most important of these projects being the construction of the Eurasian Union, which is to compete with the European Union – however, one enters the European Union voluntarily which isn’t necessarily the case with the Eurasian Union). The Belarusian president also sees what happens to the disobedient: the Russian annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass – Russia has shown that it will not hesitate to use force outside their homeland. The international context is also important: many representatives of Western elites look at Vladimir Putin with delight. You can hear that he is a strong and charismatic leader not only in Hungary but also in Italy and France. Yes, it sounds absurd but many educated Europeans like Putin.

For the past twenty-seven years Moscow could force a change in the position of the President of Belarus – however, they didn’t see such a need. The need may arise when Alexander Grigoryevich doesn’t fully surrender to Moscow or has a desire get too close to the West. One can always fall down when balancing. The fact that, among all post-Soviet countries, Poland exhibits the greatest activity in Belarus deserves attention and reflection. The spiteful say that we have abandoned our commitment to Kiev in favour of Minsk. There is some truth in that. And in this commitment we are closer to Lukashenko than to the opposition. In the last year there has been a series of visits by important representatives of our country to Belarus (Minsk was visited by: the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Marshal of the Senate – the latter even said that Lukashenko is “such a warm man”).

Stagnation may soon cease to rule over Belarus and the analysts covering the situation in the country. It is becoming increasingly clear that Lukashenko will not be able to balance forever, that he will have to choose. And this choice may entail far-reaching consequences.

Małgorzata Nocuń is a journalist of “Tygodnik Powszechny”, deputy editor of “Nowa Europa Wschodnia”. The co-author (along with Andrzej Brzeziecki) of books such as: Belarus. Potatoes and Jeans; A Robbed Nation. Conversations with Belarusian intellectuals; Lukashenko. The Would-Be Tsar of Russia; Armenia. Caravans of Death.

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