Belarus is appearing much more frequently in the Western mainstream media these days. In August alone there were at least three major articles on a country that just a few years ago was barely mentioned.
The business and investment magazine Euromoney called it “a minor miracle” that in June Belarus was able to raise $1.4 billion of Eurobond funding at rates and in maturities that would have been unthinkable even two years ago. https://www.euromoney. com/article/b143q7054rs2m0/the-rehabilitation-of-belarus
The same source praised the stabilization of the Belarusian currency, the drop in inflation, and the dramatic improvement in economic management. CNN highlighted the difference between Belarus’s and Russia’s goals and motives regarding the upcoming joint military exercises Zapad (West) 2017, which have generated quite a bit of hysteria in the West. “Belarus,” said CNN’s expert Keir Giles, “is pushing for openness to the West during the exercises – which will also help ensure that Russia does not take the opportunity to deviate from the exercise scenario to launch some kind of unfriendly action.” http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/15/ opinions/zapad-2017-keir-giles/index.html
Belarus indeed invited observers from NATO, OSCE, and from nearby countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway. The exercises will take place within a wider area, but Western observers will be limited to Belarus.
“The Russian army forces will leave Belarus by 30 September,” Oleg Belokonev, Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian army and Deputy Defense Minister, declared on August 30. This was a reassuring message earmarked for Western audience.
In that regard, the piece that The New York Times devoted to Belarus on August 13 was an aberration. https://www.nytimes. com/2017/08/13/world/europe/belarus-russia-aleksandr- lukashenko.html The newspaper’s correspondent repeated what it called the assumption of “most analysts” that “Mr. Lukashenko, if forced to choose, will throw his lot in with his patrons in Moscow.”
This assumption fed into the headline: “Russia-West balancing act is becoming ever more wobbly in Belarus.” The title reflects a common deficiency in the mainstream Western media reporting on Belarus: either they neglect their area studies homework altogether or do it pro forma, not as a means to uncover and reflect on the ongoing trends. Over the past three years, Belarus’s sovereignty has advanced noticeably and undeniably, especially if one considers the point of departure.
In fact, Belarus’s relations with the West, including the United States, is improving markedly. As one shrewd Washington analyst pointed out, «Lukashenko was performing on the high wire, and he made it to the other side. This is a true balancing act when Belarus is under US sanctions, when the U.S. has no ambassador in Minsk and when there is almost no high-level interest in Belarus. I hope this will change, and that those who said that Lukashenko was Putin’s stooge will be proved wrong.»
It could be that some positive change is on the way. The fact that Minsk was the venue for the August 21 meeting between Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov, the American and Russian special representatives on Ukraine, is noteworthy and could not possibly have happened without American support. Also, Poland and Latvia, close American allies and Belarus’s neighbors, set out to improve their relations with Minsk. The deputy speaker of the Polish Seim (Parliament), Ryszard Terlecki, has just visited Minsk for the second time this year.
To be sure, Belarus is culturally closer to Russia than to any other country, and this is not going to change. In and of itself, thisclosenessisnotaliability,exceptthatitislopsided.Russia’s pervasive sway in every critical aspect of life, from the economy to language and from historical memory to worldview, keeps in check Belarus’s own personality and leads to inadequate name recognition of Belarus in the world. This situation is not new, and nobody is to blame for it. “The principal problem of Belarusian history has been the problem of cultural and political survival… ‘in the shadow’ of Russia and Poland” wrote the Belarusian linguist Nina Mechkovskaya. “It is an unfavorable geopolitical fate to be the object of Russian and Polish assimilation and of two powerful and mutually antagonistic expansions.” Referring to the late 1800s and early 1900s, she posited that “anything that was elevated above the illiterate peasant existence, be that church, school, or officialdom, automatically became either ‘Russian’ (and Orthodox) or ‘Polish’ (and Catholic).”
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, but whereas Polish influence receded, Russia’s only grew stronger. The dominance of the Russian language and of Russian electronic and print media in Belarus is inescapable. Yet, despite being entirely within the same Russian information space, the two societies, Belarusian and Russian, are in fact diverging, however slowly. The extensive 2015-2016 multi-national survey of the Pew Research Center, labeled “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe,” showed that whereas half of Russians from 18 to 34 years of age bemoan the breakup of the Soviet Union, in Belarus only one-third do. Incidentally, the largest share of those nostalgic for the USSR is not even in Russia but in Armenia (74%), now surrounded by hostile or not particularly friendly powers. Compare this situation with Belarus, the only post-Soviet country that controls all of its own land and has no territorial conflicts with its neighbors. The same survey also revealed that whereas 58% of Russians and 58% of Georgians praise Joseph Stalin, only 26% of Belarusians do so. On the contrary, only 22% of Russians appreciate Mikhail Gorbachev, but as many as 36% of Belarusians have warm words for the father of Perestroika. This is not a dramatic, but a meaningful and healthy divergence of attitudes.
In late August, charges were filed against three citizens of Belarus, under arrest since December 2016, for inciting inter-ethnic animosity. All three published articles in Russia’s “patriotic” media outlets, like Regnum, in which they allegedly denigrated Belarusians, their identity, and language. It is far from certain that the transgressions attributed to these individuals warrant criminal prosecution, but previously only Western- leaning opponents of official Minsk were labeled as being part of a “fifth column.” Apparently, attitudes are shifting.
In these changing times, what is the most talked-about issue in Belarus depends entirely on whom you ask. When in his August 13 interview with a Russian TV channel, Alexander Lukashenko described his “soulful” attitude to the Russian language; some opposition-minded Belarusian analysts expressed disapproval and talked about it obsessively for some time. Interestingly, Valer Karbalevich, the author of a very critical biography of the Belarusian leader, opined that on language Lukashenko acts like a normal politician who appeals to majority preferences in order to win public support. Moreover, “Lukashenko builds a nation from what is available. He appeals to mythology that exists in public consciousness, and that is his forte.”
Apparently, dedication to Russian is not enough for some “patriotic” pundits from our neighboring country. The Russian media has been full of talk that Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei is somehow a Nazi sympathizer because he praised the controversial book “History of Latvia” during a meeting at the Latvian embassy. In August, Regnum.ru devoted two publications to that issue; less than a week later, Regnum demanded that Belarus follow the recommendation of President Vladimir Putin and channel the refined oil products it manufactures from Russian crude through Russia’s Baltic seaports instead of Lithuanian and Latvian ones. Putin’s directive worries Belarusian analysts, too. It remains to be seen how and whether Belarus will escape this measure, which does not seem to be cost-effective and would damage its ties with Western neighbors.
In the meantime, ordinary Belarusians are preoccupied with price hikes, the cost of utilities in particular, and with the menace of unemployment. According to a recent survey conducted in Mogilev, Belarus’s third-largest city and a regional capital, these concerns are shared by 61.6, 45.5, and 42.6 percent of respondents respectively. In contrast, only 7.4, 9.9, 10.8, and 12.8 percent are concerned about delayed payments for work, crime, interethnic relations, and the gap between rich and poor.
While prices and unemployment concern people all over the world, the four latter indicators clearly point to Belarus’s orderliness. That is exactly what impresses Russian travelers the most. After crossing into Belarus in her own vehicle in early August, Maria Kucherova, a Russian education expert, was stunned by the abundance of storks walking around, by the lack of abandoned farmland, by forests cleared from deadfall, and by the absence of thickets of giant hogweed along the local roads. “To the people who can groom every piece of land and defeat hogweed on road shoulders, I would entrust my own children,” exclaimed Kucherova.
Kudos to Ms. Kucherova for putting her feelings into words so eloquently. Belarus is an orderly, hospitable, and beautiful country that the world needs to learn more about. It is more sovereign and self-confident today than at any time in its long history.
By Dr.Grigory loffe