Is Belarus Entirely Under Russia’s Thumb?

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Belarusians are divided, and the politically conscious Belarusians live in their own information bubbles and echo chambers. This is the principal conclusion that Yury Drakakhrust of the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty drew from the most recent (November 2022) online survey of urban Belarusians conducted by Chatham House (Svaboda, December 20). While this conclusion is hardly an eye-opener, journalists, researchers and government officials who would resist their own temptations to stay confined in their own bubbles are relatively rare.

Case in point, commenting on the new visa restrictions imposed on 25 Belarusian officials by the United States State Department on January 17, Dmitry Glaz, press secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, bemoaned “a complete absence of more or less decent specialists on Belarus at the US State Department, who could brief their leadership on the real situation in our country and on how the Belarusians live and whom they support” (Mfa.gov.by, January 18). For his part, Vadim Mozheiko, an opposition-minded analyst-in-exile, deduced from a comparative analysis of what some major Western newspapers wrote about Belarus in 2020 and what they are writing now that “the focus has shifted” and that “the voices of ordinary Belarusians are hardly heard on the pages of Western newspapers” (Zerkalo, January 13).

Thus, Glaz assumes that, should those voices be heard, they would be overwhelmingly in support of the Belarusian authorities; he even refers to a survey by the International Republican Institute that reportedly affirms this assumption. In contrast, Mozheiko’s assumption is that “ordinary Belarusians” are presumed to be overwhelmingly on the opposition’s side. Yet, both of these conjectures are flat-out wrong. The Chatham House’s November 2022 survey showed that 62 percent of Belarusians support their government (see EDM, January 5). And the specific survey that Drakakhrust referred to revealed that, whereas more Belarusians feel empathy toward Ukrainian citizens than to Russian (35 and 20 percent, respectively), many more Belarusians support integration with Russia than with the European Union—38 versus 18 percent, respectively. In addition, 25 percent would support integration with both, however unrealistic that may seem (Chatham House, December).

Note that by their very nature, online surveys that bear an imprint of an opposition’s undertaking quite often end up with a sample overrepresenting opposition-minded respondents. In Belarus’s case, this may mean that the actual “lean” toward Russia is stronger than what the Chatham House survey suggests.

So, why do Belarusians lean toward Russia? This was one of the questions Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace responded to in his most recent Q&A session on Zerkalo.io. Like Drakakhrust, Shraibman is one of a precious few Belarus-watchers who are not oblivious to differing information bubbles, even while not hiding their own political preferences. The aforementioned question, though, is peculiar in a sense that few, if any, Belarusians residing in Belarus itself would ask it, as people do not usually ask questions they already know how to answer.

The outsiders, however, may be more intrigued by what a reputable commentator revealed. “A good attitude of Belarusians toward Russia,” explained Shraibman, “does not stem from economy or propaganda but rather from a deeper sense of unity and community.” Referring to some reputable pre-2020 surveys, Shraibman observed that, whereas “pro-European-minded Belarusians choose Europe based on rational … considerations, such as a higher standard of living, education, healthcare and the rule of law in the European Union, Belarusians who choose Russia attribute their choice to more metaphysical … arguments like ‘these are our brothers’ and ‘we are the same.’ The answer to the question if Belarusians and Russians are one and the same people divides Belarusian society” (Zerkalo, January 18).

Shraibman was less persuasive in his explanation of why Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule is admittedly more authoritarian than totalitarian. In his opinion, the latter is impossible without a dominant ideology, which Minsk does not have. However, only several lines later, he referred to the “examples when the children of officials … suddenly find themselves detained for participating in protests. That is, they cannot even raise their children in the same ideological direction—not to mention society as a whole” (Gazetaby, January 18). Therefore, does official Minsk have an ideology after all? One may suggest that it does and that it may be informally defined as the post-Soviet incarnation of “West-Rusism.” This is a 19th-century school of thought going back to Mikhail Koyalovich (1828–1891), an ethnic Belarusian, who believed that, while Belarus’s specificity is genuine, it can only be recognized as such within the confines of the Russian world.

If this is the cultural essence of a significant part of the society that Lukashenka presides over, it may make sense to ease up on criticizing him under the assumption that his zeal to defend Belarus’s independence may exceed that of some of his fellow citizens. This is what the Ukrainian government seems to think; perhaps Kyiv also recalls that, since 2014 and up to the start of Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine in February 2022, Lukashenka used to be Ukraine’s most popular foreign leader (Svaboda, March 22, 2022). In truth, a fierce debate took place recently over Ukraine’s putative request to the European Union not to include Belarus in the ninth package of sanctions. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Rikard Jozwiak broke the news of this request (Ukrainska Pravda, January 12). And while the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry officially denied the report, both Shraibman and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Valery Karbalevich (Svaboda, January 19) side with Jozwiak’s version, as does this author. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why, sitting across a coffee table from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Lukashenka had the gall to mention that “what … pleasantly surprises me is that Ukraine is still holding out. It does not go for provocations against Belarus, although our Western neighbors are actively pushing it” (YouTube, January 19).

If this reasoning is correct, it would be tempting to conclude that, despite Russia’s pressure and punitive Western sanctions effectively helping Russia tighten its embrace of Belarus, the latter is not entirely under Moscow’s thumb.