Belarusian Westernizers: Their debacle and perpetual bewilderment

Image copyright RussiaPost, posted with permission.

Grigory Ioffe writes about the growing rupture between the new Belarusian diaspora and those who remain in the country, as well as the hopeless plight of Belarusian political prisoners.

The liberalization of 2014–20 in Belarus, boosted by the rapprochement with the West, and a gradual but consistent effort to detach Belarusian identity and historical memory from those of the country’s eastern neighbor, gave way to a unique protest movement. Though triggered by the outcome of the August 2020 presidential election, a movement this intense and popular could only come about due to a political thaw during which Belarusians got used to unprecedented freedom of speech and took advantage of more Schengen visas per 1,000 people than any other national community in the world.

Today, just two and a half years later, Belarus is more firmly in the embrace of Russia than at any time since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Its official contacts with the West are at a minimum, with embassy staff cut on both sides. Likewise, Belarusian exports to the West have dwindled due to sectoral sanctions imposed on Belarus by the EU. Meanwhile, exports to Russia have increased, and Russia’s share in Belarus’s overall trade flows now amounts to 60 percent.

Political prisoners

Today, almost 1,450 political prisoners are locked up in Belarus. On January 5, President Lukashenka signed a law that would allow him to deprive Belarusians residing outside the country of their citizenship if “extremist” activity was confirmed by a court in absentia. Back in December, the prosecutor general’s office brought criminal charges against the leaders of the opposition-in-exile. Vilnius-based Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is accused of treason, while Pavel Latushko is accused of abuse of power and taking a bribe. Since January 5, Ales Bialiatsky, a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who chairs the human rights watchdog Viasna, along with two of his associates, has been on trial in a Minsk court.

The situation is grim. The depressing picture is darkened by the fact that organized opposition in exile, including the so-called provisional cabinet headed by Tikhanovskaya, is criticized for insufficient support of the political prisoners’ families, despite millions of dollars and euros that have been allotted to them by Western sponsors in support of Belarusian democracy. “I consider the absence of an established system of regular financial support for the families of all political prisoners … to be an absolute failure of the two-year-long work of Tikhanovskaya’s Office,” observed the political commentator Artyom Shraibman.

This inaction alone would hardly justify the claim that in their “quest to the West” Belarusian Westernizers (i.e. the opposition) have facilitated the country’s pronounced eastward turn. But there is more to back that claim. Like they have several times previously, Belarusian Westernizers have overplayed their hand, and they continue to regard Belarusians who do not share their outlook as a kind of aberration.

What they consistently evince smacks of victim’s arrogance, a phenomenon well-known in social psychology. This malaise is considerably aggravating a situation created largely by external actors — Russia and the West — further jeopardizing Belarus’s statehood.

Just recently, a curious debate took place between two veterans of the Belarus Service of Radio Liberty. Valer Karbalevich lamented that Belarus-in-exile and Lukashenka’s Belarus at home are like two different civilizations. The cream of the crop of the Belarusian nation has left the country, so the diaspora has become the pivotal factor in preserving Belarusian identity and the “civilizational code of the nation.” As for Lukashenka’s Belarus, it is rapidly turning into a Russian province. This message was not to the liking of Karbalevich’s colleague Siarhei Navumchik. He replied that though Belarusians are indeed divided, it is not the state border that separates them. First, many “writers, artists, actors, musicians, not to mention scientists” remain in Belarus. “Many of them are devoted to Belarusian national values and will never agree to be sucked into the ‘Russian world.’” Second and most important, according to Navumchik, “only a small fraction of Belarusians, whether at home or abroad, are nationally conscious … What distinguishes the Belarusian diaspora from the Ukrainian or Polish one … is that the absolute majority (according to my estimates — up to 90%) of Belarusians living abroad are indifferent to actual Belarusian national life, to cultural values nurtured either in the diaspora or in Belarus itself.”

Let it sink in: Navumchik deems 90 percent of Belarusians nationally unfit, as they do not have the right outlook.

After the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo — one of the awardees being Ales Bialiatsky — Dmitri Gurnevich of Radio Liberty acknowledged that “Belarusians are not interested in Bialiatsky’s award.” Too few Belarusians watched Bialiatsky’s wife's speech (on YouTube), when she received the award for her jailed husband. “Complain as much as you want about the world at large that does not evince curiosity about the fate of Belarus, but it will not get curious unless, and until, Belarusians themselves become interested in Belarusian heroes,” concluded Gurnevich.

Gurnevich and Navumchik might be even more distraught if they looked at recent polling of urban Belarusians conducted by the Belarus Change Tracker, an entity whose members are reputable opposition-minded analysts, now all in exile. According to one online survey, 61.7 percent trust the Belarusian government, up from 53.9 percent and 53.7 percent in May and August 2022, respectively. The analysts concede that such an upward swing can be attributed to “the fear factor” while still concluding that “it is difficult to ignore the trend of growing support for the authorities.” Moreover, according to another survey, the so-called “sviadomyya” (“the aware”), the traditional code name of Belarusian Westernizers, account for just 14 percent of adult Belarusians. Forty-nine percent of Belarusians believe they are part of a three-pronged East Slavic nation (of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians), whereas 47 percent believe Belarusians are a separate people. Almost 45 percent support integration with Russia, whereas 36 percent do not.

Three important qualifications seem to be in order. First, the very availability of a Russo-centric outlook among Belarusians is attributable to geography and recent history, as well as the fact that the Belarusian identity is still a work in progress. Second, Russo-centrism among Belarusians has deep roots. Third, the popularity of integration with Russia does not imply popular support for unification with the Russian Federation.

In fact, fewer than 5 percent of Belarusians back that idea, and most Russo-centric Belarusians (including the authorities largely recruited from this segment of society) firmly insist on preserving Belarusian statehood.

Against this backdrop, voicing dissatisfaction with most ordinary Belarusians because they do not have the right outlook, like Navumchik did, is both typical for the Westernizers’ outlook and exceedingly counterproductive, especially considering that Belarusians have been divided in terms of their cultural leanings since the inception of the Belarusian national movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Altogether, prior to 2020, Belarusian Westernizers rose to a position of influence three times: in 1921–28, 1943–44 and 1992–95. Each of those periods was brief and marked by external supervision and controversy.

Their influence ended the last time in May 1995, when 83 percent of Belarusians voted to bring Russian back as one of the official languages and 75 percent voted to change the white-red-white flag and the national emblem of Belarus, official from 1992 to 1995, to a flag and coat of arms resembling those of Soviet Belarus. The Westernizers’ outlook and messaging (regarding historical memory and linguistic Belarusization) gained popularity again during the 2014–20 thaw. Nevertheless, the post-election protests of August–September 2020 began as geopolitically neutral, i.e. they did not invoke any demand to alter Belarus’s international orientation or replace Russian with Belarusian in public life. However, when the protest leaders found themselves in exile, the old pattern reemerged. Now, they want detachment from Russia and affiliation with every possible Western structure.

Today, politically conscious Belarusians are divided across two fault lines: a Russo-centric versus Westernizing outlook, as well as their attitude toward Lukashenka and his regime.

In times of political tranquillity, like 2013–20, these divisions do not quite overlap, simply because by far not all Russo-centric Belarusians support Lukashenka. However, during times of crisis, these patterns tend to converge, which is evidenced by the recent rise in trust in the authorities. It seems that quite a few Belarusians came to appreciate the fact that they are neither being mobilized like Russians, nor being bombed like Ukrainians.

The major takeaway

To be sure, as a national community still under construction, one squeezed between such power centers as Russia and the EU, Belarusians are even less immune to external influences than other Eastern and Central European countries. Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated Belarus’s dependence on external actors. A lot will depend now on whether Alexander Lukashenka, who has been trying hard to prevent the direct participation of Belarus in Russia’s war effort, will ultimately succeed in that, as well as on the war’s final outcome.

Still, should Belarus emerge unscathed, its further development and even existence as an independent country will depend on national consolidation. If the internal divisions of the kind described above are irremovable, then prioritizing what brings Belarusians together as opposed to what separates them will be of existential importance. Belarusian Westernizers had better prepare for that. They should stop being perpetually perplexed by the fact that far from every one of their fellow countrymen share their outlook. If, however, they persist in their self-importance and vainglory, not only will they never gain the upper hand — they will also put Belarus’s statehood at risk.

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