Belarus-Russia: Is It a Real Brotherhood?
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Nikolay Mezhevich

Head of Center for Belorussian studies, Institute of Europe, RAS.

Valdai Discussion Club

In the future, the leading position in Belarus may be taken by those groups that are absolutely indifferent to the ideas of national revival, and which are focused on economic, political and military integration with the West. Today’s clash of “red-greens” with “white-red-whites” is beneficial to them. The third force, positioning itself as a “new multi-vector”, but having a clear Atlantic vector, will not manifest itself in the nearest future and will be formed among people who today still go to rallies both “for Lukashenko” and “against Lukashenko”.

For 25 years, the situation in the Republic of Belarus was largely determined by the fact that Moscow and Minsk communicated with each other using the rhetoric of fraternal countries. The final, as it seemed, rejection of this rule sounded quite recently — on August 4, within the framework of the message of the President of Belarus to the people and parliament. Two weeks later, the rhetoric of brotherhood in the speeches of the President of Belarus was restored, but faith in these words is dwindling both in Moscow and in Minsk itself.

Yes, Russians and Belarusians are brothers, but Ukrainians are also brothers for Belarusians. As for the Poles, they are cousins, but Belarus and Poland have shared many centuries of civilisational development. This circumstance is very important in understanding the current processes in Belarus.

Even Lithuania, having escaped most of the excesses of nationalism in the past, and before our eyes plunging into nationalist archaism, was previously a state where a Belarusian, a Pole, and a Jew could feel quite comfortable. This is important for understanding the overall situation.

A Belarusian, realising his identity, sees neighbouring countries from the west, east, south, and in some cases from the north as an extension of his civilisational space. The Belarusians found themselves in the centre of the Slavic massif, and this turned out to have both pluses and minuses.

Estonians have brothers only across the Gulf of Finland, to the north. Armenians and Georgians have no brothers at all. The brotherhood of most of the Central Asian republics stems more from their shared Soviet past than from ethnographic realities. In other words, the situation in Belarus is unique. There is no Latgale, North-East Estonia, Transnistria or Karabakh; there are no ethno-cultural differences akin to those we know from Azerbaijan and Georgia. By virtue of this, a serious basis for differentiation may not be ethnographic and historical-cultural factors, but political features. This is a more difficult task from the point of view of public administration. Ethnographic separation is a bad but possible solution. How is it possible to divide society, according to ideological principle, while maintaining control over society and its effective development? The question may be obvious, but the answer is not.

The Belarusian national idea was born during the revolutions of 1917, i.e. after the Lithuanian and Ukrainian idea, in general terms, had already been formed; it is a later phenomenon than Lithuanian nationalism, and an even later phenomenon than Ukrainian nationalism. Immediately after its birth, the idea of a Belarusian state came under fire from absolutely uncompromising Polish and extremely aggressive Ukrainian nationalists, who could not agree on how they would border with Belarusian soil. This situation, in turn, forced the Belarusians to unite in a tactical alliance with Lithuanian nationalists. That is why people keen on the idea of Belarusian statehood wrote their first anti-Polish articles in Wilno.

Soviet power in the 1920s was not only purportedly international, this was in fact the case. Demonstrative respect for the national culture, up to the incident of “Belarusianization”, added strength to the “deep people”. The Soviets won naturally, and the annexation of Western Belarus was greeted with enthusiasm even by those people who for years maintained a “tongue in cheek” attitude towards the communists. The same deep people came to the defence of Soviet power before government buildings began to be mined in Moscow when Germans were approaching the Soviet capital, and then the Central Headquarters of the partisan movement was created.

The white-red-white flag was out of luck. At the time of its creation, it became a symbol of a small group of national intelligentsia, who continued to speak Russian or Polish or even Lithuanian in everyday life. This is a bit like the current situation, where the leaders of the Coordination Council declare their love for the Belarusian language in Russian.

The dark shadow of fascism fell on this flag during the World War Two Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Its use by the so-called Belarusian self-government is a recognised fact. The oath to “Hitler — the liberator” of the auxiliary police and other formations under these banners is an indisputable fact. The difference from the use of Russian symbols is obvious. For three centuries, the Russian flag has overshadowed the victories and defeats of the state. Wrangel and other generals carried this flag in the civil war. And it was only the use of the flag by the “Russian Liberation Army” of Hitler’s puppet Vlasov during the short period of its existence that tarnished its history.

The short renaissance of nationalism in 1990-1994 was characterised by moderation in form and content. It is interesting that Shushkevich, who is now calling for de-Russification, refrained from such statements during his tenure in power.

Speaking of de-Russification, following Radford University professor Grigory Ioffe, we note that de-Russification is only theoretically possible as a return to a certain original norm that had been tested for centuries. However, even in Estonia, this was not the case. Estonians, who spoke Estonian in the 15th century, continued to speak it in the 20th century, having also familiarised themselves with Russian for fifty years. But before that, there was German and Swedish, and after that English came. However, on the territory of the would-be Republic of Belarus in the 15th century, they did not speak Belarusian; this is a purely Soviet construction. And in the 20th century, the Belarusian language, which Tarashkevich began to create in 1918, is applied locally, despite the state support of the Soviet regime and the ethno-political practices of Alexander Lukashenko. However, our colleague Alexander Feduta in his 2005 book “Lukashenko: A Political Biography” indicates that the first victories of the President of Belarus are connected precisely with the fear of Baltic or Ukrainian-style nationalism, which was rapidly developing to the south and north. However, at some point since 2014, not without the influence of well-known events, informal rules in Belarus have changed, and while the proponents of nationalism may not have the green light, they certainly have a yellow one. The protests of a significant part of the Belarusian society showed that the state flag had come to represent support for Lukashenko in one form or another. Lukashenko is, strictly speaking, the most serious problem. Accordingly, the opposition “got” a white-red-white flag.

Let’s summarise. What we face is the phenomenon of delayed nationalism. The Belarusian national consciousness was stimulated by the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. However, this is not the result of the task at hand, but the unexpected effect of a foreign policy “multi-vector” and ideological monoculturalism.

At first glance, it is this delayed nationalism that has rapidly burst into the streets that is the main threat to Belarus, and not Russia, Poland, Lithuania, or Ukraine.

However, an important assumption must be made here. It is not excluded that the forces that stake on enlightened nationalism and note the special relationship between Belarus and Russia, having played their short-lived role on the stage, will leave the stage.

The leading position will be taken by those groups that are absolutely indifferent to the ideas of national revival, and which are focused on economic, political and military integration with the West. Today’s clash of “red-greens” with “white-red-whites” is beneficial to them. The third force, positioning itself as a “new multi-vector”, but having a clear Atlantic vector, will not manifest itself in the nearest future and will be formed among people who today still go to rallies both “for Lukashenko” and “against Lukashenko”.

Valdai Discussion Club

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