The Republic of Belarus emerged as a sovereign political entity on the world political map more than twenty years ago. The breakup of the Soviet Union made it possible for the constituent republics to acquire an independent status, and for the COMECON and Warsaw Pact countries, shrug off Soviet protectorate. In contrast to most of these states, Belarus has built its own economic and political model and retained a truly independent political stance, even though it has found itself sandwiched between geopolitical giants in the West and in the East. Belarus as a state in its own right is an established fact of history that has to be taken into account by its European neighbors and overseas strategists who seek to use its special place and role to their own advantage.
Belarusian independence draws various opinions, including conflicting ones, and not just plain arguments “for” or “against,” but speculations of what form the country’s sovereignty should take and where the integration vectors should lie. Of late, the disagreements have received a powerful impetus from initiatives for creating a Eurasian Union, some of which have already begun to materialize. Belarus certainly takes a key place in the Eurasian Union architecture. Defining the status of Belarus is also a question of the historical role of the Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union, and of the mission of the Russian Federation as their successor.
What factors can ensure strength and stability for integration projects of Northern Eurasia that are crucial for overcoming the civilizational crisis and making transition to a new technological system and a new social reality? The Belarusian issue may prove a no easy test for the architects of Eurasian integration in establishing a constructive balance between countries’ independence and their integrated status in the Union. The experience of European integration, its successes and hard lessons may be projected onto post-Soviet realities only with many reservations and allowances. An open, future-oriented mind and a critical attitude to stereotypes of the past are crucial factors for success in conquering the future.
SOVEREIGNTY AND INTEGRATION
Independence is a fetish word which has stirred the minds and shaken countries around the world for many centuries. Just as the word ‘freedom,’ the notion of ‘independence’ has largely become a propagandistic clichО, a political slogan with a very vague meaning which is easy to manipulate. Globalization and communication openness that swept the world over the past decades, have tightened the bonds between and interdependence of all societies around the world. The “independence” of a state as the absence of outside influences on its internal processes and as “non-interference in its internal affairs” is a bygone, even if one takes such an extreme exception as North Korea, whose isolation is far greater (but not absolute) than that of South Korea.
One may define ‘independence’ as independence in administering one’s territory, population and economy. However, at a time of tight interconnections and deep mutual penetration of ethnic groups, economies and transport and energy infrastructures and the unification of legislative and cultural norms not a single national government can be certain it is in full command of the process. Neighboring states often use the existing ties to make events follow a favorable course. Propaganda aside, one should forget about “independence”-related slogans and focus on the degree of controllability of internal and external processes, the extent of their integration with the outside context, and the existence of a geopolitical actor status.
The geopolitical actor status is often defined as the presence in the geopolitical scene of a worldwide-recognized state capable of being a center of decision-making and implementation. The very instance of such a state making a certain decision noticeably changes the system of political relations, and the implementation of intentions considerably influences the geopolitical lineup of forces. The quality of being a state entity in one’s own right should be distinguished from the integration of infrastructures of that state with the continental and global environment. Such “integration” reflects a relationship between external and internal commitments. Therefore, the term “highly integrated” may apply to the economy of a state with a volume of foreign trade similar or greater than its internal trade turnover.
A high degree of integration is a challenge to making and effecting political decisions, but it does not rule out the status of an independent political actor. Moreover, the availability of a great variety of ties gives even minor political actors far wider opportunities. For instance, the Belarusian leadership has repeatedly taken advantage of contradictions among Western countries, China and Russia. Therefore, saying that participation in integration initiatives is tantamount to the loss of an independent actor status, which Belarusian society often sees as a reason for alarm, would be very wrong. The worst risks are in store for those who wish to get involved in some sort of activity without building a structure of long-term goals and having no strategic vision.BELARUS IN THE POST-SOVIET SPACE
After 1991, a “disintegrated political system” emerged in the place of the extinct socialist bloc. In the blink of an eye the states that had been highly dependent on each other just recently ceased to play the common geopolitical role of the “socialist camp.” That happened the moment their leader – the Soviet Union – fell apart. A greater share of the East European countries entered the orbit of the European Union, while the others had to find their way among such centers of power as Russia, Europe, China, Turkey and the United States.
However, mutual gravitation between many of these states, caused by irremovable ties, causes them to seek new forms of reintegration. Societies and political elites of Central European countries have been discussing projects like an Intermarium Federation that would stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, or a Baltoscandian Confederation. Also, there is the Visegrad Group of countries.
Belarus stands out against the general East European background. Alexander Lukashenko, elected president in 1994, embarked on a political course that left no room for controlled deindustrialization and depopulation under the Lithuanian-Latvian scenario, or for oligarchic plundering, which happened in Ukraine. Even with all of its well-known problems Belarus holds leading positions among the former Socialist bloc countries. Suffice it to recall its first place in the CIS and fifth place vis-И-vis the EU in the production of dairy products, its 15 percent of the world production of potassium fertilizers, 10 percent of the world’s production of tractors and 35 percent of heavy-duty trucks, as well as the successful operation of its military industrial complex, featuring on the list of the world’s top twenty arms exporters. One should also mention its number one place in the CIS as to the reduction of the infant mortality rate (to 3.4 per 1,000 newly-born babies in 2012 against 7.1 percent in 2005) and the human potential development index (2011).
This special way would have been impossible without Belarus establishing itself as a sovereign actor, without the country turning into a center of making and implementing decisions aimed at survival and development in the first place. In the West and in Russia certain forces are quite unhappy with the Belarusian authorities’ independence in running the nation and its economic assets. It is the existence of such opponents that serves as a clear indication that Belarus is a well-established actor in world politics and the continental economy.
In the early days of Belarusian statehood, when sovereignty all of a sudden fell into the hands of the Belarusian Communist Party’s top functionaries, “independence” appeared to have a unique value to many in society. Some political forces, in particular, nationalists, were fighting for independence from Moscow tooth and claw and gaining political points over Russophobic sentiment. In Russia, the response was generally negative and many slammed such attitudes as separatist. Whatever the case, statehood became a reality. However, Lukashenko’s policies since the late 1990s prevented Belarus from sliding towards national compartmentalization, a situation where ethnic identity, parochialism, the sense of being different from the neighbors and isolation from historically established imperial centers are an obsession.
The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union both were spaces of colossal experience and great accomplishments, for which Belarusians and the other peoples of the empire take the credit alongside the Russians. Many landmark events in the history of the empire would have never happened, but for other peoples and ethnic groups (with no statehood of their own at the moment) standing firm shoulder to shoulder with the Russians. But, of course, as the imperial ethnos, the Russians surely bore the brunt of hard work and the responsibility that leadership implies.
However, that period in history is over. The growth of education and the emergence of a whole class of proprietors during the era of European revolutions made a return to traditional monarchies impossible. Similarly, the structure of the current computerized and globalized society is unable to function in accordance with the ideas and hopes of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Large empires became the parents or big brothers of smaller nation states, as new societies grew ripe and new identities took shape. The emergence of a new “geopolitical entity” is an inevitable and important process of “coming of age.” Quite natural, therefore, are conflicts with the “oppressors”, the romanticism of “freedom,” the lack of pragmatic understanding of the world of “adults” and unrealistic plans regarding one’s own existence. Belarusian independence has now come of age. The state has not only survived economically and politically, but it is now trying to influence continental processes from its own position. This implies not just lobbying for its own interests, but also feeling responsible for the future the country will certainly share with Russia and with Europe.
BELARUS AND RUSSIA
Russia is commonly seen as Belarus’s big geopolitical brother. In a sense this is really so these days, although Belarusian statehood has its roots in the days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – a quite remarkable but not very geopolitically successful empire. However, even in big brother-little brother relations these days there can be no place for dictating. Belarus makes well-considered and independent decisions, and it deserves to be talked to in the language of common goals, solid arguments and joint projects, and not lectured on what it should do and what it should not.
In that sense the Russian leadership has some problems, largely similar to that of the European Union. At a time when there is no large-scale breakthrough civilization project that would encompass the activity of many states and ethnic groups Russia has no option to choose other than to build reintegration projects exclusively on the economic basis and to keep recalling successes in common history. This basis looks quite sufficient to many, but the experience of building large geopolitical structures and well-known development laws indicate quite clearly that economic motives have a rather low unification potential. It will be enough to take a look at the EU to see how this technocratic mercantilist empire that the European bureaucrats keep afloat begins to crack and crumble even in the face of minor problems. Building robust and viable civilization structures on a continental scale requires goals and concepts of the proper scope. This will need several more supra-economic tiers, including cultural, spiritual and even sacral ones.
For the Russian government and ideologists of a Eurasian Union this situation is a no easy one, indeed. Attempts to claim regional leadership for the sole reason one’s wallet is bulging with oil money would be tantamount to forgetting one’s civilizational mission and thereby discrediting the very idea of leadership. But the proposals that can sometimes be heard as ideological support for integration in the post-Soviet space are rather echoes of days gone by and bitter memories of lost greatness than a sensible idea and firm intention to regain greatness in the future.
Unification by means of force, economic blackmail or political compulsion these days would require heavy costs, and not just material ones. In that connection a responsible approach to cooperation by independent and capable actors may prove the best and sole way out, a common salvation in the face of challenges of the global civilizational crisis.
Quarrels over who is more important may ruin the whole continent, the way it often happened in the past. In that sense the common future depends on the maturity of Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakh and European elites. There is no more time for arguing who is higher, who is lower, who is older and who is younger, who is fatter and who is thinner. This is the right moment to start formulating a common mission, big goals and projects for achieving them. This, in turn, should be turned into specific descriptions of roles to be played by each participant, in accordance with one’s abilities and potential.THE ARCHITECTURE OF CONTINENTAL PROJECTS
Although the situation in which Belarus (as well as Ukraine and Kazakhstan) have the status of full-fledged actor may look disastrous to the advocates of “united and inseparable Russia,” a multi-sectional political configuration is more stable and strategically more beneficial to the whole region and to Russia in particular.
“Separation” far from always means destruction. Two pillars provide better support than one, although coordination will require additional costs. If a ship suffers a hole in the hull, two separate compartments will better keep it afloat than one. Even two conflicting elements – water and fire – may do useful work when used in the right device – the steam engine.
The existence of a multi-sectional political system may be an obstruction in the way of illegal raiders’ ambitions, but it may well turn out a great advantage in overcoming the overall critical situation. Belarus, by virtue of its state and ideological border, has stayed aloof from Russia’s internal problems – the struggle between “whites” and “reds,” between liberals and statists, and between different pressure groups, and painful inter-ethnic conflicts (although I cannot say Belarus has none of these at all, they manifest themselves in this country to a far smaller extent). This is precisely why Minsk can afford to have its own opinion and is prepared to formulate its proposals for the goals and forms of continental integration. They would rely not only on the experience of one group of politicized intellectuals, which would surely happen to such an initiative in Russia, but also on the experience of the Belarusian state, with its no small authority.
Why should profound commonality at the genetic and ethnic level or a cultural environment having a single basis be necessarily seen as factors for a monotonous administrative system? Isn’t this view a legacy of intellectual inertia and blind copying of intuitively clear customary templates dating back to the Middle Ages? The evolution of society’s political structure is a far more sophisticated process than cultural or genetic changes. Of course, both must be in harmony, no denying that, but trying to ignore distinctions in the dynamics and quality of processes would spell the loss of both tactical and strategic means of control. Coordination of joint activities through supra-national agencies will be inevitable and a vital need, but the architecture of government is to rest on principles that match the real geopolitical and cultural configuration and not nostalgic canons.
Delegation of some powers to supra-national centers, centralization and decentralization are not just redistribution of wealth among elites. It is a question of how to effectively organize a common continental architecture. The social and geo-political engineering of integration should rely on rational postulates within the framework of major projects, and not on historical claims (either by the “suzerain” or an “oppressed vassal”) or short-term materialistic considerations.
The weakness of centralization is that the center’s defeat brings about paralysis in the periphery. The strength of centralization is the opportunity to have strategic vision, to implement major projects and to coordinate common effort. What is the best way of neutralizing the weakness and capitalizing on the strength of integrated geopolitical systems? This is the greatest engineering challenge that the architects of the Eurasian Union have encountered.
CULTIVATION OF INDEPENDENT ACTORS AND THE RIGHT OF PEOPLES
The internal diversity of integrated political systems is irremovable and it must become a factor of force, and not a weakness. Achieving this will be impossible, though, if one ignores the effects of ethnic distinctions on politics and the state system. It is the feeling of injured ethnic dignity of minor ethnic groups that destructive forces inside Russia use as their trump card. It is the fear of a Russian imperialism that the opponents of a continental system of security involving Russia point to in the first place. The surest way of neutralizing the very possibility of such gambling is to regard the ethnic groups already ripe for assuming geopolitical responsibility as geopolitical actors; to cultivate such actors providently and consciously before their ethnic potential, constrained until a certain moment, will begin to tear the body of the state apart.
A society seeking conscious development must control the evolution of individual parts and of the whole. There is no chance of clearing the natural process of evolution of such a natural phenomenon as the formation of new entities and even of new ethnic groups. Turning a blind eye to this or trying to uprooting emerging sprouts for the sake of preserving tactical stability would be tantamount to undermining one’s own strategic stability and shutting the door on one’s future. It would be far more reasonable and farsighted to accept the challenge of history and to control evolution where revolutions are undesirable. Any revolution is loss of control and a product of inert mentality and morality, and the rigidity and clumsiness of social and governing institutions, which can be transformed into a new shape matching the realities of the time only through violence and social upheavals.
The concept of “people’s right to self-determination” looks doubtful and immature in the conscious development perspective, and in certain cases it may be even destructive. This immaturity manifests itself in a heavy bias that rules out the establishment of people’s responsibility for their self-determination. This bias allows any separatist whims to acquire international legitimacy, at least, in theory. It is nakedly clear that not a single empire or federation, whatever fine words may be said about the rights of peoples, will welcome separatism at home. But it may well support separatism in the territory of its geopolitical adversary. For the U.S. Department of State the independence of the Chechen people and the independence of Texas lie on different sides of the boundary between good and evil, and there can be no compromises here. Double standards, hypocrisy and “subtle” play tend to boomerang on the main actors. In addition, this discredits international law, deprives it of any meaning, and makes it serve as camouflage for someone’s geopolitical maneuvering.
A way out of this stalemate can be found through controlled development and the establishment of responsibility of ethnic entities wishing to govern themselves and acquire the status of sovereign actors.
Now, back to the “age of independence” metaphor.
The wish to be different from everybody else, to live as one pleases and to dye one’s hair green is normal for a growing personality, but it is appropriate only in the period of puberty. Its relapses in older age are qualified in sociobiology as “infantile behavior.” There should follow responsibility for one’s role in society, for one’s relatives and everybody one holds dear and for the common cause, the awareness of one’s goal and mission in life through which to tap one’s personal potential and talent given from above. The sense of belonging with an ethnic group, a nation, a civilization, should phase out the focus on one’s personal pleasures and displeasures.
To achieve the status of a sovereign actor, an ethnic group is to not just demonstrate its uniqueness against a common background, but also its internal and active self-organization and ability to formulate values and express the meaning of one’s identity in a political and civilizational structure. In a federation, each new responsible member, aware of its role and bearing responsibility for translating it into life, enhances internal stability. This march of events matches perfectly the meaning of the term ‘federation,’ in contrast to a unitary monarchy, for instance. But for this, an integrated political system needs clear strategic goals, a long-term development project and effective bodies of federal government.BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES OF INTEGRATION
Supra-national bodies of the Eurasian Union in the long term should not only become moderators of economic disputes or territorial administrators, but saddle themselves with a far more responsible task of coordinating development – both regional and pan-continental. Fundamental arguments are needed to legitimate this postulate in the context of diversified societies and states. There have to be ideas that would draw a favorable response from the ethnic mentality of so much different peoples of Northern Eurasia. Only in that case integration will materialize and bring about new stability.
To gain perspective one has to go beyond the bounds of integration as a process. In a disintegrated political and economic system the restoration of ties and creation of structures is certainly an important task and goal at the same time. But one should be perfectly aware that the end goal of the process is not just achieving some abstract “integration” or “unity.” A clear definition of the final state and the establishment of feasibility not of reintegration as such, but of the meaning of existence of a future organism that should be the end product of such reintegration – this is the beacon that will help negotiate all twists and turns and not go astray.
Defining the civilizational mission of Northern Eurasian peoples in the common global home will serve as a basis for building a continental home and as the material cementing its parts together. The scope of that mission will be much wider than just integration or the historical contradictions among its actors. And certainly much wider than East-West confrontation, which keeps breaking Northern Eurasia along conflicting meridians, and which integration is expected to eliminate.
The idea of the North – a philosophy of the unity of Northern Eurasian peoples – is exactly such a cementing and goal-setting force and also the natural and organic basis for building a continental Eurasian association. This philosophy occupies the next tier after the ideas of united Europe and Russian Eurasianism. Over the past half a century, this idea has repeatedly manifested itself in various geopolitical projections: Karl Haushofer’s Continental Bloc Central Europe-Eurasia-Japan, Jean-Francois Thiriart’s idea that in the Far East the geopolitical borders of Europe are identical to Russia’s borders, and Guillaume Faye’s extremely futuristic concept of Eurosiberia. Created on the basis of a centuries-old living tradition, such concepts may serve as the ideological content of the Eurasian Union and of integration from Dublin to Vladivostok, which is already taking visible shape.