Address: Belarus, Europe

Rein Oidekivi,
Research Fellow,

Belarus’s long-standing president, Alexander Lukashenko, was an outspoken man. When he came to power in 1994, he brought back a slightly redesigned flag and coat of arms of the Byelorussian SSR. He was a Soviet man by mentality. The collapse of the communist empire was a personal disappointment to him. In addition to professional skills, Soviet universities taught almost the same amount of Lenin’s works. Lenin corrected Marx and argued that building up communism was possible in a single country, not just globally; it could be exported later. Lukashenko hoped that the reconstruction of the USSR could start with one region, Belarus, and then expand – or, rather, return – to others. Large industry remained the property of the state in Belarus and the collective farms survived in rural areas. The name of the KGB was not changed and the organisation retained its nature and methods. Lukashenko did not bring any kind of “collective leadership” to Belarus – it seemed rudimentary. Well, what kind of collective leadership existed under Comrade Stalin?

Without Russia’s involvement, the Soviet Union will not be rebuilt. Russia had to join Belarus. Lukashenko worked diligently to this end from the very beginning. This year, on 24 June, when he went to Moscow as a guest at a spectacular military parade, he shouted to the people gathered in Red Square: “We arrived in the capital of the homeland!” If a student from the Gori Theological Seminary was able to become the leader of the USSR, why in the new century can a graduate of the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in Mogilev Region not repeat this success?

Lukashenko was insulted by Moscow when it became clear that he would not be allowed to be president of a federal state in any form. He accused the Kremlin of dishonest cooperation, began to search demonstratively for new partners, and declared himself a guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty. This was a personal expression of deep resentment. Lukashenko as a fighter for national independence sounded ridiculous. He has never been a carrier of Belarusian identity; he has always been deeply Soviet. He brought his country to the Kremlin’s doorstep for the eventual unification of the two countries.

There were never free elections in Belarus under Lukashenko. The pattern was the same: criminal proceedings were begun against any serious rival or they were immediately put behind bars. The authorities always performed tricks with ballot papers. However, there were also a number of people who supported Lukashenko. In 2020, however, there was widespread elimination of competitors and falsification of election results and patience run out. People went onto the streets to protest.

Lukashenko’s job as president of Belarus ended on the day in August when he asked Putin to set up a military reserve unit to suppress Belarusian protesters if necessary. Lukashenko handed control of Belarus over to Moscow. It is significant that Lukashenko refused to answer phone calls from European leaders, who then had no choice but to talk to Vladimir Putin about the situation in Belarus. The West effectively stopped treating Lukashenko as a head of state. Moscow also only needed him to carry out a few ongoing tasks. For Putin’s Russia, it is crucial that heads of state in the post-Soviet space are not changed through popular demonstrations or via genuine, free elections.

Putin has never seen Belarus as an independent state or treated Belarusians as having their own national identity. In Moscow’s eyes, Belarus – like Ukraine – is an integral part of Russia, with small regional cultural differences.

The coming months will show to what extent the people of Belarus have the will and luck to regain their sovereignty from Moscow. Their fight for their freedom and against lies has been impressive. A strong foundation has been laid for the rapid development of civil society.

The leaders of the protests in Belarus tried, especially in the first few weeks, to avoid anything that could annoy or provoke Moscow. Unlike in Ukraine, the EU flag was not brought onto the streets. It was emphasised that the close partnership between Belarus and Russia would not be abandoned. Positive signals were sent to the Kremlin even after Putin had congratulated Lukashenko on his election victory and thereby approved his actions in suppressing the protest.

Moscow has no reason to be afraid that, with the emergence of new national leaders in Belarus, it will lose control and influence. The economies, security structures, media space and culture are so interrelated that this cannot be quickly dismantled. Whoever becomes Belarus’s new leader, his or her hands will be tied.

Putin’s Russia sees democracy, human rights and the free will of the people as a real threat to remaining in power. The protesters in Belarus cannot therefore count on his support. On the other hand, a nation that has driven one dictator out may not be interested in falling under the control of another, in Moscow.

The Coordination Council set up by the protesters in Belarus included Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Her book The Unwomanly Face of War is a bold and painful stories about women and their fate in World War II and its aftermath, written in a style that contrasts with the official, pathos-laden version prevailing in Russia and Belarus today.

However, the peaceful protests in Belarus following the rigged elections on 9 August had a female face in particular – the face of a brave and beautiful woman who stands up for the dignity of all Belarusians. This is something of a phenomenon in Belarus and inspires faith and hope for the future of the Belarusian people and state.

The rest of the world, especially the West, must step out of its comfort zone of thinking about Belarus as an inevitable Russian satellite, a vassal state. Events in the country during the summer of 2020 have shown that people living in the geographical heart of Europe deserve much better than to live under post-Soviet dictators.

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