Belarusian Westernizers:

Their debacle and perpetual bewilderment

January 13, 2023
  • Grigory Ioffe 

    Professor Emeritus; analyst, Jamestown Foundation.

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.

Even on Facebook, one occasionally comes across a morsel of wisdom. A Mogilev-based physician commented on a post by a well-known Belarusian historian and dedicated Westernizer who is now in exile: “in your quest to the West, you drove the country to the East” – a powerful hyperbole that serves to better our understanding of the situation rather than distort it. 

Unique protest movement and its grim aftermath 

Indeed, the liberalization of 2014-20, 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 hard-to-believe August 2020 election outcome, 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 entire 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 and most Western embassies in Minsk led by charges d’affaires out of reluctance on the part of Western governments to replace outgoing ambassadors, lest the new envoys present their credentials to President Alexander Lukashenka. 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%. 

Russia’s war against Ukraine and Minsk’s role in allowing Russia to use Belarusian territory (or Minsk’s just being unable to resist) for shelling Ukraine and deploying Russian troops only partially explains the ostracism of official Minsk by the West. In fact, five packages of Western sanctions were imposed before the war, the first three after the crackdown on the post-election protests in 2020; the fourth after Minsk ordered a Ryanair passenger plane to land in May 2021 so they could take off Roman Protasevich; and the fifth after Minsk created a migration crisis on Belarus’s western border. The war has aggravated the West’s ostracism of Minsk but was not what set it in motion. 
Ales Bialiatsky, a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been behind bars since July 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Political prisoners  

Now, almost 1,450 political prisoners are locked up in Belarus. On January 5, 2023, 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 on December 16, 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, have been on trial in a Minsk court. All three, behind bars since July 2022, are being prosecuted for performing their duties at Viasna – financially compensating victims of previous trials (for fines, attorneys, etc.). 

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, has done nothing to financially support the political prisoners’ families. And that is 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... I was informed of the names of famous people who, having been in London for quite some time, did not show any interest in the Belarusian center formed around the Skaryna Library [GI: the only library outside Belarus to collect exclusively in the field of Belarusian studies]... On the other hand, [GI: upon visiting Belarus] in 2019, I found myself to be the only visitor in a store in the center of Vitebsk, where hundreds of products with white-red-white symbols [GI: the colors of the national flag that was official from 1992 to 1995] were freely sold, I stood alone there for half an hour. So, to me this is undeniable: the diaspora is a spitting image of the country itself.”

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

After the December 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 the speech of Bialiatsky’s wife (on YouTube), who 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% trust the Belarusian government, up from 53.9% and 53.7% in May and August 2022, respectively. The analysts concede that such an upward swing can be attributed to “the fear factor” while stilling 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% 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% believe Belarusians are a separate people. Almost 45% support integration with Russia, whereas 36% 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 Belarusian identity is still a work in progress. Second, Russo-centrism among Belarusians has deep roots and boasts of a lineage no less glorious than that central to the worldview of the Westernizers. Suffice it to mention such giants as Mikhail Koyalovich (1828-91), a philosopher and one of the founders of the school of thought known as West-Russism, and Evfimy Karski (1860-1931), Belarus’s greatest linguist of all time. Third,
"The popularity of integration with Russia does not imply popular support for unification with the Russian Federation."
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader. Source: Wiki Commons
In fact, less than 5% 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 in the beginning of the 20th century. Altogether, prior to 2020, Belarusian Westernizers have risen 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. (A more detailed account can be found in Grigory Ioffe, Understanding Belarus and How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark, Lanham: 2008, 56-62.)

Their influence ended the last time in May 1995, when 83% of Belarusians voted to bring Russian back as one of the official languages and 75% 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. This radicalized the backlash by official Minsk, as it considers Westernizers to be sellouts to hostile states.
"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 tranquility, 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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