The summer of 2020 marked the beginning of the largest anti-government protests in Belarusian history. Fuelled by the clear rigging of the 2020 presidential election, these protests have rocked Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and terrified him with the possibility of his overthrow . And so, the President has cracked down heavily on these protestors, leading to numerous arrests, violence, extraditions and deaths. At the same time, Russian influence within the country has been ramped up, as reports of Russian government personnel clashing with protestors have emerged, and recently, Russia and Belarus have participated in continuous, joint military exercises that have effectively established a permanent Russian military presence in the country.
This increased Russian presence could be said to have been somewhat of an inevitability. The 1999 Union State Treaty was signed between Russia and Belarus with the final aim of integrating both countries into a political union. Or, more realistically, to integrate Belarus into Russia. Alexander Lukashenko, one of the original signatories, has remained in power ever since then. Lukashenko and Russia have sought to achieve this union in the past two decades through creeping economic integration. Russian businesses operate extensively within Belarus, Russia is the biggest buyer of Belarusian goods and Belarus can purchase essentials, such as Russian oil, at a lower price than the rest of the world. Such privileges are threatened to be revoked by the Kremlin should Belarus ever dare to step out of line.
An interesting aspect of Russian integration efforts however, is the cultural part Russia aims not only to integrate Belarus economically and politically, but also culturally. Russian propaganda outlets espouse a narrative of Belarusian history which suggests that integration is natural. According to this narrative, Belarusians are simply Russians who have been artificially separated from the motherland. Any differences in culture and language are simply aberrations brought about by the subjugation of the Belarusians by foreign powers while the Belarusian state itself is seen as an artificial creation from the Soviet era. However, messages to promote integration are mingled with Soviet nostalgia; they tap into some of the older generations’ desire to once again be part of a superpower and their general longing for things to be as they were before.
Lukashenko has naturally been complicit in promoting this narrative. During his presidency, he has suppressed the Belarusian language to the extent that reportedly only 4% of Belarusians use Belarusian in everyday speech. He has also reinstated the old Byelorussian SSR’s flag and anthem. The whole tone of Lukashenko’s administration has been one of Soviet nostalgia and close ties to Russia. In erasing distinctive Belarusian identity, Lukashenko and Russia are slowly eroding any arguments against integration.
Nonetheless, only 7.7% of Belarusians support a full union with Russia, and 77% have a positive or neutral image of the European Union. It is clear that the propaganda campaign of Lukashenko and Russia has failed to have a significant effect on the Belarusian people. In fact, a contrary narrative of Belarusian history has emerged among the opponents of Lukashenko and the younger generation as a whole.
This narrative sees the formative years of the Belarusian nation when it was part of the medieval Duchy of Polotsk and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Polotsk was a Rus (not to be confused with Russian) realm that was somewhat distinct from Kievan Rus (the medieval Rus confederation centred in Ukraine from which Eastern Slavic groups claim cultural descent). Polotsk later became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, under which Belarusian language, culture, and literature developed and flourished. This continued under the relatively tolerant Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. At the same time, Muscovy, which would become the Russian heartland, fell under the control of the Mongols. And so, the Rus of Belarus and Muscovy further diverged culturally and politically.
The ongoing Belarusian national revival began in the nineteenth century while Belarus was ruled by the Russian Empire. Nationalists harnessed the heritage of medieval and early modern Belarusians and the distinctiveness their culture had from Russian culture. This growing nationalism influenced the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) in 1918, which many opposition members view as an inspiration for an alternate Belarusian state.
The opponents to Lukashenko’s regime harness this narrative of Belarusian history to create an attractive ideology behind their movement and a counter-narrative to resist integration and reject Russian and state propaganda. Symbols of Belarusian history are ubiquitous among the protestors. The emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Vytis or the Pahonia) is regularly flown along with the red-striped flag of the BPR. Patriotic songs written in the 1910, such as Pahonia and the BPR national anthem Vajacki marš are sung at demonstrations, the former of which to the tune of revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise. The protestors feel pride at their nation’s distinctiveness from Russia, and see their time under Lithuanian and Polish rule as a time for the emergence of a distinct and unique culture, rather than a tragic separation from a ‘greater Slavic people’.
Regimes are often upheld by the confidence of their people. The government is therefore required to maintain a popular and believable ideology to justify their rule and prevent their overthrow. The ideological basis for Lukashenko’s government and Russian integration, espoused by propaganda networks, is not in tune with most Belarusians, and which contrasts starkly with the dynamic and distinct national identity many derive from their history and which the opposition promotes.
As in Russia itself, the old Soviet tropes of longing for empire, and a fear of the West, have little effect on younger generations who have never experienced life under the USSR. While brutal crackdowns and Russian intervention may stymie the demise of Europe’s last dictator, popular support for it has crumbled, and thus the only way it can be maintained is through fear.
Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer