By Paul Goble
By his aggression against Ukraine and his illegal annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin has done more than almost anyone else to build a Ukrainian nation. Now, the Kremlin leader albeit not yet by as extreme actions is promoting the consolidation of the Belarusian nation — and that will make his dreams of a renewed Soviet Union impossible.
In both cases, Putin has landed in a security trap of his own making: he might have been able to achieve his goals if he had pursued more indirect and accommodating tactics; but by pursuing them so directly and by threats, the Kremlin leader has produced exactly the reverse of what he clearly hoped for.
That is the upshot of a 5800-word article by Ilya Azar of Moscow’s Novaya gazeta who interviewed 11 Belarusians across the political spectrum about their reactions to Putin’s pressure and concluded that the national idea in Belarus today is “to become Belarusians,” hardly what Putin wants (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/02/11/79507-natsionalnaya-ideya-stat-belorusami).
The comments of three of Azar’s interlocutors are especially suggestive:
Grigory Kostusyev, the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, argues that Russians do not understand Belarusians or what they would face if they tried to annex it. “Russian media and politicians say that if a Belarusian speaks Belarusian, he is already a Belarusian nationalist. But I ask: ‘if a Russian speaks Russia, is he a nationalist?’”
He points out that he knows “both languages well” and would make “fewer makes in a test” of his knowledge of Russian than Zhirinovsky does. “All Belarusians know Russian better than Russians do! But this doesn’t mean that by developing Russian, we must destroy Belarusian.”
If Russia tries to occupy Belarus, Kostusyev says, it will find “not a Crimean scenario but an Afghan one: Belarusians from childhood have imbibed partisan cleverness, and many will be ready to go into the forests.” That is something Moscow needs to know and a far higher cost than it would rationally be prepared to pay.
Artem Shraybman, a Belarusian commentator, adds that he doesn’t think Russia will invade and try to occupy Belarus. “Only20 percent” of the population wants to be part of Russia. But perhaps more important in the short term is this: Lukashenka “loves power a great deal more than he loves money.” Consequently, the Kremlin won’t be able to buy him off as it has others.
But an even more compelling reason to think that Moscow won’t move is that it doesn’t need to. It will benefit if it gets concessions from Minsk; and it will benefit by lowering its costs if Belarus doesn’t make them and Moscow in response stops provided subsidized goods and energy.
Thus, the current situation is “a win win” for Russia; seeking to annex the country wouldn’t be
And Pavel Belous, a Minsk businessman who is he organizer of this year’s Day of Freedom celebration, suggests that Russians don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Russians think that Belarusians want to be part of Russia so they can benefit in all the ways Russians supposedly do.
“But Belarusians are smart and see what is happening with other regions which Russia is trying to control: Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not begin to live better” when they fell into Moscow’s orbit. Belarusians know this and don’t want to experience the same things on their own skin.
Belous is not a big fan of Lukashenka’s, but he points out that thanks to Russian pressure, the Belarusian leader has been taking steps not only to consolidate the Belarusian nation but even in a certain respect to democratize it by releasing prisoners and allowing opposition figures to win election to parliament.
In the past, the world and many Belarusians viewed Belarus as the homeland of “the last dictator of Europe,” he says. But now they can see there is another dictator who is even more of a threat to them and to the world than Lukashenka could ever be. He will not sell them out because he recognizes that to do so would forever mark him as a failure.