24 May 2018, Thursday, 8:44
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Will Russia Absorb Belarus?

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PHOTO: AFP

Lukashenka has become a hostage of his own narrow-mindedness.

We are offering for your attention an article by Adam Eberhardt, the director of the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, in the Rzeczpospolita newspaper (translated by Charter97.org).

Own national football and ice hockey teams, national symbols, young generation raised in own schools, business and political elites which belong to the state, domestic bureaucracy - all this should facilitate the detachment of Belarus from Russia in the social dimension.

Each subsequent year of independence should make it more obvious, constantly strengthen the national foundations of the state thus creating a counterweight to the political, economic and military dependence on Moscow.

This mechanism worked in Ukraine, in the face of the Russian aggression, having prevented the war from spreading outside the Crimea and Donbas.

Will it work in Belarus, where the social foundations of independence seem much more dubious, and the degree of dependence of Russia remains much higher? Or maybe, the twilight of Aliaksandr Lukashenka's reign will become the sunset of the independent Belarus?

The Belarusian language is the language for hipsters

Lukashenka came to power on the third year of the country's independence. For the 24 years of the dictatorial rule, he had all the instruments for the formation of the national identity and the state ideology. He started his rule from the struggle against historical symbols, thus derailing the actions of his predecessors, aimed at strengthening of the Belarusian language, which already occupied a narrow niche in the deeply Russified country.

Lukashenka placed a bet on the synthesis of the (neo)Soviet ideology and the kolkhoz "locality", claiming that "Belarusians are Russians, but with a quality mark". Even the fact that the main avenue in Minsk was named after the Belarusian first printer Francysk Skaryna seemed to stand in his way. Some may say that he unmistakably felt the moods of the lost Soviet society, which allowed him to get and to strengthen his power. However, in the end he has become a hostage of own narrow-mindedness.

Lukashenka remained indifferent to Belarusianity even after he had marginalized the patriotic opposition, and even when it became clear that, regardless of the Russophilist slogans, no one will let him head the newly created Belarus-Russia union state.

Every year, Lukashenka bargained with Russia more and more on new credits, cheap raw materials and access to the local market, but kept on seeing his country as part of the "Russian world".

He somehow failed to realize an obvious fact that the independence of Belarus is independence from Russia in the first place. Lukashenka protected the country's independence only to the extent so as not to become a head of some Russian province. He never considered Belarusianity outside the framework of the rule to which he adhered throughout all these years - "The state is me".

The Russian aggression in the Crimea and the Donbas, which shook the world, caused obvious concern in Minsk. Moreover, in recent years, the Kremlin has started quite successfully to obtain concessions from Belarus, mainly in the issue of political and economic cooperation.

The reaction of Minsk to the Russian-Ukrainian war was noticeable, although disguised. The answer to Moscow's harsh policy was only the so-called "soft Belarusization".

Lukashenka began to emphasize the isolation of his country from Russia. He several times "hit himself in the chest" in a characteristic style and recognized the correctness of strengthening the national identity.

However, very little benefit came from such policy. Most often, the Belarusian language appears in advertising, as a marketing tool, it is also becoming very popular with informal youth, hipsters, but remains at the outskirts of the mass culture.

It is worth mentioning that the police are fighting against using the historical white-red-white flag in the public space as brutally as ever.

The veneration of the Russian tsars and Soviet chekists remains unchanged, leaving the intelligentsia which is seeking the Belarusian roots in the heritage of the Principality of Polack and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the margin.

The most important thing is that the Russian language still dominates in education, including in universities, and there are no prerequisites for the authorities to challenge this state of affairs.

The Russian television channels that influence Belarusians not only through Russian culture, but primarily through the ideology of the "Russian world" are very popular.

The Belarusian authorities, which in recent months have blocked access to two opposition Internet portals that stand on the ideals of independence (Charter'97 and Belarusian Partisan) seem to disregard the threat from the East. Or, at least, they do not know how to resist it.

The neighbor's worse version

The last quarter of the century is not only the time of total neglect of building the national identity of Belarusians, but also the time of more and more visible deterioration of th economic model.

The economic model of Belarus is a hybrid of a market and planned economy based on heavy industry that has been preserved since the Soviet era. For many years, Russia has supported the economy of its eastern neighbors with financial subsidies and preferential access of Belarusian products to its market.

The Kremlin closed its eyes to Belarus' income from the processing and resale of semi-free Russian oil. As a result, for many years Lukashenka could boast of stability, relative egalitarianism against the backdrop of oligarchic Russia and the order imposed by a strong master's hand.

Belarusian cities are cleaner and more secure compared to Russian ones. The roads, even in the countryside, remain in a much better state than in Russia, let alone the demolished infrastructure of Ukraine.

However, Moscow's support was being gradually decreased in the recent years, and the collapse of oil prices in 2015 cut Minsk's revenues from operations at the oil market. This revealed the non-competitiveness of the Belarusian economy, which led to a sharp increase in the negative balance in foreign trade.

Authorities recognize that every fourth company is unprofitable, and in engineering - every third. The banking sector, which is forced to support inefficient enterprises, is also unstable. The average salary fell to $ 200-300, which is half the pre-crisis income of Belarusians.

This does not mean though that the economy will collapse in the coming months or even several years. However, the crisis is systemic and it is difficult to expect that an improvement in the international economic environment will change the negative trend.

The authorities are not in a position to restructure the economy, fearing political costs associated with the weakening of their control over the state. Instead of reforms, measures are being taken that toughen discipline. Among them - the notorious "decree on preventing social dependency", aimed at taxing people who evade official employment.

As a result, inequality between Belarus and Russia is growing, and Russia has turned into a "promised land" for thousands of Belarusian labor migrants, regardless of having to struggle with own crisis.

This is facilitated by well-developed migration channels, language and cultural community, and also allowing the laws of the "union state" to work legally.

It is noteworthy that Belarusians go to work not only in rich Moscow, which for many years was a magnet for post-Soviet migrants, but also in provincial centers such as the border Smolensk, which, despite its poverty, is attractive for the residents of Vorsha and Mahiliou.

Lukashenka's ambitions to make his country a better copy of Russia after several years of more or less obvious successes were brutally overturned by reality.

Turning away from the state

Many countries experienced deep structural and socio-economic crisis, sometimes even more dramatic that the situation the current Belarus found itself in. this often led to mass economic migration or violent social protests, based on the desire for changes in the state. However, it rarely happens so that the crisis led to the denial of the state, rejecting the idea of the country's independence by the society.

In the case of Belarus, this risk seems increasingly obvious. Although in the context of the complexity and blurring of the categories of national identity and the lack of reliable sociological research, we rather turn to hypotheses than to proven facts.

In the conversations with Belarusians, especially those living outside of Minsk, it is shocking how they are sticking only to their individual survival strategies. This obsession with survival is accompanied by a general indifference to the destiny of the state.

When residents of Vitsebsk, Baranavichy and Lida are asked how they would vote in a hypothetical referendum on the inclusion of Belarus into Russia, they allow the liquidation of the Belarusian statehood, suggesting that this will improve the living conditions.

The ease with which many (not to say: most) Belarusians would be willing to abandon their own state is the result of Lukashenka's ignoring the issue of national identity. But not only.

This is also a consequence of the political model that has existed in Belarus for a quarter of a century. Lukashenka's priority has always been the impossibility of any alternative to his rule. After the authorities severely dispersed the regime's opponents in December 2010, opposition parties began to resemble internally divided, marginal, dissident groups.

In this situation, Vladimir Putin becomes the only possible alternative to Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Thus, Lukashenka's denial turns into a rejection of the state with which he is identified in the mass consciousness.

When Belarusians are asked to evaluate Lukashenka's rule, alongside with other questions that require the formulation of their political views, they traditionally become not very talkative.

During many years, Belarusians didn't want to openly criticize Lukashenka, disguising their discontent with "let it be poverty, but we have stability, security and order."

Now the situation is changing. After 25 years of Lukashenka's rule you will hear the justifying tone more and more rarely.

This does not mean that the situation is at the point of revolutionary boiling. On the contrary, the state propaganda used the example of the Ukrainian Maidan to strengthen in society and strongly implement the belief that any uprising against power leads to inevitable chaos and war.

Few will come out to protest against Lukashenka, but fewer people would like to actively support the existing government.

Another Crimea?

Weakness tends to provoke. The weakness of Belarus, the independence of which is seen by the Russian elites as a peculiar whim of history, provokes strongly.

Vladimir Putin is tempted by an even greater opportunity to submit the Western neighbor, who, although having turned into a strategic vassal long ago (in geopolitics and military cooperation), remains indignantly autonomous in the economic sphere, justifies financial support slowly, and stubbornly resists deeper integration in the framework of the "union state" and the Eurasian Union, and, even more, remains unwilling to share its national property with the open-mouthed Kremlin elite.

For the Russian authorities, the reintegration of the post-Soviet space is an unquestionable priority. Control over the "near abroad" - along with confrontation with the United States - is the main indicator of the positions of the superpower restoration. This allows to divert attention from domestic problems, as was the case with aggression against Ukraine.

Although Belarus is not the second Crimea, where Sevastopol and the Black Sea Fleet occupy a special place in the Russian national mythology, the "Anschluss" of a western neighbor can be used by the authorities as a source of social mobilization. Another expansion of the borders would be a gift for the successful completion of Putin's fourth term, which ends in 2024.

This would strengthen his image of the "empire revivalist ", which is important in the context of the place in history textbooks. These steps would increase the room for maneuvering in the domestic policy of the Russian president, in the face of the process of transferring power, risky for the authoritarian models of government, but still inevitable.

Even if the final decision on the annexation of Belarus has not yet been taken, it would be naive to believe that such a scenario is not being developed in the Kremlin. Putin's special services apparently learned a lesson from the failure of the "Russian Spring" in 2014, when an attempt was made to kindle a pro-Russian insurrection in the east and south of Ukraine.

Then the Kremlin was forced to send saboteurs, the so-called "Russian tourists", to Kharkiv and Odesa. Then they ran into the passivity of the local pro-Russian environment and themselves had to provoke a riot by ripping Ukrainian flags from the buildings of the local administration.

The Russian "soft power" in Belarus is much more ramified. In recent years, one can observe the creation of social and cultural networks promoting the values of the "Russian world" in the Belarusian cities, with the passivity of the local special services. Recruitment takes place with the help of sports associations, Cossack and Orthodox organizations.

These organizations use Russian social networks, and keep offering young people from the province the opportunity to travel to the Russian summer military camps. This phenomenon is described in detail in the report of the Center for Eastern Studies by Kamil Klysinsky and Piotr Zhokhovsky "End of the myth of fraternal Belarus?"

In the event of imbalance in the power of Lukashenka, natural or provoked instability, the pro-Russian groups coordinated among themselves (with the support of the Kremlin mass media) may prove to be decisive factors for the implementation of the coup, for imposing pro-Moscow moods on the people indifferent to the fate of the state.

It can be assumed that the possible appearance of "green men" on the streets would not cause mass resistance from the society, and the Belarusian nomenclature (not to mention the pro-Russian army and a large part of the special services) would be ready to change portraits of Lukashenka to portraits of Putin in their offices.

The annexation with the consent of the occupied is a rather tempting scenario for the Kremlin. And, paradoxically, with each subsequent year of independence of Belarus - such scenario appears more and more likely.

Doctor Adam Eberhardt, political scientist, Director at Centre for Eastern Studies