Read the original text at Rzeczpospolita.
Our own football and hockey teams, separate national symbols, a young generation brought up in Belarus own schools, nationalized business and political elite, native bureaucracy - all these things should be conducive to the separateness of Belarus from Russia in social terms. Each subsequent year of independence should make it more obvious, gradually strengthening the national foundations of the state, creating a counterbalance to the political, economic and military dependence on Moscow. This mechanism worked in Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, preventing the war from spilling out of Crimea and part of Donbas. Would it certainly work in the case of Belarus, where the social foundations of independence are much more questionable, and the scope of dependence on Russia is dramatically greater? Is Belarusian statehood a permanent entity? Or maybe the twilight of Alexander Lukashenko's rule will also be the sunset of independent Belarus?
In the third year of country’s independence, Lukashenko took power over it. For 24 years of dictatorial rule, he has been keeping all the instruments to shape national identity and form the state ideology. He began the presidency from the fight against historical national symbolism, crossed out the actions of his predecessors aimed at strengthening the Belarusian language, which occupied a marginal niche in a deeply Russified country. He focused on the synthesis of the (neo) Soviet ideology and the “local” kolkhoz, arguing that “Belarusians are Russians, but with a sign of quality”. He was even bothered by the fact that the main alley of Minsk was named after Franciszek Skaryna, Belarusian first printer.
Someone would say that he read the moods of Sovietized embarrassed society, which allowed him to gain and then consolidate his power. In fact, he turned out to be a hostage of his own narrow horizons. He maintained an ambivalent attitude towards Belarus even after he fully marginalized the patriotic opposition and it became clear that despite the Russophile slogans he would not be allowed to stand at the head of the proposed joint Russian-Belarusian state. Although every year he hawked with Russia for loans, cheap raw materials, and access to the local market, he still defined his country as part of the Russian world, as if he did not understand the obvious truth that independence of Belarus is independence from Russia. Lukashenko was defending independence not to be reduced to the role of the head of the Russian governorate, but he did not have the idea of Belarusianity beyond the guiding principle of his rule: "the state is me."
Russian armed aggression in Crimea and Donbas shook the world, so it caused Minsk’s anxiety. All the more so because in recent years the Kremlin has begun to demand stronger concessions from Belarus, mainly in terms of political and economic cooperation. Minsk's reaction to the Russian-Ukrainian war was noticeable, albeit subdued. The answer to Moscow's hard policy was merely the so-called soft blotting. Lukashenko began to accentuate the separateness of his country from Russia, several times beating his breast in his usual style and admitted the legitimacy of strengthening his native national identity.
However, the measurable results of such a policy are like medicine. The Belarusian language became a marketing tool, it also gains popularity in alternative, hipsters’ environment, heading out of the beaten track of the mainstream mass culture. It can also be noticed that militia became less in fighting against exposure of the historical white-red-white flag in public space. Invariably, however, Belarus honors part of the Russian tsars and Soviet Cheka representatives, while Belarus intelligence is searching for the roots in the Duchy of Polock and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
What is the most important, in the education sphere, including universities, the Russian language still dominates and there is no indication that the authorities intend to challenge this state of affairs. Belarusians eagerly watch Russian TV channels, being objected to the Russian culture and ideology of "Russian world." Belarusian authorities, which in recent months have blocked access to two opposition pro-independence web portals, do not seem to notice the threat from East, or at least they have no idea how to counteract it.
The last quarter of a century is characterized by a great neglect in building the national identity of the Belarusians, by the increasingly marked depletion of the economic model. It is a hybrid of a market and a planned economy based on the heavy industry from the Soviet era. Over the years, Russia has sustained the eastern neighbors' economy with financial transfers and preferential access of Belarusian products to its market. It also closed its eyes to the Belarusian profits from processing and resale received for semi-free Russian oil. As a result, over the years, Lukashenko could boast stability, relative egalitarianism against oligarchic Russia, and the order imposed by the strong hand of an economy. Belarusian cities and towns are neater and safer compared to the Russian ones. Roads, even provincial ones, are in a much better condition than in Russia, not to mention infrastructure ruined by Ukraine.
However, Moscow's support in recent years has been gradually decreasing, and the collapse of oil prices from three years ago reduced Minsk's profits from oil market operations. This exposed the uncompetitiveness of the Belarusian economy, leading to a sharp increase in the negative balance in foreign trade. The authorities admit that every fourth company is unprofitable (and every third in the engineering industry). The banking sector, forced to support inefficient enterprises, is also unstable. The average salary fell to $ 200-300, half of the pre-crisis earnings.
This does not mean that the economy will collapse in the next months or even several years. However, the crisis is systemic in nature and it is hard to expect that the improvement of the international economic situation will reverse the negative trend. The authorities are unable to restructure the economy, fearing the political costs of weakening their control over the state. Discipline measures are adopted instead of reforms, such as a notorious decree on counteracting social parasitism, which taxes people who evade official employment.
As a result, gradually deepening disparities between Belarus and Russia, which although also faced with a crisis, has become an ideal place to work for thousands of Belarusians. This is supported by well-developed migration networks, a linguistic and cultural community, and legal employment of the Union State regulations. Significantly, Belarusians go to work not only to the rich Moscow, which has long become a magnet for post-Soviet migrants, but also provincial centers, such as Smolensk. Lukashenko's ambitions to make his country a better copy of Russia, after years of more or less apparent successes, have brutally faced with the harsh reality.
Many countries have undergone a deep, structural socio-economic crisis, sometimes much more dramatic than the situation faced by contemporary Belarus. This led to mass economic emigration or violent social protests, at the basis of which the state's demand was restored. However, it rarely happens that the crisis leads to the rejection of the state, the society's negation of the values of independence. In the case of Belarus, the risk seems to draw more and more clearly, although the complexity and blurring categories of national identity and the lack of reliable sociological research enable us to build hypotheses, not the facts.
What is shocking when talking to Belarusians, especially outside of Minsk, is concentration on individual survival strategies, accompanied by almost universal indifference to the fate of the state. Residents of Vitebsk, Baranovichi, and Lida were asked how would they vote in a hypothetical referendum on the incorporation of Belarus into Russia virtually unanimously accept the liquidation of Belarusian statehood, noting in it the chance to improve living conditions.
The ease, with which many Belarusians (or even most of them) would be willing to give up their own state, is the result of Lukashenko's ignoring the issue of national identity. But not only this. It is also a consequence of the political model that has existed there for a quarter of a century. Lukashenko's priority is always to make impossible any alternative to his rule. After the brutal crackdown of the authorities against opponents of the regime in December 2010, the opposition parties began to resemble internally divided, marginalized dissident groups. In this situation, Vladimir Putin becomes the only imaginable alternative to Alexander Lukashenko. The reluctance of the President of Belarus thus becomes aversion to Belarus, with which he is identified in social perception.
Locals, when asked about Lukashenko's government's assessment, as well as other issues requiring the formulation of their own political views, are traditionally not very effusive. For years, they have not been willing to criticize the leader openly, and the dissatisfaction is masked with compliments - poverty, but stability, security, and order. It is changing though. After a quarter century of government, a ton of justification is rarer.
This does not mean a state of revolutionary boiling is active. On the contrary, state propaganda has used the example of the Ukrainian Maidan to strengthen the strongly instilled belief that any rebellion against power brings chaos and war. Hardly anyone will go out on the street to protest against Lukashenko, but even fewer people would probably like to actively engage in defending the status quo.
Weakness usually provokes. The weakness of Belarus, whose independence is perceived by the Russian elite as a bizarre whim of history, provokes too. Vladimir Putin faces a temptation to subordinate the western neighbor, who has been vandalized for a long time in the strategic dimension (geopolitical choice and security policy), remaining irritatingly autonomous in the economic field, reluctant to repay financial support, stubbornly reluctant to deepen integration within the Union State and the Eurasian Union or sharing national wealth with the lustful spoils of the Kremlin elite.
For the Russian authorities, the reintegration of the post-Soviet area is an undeniable priority – control over the near countries is, next to the confrontation with the US, the main determinant of the reconstruction of the superpower position, strongly resonating socially, which can divert attention from internal problems, as in the case of aggression to Ukraine. It is not second Crimea - Sevastopol and the Black Sea Fleet occupy a special place in Russian national mythology - this "Anschluss" of the western neighbor could be used by the authorities as a source of social mobilization. Another extension of the borders would effectively seal the fourth presidential term of Putin, which will expire in 2024. It would allow him to consolidate his image of the imperialist of the empire, which is important in the context of the place in history textbooks. It would also serve to increase the room for maneuver of the Russian president in domestic politics in the face of autocratic models.
Even if the final decision on the annexation of Belarus has not yet been made, it would be naive to believe that the Kremlin has not prepared the scenario yet. Putin's ministry apparently learned lessons from the failure of the "Russian spring" of 2014 - attempts to incite the pro-Moscow uprising in the east and south of Ukraine, the Kremlin was forced to send saboteurs, "Russian tourists" to Kharkiv or Odessa, who had to provoke rebellion against the passivity of pro-Russian milieus, breaking Ukrainian flags from local administration buildings.
Russian "soft power" in Belarus is much more complex - in recent years, a creation of the socio-cultural networks promoting the values of the "Russian world" can be observed in Belarusian cities and towns (with the passiveness of local services). Among others, through sports associations, Cossack and Church movements, these communities use Russian social networks, and increasingly offer young people from the provinces the opportunity to travel to Russia for summer paramilitary camps. This phenomenon is described in detail in the report "The End of the Myth of Fraternal Belarus?", Prepared by Camil Klysinsky and Petr Zhokhovsky from the Warsaw Center for Eastern Studies.
If Lukashenko's rule is shaken, and the situation in the country (naturally or under the influence from outside) becomes unstable, the pro-Russian groups coordinated with each other, with the support of the Kremlin mass media, can play a key role in carrying out the "velvet revolution" and impose pro-Moscow moods indifferent to the state's future. It can be assumed that the appearance of "green men" on the streets will not lead to massive popular unrest, and the Belarusian nomenclature (not to mention a large part of the representatives of the special services and the army, in which Russia has agents) will be ready to replace without much hesitation Lukashenko's portrait with Putin’s one. The annexation with the consent of the annexed is a very attractive scenario from the point of view of the Kremlin. Surprisingly, the longer an independent Belarusian state exists, the more real it becomes.