Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is hardly the Belarusian patriot. The strongman in Minsk long-ago cracked down on Belarus’ national democratic opposition, exalting the stability of the Soviet Union over Belarusian identity. Lukashenko is perhaps the foremost architect of Slavic re-integration following the Soviet collapse, long marketing his support for close political and trade relations with the Russian Federation.
Less than a year after gaining office in 1994, Lukashenko organized a controversial referendum that resulted in the elevation of Russian as an official language alongside Belarusian and re-established Soviet state symbols. Belarus’ contemporary flag is merely the flag of the Belarusian Soviet republic, shorn of the hammer and sickle. Activists and speakers of the Belarusian language are perceived as potentially disloyal Lukashenko has long voiced his disdain for the native language of his country. Soon after taking office, he said, “People who speak in Belarusian cannot do anything other than speak it, because you can’t express anything lofty in Belarusian.”
Imagine the surprise of Belarusians in July when Lukashenko, speaking in celebration of the 70th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Nazis, addressed his nation in Belarusian rather than Russian. It was the first time the Belarusian strongman had spoken publicly in the language since his first inauguration speech.
Belarusians and outside observers immediately tried to interpret his motives. Were they an attempt to push back at Vladimir Putin following his aggressions in Ukraine? After all, Putin’s explicit endorsement of the need for Russia to protect the interests of Russian-speakers wherever they might be puts Belarus in a precarious position. By most estimates, more than 70 percent of Belarusians speaks primarily Russian. Even despite Lukashenko’s outspoken support for Eurasian integration, the Belarusian president hardly wants to become a Russian fiefdom, his own steel-fisted rule subjected to the whims of the Kremlin and Moscow’s ravenous oligarchs. It’s perhaps for this reason that Eurasian integration has barely moved forward over the past twenty years despite the lofty rhetoric and Lukashenko’s promises.
In recent days and months, it appears that a Belarusian pushback against Russia’s aggressions and prevarications to the international community is in the workings. Minsk has tried to position itself as a neutral broker and peacemaker for the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, inviting the Russian and Ukrainian presidents to Minsk for the negotiations that resulted in a fragile cease fire in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Since the days of Crimea’s annexation, Minsk has only cautiously addressed the crisis, with Lukashenko saying that Ukraine should remain “a single, indivisible, integral, non-bloc state,” even while adding that Crimea is now a “de facto” part of Russia.
In the past month, Lukashenko has gone even further. He argued that if Russia’s claims to Crimea and eastern Ukraine are to be taken seriously, then large parts of Siberia should be given to Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Speaking on a Kazakh television station, Lukashenko stated that according to the Russian viewpoint in Ukraine, Russia “would have to give to Mongolia and Kazakhstan and someone else practically all the territory of Russia.” Russia “can’t be dicing up borders again,” he added. Further, he exclaimed, Belarus is a safer destination for investments than Russia. He also poked fun at the quality of Russian food products. “Belarusian sausage doesn’t contain toilet paper and soy — unlike Russian sausage.”
Lukashenko’s snipes don’t come out of the blue. While Minsk is highly dependent on Moscow for trade, energy, and financial support—Belarus recently received more than USD 2 billion in economic assistance from Russia—Lukashenko seems to be driving a message home to Putin. Belarus is not Russia and will not follow in lock-step behind the Kremlin in issues of foreign policy when it contradicts Minsk’s interests. By working as a peacekeeper in Ukraine, Belarus is at once trying to emerge from two decades of isolation from the West and signal its independence when it comes to important matters.
What should we make of these developments? For one, we shouldn’t assume that the Ukrainian crisis has negated Belarus’ dependence on Russia. Neither is the Eurasian Union with Russia and Kazakhstan severely threatened. Lukashenko is, however, sending a signal to Putin that Russia’s dangerous rhetoric and actions are fundamentally de-stabilizing the region. If Russia continues, Minsk can look elsewhere. Putin’s Russia has not only proven itself to be a dangerous economic partner for the West, but also for the staunchest Russian allies. In this security environment, some of the most effective constraints on Russia’s aggressive actions might not just be the Western-imposed sanctions regime, but also the pushback received by Belarus and several other Russia-aligned and dependent states.
Ukraine Crisis Media Center