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Belarus and Ukraine are both similar and different

Exploring the similarities and differences between the post-Soviet paths of Belarus and Ukraine.

September 4, 2020 - Taras Kuzio - Analysis

The Monument to Belarusians who died for Ukraine in Kyiv is a memorial dedicated to the Belarusians who died during the events at Euromaidan and Russian-Ukrainian war. Photo: SW (cc) wikimedia.org

Nobody expected Belarus, including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to have a revolution following the August elections. Belarus had long been consigned to the club of ‘Russian and Central Asian autocracies’. Geography, however, has played an important role in Belarus because it has three NATO and EU neighbours (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia), as well as a pro-Europe Ukraine, on its doorstep.

Few dissidents and small opposition

Overall, Belarus produced the smallest dissident movement in the European part of the USSR. This is especially clear when compared to Ukraine. The well-known book by Ludmilla Alekseeva, ‘Soviet dissent: contemporary movements for National, Religious and Human Rights’, has no chapter on Belarus. Belarus was also different to Ukraine because by the 1980s there was no national communist wing in its Soviet Communist Party (SCPB).

On August 25th 1991 the Belarusian parliament transformed its 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty into an act of independence by giving it constitutional status. There was never a vote in parliament or referendum related to independence. Ukraine’s parliament unanimously declared independence on August 24th 1991 and held a referendum, which was endorsed by 92 per cent of the population, on December 1st that year. The Russian SFSR did even less than Belarus and celebrates its ‘Independence Day’ on June 12th, when it declared sovereignty in 1990. Russia and Ukraine held presidentrial elections in 1990 and 1991 respectively; Belarus held it in 1994 which Alyaksandr Lukashenka won in Belarus’s only free and fair election.

Therefore, neither Belarus or Russia formally declared independence from the USSR. It is important to remember that throughout the meetings of the three Eastern Slavic leaders during December 7th and 8th 1991, it was ultimately Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk who led proceedings and lobbied to dissolve the USSR. Belarusian independence was not underpinned by a parliamentary vote and declaration, or by a popular referendum. After being elected president, Lukashenka strengthened Soviet-style rule within the country and undoing the August 1991 constitutional change soon after he assumed power. Lukashenka based the legitimacy of his republic on the March 17th 1991 referendum, which was called by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The ballot asked, “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?”In Ukraine, Gorbachev’s referendum was superseded by a referendum for independence held on the same day in Western Ukraine, as well as the country’s December 1991 referendum.

In 1995, a referendum resulted in modified versions of the Soviet Belarusian anthem, flag and symbols. A referendum the following year changed Belarusian ‘Independence Day’ to July 3rd, when Minsk was liberated from Nazi occupation. This step was a product of the cult surrounding the so-called Great Patriotic War that had been promoted in thee USSR since the 1960s. Since the two referendums, Lukashenka has maintained a political-economic system reminiscent of Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’.

Independent Ukraine and Belarus

The first two decades of independence were very different for Belarus and Ukraine. Belarus had become an independent state with a weaker and more Russified identity, with Lukashenka continuing Soviet era Russification to the detriment of Belarusian language and culture. On top of this, democratic rights were stifled as the regime became increasingly authoritarian. Opposition parties were now weak, there was even no ruling party and the parliament simply remained a rubber stamp body. A noticeable difference between Ukraine’s revolutions and the Belarusian is the absence of political parties in the latter.

Why then, nearly three decades later, is a revolution taking place in Belarus?

Since the late 1980s, Ukrainian identity has gradually spread from the country’s West to its East. This process first encouraged Ukraine’s declaration of independence and eventually the 2004 Orange Revolution. Viktor Yushchenko’s election victory that year made it clear that central Ukraine had integrated with the western regions.

What changed during the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity in 2013-14 provides us with clues regarding the Belarusian revolution. Euromaidan was supported by eastern and southern Ukrainians living outside Donbas and Crimea, although not to the same extent as by Western and Central Ukraine. Roughly equal numbers in the eight oblasts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine gave support to the two beliefs that Euromaidan was a protest against corruption and Yanukovych’s dictatorship (42 per cent), or an opposition and Western-backed coup (46 per cent). Importantly, six of Ukraine’s eight Eastern and Southern oblasts had higher numbers supporting Euromaidan.

In the same way that the time had come for Ukraine’s Russian speakers to stand up and be counted as part of the Ukrainian civic nation, so too was it for Russian speakers in Belarus. The crowds on the streets of Belarusian cities are full of young people who were born after 1991. They are also often middle class and pro-European. Belarusians, like Ukrainians, had outgrown their Soviet or neo-Soviet leaders and were tired of being treated like bydlo (scum). With no East-West split as in Ukraine, workers strikes backed the Belarusian revolution.

Ukrainian identity and language were permitted to flourish under Austrian rule prior to 1918, whereas all of Belarus had been part of the Tsarist Empire, which banned the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. Many more people in Kyiv therefore spoke Ukrainian during the Soviet period and immediately following independence, compared to Belarusian in Minsk. Out of 9.5 million Belarusians, approximately 2.5 million are active Belarusian speakers. Belarusian speakers are concentrated in western Belarus but not to the same extent as Ukrainian speakers in western Ukraine. Ukraine’s 2001 census showed clear ethnic homogeneity in most of Central and Western Ukraine. The only exceptions to this were Chernivtsi and Trans-Carpathia, where Romanian and Hungarian minorities reduced the number of Ukrainians to a still notable 75-80 per cent of the population.

Different revolutions

Election fraud is the one similarity that unites the Orange and Belarusian revolutions. However, other driving factors are different. Ukraine’s two revolutions occurred due to opposition to corruption and oligarchs. At the same time, they supported European integration and (especially during Euromaidan) were thoroughly against Putin’s Eurasian integration project. According to the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Lukashenka’s Belarus (66th) has the second best ranking, after Georgia (44th), in Eurasia regarding corruption. This is only slightly worse than EU member Lithuania (60th). Ukraine (126th) and Russia (137th) trail far behind. There are also no oligarchs in Belarus. This means that television channels are controlled by the state and remain outside the control of tycoons, unlike in Ukraine.

As a protest caused by election fraud and demands for more ‘freedom’, the Belarusian revolution does bear a resemblance to the Orange Revolution, although without its anger against corruption and oligarchs. Yanukovych and Lukashenka were cut from the same cloth in the sense that they blatantly undertook election fraud and treated their populations like bydlo (scum). In the Orange and Belarusian revolutions there were no EU flags; the EU only prepared an Eastern Partnership for post-Soviet states in 2009 and EU flags were therefore common in Euromaidan.

The Belarusian and Ukrainian revolutions clearly differ on national identity questions. Both Ukrainian revolutions were directed against Yanukovych, whose Donetsk clan was seen, especially during Euromaidan, as anti-Ukrainian and pursuing ‘Homo Sovieticus’ policies. Lukashenka is in this sense similar to Yanukovych. However, in Belarus the national identity question is not a driving force against the former president and language-driven nationalism is more a feature of Ukraine than of Belarus.

The opposition in power

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has many hurdles to overcome if she is to come to power and implement reforms. Protestors are demanding accountability for police violence. Lukashenka would, if overthrown, be forced to flee to Russia, where he would join Yanukovych. The thuggish Ministry of Interior riot police OMON, like Berkut, would be likely be disbanded.

Belarusian protestors are using non-violent tactics similar to the Orange Revolution. This, however, was not characteristic of Euromaidan. At the same time, upwards of five protestors have already been killed in Belarus by the OMON riot police. Thousands of incarcerated protestors have also been subject to brutal beatings and torture. This makes Belarus similar to Euromaidan, during which the Berkut riot police wounded and killed civilians such as the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ (Nebesna Sotnya). If OMON and Berkut cannot frighten Belarusians and Ukrainians enough, then the only option left for the authoritarian leaders was the use of Interior Ministry Internal Troops. These soldiers are often conscripts and therefore not very good at riot control. The military, as we saw during the Orange Revolution, are reluctant to get involved.

If Lukashenka returns to violent repression, he may face rebellion within his police forces. It is likely that OMON will remain loyal but not the average police officer. Lukashenka may resort to Yanukovych’s strategy of using vigilante thugs, including Russian nationalists. If Lukashenka adopts a more violent strategy, the Belarusian revolution could then come to resemble Euromaidan, with some protestors fighting back and perhaps taking over official buildings.

The Belarusian opposition are in a weaker position because they face what Freedom House describe as a ‘consolidated authoritarian regime’, with the state fully controlling the media (there have notably been some defectors which have been replaced by ‘journalists’ brought from Vladimir Putin’s propagandas machine) and parliament. During Ukraine’s two revolutions the opposition were in control of half of the parliament and there was a pluralistic media environment. Yanukovych’s use of violence ultimately failed, with his overthrow leading to Russian military aggression against Ukraine. There is no equivalent of Crimea or ‘New Russia’ (eastern-southern Ukraine) in Belarus to which Putin and Russian nationalists can lay territorial claims. Occupying the whole of Belarus would be a domestic and international disaster for Putin.

Russian stakes

A large number of Western commentators have said there is no geopolitical aspect to the Belarusian revolution which is wrong as Russia will lose Belarus if the opposition comes to power. This may be the pretext for Russia to intervene, as Putin has seemingly learnt nothing from his misjudged invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, Russian military aggression only pushed the country away from Moscow. The Belarusian opposition shows no interest in talks with NATO. There would also have to be tremendous domestic pressure to inject life into Belarusian membership of the Eastern Partnership. While an Association Agreement and visa free regime are possible, a DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) is not unless Belarus withdraws from the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU). Of course, no country can be in two customs unions. Putin has been opposed to ‘EU enlargement’ (he was always against NATO) since the launch of the Eastern Partnership and he deliberately ignores the fact it offers integration but not membership. For Putin, Eastern Partnership membership simply represents a threat that Ukraine or Belarus could be lost for good, as well as being viewed as Western intrusion into what Russia views as its exclusive sphere of influence in Eurasia.

Ukraine was never a member of the CIS Customs Union (precursor to the EaEU) and signed an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2015. The DCFTA and visa free regime began in 2015 and 2017 respectively. In order to achieve a DCFTA, Belarus would need a ‘BELEXIT’, which, assuming the referendum was won, would be a blow to Putin’s EaEU and take Belarus out of the ‘Russian World’. This would represent a second aspect which has been ignored by Western commentators of how Belarus is – unlike Ukraine – a loyal member of Putin’s Russian World.

Belarus joining Ukraine in pursuing European integration could very well shake the foundations of the Russian regime. If, or when, the opposition come to power in Belarus, it is impossible to imagine Russians accepting Putin as their president for another sixteen years.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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