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Belarus and Russia: not in one but different baskets

In spite of their shared desires to challenge the status quo, the Belarusian and Russian oppositions do not always see eye to eye. This is largely the result of a continued assumption that Belarus is uniquely tied to its larger neighbour. The status of Belarusian exiles in the EU today subsequently depends on the recognition of these differences.

April 8, 2024 - Hanna Vasilevich - Articles and Commentary

Protest outside the Belarusian embassy in Moscow following the stolen presidential election in August 2020. Sign says: No to dictators. Photo: Igor Stomakhin / Shutterstock

Recently, the head of the Lithuanian Seimas Committee on National Security Laurynas Kasčiūnas, representing the Homeland Union party, suggested revoking the residence permits of Russians and Belarusians who regularly return to their countries of citizenship. This suggestion followed the recent approval by parliament of the first reading of the proposal to extend restrictions against citizens of Russia and Belarus until May 2nd 2025. This is not the first time that Belarusians have faced the same restrictions and limitations as Russians in EU states.

For example, in March 2023, the Czech government extended the ban on issuing visas and long-term residence permits to the citizens of Russia and Belarus until March 31st 2024.

Despite this, the leader of the Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has criticized this approach, claiming that Belarusians should be treated differently from Russians.

In her interview with Novaya Gazeta, a Russian independent newspaper, in October 2023, she underlined the need to differentiate Belarusians, especially those in exile, from the Russian opposition forces. She claimed that her team are encouraging governments to respect the differences between Belarusians and Russians and “making sure that Belarus and Russia are not put in the same basket”. By failing to do so, a false perception of the unity of the two regimes and, as a result, of the peoples and countries, will lead to overlooking Belarusians and leaving them isolated in their fight against Lukashenka’s regime.

The opposition leader sees a significant difference between Belarusians and Russians not only from the perspective of their different states nations, and identities (which for many foreigners are still rather new concepts), but also from the perspective of the legitimacy of the regimes and their support from the local population. In spite of existing opposition and a clear shift towards authoritarianism, Putin is still considered a legitimate president. Until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin for decades had remained one of the key figures in European politics and was frequently welcomed in many European capitals.

Tsikhanouskaya also underlined the difference in the reaction to and perception of Russian aggression against Ukraine. She has claimed that in Russia many do support and justify the war in Ukraine. Belarusians, on the contrary, would never endorse it.

In February 2022, many Belarusians publicly protested against the war and condemned the Russian invasion. Despite ongoing repression, many expressed a negative attitude even while voting in the referendum. Many anti-war rallies throughout the country took place on February 27th and 28th 2022 – just several days after the Russian aggression. As a result, more than 1,100 Belarusians were detained. In addition to protests and donations, so-called “rail partisans” hampered the movement of Russian military equipment and weapons within the territory of Belarus. With the disproportionately severe sentences given to rail partisans (between 21 and 23 years under terrorism laws) and continuously growing waves of persecution and threats of imprisonment, Belarusians can no longer express their opinion on the war in Ukraine publicly. The number of Belarusian protesters, who since 2020 have faced continuous persecution, was significantly higher compared to that in Russia.

Although the Lukashenka and Putin regimes publicly support each other, this is not the case with the Belarusian and Russian opposition. Until 2022, the Russian opposition showed little, if any, interest in the Belarusian democratic forces. For example, it did not say anything about support and potential cooperation. After 2022, following the intensification of Belarusian opposition activities, there was still little understanding of the needs and problems of the Belarusian opposition. The only possibility to cooperate was limited to the Russia-driven agenda.

In his commentary on the lack of cooperation between the Belarusian and Russian opposition, the Russian opposition politician Dmitriy Gudkov focuses on the need to support each other “to overthrow our dictators”. He sees interconnections regarding the success of both oppositions, with any victory a mutual one “because we have the Union State and all are interconnected”. This quote shows that even among the Russian opposition, there is still a neo-imperialistic approach towards Belarus.

Appealing to the Union State clearly shows little understanding of Belarusian domestic processes, as all post-Soviet states are still seen within the Russian sphere of influence.

Some Russian opposition activists, including the popular blogger and political commentator Maksim Katz, reacted negatively to Tsikhanouskaya’s assessment of the Russian opposition. Others, like Artur Zakirov, the founder of the large Russian company “Artsoft”, who condemned the war and is setting up an organization to defend the rights of Russians and emigrants, promptly reacted by accusing Belarusians of their “inaction and tacitly agreeing with Lukashenka’s actions, [by which] they create favourable conditions for Putin to retain power and contribute to his war in Ukraine, in which… the territories of Belarus are used for the needs of Putin’s army”.

The online debate and comments connected to Russian commentators in many aspects are in line with the neo-imperialistic aspirations of both the Putin regime and Russian opposition. Thus, in some comments, the aspiration for Belarusian independence and a distinct national identity, different from the Russian one, is taken rather negatively and with little to no understanding.

Till now the opinion that possible changes in Belarus will occur within the realm of Russian geopolitical dominance is shared by a number of MEPs who, oddly enough, are classified among those who are the most actively engaged with Belarusian issues in the current European Parliament. Thus, during the meeting with these MEPs organized by the German-Belarusian Society in November 2023 in Brussels, the representatives clearly stated that there is little to no chance for Belarus to have separate and special attention. The country will remain in the same basket as the Russian opposition. Moreover, the suggestion to establish closer cooperation between the opposition forces of the two countries was articulated. Such reluctance to understand Belarusian specifics by these MEPs could have negative consequences regarding the country’s role and place even after the collapse of both regimes, as it will still be seen as part of the neo-imperialistic ambitions of a potentially democratic Russia. In this way, the stance of these MEPs towards the Belarusian context demonstrates a huge contrast to their attitudes towards the needs of Ukrainian society. Moreover, this is viewed as rather odd logic among the representatives of the Lithuanian political spectrum concerning Belarus. This is because a significant part of Lithuania’s political elites and expert communities have always demonstrated the need to address the Belarusian and Russian contexts differently.

Placing Belarusians together with Russians has never worked before and is unlikely to work in the future. Having been placed not only within the political but also the cultural realm of Russian influence, Belarusians must fight on several fronts. Traditionally within the entire post-Soviet space with the exclusion of only the Baltic states, communication and collaboration have always been limited to the Russian language as a lingua franca. Thus, almost 20 years ago, media groups like Deutsche Welle chose to use solely the Russian language as the language of the region, which is very questionable from the perspective of the EU’s promotion of linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity. Considering the expanding propaganda and values of the “Russian World”, which are widely promoted by the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church, such tactics proved to be counter-productive and even harmful. Since the war in Ukraine, it seems that there is a need to re-assess regional ties and connections by supporting the re-introduction of post-Soviet countries to the European family and history. Only with the support and understanding of such needs will the national identities created in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse be able to break free from Russian regional dominance.

Thus, viewing Belarus through the lens of its own experiences will help bring feasible results. Such an approach will ultimately contribute to the rapprochement of Belarusian civil society and EU members.

Hanna Vasilevich holds a Doctoral Degree in International Relations and European Studies. Her research interests include state ideology and propaganda, identity issues, inter-ethnic relations, linguistic diversity as well as diaspora and kin-state relations.

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