Analysis

Belarus and Russia – The Ties that Bind

Paul Hansbury explores the political and cultural differences which have seen Ukrainians protest vehemently against an interruption in talks with the EU, and Belarusians apparently passive.

Luksashenka tries to convince Putin of something. Photo by kremlin.ru

Luksashenka tries to convince Putin of something.
Photo by kremlin.ru

Recently the Belarusian news agency BelaPAN asked Mogilev residents whether they would take part if there was a Belarusian ‘EuroMaidan’. The repeated answer was ‘No,’ with the exception of a couple of the younger respondents. But is Belarus really so dissimilar from its southern neighbour? There were street demonstrations in Minsk following elections in both 2006 and 2010, albeit considerably smaller in scale than what is presently happening in Kyiv, and a small number of Belarusians have reportedly crossed the border to add their bodies to the Ukrainian protests.

Whilst Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s position looks uncertain, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka maintains his tight and steady grip on Belarus. There are obvious differences between the political scenes in the two countries. On the one hand, the media in Belarus is heavily state-controlled and there is no parliamentary opposition, which together constrain the political debate far more than in Ukraine. On the other, many Belarusians have a better standard of living than their counterparts in Ukraine and value their perceived stability.

Identity would seem to be a crucial difference between the two peoples. Ukraine has the trappings of nationalism – a founding myth, symbols, its own language, and a sense of its pre-Soviet history centred on Kyivan Rus’. It is tougher to find a focal point for Belarusian history and identity is more weakly defined. Unlike in Ukraine, where Russian and Ukrainian are spoken in equal measure, only a minority of Belarusians use Belarusian as their main language. Lukashenka made Russian a second official state language in 1995 and only 20% of schools use Belarusian as a primary language of instruction [1]. At times Belarusian national heroes have even been deemphasised; in 2005 a street named after one of the fathers of the Belarusian language, Francysk Skaryna, was unimaginatively renamed Independence Prospekt.

As recent events highlight, Ukraine is clearly split between ‘European’ and Russian-leaning populations. To a certain extent similar divisions do exist in Belarus, but the pull of Russia is by far the stronger, and the centralisation of power in a political elite minimises the opportunities for differences to spill-over into public action. The predominance of Russian language fosters the shared sense of political identity between Russia and Belarus.

This identity goes some way to explaining the linkages that exist in trade and industry too. It is true that the Soviet material legacy looms large in both Belarus and Ukraine, most obviously in energy and transportation infrastructures. However, identity is an important element in the process of defining national interest and explaining the two states’ differences in their choice of business partners [2]. In return Belarus expects Russia to support it, and indeed Russian subsidy has sustained Belarus in the past. Who you think you are in part determines what you do and vice versa. Consequently ties to Russia are deemed to be in the national interest. Decision-making in key areas of the largely state-controlled Belarusian economy involves few non-state actors, and Belarus has few interests in the EU for the simple reason that it ‘imagines’ itself part of a shared community with Russia.

Sovereignty, though, is important to Belarus and this leads it to resist Russia on occasion. This arguably impeded integration efforts between the two states in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is difficult to gauge Lukashenka’s opinion about whether he would prefer Ukraine to move closer to Europe or Russia. Bringing Ukraine into the Belarus-Kazakhstan-Russia Customs Union may be seen as a greater threat to Belarus’s status vis-à-vis Russia than the risk of ‘contagion’ from the Maidan. Moreover, whilst the idea of ‘transition’ is out of favour in political science, it is apparent that Ukraine is farther down any transition pathway than Belarus could be considered to be.

Notwithstanding this, Yanukovych was caught unawares by the protests in Kyiv and, as now, so back in 2004 before the Orange Revolution. At that time many pointed out that Ukraine was not Georgia (which had had its ‘revolution’ the year before). However unlikely protests in Minsk might seem, perhaps we ought not to be too complacent in pointing out that Belarus is not Ukraine after all.

[1] See Vadzim Smok (2013) Belarusian Identity: The Impact of Lukashenka’s Rule (p.10) (Available here: http://belarusdigest.com/papers/belarusianidentity.pdf)

[2] This argument is made by Andrei Tsygankov in ‘State Interests After Empire’ in Review of International Political Economy, 7:1 (2000)

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