Who Is Losing Belarus?

By Grigory Ioffe (February 1, 2012)

“With the decline of America’s global preeminence, weaker countries will be more susceptible to the assertive influence of major regional powers,” writes Zbigniew Brzezinski in his recent Foreign Policy essay (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/03/8_geopolitically_endangered_species?page=full). With this in mind, Brzezinski included Belarus in his list of eight “geopolitically endangered species” as Belarus faces a threat of annexation by Russia. While the threat in question cannot be discounted, it is debatable whether it is really America’s decline that may facilitate such an outcome. America’s lasting policy of punitive sanctions, half-heartedly followed by the European Union, may be a more fitting culprit. At least this is what Dzianis Melyantsow trusts is the case. Writing for the most anti-regime newspaper published in Minsk, the Belarusian-language Nasha Niva, which could hardly function without Western grants, Melyantsow writes that if anybody extracts benefits from the sanctions levied against Belarus, it is the Lukashenka regime itself. The Belarusian bureaucrats who are on a visa ban list are not in the habit of visiting Europe or the US anyway. They can vacation in Turkey, Egypt or in Crimea. And the sanctions do not even prevent these bureaucrats from visiting international institutions as was demonstrated just days ago when Anatoli. Kuleshov, the Minster of Internal Affairs of Belarus, visited the Interpol HQ in Lyon, France. Point by point, Melyantsow highlights the counter-productive nature of travel and economic sanctions, which destroy the remaining links between Belarus and the West so the latter loses leverage while the Belarusian elite understand the motivations of their Western colleagues less and less. As for the political prisoners, only a dialogue with the West, not sanctions can release them, concludes Melyantsow (nn.by/?c=ar&i=67114).

As the West loses influence over Belarus, Russia gains it. The economic side of the growing dependency of Belarus on Russia is summarized by Andrei Tikhomirov in Belorusskie Novosti (http://naviny.by/rubrics/economic/2012/01/21/ic_articles_113_176579/). From January to November 2011, trade with Russia amounted to $35.6 billion or $10.9 billion more than during the same period in 2010 and accounted for 45.3 percent of the total volume of Belarus’s international trade, with the excess of imports from Russia over exports to it expanding from $6.9 billion in 2010 to $9.3 billion in 2011. Tikhomirov cites Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich, according to whom the recently introduced discounts on Russian oil and gas prices ensure savings of $4 billion per annum for Belarus. In 2012, Belarus will receive the third $800 million tranche of the loan from the Eurasian Economic Community and the first $500 million tranche of Russia’s $10 billion loan to build a nuclear station in Belarus. Russia-owned property is on the rise in the banking and oil-refining sectors.

It would, however, be a mistake to discuss the most recent surge in Belarus’s dependency on Russia only in economic terms. If cultural preconditions of this dependency were understood better, Belarus policies developed in the Western corridors of power might exercise more caution. The country remains firmly attached to Russia’s cultural space. Alexander Lukashenka is the only post-Soviet leader who routinely congratulates Russian pop singers, movie actors, and authors on their birthdays, as Belarusians do not consider them to be foreigners. According to Nina Mechkovskaya, professor of Belarusian State University (http://magazines.russ.ru/nz/2011/6/m16.html), in 2009, only 30 percent of Belarusians used Belarusian at home, including only 11.3 percent of urbanites who account for 75 percent of the entire population. From 1999 to 2009, the number of Russian-language book titles published in Belarus exceeded the number of book titles in Belarusian by a factor of ten, and Russian-language books have had a much higher circulation. From 1994 to 2007, import of books from Russia increased by 90 percent. Mechkovskaya cites Yury Zisser, the founder of the most popular Belarusian internet portal Tut.by, according to whom only 6 percent of content in the Belarusian segment of the internet is actually produced within Belarus, much of the rest comes from Russia. Only 1.5 percent of Belarusian internet users visit sites with the Belarusian-language interface. Mechkovskaya admits that most urban Belarusian speakers learned the language not from their mothers or schoolteachers but on their own. As a result, Belarusian gets more and more bookish, elitist, and detached from every day communication. It is rarely used as a natural communication medium but mostly for professional, symbolic, and ideological purposes. Using Belarusian in public has become a sort of performance. Mechkovskaya admits that under globalization, relative decline in the economic and political sovereignty of the country is unavoidable. She, however, questions Belarus’s cultural sovereignty which, in her view, depends on how attractive and unique the information content generated in Belarus is. What is currently generated may not be enough to sustain the nation and one’s pride of this nation.

For many years in a row, the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), an opposition-minded polling firm, included the following question in its quarterly surveys. If there is a referendum on two alternative options – either to become a member of the EU or to join Russia – which of the two options would you vote for? Until the end of 2010, more Belarusians opted for unification with Russia than for joining the EU, but the gap was narrowing; in 2011, two quarterly surveys actually revealed the advantage of the EU option. And this is despite the fact that when asked (by the same polling firm), who do you feel closer to, Russians or Europeans, in March 2010 74.5 percent of Belarusians pointed to Russians and only 19.4 percent pointed to Europeans. Apparently the attraction of the EU option offset cultural leanings. However, the last survey of December 2011 revealed that the old pattern is back: 41.4 percent were in favor of the unification with Russia and 39.1 percent were in favor of joining the EU. This survey came on the heels of the groundbreaking agreements with Russia signed on November 25, 2011 – the agreements that ensured the aforementioned economic benefits for Belarus. It seems that Russia is winning the tug of war for Belarus due to its businesslike Belarus policy. This is why, and not because of the decline in the overall America’s power, Belarus is on the “geopolitically endangered species” list.