Is Russia Losing Allies?

27 March 2014, 15:30

There were several events in the centre Minsk, Belarus capital, last weekend that one way or another, were related to Ukraine. Taking advantage of “preferential” pre-election procedures (there is an on-going local election campaign in Belarus, and during this period, candidates can set up campaign points in the city under a simplified procedure, without having to wait for permission from the authorities – Ed.), some political forces have expressed their views on events in Ukraine.

The most significant was probably that of the liberal United Civic Party of Belarus (UCP). “Russia – go away!”, “Russia – this is war!”, “No – to Russian military bases in Belarus!” – these were the placards held by participants of the picket.

Such anti-Russian slogans are not typical of the UCP. “Russia – this is war!” is the slogan of the most radical, marginalised and not very numerous Conservative Christian Party – BPF, which split from the main BPF (its leader, Zianon Pazniak, known for his radical nationalism has been in political exile for nearly 20 years). No one expected such slogans from the UCP: until recently, it was considered to be probably the most pro-Russian party in Belarus’ opposition. It has signed quite a few cooperation agreements with various Russian entities, including Boris Nemtsov’s party, the RPR-PARNAS.

For tolerant Belarusians, such slogans are like a red rag to a bull. And of course, the first thing that the picketers heard from passers-by was: “Fascists and Banderites”. But this did not dismay UCP members and their leader, Anatol Labiedźka. As Anatol said later, the main thing is to provoke a discussion and to talk with the people. But in his view, the main thing right now, is Russia’s military intervention in Ukrainian matters.

Anatol feels that this is directly pertinent to Belarus. Most of its citizens “are not aware that a war could also directly affect them. According to the Collective Security Treaty that we have with Russia, we have to take its side in this conflict. And send our children to war. Where is this war? In Ukraine. Fight whom? Ukrainians! And when people realise this, they will say “no” to both Russian aggression and Russian military bases in Belarus. They thought that everything would happen just like that: we signed the treaty and military bases appeared… As a result, it turns out that Russia could bring its troops into Belarus for the protection of its citizens,” says Labiedźka.

At the same time, he does not exclude the possibility that a scenario, similar to that in Crimea, could be easily implemented in Belarus sometime in the future. “Because of the policy conducted by the current government, we are Russia’s pawns in every aspect; as pertains military (Russian bases), political (we are in all political structures and organisations with Moscow), and even language aspects. A large proportion of the people here speak Russian. And if these citizens, who are more radical, are fed money and propaganda, then at some future date, they can say that they are being offended by someone here. And troops could be brought in, simply because several hundred people in Belarus say that they are being victimised. There are the examples of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and today – Crimea. So the situation is very dangerous,” Labiedźka says.

For this reason, he considers it worth addressing the “Ukrainian issue” with the people and not be concerned about their initial aggressiveness. “We have to talk to them and explain what the consequences of events in Ukraine could be for Belarus. I don’t think that anyone wants his/her son to go to war in either Russia or Ukraine. No one needs these zinc caskets,” Anatol adds.  

The arguments presented by Labiedźka and his supporters have touched a chord with many. Initially aggressive, having listened to the politicians, the residents of Minsk began to agree: neither Ukraine, nor Belarus needs a war in Crimea. So Labiedźka achieved his goal.

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A picket with a similar purpose was organised in Minsk by one of the largest opposition organisations – the public campaign, Tell the Truth! (Hovory Pravdu!), headed by former presidential candidate and Belarusian poet, Uladzimir Nyaklyayew. This action was far more peaceful, because there weren’t any radical slogans. However, it proposed that the citizens of Belarus should express their solidarity with Ukraine, which people did – quite actively.

“In truth, our task is to turn people’s attention to Belarusian events, by showing them through the prism of Ukraine,” Andrey Dmitriev, coordinator of Tell the Truth!, explained. “What we hear from the majority today is: yes, we support change, but without bloodshed, as in Ukraine. And at the same time we say: that which happened in Ukraine, happens when the authorities don’t listen or hear the people. Also, today, we are giving people the opportunity to express their solidarity with Ukraine, without dividing it into “blue and white” and “orange”, into “Russians” and “Banderites”. As far as the Russian decision on the possibility of bringing troops into the Crimea is concerned, we would like to state that Ukraine is an independent country and it is capable of resolving its issues by itself, without any outside intervention.”

Participants of demonstrations that were not part of the election campaign were treated somewhat harsher: more than 20 activists of the Young Front youth movement were detained near the Russian Embassy in Minsk. They intended to organise a protest against troops being brought into Crimea. This did not happen: all potential participants and journalists who had planned to air it were preventatively detained. But the young people still managed to say everything they felt to a Russian representative: without sorting out who was who, the Belarusian police detained the press attaché of the Russian Embassy, Alexander Pchelintsev, together with the protesters and escorted them to a police station.

For a long time, the official Minsk did not comment on the situation between Moscow and Kyiv. Aleksandr Lukashenko was reluctant to interfere in the showdown this time: on the one hand, there is Russia, of course, a “strategic partner” and closest ally. But on the other, there is Ukraine – Belarus’ third largest trading partner (behind Russia and the EU) and arguing with it is inconvenient.

The Belarusian leader last expressed himself about the situation in Ukraine on February 23, when he laid wreaths at the Victory Monument. Lukashenko assured everyone that: “They have their problems. The Maidan is not news for us. This is not the first time, and you know, I’m still friends with the participants of the first Maidan (Viktor Yushchenko and others). They have their issues, we have ours, and we shall be basing our own policies on this. They have their own country and we have ours. We have common goals regarding Ukraine. Ukraine must be undivided. No one should tear this large country apart; it is not alien to us.” Speaking personally to Mykhailo Yezhel, the Ukrainian Ambassador in Belarus, he added: “Everything will be okay. We are Slavs, after all.”

During recent negotiations in Riga with Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, his Belarusian colleague, Uladzimir Makei stated: “It is in our interests for Ukraine to remain a sovereign, independent and territorially integral state. […] This is based on the position that for us, Ukraine is a very important partner.”

Thus, the actions of Russia regarding Ukraine have forced even the pro-Kremlin part of Belarusian society to prick up its ears. The only thing that traditionally tolerant Belarusians will not tolerate is war and aggression. If Moscow is the aggressor, pro-Russian sentiments in society fade quickly.

“Raging nationalism” is hardly an option in Belarus, but its goodwill towards Russia is clearly weakening.

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