Fresh Ideas: Will Belarus be Putin’s next conquest?
Belarus is a small country located in the geographic center of Europe. We find Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia on its west, and Russia and Ukraine on its east. A landlocked country with no natural borders, at its closest point, it’s only 160 miles from the Baltic Sea.
It’s an old country with its own language, and from the 13th century to 1794 it was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Litva), a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state comprised of great diversity in languages and cultures.
The Empire of Russia conquered Belarus in 1794 and imposed the Russian language. On March 25, 1918, Belarus declared its independence, but by 1919 the Red Army of the Soviet Union engulfed it once again. Today’s Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, established a Republic and enjoyed freedom until the national election of 1994 when Lukashenka, often described as the “Last Dictator of Europe” became president and known for his pro-Russian stance.
Politically, economically, and culturally, Belarus is between a rock and a hard place.
Two hundred years of Russian domination has reduced the number of Belarusians who can speak their own native language to something like 23 percent, despite the fact Belarusian is an official language of the country. Since Lukashenka’s election, anyone speaking Belarusian was associated with opposition to him. Use of Belarusian dropped off and Russian was added as another official language. Lukashenka has been in power since 1995.
As president, Lukashenka is a feeble nationalist, in thrall to Russia economically. When Russia felt the weight of economic sanctions imposed on it, it increased the price of natural gas and imposes higher transit fees on Belarus. As of February 2017, Russia claimed Belarus’s debt had reached $600 million. Though disputed, this economic pressure nevertheless caused Lukashenka to enforce the “social parasite tax,” a law passed in 2015, but not acted upon until 2017.
Unpopular in the extreme, the tax is levied on anyone who hasn’t worked for six months. Typically averse to oppose the authorities, Belarusians nevertheless took to the streets in February and March. The first protest of two to three thousand caused Lukashenka to relent and appease, but the protests continued in 14 different cities, and by March 25, attempts to contain them were brutal. The world presses were watching. As one protester said, “To participate was frightening; not to do so, shameful.”
Andrei Sannikov, a nationalist and advocate of a democratic government, beaten and jailed after his loss to Lukashenka in the 2010 election, was tried a year later and imprisoned, then paroled in 2012. Since then he has spoken out about life under the dictator as a “monstrous absurdity, when lies of the officials become a norm, as they are convinced of their impunity.” They try “to hypnotize people from the TV screens” and people begin to believe “a charlatan is better than a professional doctor. I think Lukashenko offers simple solutions that are not grounded upon anything.” He concludes, “Values are more important than business.” He supports sanctions against Russia because “the costs of war” are avoided. He also points out Russia has now deployed the two biggest Iskander-M nuclear missile carriers into the Baltic and ordered 4162 railcars for an “exercise” on the territory of Belarus. It causes one to wonder if Putin is getting nervous; if Lukashenka’s strong arm needs enforcing or possibly wholesale displacement?
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.