Under the suffocating grip of their “older brother”
The recent revolutionary events in Ukraine have opened a discussion about the difference between the “Belarusian” and “Ukrainian” method of change. Previously, Ukraine’s profitable aspirations for democracy were set against “the pillar of socialism” or “the Russian servant,” as Belarus is often called. The latest developments in the political changes of these countries do not allow us to make such black-and-white comparisons anymore.
A different juxtaposition becomes more relevant – while Belarus’s political system is stable enough to hold power even in times of political and economic crisis, in Ukraine power undergoes permanent change. Both the elites and the ordinary people of these two neighboring countries observe their mutual actions in order to understand what profits and what shortcomings each of these scenarios of change may bring.
It is easy to find supporters of the Belarusian model among ordinary Ukrainians, which may be characterized by stability, order, and straightforward populism. The way in which Viktor Yanukovych strengthened presidential power and limited civil liberties bore a strong resemblance to the authoritarian actions of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
For the rulers of Belarus, who are completely focused on maintaining power, lasting political protest and revolutions – leading to the overthrow of the highest political authorities – poses a potential danger. A feeling of anxiety among Belarusian elites could be especially felt during the Orange Revolution, when you could almost smell the victory of the “colorful” protests. Now, when the Belarusian authorities are far from being afraid, it is worth asking – why?
Despite a wave of joyful enthusiasm among democratic activists in Belarus to begin mass protests, political change is not going to be an easy task. What is needed is not only the lack of support for the rulers among the majority of society, but also developed abilities of political resistance, which have virtually vanished during the authoritarian regime’s rule. The Belarusian opposition is celebrating the victory of Maidan and is supporting it in every possible way – from personal engagement to information support, although the possibility of imitating Maidan in Belarus has definitely been ruled out.
If, despite significant ideological differences, Lukashenka was able to establish friendly relations with Viktor Yushchenko, it was completely different with Yanukovych. Most likely, it was Yanukovych’s “thieving inclinations” that prevented any mutual agreement. Therefore, despite the restrained and cautious evaluation of the Ukrainian revolution, the Belarusian authorities have not shown the slightest – even formal – support for the former president.
The arrival of the Russian army onto Ukraine’s territory and Russian activities aimed at destabilizing the country have changed the situation completely. Even before the change of circumstances, Lukashenka made a public declaration that the territorial integrity of Ukraine is in Belarusian interests. And, indeed, it is. Putting all the ideological differences of various political forces in Belarus aside, when it comes to this issue – both the authoritarian government and the democratic opposition show unanimity.
Russia is threatening war, which may cause economic destabilization, political disintegration, and lead to bloodshed throughout region. Both Ukraine and Belarus have been living in the adamant and suffocating grip of their “older brother” for centuries. Belarus can expect pressure and perhaps even blackmail from Russia concerning the responsibility to support, at least verbally, the Russian “peace intervention.”
One thing certain – for Russia, the partition of Ukraine will not be enough. Only a solid and firm standpoint of world society may succeed in stopping the rolling snowball of Russian imperialism.
Aliaksiej Lastoŭski is a sociologist and researcher of Belarusian memory. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the Belarusian Political Science Review and a member of the Institute for Political Studies Political Sphere.