The six-months long crisis in Belarus has potential to unlock wider democratic changes in the region. Its outcome promises to have particular implications for Russia, where recent pro-Navalny protests showed that both the authorities and the opposition have been taking lessons from their Belarusian counterparts. As such, the crisis provides the UK with an opportunity to strengthen its role in Europe post-Brexit by taking a leading role in Western diplomatic efforts aimed at facilitating political dialogue in Belarus. Even before 2020, Britain had begun to appreciate the geostrategic importance of Belarus as a regional security partner following the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war and the Salisbury affair, when it revived diplomatic relations with the country after a long hiatus. Now, as Belarus’ third largest export partner after Russia and Ukraine, Britain has some meaningful economic wherewithal to put pressure on Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s repressive regime. But while economic sanctions can be an effective mechanism, they should also be accompanied by closer engagement with civil society in Belarus.
Any engagement strategies must take into account the lasting importance of Soviet legacy in shaping contemporary social and political attitudes. It would seem that the protests finally shattered Belarus’ long-standing reputation as the most ‘Soviet’ of the former USSR republics. For twenty-six years, Lukashenka had staked his claim to legitimacy on the promise to preserve and build on the stability of the final Soviet decades. His regime also championed a pro-Russian outlook and Soviet-style memory of the Second World War, policies that resonated with a large share of the population. But the mass demonstrations against the fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020 showed plainly that Lukashenka’s social contract, so closely modelled on the Soviet version, has expired. The growing economic problems and the government’s inept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic had caused widespread frustration. Belarus’ digital revolution had left the ageing dictator behind. Voters now preferred the English-speaking wife of an imprisoned blogger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia, to the former propagandist and state farm manager Lukashenka. During the electoral campaign and the ensuing protests, Belarusian society emerged as possessing urban culture, digital sophistication and civic pride.
Yet, it would be premature to dismiss the Soviet past as an irrelevance. Its enduring legacy has given the Belarusian protest movement its distinctive features, helping to undermine the very regime that has done so much to keep it alive. Lukashenka’s failure to deliver either prosperity, or stability cost him his legitimacy, but it would be rash to presume that it turned Belarusians into unambiguous supporters of Western-style capitalism. Nor have the protests turned a majority into EU enthusiasts – their trust remains to be won. Pro-Russian sympathies persist, yet they co-exist with popular commitment to Belarusian statehood. The collective memory of the Second World War remains important to Belarusians’ sense of identity. And their experience of the final decades of the Soviet era left a complex mark that needs to be understood by the Western diplomatic community if they are to reach out to broad sections of Belarusians rather than alienate them.
Lukashenka’s strategy of appealing to the Soviet past worked effectively for as long as it did because it resonated with so many Belarusians. Their perceptions drew on some real economic and social successes of the late Soviet decades. In the 1970s, Belarus completed its transformation from a peasant backwater of the former Russian empire into an industrial heartland of the Soviet one. Its remarkable post-war reconstruction was a source of pride. So was its war-time partisan record, whitewashed of any controversies to fit seamlessly into the Brezhnev-era veneration of the memory of World War II. Late Soviet Belarus was a success story of Soviet modernisation. Its once-primitive farming sector turned into a major supplier of meat and dairy products, eggs, grain, flax and vegetables. Its industry had grown from negligible pre-war levels to produce relatively sophisticated high-tech equipment and consumer goods. Its growing chemical sector contributed nearly half of the total Soviet potassium fertilizer output by 1970. Belarus also developed its own oil-refining industry, a future bargaining chip in its post-Soviet relations with Russia.
Rapid post-war industrialisation dramatically altered Belarus’ social and cultural fabric. Industrial expansion brought scores of villagers to towns. In the 1970s, the republic’s capital Minsk was one of the fastest growing cities in the USSR, with up to 55,000 new residents arriving annually. By 1975, the majority of Belarusians were urban residents. Living standards were high, and the economy seemed on the rise even as the picture grew increasingly bleak elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The new arrivals were keen to adopt the Russian language and partake in the modernity and cultural products that Soviet urban living offered. Many seemed happy to send their children to Russian schools.
These social changes have been cited to explain the lack of a strongly manifested ethnic identity in post-Soviet Belarus. But it is often overlooked just how much the late Soviet era did to foster a sense of Belarusianness. Although primarily a Soviet republic, Belarus was also a national one. Ethnically, it was exceptionally homogeneous, a tragic legacy of the Holocaust, Soviet deportations, and post-war population exchanges. While the Russian language dominated the public and private spheres, official efforts were made to support Belarusian national culture and literature, and the overwhelming majority of the republic’s population considered Belarusian as their native language. There were other trappings of national identity and even international recognition: post-war Belarus got its own Ministry of Foreign Affairs and received a separate seat on the UN Security Council. Undoubtedly, it toed the Moscow line, but this was still a status symbol. Although Soviet official war memory was at best incomplete, Belarus’ distinctive place in it served as another source of pride and identity for many. The relative prosperity that arrived in the 1970s, after half a century of war and upheaval, also fostered social cohesiveness. Unsurprisingly, some of this inheritance seemed worth taking into the post-Soviet era.
Belarusians had mixed feelings about the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The Union-wide referendum, held nine months earlier, showed that 83% of Belarus residents wanted to preserve the USSR. Even after independence, anti-Soviet nationalist rhetoric had limited appeal. The uncertainties of the early independence years threw the economic successes of the late Soviet period into even sharper relief.
Unlike his rivals in Belarus’ first presidential elections of 1994, Lukashenka was attuned to the lingering pro-Soviet sentiments. His proposals to make the Soviet Belarusian flag and coat of arms state symbols of independent Belarus and to restore Russian as an official language alongside Belarusian received overwhelming popular support in a 1995 referendum. The result also gave Lukashenka permission to seek economic integration with Russia and strengthened presidential powers. Lukashenka stoked fears of the Russia-style bandit capitalism and pledged instead to restore the key benefits of the recent socialist past: social equality and welfare guaranteed by the state-controlled economy, as well as respect for Soviet war memory and closer economic and political ties with Russia.
This approach resonated with many Belarusians. Over 82% of respondents in a 1996 national survey declared that the state had a greater share of responsibility for the welfare of its people than the people themselves. Even twenty years later, in 2016, this number was 65%, still a significant majority.
Over the years, Lukashenka’s political strategy shifted in accordance with his vacillating relationship with the Kremlin. Russia’s war with Ukraine gave further impetus to a more pronounced nationalist turn that had been present in Lukashenka’s rhetoric even before 2014. But the Soviet past was never renounced. If anything, extolling Belarus’ socialist achievements and wartime contribution gained in importance as part of the state efforts to promote a distinctive national identity.
Such one-sided assessments of the Soviet era have not gone unchallenged, but they helped fuel a lasting sense of collective pride. In 2013, over 78% of respondents in an independent national poll agreed that victory in WWII was one of the twentieth-century events that Belarusians could be most proud of. Notably fewer (39%) named independence in 1991. The first ever declaration of Belarusian statehood in 1918 scraped 10% of the votes. On the other hand, a third of the respondents named the post-war reconstruction and the subsequent industrialization as Belarusians’ greatest achievements.
Also telling is the enduring popularity of Petr Masherau, the communist party boss who presided over Soviet Belarus during its most successful years from 1965 to 1980. Decades after his death in a car crash, Masherau remains one of the most highly regarded public figures in Belarus. In national polls, held regularly between 1996 and 2013 by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, this former partisan hero was consistently voted first or second, leaving behind a plethora of well-known political names from different times and places. In every poll bar two, Masherau ‘beat’ Lukashenka.
Memories of Belarusian Soviet-era achievements helped shape the nation’s post-1991 collective identity. This does not mean that Belarusians continue to feel ‘Soviet’. The focus on their pro-Russian attitudes has often obscured the fact, evidenced by opinion polls, that Belarusians feel that they are quite a separate nation from Russia.
The affinity towards Russia and the Russian language combined with Belarusian patriotism point towards a civic, rather than purely ethnic, identity. Its civic character was established in the late Soviet decades; it owes its longevity to the Lukashenka regime. Yet now, ironically, it is working against him.
As Covid-19 struck Belarus, the overwhelmingly urban nation (79%) resented being told by Lukashenka that the best cure against the global pandemic was a ride on a tractor. Belarusian women, whose share in the labour force of 25-54 year-olds exceeds men’s, another legacy of Soviet times, were offended by Lukashenka’s pre-election comment that the burdens of presidential office would be too much for a woman. Late Soviet Belarus had prided itself on its R&D, and Lukashenka tried to imitate this by building up a strong IT sector, but effectively destroyed it after its employees showed solidarity with the protesters. Many of them took their expertise to the protest movement instead.
This civic identity gives the Belarusian protest movement some of its distinctive features. The extraordinary commitment to civil and peaceful action, which has put the movement on high moral ground, draws on the traumatic war memory cultivated since the Soviet times. This memory was evoked to express the widespread popular shock and indignation at the police violence unleashed against demonstrators, which destroyed Lukashenka’s legitimacy and drew many formerly apolitical Belarusians into protests. The opposition and protesters now routinely label his regime as ‘fascist’.
After playing the Soviet card for 26 years, Lukashenka is finding it is no longer a trump. His legitimacy has been dealt a fatal blow as he can no longer be seen as the guarantor of peace, stability and prosperity that so many Belarusians longed to retain after the collapse of the USSR. Three decades on, the anti-Lukashenka protests have revealed that many in today’s Belarus see themselves as part of a modern and civilized nation whose people are creative, at ease with technology, and possess a sense of humor. Opinion surveys before the August 2020 elections showed that Belarusians have grown less reliant on state paternalism. Their fight now is about moving forward, not going back to Soviet times. But the Soviet legacy continues to play a role, and it should not be underestimated: after all, this image of Belarus as a modern, urbane, and peace-loving republic took shape in the final decades of the Soviet era.
Any efforts to engage with wider Belarusian society need to be sensitive to the fact that several key elements of this legacy – an urban and relatively cosmopolitan culture, an emphasis on modernity, rejection of violence, and a sense of moderate national pride without nationalist excesses – remain relevant to Belarusians today. Their pro-Russian sympathies and reluctance to choose sides between Russia and the EU also have roots in Belarus’ Soviet experience and thus precede Lukashenka. This does not detract from the fact that Belarusians want democratic changes and the rule of law, but it is something that Western diplomats need to bear in mind.
It would be unwise to assume that the protests are all about rejecting the Soviet past and embracing a Western-style market economy. Belarusian attitudes are more ambivalent and divided on both counts. The late Soviet era, after all, brought modernity. But what unites the different sections of Belarusian society is their rejection of Lukashenka and his repressive system, which failed to deliver on its promises and unleashed unprecedented violence, and whose image is increasingly at odds with modernity that was once the perceived hallmark of Belarus’ experience.
Renee L. Buhr, Victor Shadurski & Steven Hoffman, ‘Belarus: an emerging civic nation?’, Nationalities Papers, 39:3 (2011), 425-440
Elena A. Korosteleva, Colin W. Lawson and Rosalind J. Marsh (eds.), Contemporary Belarus: Between democracy and dictatorship (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2003)
Natalia Leshchenko, ‘The national ideology and the basis of the Lukashenka regime in Belarus’, Europe-Asia Studies, 60:8 (2008), 1419-1433
David Marples, ‘Our Glorious Past’: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War (Ibidem Verlag: Stuttgart, 2014)
Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The last European dictatorship (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011)
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