The new Cold War and the realignment in Belarus

by Professor Dr Peter Bachmaier*

There have always been protests against the government in Belarus since the election victory of Alexander Lukashenko – who did not come from the nomenklatura – in July 1994 with 81 %. Eventually they started out in the USA and aimed at regime change (a colour revolution like in the Ukraine). In October 2004, President George Bush signed a “Belarus Democracy Act” which stipulated that financial aid for Belarus would not benefit the government and the state, but only the “democratic opposition”. On 4 May 2006, in his speech in Vilnius, Vice President Dick Cheney sharply attacked Belarus and declared: “There is no place in Europe for a regime of this kind.” In May 2008, the Washington government cut off diplomatic relations with Belarus and closed the US embassy in Minsk. Belarus has also been asked to close its embassy in Washington and its consulate in New York.

Colour revolution

However, in 2014, after the colour revolution in Ukraine, President Lukashenko started a “multi-vector policy” and tried to maintain good relations with the EU and Ukraine. In November 2019, he first visited the EU country Austria.
  In May 2020, even before the presidential elections of 9 August 2020, protests against President Lukashenko began again. The immediate reason for this was his refusal to adopt the West’s corona measures based on Italy’s model, even though the IMF had offered him a loan of more than USD 900 million in May 2020. The West’s growing conflict with Russia was the real reason for the attacks. Protests began, which led to an attempt at a violent coup like in Ukraine on the day of the election on 9 August. The protest movement was controlled by Belarusian activists in Poland and Lithuania, primarily from the Telegram channel NEXTA. The pictures and videos of the protests were manipulated so that all the time many more demonstrators could be seen. In reality, according to reports from the Belarusian Interior Ministry, there were never more than 50,000.
  Ukraine, which is linguistically and culturally closely related to Belarus, played a major role in all protests against the government, especially the Maidan revolution in Kiev. Belarus’ trade with Ukraine fell from a positive balance of $ 3 billion to $ 1.5 billion after 2014. Belarus therefore tried to convene a Ukraine conference with Russia, Germany, Great Britain, France and Ukraine (“Normandy format”), and in 2015 managed to conclude a ceasefire agreement. The Chinese Silk Road, which runs through Minsk, also played a role. Its development was to be slowed down.
  Western media launched an attack on Belarus, as did the universities. The Institutes for Slavic Studies and Eastern European History in particular held online conferences to which Belarusian opposition figures were invited.
  Political films were produced, such as the film “Courage” by opposition director Aleksei Palujan, which received an award from the Berlinale in 2021.
  The participants in the protests, apart from the small group of leading activists, were young well-educated people from the private IT sector, where you can also find Western companies. The young people were well informed about the “sweet life” in the West via their smartphones and the Internet and wanted to adopt it. The protests ended in November 2020, and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition, lamented: “We lost the road!” But soon there were new actions.

New actions against Belarus in April and May 2021

On 18 April 2021, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) presented a video of a conversation about the planned subversion of Lukashenko. In the video, two Belarusians, political scientist Alexander Feduta and US-based lawyer Yuri Senkovich, discussed the subversion of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with high-ranking Belarusian officers in a restaurant in Moscow. The recordings were shown on the Rossiya-1 TV channel. “The first task is to eliminate the main character [by assassinating Lukashenko during the Victory Day parade on 9 May]. The second task is to block the internal troops and the riot police (OMON). The third task is to occupy the radio station and the TV station so that we can spread an appeal”, Yuri Senkovich said in the video. The group of conspirators was arrested by the Russian police and handed over to the Belarusian authorities. The main Western media reported nothing about it.
  On 23 May 2021, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei presented the Ryanair incident at a press conference in Minsk as a planned Western provocation.  The Ryanair plane, which flew from Athens to Vilnius on 23 May sent an emergency message over the territory of the Republic of Belarus. The cause was a bomb threat received by the pilot of the Boeing 737. The pilot, who received a negative response from Vilnius, Warsaw and Kraków airports, decided to make an emergency landing at Minsk airport. The plane and the luggage of the passengers were examined by special services. The bomb was not found. Among the passengers was Roman Protasevich, one of the two editors-in-chief of the opposition blog NEXTA, who was arrested.
  Western media reported this incident, but only by accusing Belarus of hijacking the plane. However, Protasevich himself explained in an interview for the Belarusian broadcaster ONT that he was “sacrificed” by the opposition in order to blame Lukashenko.

EU’s sanctions

The EU had already imposed the first sanctions against Belarus in 1997 on the basis of the presidential constitution, which grants the president extensive rights, but these were lifted by 2015, when the last opposition members were released.
  In June 2021, the EU again imposed sanctions on Belarus, on the entire leadership of Belarus and on the main Belarusian companies. The country will no longer be able to import anything from the West, but instead will be forced to produce many things in its own country. All public transport leading to Belarus (flights, trains or buses) had to stop operating by EU decision.
  The whole situation is not in favour of the continental Europeans, but of the British and Americans, for whom creating barriers in Eurasia has always been part of the strategic game of controlling territories and trade routes. The sanctions did not go unanswered. Belarus took action against those trying to bring them to their knees. Import substitution, the search for new markets, intensifying integration with allies, the search for new partners – this is the Belarusian response to the sanctions.
  The EU does not want to allow a more or less successful example of another way to develop right next door. The Belarusian model will attract many citizens from within the Western countries themselves, where the population is increasingly expressing dissatisfaction with the realities and is looking for new political forces to change the situation in the future.

The Corona pandemic and the economy

Belarus took its own political path in the Corona pandemic. The country was not shut down, the factories and shops, inns, schools, universities and churches were not closed, but continued to work. The sports facilities were also open and held football games and ice hockey tournaments.
  The pandemic also came to Belarus in March 2020. The country was prepared, there was a comprehensive plan to fight the pandemic. From Soviet times there were still hospitals for infectious diseases, precautionary measures for a pandemic with medical equipment, institutes of virology and trained staff. The Belarusian health service was able to cope with everything. According to the UN, Belarus was well prepared for the crisis. There were 41 medical doctors, 114 nurses and 110 hospital beds per 10,000 inhabitants. In EU countries the average is 30 doctors, 91 nurses and 55 hospital beds.
  In 2020, the first year of the Corona pandemic, Belarus was able to keep its gross national product at the same level as in 2019 because the factories were not closed. Lukashenko declared at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on 11 February 2021: “Over the past five years, the real income of the population has increased by 15 %, the average salary has reached 1200 roubles. There is also a social package – free education and medicine, housing and transport benefits.”
  In the first half of 2021, GDP increased by 3.3 % and industrial production by 10.4 %.

The illegal migrant crisis

Belarus has always rejected illegal migrants at the border. However, since June 2021, the country changed its policy on this issue.
  In 2021, Lithuania was ravaged by mostly Iraqi migrants trying to enter the country illegally from Belarus. Their flow has increased following rising tensions between Belarus and the European Union. In 2021, about 4000 illegal migrants from Belarus entered this country.
  The Lithuanians initially tried to take in the migrants, but this caused problems. They therefore began disallowing asylum applications while rejecting migrants at the border. They erected a barrier modelled on the barbed wire fence built by Hungary in 2015. The flow of migrants was diverted to Latvia and Poland, and they responded in the same way as Lithuania.
  The border guard of Poland recorded more than 3000 attempts to illegally cross the Belarusian-Polish border in August 2021. At the end of August 2021, the Polish army began building a three-metre-high and 180-km-long border fence intended to stop migration to Poland.

Opposition against the Western culture

Belarus defended its national culture and closed the Soros-funded European Humanities University in Minsk in 2005, which subsequently moved to Vilnius. After 2010, Belarus attempted rapprochement with the EU, started a process of rapprochement with Western universities, and in 2015 joined the Bologna process to align with EU educational standards and integrate into European science. One reason for this was also to attract foreign students to study at Belarusian universities.
  However, Belarus opposed the “Westernisation of culture”, i. e., the threat of losing cultural sovereignty and attempts to distort historical truth and destroy historical memory. In 2021, Belarus stopped participating in the EU’s Eastern Partnership and withdrew from the Bologna University Agreement. The Belarusian PEN Club and 40 NGOs funded by Western foundations have been dissolved.

Family policy

Belarus has taken effective measures to support families with children in recent years. Every fourth child in the country is covered by the state benefit system. As a result, the number of large families has almost doubled in the last decade.
  An expanded family capital programme has been in place since 2015. The number of open accounts is already approaching 100,000 people and totals over a billion US dollars. Last year the programme was extended by a new period of five years.
  Currently, systematic work is being done to develop family models for the upbringing of orphans and children without parental care. Almost 400 babies were adopted in 2020 alone. About two thousand children are being raised in three hundred family houses. Children who are deprived of parental affection are not to live in barracks but in these houses.

The new constitution and education in patriotism

The new constitution aims to involve society in the government of the country: parliament, governors and local authorities. The powers of the president are to be delegated. Parliament and local councils are to be elected by a proportional list of parties. However, the country is to remain a presidential republic even under a new president. At the beginning of 2022, the draft of a nationwide vote was presented.
  The new constitution, which was discussed at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on 11-12 February 2021 in Minsk, therefore provides for increased education of youth in patriotism and a rejection of the Western nihilistic worldview. Article 54 of the constitution already states: “Everyone is obliged to protect the historical, cultural and intellectual heritage and other national treasures.”
  Patriotic rallies were organised, such as on 22 June 2021 in Brest, where a large commemoration event was held to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the attack on the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. The three-week resistance of the Brest Fortress against the invasion, as Lukashenko said, should be a day for all Belarusians to commemorate the greatest national feat of the Belarusian people. “We will not give our home, our independence and sovereignty to anyone. The holy army that defended Brest back then is now helping us to take care of our homeland of Belarus. It helps, first of all, by the example of indomitable perseverance, courage and devotion shown during the Great Patriotic War.”
  3 July 2021 celebrates Independence Day, the Liberation Day in 1944, the main celebration of Belarusian statehood. On 17 September 2021, the “Day of National Unity”, the Day of Reunification, was celebrated as a new holiday commemorating the reunification of West Belarus with East Belarus in 1939. At that time, after almost twenty years of Polish occupation, the Belarusian people were reunited.

The global confrontation between the West and Russia

The global confrontation between the West and Russia and China looks like a new Cold War and includes the scenario of a coup in Belarus. The answer to this is that Western NGOs dealing with politics, culture and education will be shut down, as will media which is funded by the West. Belarus has withdrawn from the EU’s Eastern Partnership and the Bologna Agreement, which stipulates common standards for all universities. Western values are thoroughly criticised.
  In the union with Russia, Belarus differs from the integration projects of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the fact that it has very deep integration not only in the economy, but also in politics. The ministries sometimes act together, especially in defence. There is no such thing in the EAEU, it is an economic union. The CIS today is primarily a platform for discussing certain issues related to a free trade area. The most advanced integration is taking place in the Union of Belarus and Russia. In the referendum in the 1990s, the question of whether there should be integration with Russia was answered in the affirmative by 71.5 %. Around 30 % spoke out in favour of the European Union.

The Eurasian orientation

On 26 May 2021, President Lukashenko said in a speech to parliamentarians: “We will replace the inexorably aging Europe with fast-growing Asia. Our society is poised to become part of the new Eurasia, its outpost. That is, there is an orientation towards Russia and China, and towards the community, the people and the nation. The main achievements of Belarus remain the welfare state and national sovereignty.”
  A new cultural project has been launched in Moscow – the “New Eurasia” movement, which aims to become a serious ideological engine involving a significant circle of like-minded people. “New Eurasia” is an ideological platform that wants to build a new culture and a new economy.
  There are many well-known figures in the ranks of the movement, including Zakhar Prilepin, the leader of the “Fair Russia” movement. A participant in the constitutive congress of the “New Eurasia” movement, the philosopher Alexei Dsermant, said in an interview: “The New Eurasia is an association of philosophers, political scientists, writers and artists who are called upon to explore the Eurasian space parallel to economic and political processes with new meaning. Obviously, the time has come to unite and propose something very different.”  •

(Translation Current Concerns)

* Professor Dr Peter Bachmaier, historian of Eastern Europe and political scientist, board member of the Austrian Institute for Eastern and Southeastern Europe in Vienna (1972-2005), lecturer at the University of Vienna (1993-2007), President of the Austro-Belarusian Society (since 2006).

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