18 October 2019
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s pro-Russian posture may be attributed to his strong Soviet background, but it also comes out of cold political calculation. Photo: Bloomberg
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s pro-Russian posture may be attributed to his strong Soviet background, but it also comes out of cold political calculation. Photo: Bloomberg

Why ‘de-russification’ in Belarus is infeasible

The Belarusian government, as I mentioned in a previous article, had recently changed the official Chinese translation of the country’s name. The move has aroused widespread suspicions that it could have been part of Minsk’s secret agenda of “de-russification”.

While the speculation is understandable, I feel that the reality is quite different and that it would be quite impossible for Belarus to shake off the Russian influence.

It is because ever since the rise of the Russian Empire in the 17th century, Belarus had been ruled by Moscow right until the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

During the First World War, Belarus succeeded in gaining a short-lived statehood amid the chaos in Europe, only to be divided between Russia and Poland after the war.

And shortly afterwards, Belarus became one of the four founding republics of the newly born Soviet Union.

Even though during the Soviet era, Belarus was allowed to join the United Nations as an independent political entity, it didn’t mean Minsk was given much autonomy. Rather, Stalin only did so in order to give the Soviet Union one more vote in the UN.

During the Cold War, Belarus quickly rose to economic and industrial prominence in the Soviet Union, thanks to its rich mineral resources.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Moscow went to great lengths to suppress the Belarusian language and culture, the repressive policy, quite to people’s surprise, didn’t provoke too much backlash and repulsion among the Belarusians.

One reason could have been that the Russian and Belarusian languages have a lot in common in the first place.

And Belarus also underwent quite a lot of man-made disasters during the Soviet era. For example, it was the most devastated Soviet republic during the Second World War, not to mention that it bore the brunt of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that took place in the neighboring Ukraine in 1986.

However, even so, it appears that the Belarusians still remain pretty nostalgic about the Soviet era to this day. For instance, today the country is still officially celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution.

As a matter of fact, President Alexander Lukashenko, who was voted into office in 1994 and has remained in power in Minsk since then, has a lot to do with the “pro-Soviet complex” that is currently prevailing among the Belarusians.

During the Soviet era, Lukashenko, a junior Red Army officer, quickly rose from the ranks among the Bolsheviks and eventually became the representative of Belarus in the Supreme Soviet.

In fact Lukashenko was the only member in the Supreme Soviet who voted against the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

That said, his pro-Russian posture is actually not entirely due to his strong Soviet background, it also comes out of a cold political calculation: Lukashenko is perfectly aware that as “Europe’s last dictator” who isn’t welcome in the West, he can only look to Moscow for diplomatic support.

Under his autocratic rule, Belarus has remained among the worst ranking countries not only in Europe but also around the world in terms of corruption index and human rights record.

Worse still, after it had become an independent sovereign state in the early 1990s, Belarus was badly hit by economic recessions, and had to rely on cheap natural gas and oil imported from Russia in order to sustain itself.

In desperation, Belarus formed a commonwealth with Russia in 1996, which was then elevated to an official bilateral alliance in the following year.

And more than 20 years on, today Belarus has virtually become a vassal state of Russia.

Nevertheless, even though over the years Belarus has remained very dependent on Russia for diplomatic and economic support, the country is not totally at the mercy of Moscow, thanks to its strategically vital location.

Lying between Western Europe and Russia, Belarus, like Ukraine, has been serving as Moscow’s buffer zone and maintaining a stable equilibrium in the region.

From Kremlin’s perspective, the continued existence of a pro-Russian Belarus is key to upholding its strategic and geopolitical interests in face of the expansion of NATO and the European Union.

Given that, Russia has been handling Belarus with kid gloves and putting a lot of effort into keeping a good relationship with President Lukashenko in order to secure the loyalty of the buffer state.

In particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been very careful not to interfere too much in the domestic affairs of Belarus so as to avoid upsetting the leaders in Minsk.

In fact, keeping the status quo in Belarus is definitely in Moscow’s best interests. After all, the last thing Kremlin wants to see is another “color revolution” in Belarus like the one that took place in Ukraine.

However, in recent years, it appears Lukashenko has found a new powerful ally, i.e. China.

In order to reduce its economic dependence on Europe and Russia and seize the opportunities presented by the “One Belt One Road” blueprint, Belarus has been working aggressively in recent years to strengthen its ties with Beijing.

And the currently warm Sino-Belarusian relations have ripple effects on Hong Kong too. Just two months ago, Belarus, one of the world’s most isolated countries, concluded an agreement with the HKSAR government, under which it would offer visa waiver to Hong Kong citizens.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal