The definitive work on Belarus remains the work of Andrew Wilson. Published in 2012, his book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship is the best source for its history including the rise of Alexander Lukashenko. The recent protests will likely spark new scholarship into Belarus, but they will all begin with this book for the foreseeable future. The article below are the reflections of Justin Kempf on this seminal work.
The Eastern Edge of Europe
The iron curtain fell long ago, but a veil has remained over the former Soviet Republics. NATO and the European Union welcomed Eastern Europe into its embrace, but the West ignored the former Soviet Republics. Today, there remains a distinction between Europe and Eurasia despite the presence of nations like Belarus, and Moldova firmly within the boundaries of the European continent. For example, the Visegrad Republics of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Czechia are described as Eastern European, but are really in the center of Europe. An artificial boundary isolates those countries too detached from European political culture for inclusion.
The Baltic Republics were the only parts of the former Soviet Union granted inclusion into Europe’s orbit. Of course, their incorporation into the Soviet Union was always suspect. They had the strongest claim to independence of any of the Post-Soviet States. Unlike the other former Soviet Republics, they had a brief period of independence from Russia during the interwar period. Moreover, their culture has closer ties to Finland than Ukraine and Belarus. Of course, Finland’s history includes Russia in its own narrative. Even to this day it remains apart from NATO and claims to remain a neutral country between the two. Nonetheless, over the past hundred years its ties have strengthened with the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and even Iceland. Its cultural ties to Russia largely dissolved during the Soviet era.
Crossroads Between Europe and Russia
Belarus has a claim to serve as the crossroads between Europe and Russia. More than its geographic location, its history and identity have been torn between these competing cultural traditions. Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian spheres have competed for hegemony over its territory. Its religion was neither Catholic nor Orthodox, but Uniate. This faith was a compromise between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, although it was considered in communion with the Pope in Rome. But this era was one of many false starts. It was eradicated from Belarus in 1839 when Russia forced the Uniate churches in its territory to convert to Orthodoxy.
Religion serves as a divide between Europe and Eurasia. The line between the two corresponds to the divide between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Of course, many Orthodox countries have been welcomed into Europe, most notably Greece. Nonetheless, it is a reminder of the cultural divides between the two regions. Still, Belarus has a sizable Catholic population in its borders. Indeed, the percentage of Catholics is nearly twice as large as Ukraine. The remnants of Catholicism in Belarus are a testament of the close ties it has held with Poland and Lithuania.
Nonetheless, it has been Ukraine that has been deemed as the bridge between Russia and Europe. Ukraine is a nation torn between a Russian population in the East and a people who long to integrate with the West. Belarus has no similar divide. It established strong ties with Russia over two centuries. Belarus received significant Soviet investment even up to the end of the regime. In contrast, Ukraine can recall multiple periods of exploitation such as the Great Famine during the Stalin era. Its identity is torn from its simultaneous subjugation under the Austrians and Russians on the eve of the first world war.
A Reluctant Independence
Belarus never earned its national sovereignty. Indeed, like Kazakhstan the dissolution of the Soviet Union forced independence upon it . It is ironic how nationalism brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet so many of the states liberated lacked a clear sense of national identity. Some national movements have failed to gain independence to this day like Chechnya. The great powers managed the dissolution of the Soviet States through negotiation. So, Belarus received its independence as a necessity rather than through revolution. Most Belarusians did not want independence. Indeed, its union with Russia has remained a possibility. It is through the machinations of Lukashenka that Belarus has avoided this fate. Indeed, Andrew Wilson argues it is through Lukashenka that Belarus has begun the construction of its national identity.
National identity for the Belarussian is difficult to unravel from its ties to Russia. Belarus means White Russia, although the implication of this phrase is a matter of dispute. The common language of the Belarussian people is Russian. Belarussian is a secondary language even for those who speak it fluently. The ties to Russia, of course, go beyond language to include political, economic, and social traditions. Belarussian national identity has formed against its natural inclination.
National Identity in Political Theory
National identity is difficult for the theorist to understand. It relies on a subjective sense of self but becomes manifest through objective behavior. It is easier to recognize the existence of a nation than to explain its emergence or its disappearance. National identities emerged after the demarcation of political boundaries in Europe. The state encouraged a common national identity through public education, a common language, and citizenship. But some states failed to establish a common national identity while others did. Moreover, some states struggle to maintain national identity over time. The rise of a Catalonian independence movement demonstrates Spanish identity is no longer secure.
Communal identities have always threatened national identity. But it has long been put in its place because centralization conferred protections from a stronger state. The combination of the Pax Americana, Globalization, and Neoliberalism have brought about a recalibration of the benefits of the state. Smaller states no longer face the same vulnerabilities they once did thanks to the American security blanket. Globalization, on the other hand, has overtaken the authority of the state making all but the largest global powers impotent to challenge multinational corporations. Finally, the neoliberal state has been reduced in size, so it no longer confers the same benefits it once did. Fewer benefits confer fewer advantages to larger states.
The lesson is state performance remains important toward the formation of national identity. It is true that nationhood is often a reflection of cultural traits. But the transformation of culture occurs under the auspices of the state. Poor state performance recalibrates the sources of support toward local institutions or a broader national project. Culture is never static. It continues to evolve and change. Even history undergoes reinterpretations among the general population based upon the circumstances of the present moment.
National Identity in Belarus
Alexander Lukashenko cemented a common Belarussian identity through consistent economic growth through his first fifteen years as President. Andrew Wilson explains the Belarussian Miracle as a series of consequential investments made for strategic reasons. Late Soviet investment gave Belarus an advantage over its neighbors in its early years, but Russia made a few significant investments for strategic reasons in the following years as well. For example, Belarus paid well below market rates for energy for many years subsidized largely by the Russian government.
It is a bit disingenuous to say Belarus delivered quality state performance. Despite Lukashenko’s rise as a fierce opponent of corruption, his administration benefited from the presence of corruption under his watch. Nonetheless, consistent economic growth was enough to secure the support of its people. Ironically, the emergence of a common Belarussian identity under Lukashenko allowed for the consolidation of a genuine opposition. The recent protests are possible because of the Belarussian national project.
Lukashenko has long rigged elections he likely could have won. Independent polls of elections gave him outright majorities or significant pluralities. Of course, autocrats have a wide range of tools to rig elections beyond the manipulation of its count. For example, he took many active steps to imprison political threats before they became realistic candidates. Nonetheless, the economic performance in Belarus was strong enough to prevent the formation of opposition sentiment. But a harsh recession between 2014 and 2017 laid waste to the myth of the Belarussian Miracle. Moreover, subsequent economic performance has failed to impress. Earlier failures of state performance may have brought about calls for unification with Russia. The success of the Belarussian national project has reframed the role of the opposition. Russia is now viewed as a threat. Instead, the people want to give democracy a chance.
The Rise of the Opposition in Belarus
Lukashenko preserved his power through repression but won legitimacy through economic growth. Because power is unsustainable without legitimacy, his regime faces a very real crisis. Repression is easy to perpetuate. He has continued to imprison opposition figures like Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka and has expelled Valery Tsapkala. But a common national identity has made no single figure indispensable to the movement. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the Presidential candidate of the opposition, but she is not irreplaceable. Indeed, her presence on the ballot was largely the result of Lukashenko’s lack of fear towards her candidacy.
The Future of Belarus
Belarus is a nation whose future remains uncertain. It is far from clear whether democracy will resolve the challenges its people face. Democratic governance requires a commitment to a political process regardless of its outcomes. It is difficult to sustain when people are looking for easy solutions. Democracy is never easy. But it does offer the best avenue for sustained economic growth. The problem is citizens must remain patient and learn to resolve differences through the political process. It is easier said than done. The United States still struggles to learn this lesson.
Belarus offers an example where the creation of national identities remains possible today. Nations rely on myth and history to explain their story. But the reality has always been these stories are easily constructed ipso facto. Nothing guaranteed a Belarussian national identity. Lukashenko found its construction necessary as a counterbalance to Russia and its people found it advantageous because its government delivered strong economic growth. But as economic growth disappeared, the sense of national identity remained. It turned against Lukashenko whose time is likely limited. But it remains uncertain where its future will head next. Will it become a crossroads between the West and Russia? Or will it draw closer to Russia in a patron-client relationship? No nation has a fixed construction. Belarussian nationality more than most will remain fluid in the 21st century.