Analysis. The history and politics of post-Soviet Belarus and Ukraine are very different. The current Belarusian transformation could be leading to results similar to those of the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia, rather than to those of the 2013–2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Yet, Moscow’s pathological imperialism towards Russia's Eastern Slavic “brother nations” may mean that the future of Belarus will be more similar to that of Ukraine than currently appears to be the case, writes UI research fellow Andreas Umland.
Ukraine and Belarus are two of the culturally closest nations of Europe. Their Eastern Slavic languages, major Christian-Orthodox сhurches, and locations between Russia on the one side, and the EU as well as NATO on the other, are comparable and intertwined. Both are, on one level, very close to the also largely Orthodox and Eastern Slavic Russians. Yet, the Ukrainians and Belarusians are, as post-colonial people, on another level, fundamentally different from post- and neo-imperial Russians whose international ambitions are partly more similar to those of today’s Turks and Chinese.
While some Ukrainian fringe groups harbor irredentist dreams towards southern Russia’s Kuban region, hegemonic transborder pretenses can be found neither in Ukrainian nor in Belarusian mainstream political discourses. Ukrainians and Belarusians are – unlike many Russians, Hungarians or Serbs – territorially saturated people. In spite of these and other substantive and structural resemblances between Belarus and Ukraine, most commentators – whether Western, Russian, Belarusian or Ukrainian – today emphasize the differences rather than similarities between the two brother nations. “Belarus is NOT Ukraine!” is the core message of many politicians and experts in recent comments on the ongoing electoral uprising in Minsk.
Differences between Belarus and Ukraine
Indeed, the Belarusians have a pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet history that is distinct from that of the Ukrainians. Belarusian nationalism during the Tsarist period was much weaker than Ukrainian liberationism and ethno-centrism – an important dissimilarity still relevant today. The Belarusian diaspora during the Cold War was less organized and active than the far more visible Ukrainian émigré communities of Western Europe and North America. Last but not least, the new Belarusian state has – unlike the Ukrainian one – participated in several of Russia’s various neo-imperial organizational schemes after 1991.
Above all, Belarus was a co-founder of the two principal organizations holding together Moscow’s hegemonic realm on the territory of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires today. Minsk stood at the roots of the so-called Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-dominated sort of “Warsaw Pact 2.0.” The CSTO was, hardly by accident, founded on Putin’s 50th birthday, in then Communist Party-ruled Moldova, on 7 October 2002.
Belarus was also a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) whose initial trilateral treaty was signed by Moscow, Minsk and Astana in the midst of the Kremlin’s escalation of its hybrid war against Ukraine, on 29 May 2014. A Moscow-directed pseudo-copy of the EU, the EEU has taken over considerable national prerogatives, in such fields as trade and production regulation, from its member states. The EEU is today the major vehicle for the Kremlin’s promotion of Russia as an independent global “pole” in a supposedly multi-polar world. Belarus is important for the Kremlin’s geopolitical mirage as it is the only country that provides the EEU with an, in terms of geography, exclusively European element (Armenia is culturally European, yet geographically Asian).
Moreover, Belarus signed on 8 December 1999 – exactly eight years after conclusion of the Belovezh Accords that had dissolved the USSR – a Treaty on the Foundation of a Union State with Russia. Soon this historical document was fully ratified by both countries. Yet, the Union Treaty has paradoxically not led to the emergence of a new political union so far. In spite of the appearance of certain institutional trappings, the Russian-Belarusian Union State exists only on paper.
Nothing even remotely similar has ever been the official policy of Kyiv. Contrary to frequent misperception, Kyiv has been more or less pro-European under almost all of its leaders since 1991 – and not merely under its loudly pro-Western presidents Viktor Yushchenko (2005–2010) and Petro Poroshenko (2014–2019). With a presidential decree, Kyiv declared full EU membership as an official aim already in 1998. The Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, wrote the aim of accession to the EU and NATO into Ukraine’s National Security Law in 2003, and into the Ukrainian Constitution in 2019. The conclusion of an Association Agreement with Brussels in 2014 is seen, in Kyiv, as a fundamentally insufficient arrangement. The Association Agreement is understood by many Ukrainians as being merely a step towards full membership in the EU.
These are some of the facets that mark Ukraine and Belarus as different geopolitical entities in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the closest post-Soviet equivalent to the Belarus case appears to be Armenia which looks similar in terms of its links to Russia and recent history. Like Belarus, Armenia is a member of the CSTO and EEU as well economically tied to Russia. While Minsk is Moscow’s closest partner in East-Central Europe, Armenia is the most pro-Russian country in the Southern Caucasus. Moreover, in 2018, Armenia experienced an electoral uprising that is not dissimilar to Belarus’s in 2020. Like the recent protests in Belarus, the Armenian Velvet Revolution had no geopolitical dimensions, and led merely to the replacement of an old-style politician with a new reformist leader. The ousted Armenian leader Serzh Sargsian and Aliaksandr Lukashenka were born only two months apart, in 1954. The new Armenian leadership under Nikol Pashinian has been following an internally reformist and externally conservative course.
Pashinian’s combination of domestic reforms with foreign continuity is similar to the current discourse in and around Belarus. Preserving close ties to Moscow while resetting a petrified political system is what is expected from, and intended by, the Coordination Council of the Belarus opposition. The relatively stable development in Armenia since the change of power in Yerevan in 2018 appears to be Belarus’s future to expect after Lukashenka’s departure. What many observers foresee, prefer and advise today with regard to Belarus is, in a way, a repetition of Armenia’s rather than Ukraine’s post-revolutionary path.
Why Belarus’s transition may become different from Armenia’s
Yet, things may be not as easy it seems, at first glance, for the future of the Belarusian regime change. Not only is the 2020 ouster of Lukashenka turning out to be far more challenging than the relatively quick and peaceful disposal of his age-mate Sargsian in 2018. The stance of Russian imperialism vis-à-vis Belarusian nationalism is more complicated than Moscow’s relatively simple hegemon-client relationship with Yerevan. Armenia could conduct a Velvet Revolution under slogans of national pride, dignity and freedom without stirring up larger emotions in Moscow, as long as Yerevan had no plans to leave the EEU and CSTO.
The 2020 use of ethno-national symbols and rhetoric in Belarus, in contrast, is more irritating for imperial nationalists in Russia than Armenians’ celebrations of their nationhood had been in 2018. Belarusian nationalism has a more pronounced European dimension and is geographically closer to the core of Europe than Armenian nationalism. A citizen of Belarus who identifies her- or himself as an ethnic or political Belarusian rather than in pan-national Eastern Slavic terms will tend to see the people of Belarus as, above all, belonging to Europe. That could, in principle, be unproblematic vis-à-vis Moscow as long as Russians too define themselves as first and foremost as Europeans.
Yet “Eurasia”, rather than merely Eastern Europe, is the name that Moscow chose in 2015 for the transnational realm that it claims to be the center of, and even for the continent it is located in. One wonders how much nationally awakened Belarusians will be willing to follow the Kremlin in this demarcation of a unique civilizational realm distinct from EU and the West. If the Russians insist on being Eurasians rather than Europeans, that could be unproblematic for some Armenians who, given their geographical location, may be willing to embrace such a mixed definition of their identity. Yet, a nationally aware Belarusian may have problems to accept belonging to a larger cultural “Eurasian” collective rather than the familiar European civilization.
Moreover, the geopolitical ambition of the Kremlin with regard to Eastern Slavic nations is different from that concerning Southern Caucasian people – a lesson that Ukrainians have bitterly learnt since 2014. Moscow is today satisfied with Yerevan’s continuance in the EEU and CSTO. Yet, with regard to Russia’s Western border, many in Moscow are still dreaming of a Belarusian-Russian political unification (as well as of various expansionist forays into Ukraine). To be sure, this pan-Slavic vision of Russian imperialists has also been surprisingly popular within Belarus, until recently. Yet, the current celebration of Belarusian nationhood, people’s power and individual freedom that the anti-Lukashenka protests have triggered are changing public perceptions of state-society relations in Belarus, by the day.
The liberationist pathos of the 2020 protests is posing a double conceptual problem for a future realization of the Belarusian-Russian union. One is on the structural level, as it is clear not least to Belarusians themselves that a Russian-Belarusian union will not be a merger of equals. The entire population of Belarus is only slightly larger than that of greater Moscow.
The protesters today insist on the popular sovereignty of the Belarusian political nation. One way they express this is with a national flag which is not the Belarusian state’s official banner. Today’s protesters in Belarus are thus, in some ways, more radical than the Ukrainian 2004 and 2013–2014 revolutionaries who used the official Ukrainian national flag (apart from numerous party banners) as the main non-partisan visual marker symbolizing their fight for popular sovereignty. Will Belarusians, after their exhausting protests, agree to belong to a union state with a different banner than the one they have used, and with its power center in Moscow rather than Minsk?
The second conceptual problem lies in the similarities of Lukashenka’s and Putin’s political regimes and economies. Many Belarusian may be happy, in principal, to enter a union with Russia. But a Russia that is ruled by another long-term president who is even older than the hated Lukashenka and that has a political system rather similar to Lukashenka’s may be unattractive also for Belarusian russophiles. That will be even more so if Russia’s economy remains hampered by deep structural problems and accumulating foreign sanctions.
Armenians may also have second thoughts about their economy’s integration with Russia’s. Yet Yerevan’s alliance with Moscow is more geopolitical than geoeconomic. Rather than economic interest, the prime kit holding the Armenian-Russian alliance together is Yerevan’s engagement in a risky territorial conflict with Baku over Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region. There is – at least, on the surface – no comparable geostrategic imperative making Minsk dependent on Moscow. Instead, the Belarusian economy’s orientation towards Russia’s markets and energy have been the prime movers of integration between the two countries. Yet, what happens if the Russian markets for Belarusian commodities continue to shrink, and if the world price for fossil energy resources remains low?
Certainly, Belarus is not Ukraine. But it is also not Armenia. Such assertions may sound trivial or even ridiculous. However, the practical implications of the latter claim have grave repercussions for the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. If Belarus cannot easily follow Armenia’s post-revolutionary conciliatory path: Which exact way is it going to go? If the modern Belarusian nation emerging from the protests is defining itself as European rather than Eurasian: What implications has this, for instance, for Belarus’s continuance in the Eurasian Economic Union?
If post-revolutionary Belarusian nationalism is unsuitable for submission to a Russian-Belarusian union state: What will the Kremlin’s opinion on, and way to deal with, such a problem be? The presumed real winner of the August 2020 Belarusian presidential elections Svetlana Tykhanovskaia confirmed in an interview that Crimea legally belongs to Ukraine. She thereby manifestly violated Putin’s 2020 Constitution that explicitly forbids any questioning of the integrity of Russia’s territory to which, according to the Russian Constitution, Crimea belongs. How will this and many other ideological differences between the modern outlook of the Belarusian opposition, on the one side, and the neo-imperial worldview of Russia’s current leadership, on the other, be reconciled? And what will Moscow decide to do, if it comes to the conclusion that these contradictions cannot be diplomatically resolved?
In the worst case, Belarus’s fate may become more similar to Ukraine’s than the two nations’ very different modern histories and international embeddedness suggest. As long as irredentism and revanchism remain major determinants of Russian foreign political behavior, the principal distinctions between Ukrainian and Belarusian national self-identification and foreign orientation may be too small to make a notable difference for Moscow. Post-revolutionary Belarus may, from the Kremlin’s viewpoint, have to submit to a Russia-dominated union state and to accept its belonging to Eurasia rather than Europe. If not, the greater moderation of Belarusian protesters in comparison to Ukrainian revolutionaries may be of little consequence for Moscow.
The continuing friendliness of today’s Belarusians towards Russia, during and after the protests, may be insufficient to compensate for their dangerously growing lack of submissiveness. Unless Russia itself and especially her foreign outlook changes soon and deeply, Russian-Belarusian may be heading for a showdown. Perhaps, the best chance for a post-Lukashenka Belarus to avoid a fate similar to that of post-Yanukovych Ukraine is a major political transition in Russia. Not merely would Putin have to be replaced, , but also the Putinist domestic regime and foreign doctrine. A principal international reorientation in Moscow and a Russian retreat from neo-imperialist projects could mean that Belarus will, after all, be similar to Ukraine. If allowed to follow the geopolitical path of Kyiv, Minsk will likely also turn towards the West rather than continue its traditional pro-Russian path.