Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is a Polish journalist and expert on Eastern Europe and the Middle East. She is the deputy editor of the Polish left media platform Portal STRAJK and an editor at another Polish left-wing media — the newspaper Tribuna. She visited Belarus both before the presidential election and in the aftermath.
This is the second part of a three-part interview. The first part deals with the internal context in Belarus, the second one – with the geopolitical dimensions of the ongoing crisis and the third with Malgorzata’s notes as a foreign reporter and conclusions.
The crisis in Belarus also has geopolitical dimensions. Lukashenko attempted to have a multi-vector foreign policy. He even had some successful openings to some EU countries. And he is not on good terms with Moscow, really. But now after the break-up of the protests, he seems to have chosen the side of Russia and China. What do you make of that? Do we live in a time when unaligned countries are forced to choose sides in geopolitical clashes?
You are absolutely right when you say that Lukashenko tried to have a multi-vector foreign policy. But in my view that was, again, done to stay in power, not as a result of a deep conviction that independent states should be free from external pressure.
The project of a Russian-Belarus joint state would have been the end of Lukashenko’s rule. Today Russia is no longer a socialist country, but a country of oligarchic capitalism. Once the two countries merge, there would have been a pressure by Russian oligarchs to buy what is left of the Belarussian state companies. Lukashenko would have been an obstacle for that. That is why he wanted to be somebody between Russia and the EU and China. China is pushing its own idea for Eastern Europe. It shouldn’t automatically be attached to Russia.
Lukashenko distanced himself from Russia in the last few years. The negotiations for a joint state were put forward by Russia. In the beginning of 2020 Russia even considered stopping export of resources to Belarus in order to pressure Lukashenko to return to negotiations. Just before the elections, Lukashenko claimed that he was equally worried of Russians trying to influence the results as of the West supporting the opposition.
My personal impression is that Lukashenko would have been much happier, if he was aligned with Western Europe, if it had agreed that he would stay in power and if he was then left in peace. But Western Europe didn’t want that to happen. Such an alliance would have had a military dimension and Russia, on the contrary, would have never allowed Belarus to be aligned completely with the Western bloc. There are Russian military installations in Belarus that allow Russians to follow what is happening over the Baltic Sea. And Moscow itself is not far from the Belarussian border.
Both in Belarus and Russia I heard from political scientists that Russia would have never allowed Belarus to join the West in the military sense. They did not even exclude a Russian military intervention, had other means failed. When Lukashenko said in August that he and Vladimir Putin had formed a ‘special military reserve’ to ‘preserve the rule of law,’ that is, to stop the protesters by any means had they become too strong, that was not a metaphor nor an exaggeration.
Now the EU considers Lukashenko a dictator and Russia guarantees keep him in power, yes, these are facts. But I think that even in this position Lukashenko tries to do what he used to do in the previous years.
First, Lukashenko visited Putin in Sochi and they discussed economic cooperation. He made a pretty important declaration during this meeting, saying that Belarus would give up on cooperation with Lithuania in terms of export. He said that Belarus will start sending all its exports through the Ust-Luga port near Saint Petersburg. This announcement was considered to be a capitulation by commentators, the end of multi-vector policy. Yet, what did he do after the EU announced sanctions against Belarussian leaders involved in the protests’ dispersion?
I think Lukashenko sent a signal to the most important European countries — Germany and France, that he was still open to talks and they might still want to negotiate with him as a leader of some sort of non-aligned country. In his view they might at least consider his offer.
The only European countries considered to be actual enemies of the Belarussian regime are Poland and Lithuania, which mean exactly nothing in the EU.
But his election as the Belarussian president is not recognised as legitimate by the EU.
Yes! But I am sure that Lukashenko considers that just a temporary position. After every single election in Belarus in the last 15 years the same thing happened. After the 2006 elections there were again protest dispersals. The EU countries denounced him. But after that, again, they applied the logic that Russia must be contained and they warmed up to Lukashenko who, in turn, promised reforms. I guess he believes that he may have to wait, but this might happen again.
He made another promise to Putin. He said he was open to constitutional reform. He promised Putin that there would be a dialogue, instead of pure repression of protesters. But nothing happened. He really didn’t consider his isolation so serious.
How should we understand the EU’s actions in this political crisis? Tikhanovskaya already met with French President Emmanuel Macron and proposed that Germany be the mediator in this crisis. So maybe her actions are part of the EU’s rationale in this conflict. But also Poland is pathetically hawkish. It was asked by Minsk to reduce the number of diplomatic staff. So Poland is considered a hostile nation by Belarus and its actions deserve to be commented on. So what is the EU trying to do?
I think that the EU has been very well aware that Lukashenko has a great chance of staying in power. There were no cases of mutiny or change of sides inside the Belarussian security apparatus, which is a key factor if a regime change is to happen. The EU is perfectly aware not only of the military installations in Belarus, but also of the historical and symbolic dimension of this territory for Russia. It also plays a role in the increasingly popular neotraditionalist concept of the so called ‘Russian world.’ If Belarus would have chosen Westernization, it would be a clear sigh that the notion of ‘Russian world’ of Orthodoxy and ‘traditional values’ is no magnet for anyone and it just serves to cover the ugly face of Russian capitalism. Moreover, Putin would have lost his image of someone who protects the Russians in the near abroad. The EU knew that for Russia, the stakes were too high for half-hearted moves — and the EU decided it would not take the risk.
On the sanctions — Tikhanovskaya met with representatives of the US State Department and talked to Angela Merkel, but the sanctions are not particularly strong. When going to Germany she was presented as a ‘Belarussian popular leader,’ a title which means, actually, nothing. By the way, her actual influence will be decreasing with every passing month. Not only due to repression in Belarus — she does not help herself with comments such as appeals for more severe sanctions on Belarus. These comments were not recieved well by Belarussians, because sanctions would have hit the population, not the leaders, and the everybody knows that.
The cases of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine also matter for the EU — there were colour revolutions there, they had pro-EU governments, but the Russian influence was not eliminated and these countries remain with limited strategic options. The new post-revolutionary elites turned out to be corrupt, more ready to steal European financial help than to use it for actual Europeanization, whatever it is supposed to mean.
If the new democratic government of Belarus would have done the same, it would not survive long and the people would enthusiastically turn their backs from Europe towards Russia, which is still perceived as a brotherly country. So, the EU calculates: Perhaps it is better to support opposition discreetly, but not too strongly, for now? Perhaps it would be better to pressure Lukashenko and not to embark towards an uncertain scenario?
You are right that Poland and Lithuania were asked to reduce their diplomatic staff. In the case of Poland, I would also like ask — what are Poland’s actual aims? There has been a current in Poland’s foreign policy that it is Poland’s historical role to ‘bring democracy’ and teach Eastern Europe the real ‘democratic values’ that we allegdly learned.
A lot of Belarussian activists have found refuge in Poland. Poland helped them organise oppositional media. A center for the study of Belarus was formed at the Warsaw University. Two weeks ago Poland offered a villa in the capital to Mrs. Tikhanovskaya. The prime minister of Poland said that this would be the center of Belarussian opposition abroad. He was clear that the revolution against Lukashenko will be directed from there. On the Polish right, a pathological romantic messianism is strong, a belief that we ‘bring freedom’ to ‘the East’.
But it is also possible that Poland is pushing a more extreme position against Lukashenko on the American’s behalf (the two motivations, by the way, do not exclude each other). As it is, Poland is putting pressure on Lukashenko in order to see what more could happen and how much is possible. Polish position is more extreme than those of Germany and France. But what is the practical result of Polish diplomats being asked to leave Belarus? Now it is impossible for Belarussians to get Polish visas, because the organs that issue visas are lacking personnel and not working. Now Poland will not be able to service the Polish minority in Belarus or the civil society in Belarus, because of the lack of diplomats. It will also be impossible to bring the entrepreneurs in Belarus to Poland.
There is another country in the region, which is aligned with the United States — Ukraine. It is often unreported that a part of the Belarussian opposition is in Ukraine. It is a country which used to be part of the Soviet Union and the Euromaidan protests. What is the role of this country in the Belarussian political crisis?
Ukraine has an important weakness in comparison to Poland and Lithuania. It is not part of the EU. Moreover, when I spoke to Belarussians I asked them whether they are not afraid of shock therapy, which might take place if there is a change of power. They were saying — you had your moment of misery in Poland, you had your shock therapy, but then things got better. With Ukraine this argument cannot be used. Belarussian have relatives and friends in Ukraine and they know that Kiev looks really bad when compared to Minsk — in every term.
Ukraine is not trying to bring Belarussian IT industry specialists to its territory. As far as the bigger geopolitical dimension is concerned, Ukraine is not really active in the geopolitical dimension, because it is not a member of big international groups. Had the Americans really wanted to integrate Belarus to NATO, they would do it through Poland and Lithuania and not through Ukraine. Ukrainain politicians and elites are not trusted much by the West.
That doesn’t mean that some of the opposition leaders of Belarus, who went out of the country, are not planning to return when this crisis is over. They could reunite and try to play a role in Belarussian politics.
Now, everyone understands that Tikhanovskaya is not going to be the president of Belarus. These protests will not succeed. These oppositional leaders in Ukraine are waiting for their time.
You mentioned that the Russian and Chinese attitudes towards Belarus are not so interconnected. But there are also some similarities in the sense that they have been acting as allies in various cases when the West puts pressure on countries such as Venezuela, Iran and now Belarus. What are their attitudes towards Belarus?
You are right that they support non-aligned countries that aim to avoid Western pressure. You are right that they may be trying together to support Belarus. What is different is that Chinese interest is purely economic. There are already some big factories in Belarus that were sold to Chinese investors. Lukashenko made specific efforts to attract Chinese investment, specifically as a counterweight to Russian investment. When Russian investments come, they are connected to political questions. Chinese investors don’t put Lukashenko in a sensitive position. They don’t want power change in Belarus. They are satisfied with a stable regime. They will not be pushing Lukashenko to make big changes.
For Russian oligarchs, Belarus is a possible place for expansion. Also, Belarus has a role in the conservative ideology of Putin. Russia has watched with worry the attempts of Lukashenko to create his own kind of politics of memory: to focus historically on the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the connection between Belarussian culture and the West. Lukashenko tried to affirm that the Belarussian Orthodox Church is different from the Russian one, because it had to coexist with the Catholic church, different Protestant denominations, and a large Jewish community. Lukashenko also tried to promote, to a certain extent, the Belarussian language. Of course, Lukashenko speaks Russian, which is also the tool of communication everywhere in the cities. But Lukashenko did not discourage people from using the Belarussian language as a matter of principle.
In the Soviet times Belarussian were actively discouraged from learning Belarussian, which was considered backward language of the village. Under Lukashenko, on the contrary — the symbol of the white-red-white flag was not banned in Belarus before this protest, the Pahonya, emblem of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, was widely used, and historical monuments from that period were reconstructed or rebuilt, as a counterweight to post-war Soviet architecture.
I would say that Chinese interest in Belarus is to keep it away from the West and do business while the Russian interest is to keep it away from the West, do business, but also keep the military dimension of cooperation and the cultural dimension strong.
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