Updated at 20:51,24-11-2020

The split between Belarusian elites and society on Ukraine widens

Ryhor Astapenia, BelarusDigest

On 17 July, Belarusian state media tried to balance between Russian and Ukrainan positions reporting about the MH17 crash.

Russian media, on the other hand, stated that it was Ukraine which had shot down the plane and the majority of Belarusians seem to believe it.

The Russian war against Ukraine showed that the Belarusian elite and the society see the world very differently.

Nearly all Belarusian elite (both the authorises and the opposition) negatively perceived Kremlin's actions in Ukraine. It seems that Lukashenka`s position appeared as close to the position of pro-European democrats and business elites as never before.

However, the majority of the ordinary people seem to support Russia's narrative. Kremlin propaganda got on the fertile soil of the Soviet mentality, prepared by the Lukashenka’s regime.

The authorities try to strengthen the Belarusian identity, but it appears not enough. Lukashenka’s regime must give the society an opportunity to develop intellectually and co-opt other elites.

Otherwise, the gap between the political decision-makers and the people will only increase.

Elites Support Ukraine

The conflict in Ukraine became perhaps the first issue on which all Belarusian elites hold similar opinions.

Though the Belarusian authorities have made ​​several concessions to the Kremlin, they managed to maintain neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and supportive relationship with the Kyiv leadership.

Lukashenka became the only president from the Commonwealth of Independent States to attend Piotr Poroshenko’s inauguration.

Moreover, the Belarusian state leader often has much more pro-Ukrainian intentions than politicians from the European Union. While Angela Merkel advises Poroshenko another ceasefire and negotiations with the separatists, Lukashenka calls to wipe out the militants in Eastern Ukraine.

Pavel Yakubovich, editor in chief of the Soviet Belarus, the main propaganda newspaper of the regime, criticised Russian media for warmongering in his column. Belarusian state media have kept the balance, while many independent media as Belgazeta, previously neutral, took the side of Ukraine.

Business elite in Belarus usually keep silence in public, but unofficially many of them are angry with Russia's actions, which caused great detriment to the private sector throughout the region. For example, shares of US-Belarusian IT corporation EPAM Systems fell by a third due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The company has many offices, but the biggest ones are in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

All significant opposition politicians support Ukraine, although some marginals try to flirt with Russia. For example, Ihar Drako of the Tell the truth campaign said the Ukrainian division into three parts is in the interests of Belarus.

Similarity of the positions of all Belarusian elites has its roots in common interests. They see Belarus as independent and united state and realise that by protecting Ukraine, they also protect themselves.

Society Supports the Kremlin

While elites support Ukraine, a large part of the society does the opposite. The sociological data of the Belarusian analytical workshop show that 65.7 % of Belarusians supported the Russian annexation of the Crimea, while 15% of Belarusians consider it illegal. It seems that the views on the Donbas may be similar. The vast majority of people have a negative attitude to the new Ukrainian authorities.

This became a result of aggressive Russian propaganda and lack of adequate balancing from the Belarusian authorities. The Russian media dominate in Belarus presenting only the Kremlin views on the events in Eastern Ukraine. As Russian media are buch bettter funded and offer better quality products, most Belarusians choose them, not Belarusian ones.

A restricted-access sociological study to which the author has access to shows that programme 'News of the Week with Dmitry Kisilev' remains the most popular informational television programme of the kind in Belarus. This Russian television program has become one of the main mouthpieces of the Russian information war against Ukraine.

The Belarusian authorities for a long time cultivated the Soviet way of thinking. The regime weakened the Belarusian identity, reducing the value of the national history and symbols, so it appears natural that the Belarusians perceive the world through the lens of Russia's interests.

At that moment, as Western scholars are absent from Belarusian academic institutions, universities host guests like Russian nationalist hard core Andrej Dugin. Similar things have long been acceptable in most areas of public life. As a result, even the authorities now lack reasonable people for public service.

How Elites Can Fix Errors

Belarusian authorities became afraid of the war in Ukraine not only because of Putin, but also because of the fact that Belarusians appear much more pro-Russian than their own elites. Hence, the regime seems to begin the work on strengthening Belarusian identity.

On 3 July, the official Independence Day, Aliaksandr Lukashenka for the first time in many years spoke Belarusian in public. This month Vitsebsk officials erected a monument to Algerd, the Grand Lithuanian Duke. Mahiliou city authorities announced renaming of the Soviet Square because of the name was obsolete. But is seems too little and perhaps too late.

Kremlin every year strengthens its role in Belarus and Lukashenka seems unable to stop the process although he tries to slow it as much as he can. The Belarusian economy still works thanks to Russia`s money. The Kremlin controls Belarus at almost every part of life, including culture. Belarus remains the only country of the former Soviet Union where the Russian language has official status.

If the state elites want to make public opinion closer to theirs, they should strongly support the national identity of the people and the intellectual development of society. The regime could co-opt other elites at least at the basic level.

An earlier effort in the area was creation of the Advisory Board at the Presidential Administration, as it was during the dialogue in 2008-2010. Another idea would be to invite business elites to high positions in the government of Belarus. Improved relations with the West will do no harm.

On the one hand, the authorities will have to do this calmly, not to rage Kremlin because of such pivot. On the other, they need to do it quickly, as no state can function if the elite and society have a wide gap in perception of their national and civic identity.