Updated at 15:09,08-07-2020

Can Belarus stick to neutrality despite Russian pressure?

Siarhei Bohdan, BelarusDigest

Last week, pro-government Russian experts and media launched a new series of attacks on the Belarusian government. Minsk, they insisted, is going the way of Yanukovych's Ukraine.

Russian commentators agree on that regardless of their ideological colours. Be it the liberal Kommersant daily, government-affiliated think tanks or the radical right-wing Zavtra daily. They warn Lukashenka of Yanukovych's fate.

The attacks have been triggered by Lukashenka's statement that the issue of the Russian airbase is far from settled. Minsk already irritated Moscow by its cautious building up neutrality since the late 2000s.

Moreover, while earlier Minsk could collude in Russia's politics with influential right- and left-wing elements who dreamt of restoring a multinational empire, it now has to deal with new powerful forces which hate compromise with allies like Lukashenka. Exclusive Russian nationalism is ever more influencing Moscow's policy.

Rampant Russian Nationalism

At the beginning of October the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow held an expert video conference between Moscow and Minsk on the “Prospects of Belarus-Russian Relations in the Context of Presidential Election in Belarus.” From both the Belarusian and the Russian sides, only well-known experts close to the respective governments participated. For Belarus, there were Vadzim Hihin, Yury Shautsou, Siarhei Kizima and Alyaksandr Shpakouski.

Commenting on the video conference, the Leading Research Fellow of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) Oleg Nemenskii lashed out at the Belarusian participants. According to him, “the main thing which united the Belarusian experts was their hate towards the Russian World.” Moreover, “Minsk has been so frightened by the changes that occurred in Russia in spring 2014 that it does not even try to find a modus vivendi with Russia.”

This prominent expert of a think-tank affiliated with the Russian government openly expresses radical Russian nationalist views. Earlier, he accused, in an article, the Bolsheviks of splitting Western regions from Great Russia in order to implement “the un-Russian national projects of Ukraine and Belarus.” He urged that the Soviet heritage be overcome and that a “Russian national state” be formed from a “large part of the Russian Federation, Belarus, most a bigger part of Ukraine, Transnistria and a large part of Kazakhstan.”

Russian nationalist experts seemingly believe this rhetoric. They argue that Lukashenka with his doubtful loyalty to Putin's policies does not represent the Belarusian people. They refer to presumably neutral surveys of public opinion in Belarus which show high support for Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Just a decade ago, Russian nationalists (to be differentiated from imperialist groups which reject its more ethnically-based ideas) existed as a marginal group without serious political clout. Now, they grow ever stronger in Putin's state as another recent political show has demonstrated, too.

On 25-26 September, the conference “Russophobia and Information War Against Russia” in Moscow for the first time featured a series of presentations on problem of Russophobia in Belarus. It also alleged that Russophobia was committed by the Belarusian state. The presenters included prominent Russian nationalists from Belarus who had challenged the Belarusian government, like Andrei Herashchanka sacked from Belarusian public service for Russian chauvinism.

The event served as a stern warning to Lukashenka because the conference was not a shabby meeting of right-wing radicals. Two organisations close to the Kremlin and a group of deputies of the Russian Duma had organised the event and Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin spoke at it.

No Friends in Moscow?

The lack of acceptance for more neutral Belarusian positions seems to be universal in Moscow. Last Thursday, Maxim Yusin wrote in the liberal Kommersant daily that Lukashenka in his negotiations with Moscow was feeling surer than never before. Minsk pursues a multidirectional foreign policy, and foreign powers strive for influence over Belarus. According to Yusin, this policy of balancing between Russia and the West is similar to that of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych before his toppling in 2014. The same fate can befall the Belarusian leader, he implies.

In the Zavtra daily on 12 October, an influential Russian nationalist politician Konstantin Zatulin commented in the same vein,

Lukashenka and the West are coming closer to one another. He, in fact, has occupied the niche which earlier was occupied by Ukraine in the former Soviet Union. That is the niche of a mediator between the East and West. Russia does not need such a mediator. But it is ideal to which at this stage aspires the Belarusian leader.

Remarkably, it was the newspaper which for many years fiercely supported Lukashenka that has printed Zatulin's words. Minsk used to be able to reach parts of Russian establishment through Zavtra and its authors.

Minsk Heading for Neutrality?

The Belarusian authorities felt the Russian establishment's tilt towards a more aggressive nationalistic policy and have responded accordingly. Although the Belarusian Constitution declares the neutrality of Belarus, for many years it has remained a dead letter. That changed in 2006 as divergences with Russian foreign policy emerged.

Minsk continued to go out of its way to preserve friendly relations with Moscow, yet established good relations with Ukrainian president Yushchenko and Georgian president Saakashvili, and refused to recognise Russian-supported independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Minsk also refused to extradite Bakiev to the new pro-Russian government of Kyrgystan. Belarus​'s refusal to accept Russia's annexation of Crimea and ambivalent stance on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine are just some of the latest illustrations.

Belarus effectively started to implement the neutrality clause of the Constitution. That does not mean automatic acceptance of this neutrality by others. In the eyes of pro-Putin Russian politicians Belarus can either be with Moscow on all and every issue or against it. It cannot simply be an ally with its own position on some issues, even if this is a neutral position which does not oppose Russia.

Unfortunately, Minsk finds it difficult to persuade Western countries about its possibilities to act independently of Moscow, too. After his recent visit to Berlin, the chief of the Belarusian Nasha Niva daily Andrei Dynko wrote that German politicians do not trust Lukashenka and believe that the Kremlin can enforce any of its decisions on Belarus, including the plans for an airbase.

Indeed, Belarusian neutrality is very limited and the Kremlin maintains significant influence in the country. Yet Finland after WWII succeeded in building neutrality in not identical yet comparable conditions of tight Soviet control. Helsinki merely avoided confrontation with Moscow, accepted legitimate Soviet interests while building its own country and gradually developing more independent and neutral policy. Belarus could do the same. Maybe, its the only way to survive as an independent nation.