Belarus 213

There is a misperception in western media that Lukashenko is Putin’s man. That is not true; Putin views him as an exasperating and rather dim legacy. There is also a misperception in the west that Lukashenko really lost the recent election. That is not true. He almost certainly won, though the margin is much exaggerated by the official result. Minsk is not Belarus, just as London is not the UK. Most of Belarus is pretty backward and heavily influenced by the state machinery. Dictators have all kinds of means at their disposal to make themselves popular. That is why the odd election or plebiscite does not mean that somebody is not a dictator. Lukashenko is a dictator, as I have been saying for nigh on twenty years.

My analysis is that Lukashenko probably won handily, with over 60% of the vote. But it was by no means a free and fair election. The media is heavily biased (remember you can also say that of the UK), and the weak opposition candidate was only there because, one way or the other, all the important opposition figures are prevented from standing.

The West is trying to engineer popular opinion in Belarus towards a “colour revolution”, fairly obviously. But they are on a sticky wicket. Western Ukraine was genuinely enthusiastic to move towards the west and the EU, in the hope of attaining a consumer lifestyle. Outside of central Minsk, there is very little such sentiment in Belarus. Most important of all, Belarus means “White Russia”, and the White Russians very strongly identify themselves as culturally Russian. We will not see a colour revolution in Belarus. The West is trying, however.

Unlike many of my readers, I see nothing outrageous in this. Attempting to influence the political direction of another country to your favour is a key aim of diplomacy, and always has been. I was a rather good exponent of it on behalf of the UK government for a couple of decades. The BBC World Service has always been FCO funded and its entire existence has been based on this attempt to influence, by pumping out propaganda in scores of languages, from its very inception. The British Council is not spending millions promoting British culture abroad from a pure love of Shakespeare. Government funding is given to NGO’s that aim to influence media and society. Future leaders are identified and brought on training and degree courses to wed them to pro-British sympathies.

I do not have any trouble with any of that. It is part of what diplomacy is. It is of course amusing when the British state works itself into a frenzy over Russia carrying out exactly the same type of activity that the British do on a much larger scale. But it is all part of an age old game. If I were Ambassador to Belarus now, I would have no moral qualms about turning up to support an anti-Lukashenko demo. It is all part of the job.

There is of course a murkier aspect of all this, where activities are hidden rather than open. The British state funded Integrity Initiative’s work in secretly paying foreign media journalists, or creating thousands of false social media identities to push a narrative (the latter also undertaken by MOD and GCHQ among others), is more dubious. So is MI6’s more traditional work of simply suborning politicians, civil servants and generals with large bundles of cash. But again, I can’t get too worked up about it. It is the dirtier end of the game, but time-honoured, with understood boundaries. Again, my major objection is when the UK gets ludicrously sanctimonious about Russia doing precisely what the UK does on a far larger scale.

But then we get into a far darker area, of assassinations, false flag shootings and bombings and false incrimination. Here a line is crossed, lives are destroyed and violent conflict precipitated. Here I am not prepared to say that time honoured international practice makes these acts acceptable. This line was crossed in the Ukraine; for reasons given above I do not think that the tinder exists to trigger the striking of such a spark in Belarus.

I should be very happy to see Lukashenko go. Term limits on the executive should be a factor in any decent democracy. Once you have the levers of power, it is not difficult to maintain personal popularity for many decades, barring external shock; popularity is not the same as democratic legitimacy. I should state very plainly, as I have before, that I think it was absolutely wrong of Putin to outstay his two terms, irrespective of constitutional sophistry and irrespective of popular support.

The ideal would be for Lukashenko to go and for there to be fresh elections, as opposed to the Venezuelan tactic of the West just announcing a President who has never won an election. The best result for the people of Belarus and for international stability would be the election of a reform minded but broadly pro-Russian candidate. Putin has used the crisis to re-assert the “union” of Russia and Belarus – signed 20 years ago this is a single market and free trade area. Few would doubt, crucially including few Belarussians, that the future of Belarus lies with integration with Russia rather than the EU.

History’s greatest criticism of Putin will be his failure to diversify the Russian economic base and move it from raw commodity exporter to high value added economy. His aims for Belarus will be to ensure it fits neatly with the template of massive commodity exports controlled by a tight knit and highly wealthy oligarchy. Putin will have no interest in the economic reforms Belarus needs.

My expectation is that Lukashenko will hang on, reorienting the economy back towards Russia. Putin’s long term policy goal has always been the reintegration into Russia of majority Russophone areas of the old USSR. That has been his policy in Ukraine and Georgia. Belarus is a major prize. He will seek to bind Belarus in tighter, probably through increased energy subsidy (Putin’s economic arsenal is very limited). Getting rid of Lukashenko is going to move up Putin’s to do list; I give it three years. The current demonstrations in Minsk have no major economic or social effect, and will pass.


I just wrote the following in response to a comment below, and I think it usefully explains an important bit of my thinking: and not just on Belarus.

I think the difference between myself and many of my readers is that while we both recognise “western” government as plunder by the capitalist elite exploiting the working class and a fake democracy controlled by a media serving the elite, you and others seem to think that governments are a lot better just because they are anti-Western.
Whereas I believe that many anti-Western governments – Lukashenko, Assad and yes Putin – are also plunder by the capitalist elite exploiting the working class and a fake democracy controlled by a media serving the elite. Just organised a bit differently. And with a still worse approach to civil liberties.


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213 thoughts on “Belarus

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  • Brian Fleming

    Craig, Belarus dies not mean ‘White Russia’. That is an unfortunately persistent misconception. The ‘rus’ derives from Ruthenia, the territory that lay between Poland and Russia. To cut a long story short, Belarus means ‘White Ruthenia’. Red Ruthenia, further south, was incorporated into Ukraine. If the Belarusians had been Russians, I expect Stalin would have incorporated them into Russia in 1945, instead of giving them their own republic.

    • Thomas S.

      Mr Fleming –

      Rus’ does not derive from Ruthenia. Ruthenia is merely the Latin toponym for Rus’. Russia is also etymologically traced to Rus’ (yes, Rossija comes more directly from later Byzantine Greek nomenclature, but the people are still russkije which uncontroversially is traced to Rus’). Kievan Rus’ was the oldest Christian Slavic polity but was succeeded by other Rus’ polities.

      Contemporary Ruthenians, an identity that was replaced by Ukrainian for many, live in the Carpathians between Southwest Ukraine and Hungary/Slovakia. They do not live even on the borders of Belarus, which does indeed translate as White Russia or White Rus’ (and I guess I don’t really care if you call it White Ruthenia so long as you understand that has nothing to do with Modern Ruthenians and Ruthenia did not precede Rus’).

      In Late Imperial times, Russians were called Great-Russians, Belorussians (White Russians) were the same, and the people of the present-day Ukraine plus much of South Russia were referred to as Malrorusskije (Little Russians, calqued from the idea of Russia/Rus/Ruthenia Minor).

      • Piotr Berman

        Partially correct. Ethnonym “Rus” was used by Scandinavians who operated in the lands to the east of Baltic as traders, river pirates and local lords until certain Rurik formed a sketchily united state structure that collected tribute and recruited druzhyna, ruler’s armed force. Over time (beginnings are in the haze of legends) this state consolidated, then it underwent “feudal partition”, a loose federation of princes/dukes (no distinction in East Slavic) , all of them being a “Rus”, often with some adjective like Red, White and Black. “Rhutenia” was called “Red Rus” by Poles and inhabitants, the word is Mediaeval Latin construct, approximate Slavic sound at the end of Rus (it is palatalized, “th” can be as good as “t” and “s” if your writing system does not have a precise consonant) + “enia”, like the country of Boii was named Bohemia. White and Black Rus were regions where Belarus is today (byela = white in Russian and Belarussian, although in Polish and Russian it would be compounded as bialo- and byelo- respectively.

        Concerning Christianized Slavic polities, I guess Bulgarian and Moravians were first. Great Moravian state was destroyed by Hungarian invasion (they came from eastern steppes, presumably starting in Western Siberia), Slovakia and Trans-Carpathia remained as Hungarian possession till 1918 (I guess for Hungarians it would be Cis-Carpathia, but for them, it was a region of multi-ethnic Transilvania, with small but famous vampire minority. Czechs in the absence of Moravian overlords created a Christian kingdom that included Moravia and various other lands at various times. Poland and Rus were converted later, I guess in 965 and 980 respectively.

  • Thomas S.

    Mr Murray –

    I know this comment may not be read at this late date but I wanted to comment on your remark in your update about the “worse approach to civil liberties” in countries with anti-Western governments.

    Don’t you believe the main difference between the West and “authoritarian régimes” is not per se a serious respect for civil liberties, but mere technology? The Syrian mukhabarat are (or at least were pre-war) extremely low-tech. They rely on vast networks of human intelligence like the Stasi did in the 70s-80s. As a minor example, I have a friend who was expelled from there after a few months as a student because the university institute in the United States which funded his trip was so incompetent they gave Syria what should have been an internal questionnaire (for the American programme) showing who had been to Israel, which was several members of the group. Nonetheless, it took a few months for arrests and expulsions to begin. I also spent some years in Russia around 15 years ago, and while I am sure the gap has closed considerably now, it was striking how paper documents were supreme to whatever primitive computer files the government possessed. Insofar as this concerns your basic visa files, of course, it is an inconvenience to the average person. Insofar as it affects intelligence and spying, it is in your favour. In the West, meanwhile, if I lose a paper document, the State should have on file that I possessed it and I pay a small fee to replace it. However, they also build giant mass electronic surveillance schemes and programme algorithms which judge my worthiness without any human input, which is truly a much greater violator of civil liberties and human decency.

    Security states that are more technologically primitive are more invasive in overt ways you see everyday and are cruder and more brutal. Adding to this is a second factor, States that resist Anglo-American hegemony feel threatened and insecure, which leads to brutal reactions. This is far more true of an overtly attacked country like Syria or Venezuela (or even Egypt) than a massive, more stable country like Russia or China.

    On other civil liberties issues, I could say that I spent several years in Russia as a student myself and, while I would not want to voluntarily get mixed up with the cops (though they are probably less violent than in the US!), freedom of speech and respect for diverse points of view was far more common, especially in the academy, in Russia than in the West, and that was my impression fifteen years ago, before no platforming became normalised. Really, it is striking how much they are trying to politically vet people just to hold any middle class professional job these days – with quite striking parallels to the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. I think public opposition demonstrations in the US, UK, EU, or Russia face pretty much the same obstacles – if it is an issue that is promoted by a portion of élite opinion, they give you a permit to block the roads and significant media attention. If the demonstration is disfavoured, permits for the centre of the city are denied and you are offered a lesser venue and ignored. If you refuse and run a wildcat demo in central DC/London/Paris/Moscow, you get gassed and/or beaten up (after all, you don’t have a “permit”). I think where you are more likely to run into trouble in a stable authoritarian country like Russia or China is when you are mixed up with (or investigating) some corrupt businessman or low-level politician who has some influ€nc£ over the police. This could happen in the West, too, but it is more likely that they use other tools to discredit you instead of martyring you.

    Of course, China has announced measures in the last couple years to become a high-tech surveillance state with overt social and economic consequences for the dissenter, which is the worst of all worlds. I do not offer this semi-defence of “anti-Western” governments to say they are more moral – I simply think one cannot judge the comparative intentions of governments with unequal capabilities and that Western liberalism is a well-established lie for the élites who share it (not necessarily for the fringes of liberal/libertarian parties and activists). Beyond that, I believe you are correct about predatory capitalism of these countries. Some of us just think it is important to tolerate the existence of smaller mafias to avoid the tyranny of a single mafia with a global, hegemonic reach.

    • Yuri K

      The clash is only about Us and Them, and that’s all. Liberties-shliberties, democracy vs dictatorship, etc, none of this matters. This has been going on since Greeks vs Trojans, Rome vs Carthage, England vs Spain and so on.

    • Martinned

      I’m sure Craig will come with a suitably convincing explanation for that one as soon as he has some free time from his own (legal) troubles.

  • peter mcloughlin

    At the core of the Belarus crisis is the clash of interests between Russia and the West. It is a localized dispute which, for that reason, could very easily spread beyond the borders, affecting surrounding countries and even the whole continent. It would not be long before becoming a global conflict, linking up with that other related theater of confrontation, Asia. Miscalculation – and denial of the true motive for conflict – has been a cause of world war before.

  • Brayden

    ‘The BBC World Service has always been FCO funded’

    It’s not currently and hasn’t been since 2014.

    ‘My analysis is that Lukashenko probably won handily, with over 60% of the vote’

    What do you base this on? As an assertion, it appears to be plucked out of thin air.

    ‘It is of course amusing when the British state works itself into a frenzy over Russia carrying out exactly the same type of activity that the British do on a much larger scale.’

    The Russian interference described in multiple reports and inquiries is not the same as British or US soft power. This is bullshit. I’d suggest reading the Muller report.

  • Yuri K

    Good analysis. Except for your statement that “History’s greatest criticism of Putin will be his failure to diversify the Russian economic base and move it from raw commodity exporter to high value added economy” which is technically correct (they will blame Putin for this too) but I am not sure a lot depends on Putin here. Except for the export of arms maybe, where Russia is a major player again.

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