Lessons from History and the Future of Belarus

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Belarus’s independence is seen as an accidental by-product of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and many continue to assume that the likeliest of all options is that Belarus will eventually be absorbed into Russia.”

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The forced landing of Ryanair Flight FR4978 in Minsk and the arrest of dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich has put Belarus once again in the spotlight. Despite last year’s protests, Lukashenka’s dictatorial regime seems emboldened, and the world is struggling to find an adequate response towards what they call an ‘act of terrorism’. There are two lessons we can learn from history when looking at today’s Belarus. The first is that one reason why the Belarusian dictatorship – and Belarus as a state – is so stable is because it is so little known. The second is that the ‘small’ EU member states of East Central Europe must play a key role in EU-Belarus relations that the larger states will be unable to play.

When authoritarian rulers in Ukraine were ousted, many instinctively thought Belarus would be next. These hopes were raised after Leonid Kuchma’s fall in 2005 and again after that of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Yet nothing came of it. While today’s (relatively) democratic Ukraine is mired in civil war and seemingly under threat of breaking up into at least two parts, Lukashenka’s regime seems highly resilient.

Here, our tendency to interpret present events on the basis of our knowledge of the past plays a crucial role. The existence of states such as Poland or Romania is rarely ever questioned because these states have existed for long periods of time. Even the relatively young Baltic States existed as independent countries between the World Wars. But no such blueprint was in place for Ukraine, which is why one of today’s largest European states has to continuously prove its legitimacy as a part of the international system. It hasn’t helped that this legitimacy has been constantly undermined not only by Putin’s Russia, but also by Polish nationalists, who continue to regard Ukraine’s western part as Polish by historical right.

What about the fears that Ukraine will break apart? Scholars have argued that the nationalist belief in the superiority of ethnically homogenous states is more wide-spread and deeply entrenched than we tend to assume. This belief has further eroded international support for Ukraine, which allegedly suffers from a clear-cut (and hugely exaggerated) divide between Ukrainian speakers in the West and Russian speakers in the East. Yet ethnically homogenous states are by no means natural – their homogeneity is man-made, often through violent processes. Most states in Europe became (relatively) ethnically homogenous only after genocide, ethnic cleansing and expulsions during the Second World War. Put differently, states like Ukraine, which harbour several confessions and languages, were the norm across the history, not the exception. There is no reason to assume that this diversity makes a state inherently weak. If Ukraine falls apart, it is also because politicians and the public accept that diversity is a legitimate reason for it to fall apart.

But what does this tell us about Belarus? As for Ukraine, no blueprint of independent statehood exists for Belarus either, which means its independence has never been much of a concern for Europeans. Belarus is another striking case of how we use history to create trajectories towards the future: What has never existed, is unlikely to exist in the future – what has existed, can always return. Therefore, Belarus’s independence is seen as an accidental by-product of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and many continue to assume that the likeliest of all options is that Belarus will eventually be absorbed into Russia. For this reason, there has also been relatively little support in ‘the West’ for Belarusian dissidents. What is striking is that Belarus’s territorial integrity has rarely been questioned, although Belarus is similarly diverse as Ukraine. But outside of Belarus, only a small group (consisting mainly of regional experts) are aware of this, and it has rarely become a matter of international political discourse. Yet therein lies a real danger: It can become a political argument any time, as soon as somebody needs this argument to substantiate broader claims about the future of Belarus.

The second lesson from history concerns Belarus’s position within Europe. Because of the deeply intertwined histories of East Central Europe, the solution to the oppressive Lukashenka regime will more likely be found in Belarus’s neighbouring states than in Berlin, Paris or London. Belarus – like Ukraine – shares a long history with Poland as parts of the so-called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of early modern Europe’s largest states. But more crucially, Belarus has a profound shared history with Lithuania. Many Lithuanians and Belarusians believe their respective countries formed the heart of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Both formed national movements in the 19th century that aimed at emancipation from the powerful Poles. For a short time in 1919, Lithuanian and Belarusian soldiers even fought together against the Red Army and the Polish Army for a joint Lithuanian-Belarusian state. This link continues to shape politics: The Lithuanian capital Vilnius hosts a university for Belarusian exiles, and the current Lithuanian President, Gintaras Nausėda, as well as Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, are among the most outspoken critics of Lukashenka‘s regime. This is a historical entanglement that is difficult to grasp in the Western parts of Europe, where states have been much more stable over centuries. As a consequence, the EU‘s Belarus strategy should take Vilnius, and possibly Warsaw and Riga as departure points, not Brussels.

Klaus Richter is a Senior Lecturer in Eastern European History. His latest book Fragmentation in East Central Europe: Poland and the Baltics, 1915-1929 was published by Oxford University Press in 2020.

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