The presidential election will not take place until 9 August – however Western media, experts and organization have already started to take a closer look at the developments in the country, situated between Poland and Russia. Western observers have devoted quite a bit of attention to opposition candidates, noting that this appears to be the most contested election in Belarus in a long time.
Alexandr Lukashenko, the current Belarusian President, has been in office since 1994 – and wants to win the coming election too. The opposition candidates, at the moment numbering over 50, include the former head of Belgazprombank, Viktor Babariko, and the former head of the Belarusian IT hub Hi-Tech Park, Valeri Tsepkalo.
Western analysts have often observed that Russia is constantly sowing mistrust and discordance in the West. Very few commentators have called this sort of allegations exaggerated or even slightly overblown. American and European readers and media consumers have been told innumerable times over the last couple of years that if it were not for Russia spreading disinformation we would live in perfect harmony.
However, Western experts and observers act towards Russia and the countries that are and have been her neighbours in exactly the same way, sowing mistrust and nurturing schadenfreude. Protests in Belarus, in countries of the former Soviet Union or in Russia itself are met with something that very closely resembles gloating glee and that these supposedly cold-minded and objected experts can barely contain. There are not many Western intellectuals who have had second thoughts about supporting the pro-European revolution in Ukraine. If something went not exactly the way it was meant to there, surely Putin is the one to blame.
In the case of Belarus, opposition candidates appear to be praised mainly because some of them are opposed to economic integration with Russia, something that recently Russia and Belarus have been struggling to work on. The question is: is being opposed to Russia enough for the West to see some politicians as better than others? Even Lukashenko has not been simply a pro-Russian, rather he has tried, especially in the last year, to achieve a difficult balancing act between the West and Russia – just like the former President of Ukraine did before being ousted in an angry revolt in February 2014. Western policy quarters expressed delight every time Lukashenko appeared to rub his nose at Russia. This enthusiasm appears to show that the problem may not not have been the autocrat himself, rather his orientation, not enough unconditionally Euroatlanticist.
Lukashenko may not be perfect and clearly Belarus is not really a democracy – but which country is a perfect democracy in 2020? Is change for the sake of change really the litmus test of a democracy or should political elites respond to the need of the electorate in a more substantiate manner than simply calling another snap election after which nothing really changes?
Russia is routinely accused of expansionism and of having evil and incurable imperialistic instincts – but when one looks at Belarus, as with Ukraine, it looks like the West is the one trying to expand and gain more territory. Experts call it “enlargement”, a nice new word much in vogue lately and the only one allowed to be used, but one should be duped by the slightly more elegant formulation: enlargement may sound slightly more high-brow and gentle but what it means is exactly the same.
And what should make Belarus interested in Euroatlanticism? From the perspective of Belarus, Euroatlanticism looks an artificial construct, an abstract ideal of Western unity, compared to the very real ties the country has with Russia. Russians and Belarusians speak the same language, they share a similar culture, they have a common history and decades of economic and politic cooperation: why should Belarus rationally choose to depart from all this in the name of some distant promise of integration and investment? At least Belarusians are regarded by Russia equal – in the West they would be considered as third category people. As the example of Ukraine has shown, playing both sides could have fatal consequences. The West see itself at war with Russia, and the only kind of Belarus the West would welcome in its structures is a Belarus that will violently reject its “Russianness” in the name of its Europeanness. It’s a game that could be very dangerous.
Stefano Di Lorenzo @StefanoDiLoren5