Belarusian authorities consider alternative to “Russian World”
The Kremlin’s aggressive international policy is prompting Belarus to reconsider her national project in order to neutralise the influence of “Russian World” ideas on Belarusian society. The Belarusian authorities seek to consolidate society around the idea of Belarus’ independence and nation-building by placing greater emphasis on Belarus’ national culture.
However, the authorities’ actions are inconsistent. This could be explained by the authorities’ passivity as well as by the conflicting nature of Belarus’ previous cultural and humanitarian policy.
Throughout his rule, President Lukashenko has repeatedly asserted that Belarusians and Russians are one nation, and commented that "Belarusians are Russians with a quality mark". However, amid the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy towards Ukraine, President Lukashenko is starting to change his rhetoric in an attempt to distance himself from the so-called “Russian World".
During his last press conference with Russian regional media, Lukashenko said that the Belarusian authorities had failed to create a state ideology acceptable for all. “I am told that our national ideology is a profound patriotism and so on. But patriotism is understood without an ideology – we need something that would ignite and be acceptable for society as a whole, that would inspire. From my perspective, neither I, nor my assistants have come up with anything like that. Those involved in the ideology say that we have a state ideology. As the president, I tell them that it has not won my heart or my mind, so how would it conquer the heart of an average person?”
It is unlikely that the authorities’ recent initiatives to strengthen the Belarusian national consciousness have been exclusively prompted by the presidential campaign in 2015. According to IISEPS polls, the president’s approval rating has continued to grow throughout 2014 amid the crisis in Ukraine.
Most likely, the Belarusian authorities have seriously thought about readjusting the current state ideology and reinforcing it with Belarusian national culture in order to consolidate Belarusian society. For example, for the first time in many years, President Lukashenko held a meeting not only with the Writers’ Union functionaries (pro-governmental union), but also with representatives of the Union of Belarusian Writers (an independent organisation promoting national culture). In addition, the authorities have become aware of the Belarusian language’s weak tenure in educational institutions, and the need to gently promote national cultural and historical values, which identify Belarusians as a nation and often conflict with the "Russian World" ideology. At a meeting with representatives of Belarus’ intelligentsia, President Lukashenko proposed establishing a national university where studies would be in Belarusian.
It is worth noting that, until recently, the Belarusian authorities have controlled protest activity in society by dividing their opponents. For instance, early in his presidency, Lukashenko managed to divide almost all the political parties and non-governmental organisations which were regarded as disloyal to the Belarusian leadership. As a result, there are several political parties in Belarus with the same programme and ideology, or even the same name: the ‘Belarusian Popular Front’ Conservative Christian Party and the Belarusian Popular Front; the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Gromada) and the Belarusian Social Democratic Gromada and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Gromada). Having divided the political parties, the authorities caused a split in several major non-governmental organisations (e.g. the Belarusian Union of Writers), including ethnic minority organisations, such as the Union of Poles in Belarus.
Meanwhile, the authorities have neither attempted to divide Tavarystva Belaruskaj Movy (TBM) (the Belarusian Language Society), nor created a pro-governmental organisation which would support the Belarusian language. Interestingly, the TBM is one of the largest non-governmental organisations in Belarus today.
However, the Belarusian president is sending quite mixed signals to society and public officials. The public officials in the regions have not yet been properly updated about the president’s new ideas to strengthen the state ideology via national culture, and still use traditional coercive means against representatives of “alternative” culture. For example, while the president was meeting with writers, security agents in Grodno clamped down on the presentation of a new novel by Belarusian writer Viktar Martinovic - a bestseller with a symbolic name ‘Mova’ [’Language’ in Belarusian].
In the near future, the Belarusian authorities might take cautious steps to developing Belarusians’ national awareness. In doing so, their aim will be to strengthen society’s loyalty to the Belarusian state, narrow the split in society, and create an alternative to the "Russian World".
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.