Belarus is a reminder that the USSR is still collapsing

Crowds gather in central Minsk on August 23 as pro-democracy protests continue across Belarus. REUTERS/Stringer

It is common to view history as a series of specific dates and distinct periods, but real life is rarely so neat and tidy. Instead, empires and epochs have a tendency to expand and disperse like clouds in the sky, blending and merging in ways that expose the shortcomings of traditional chronologies. One relatively recent example of this phenomenon is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Generally viewed as a series of dramatic developments that took place over a relatively concentrated period of time in 1990-91, recent events in Belarus are reminder that the fall of the USSR is actually an ongoing event that continues to shape the global geopolitical climate.

The national awakening in today’s Belarus is especially striking because it is taking place in a country that had previously clung to the traditions, symbols, and narratives of the USSR with more enthusiasm than any other former Soviet republic. While Putin’s Russia has gone to considerable lengths over the past two decades to rehabilitate aspects of the Soviet past, Lukashenka’s Belarus also continued to embrace the specific statecraft and economic practices of the Communist era.

During his 26-year reign, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has turned the country into his very own miniature Soviet Union. When he first came to power in 1994, Lukashenka made his intentions clear by rejecting the white-red-white flag of independent Belarus in favor of the red-and-green flag used during the Soviet era. Multiple other aspects of everyday Soviet life were revived, from Komsomol-style political youth organizations to obligatory university study of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). An authoritarian model of government was implemented, with no single election following Lukashenka’s initial victory being recognized as either free or fair. Meanwhile, the Belarusian language was marginalized in favor of Russian, to the extent that by 2020, almost 90% of Belarusian children attended Russian-language schools.

Lukashenka’s dominance of the political landscape made public dissent difficult, but beneath the surface, a new generation of Belarusians slowly began to emerge who wanted nothing to do with the stagnant Soviet nostalgia of the regime. Over the past decade, this generation has become increasingly vocal in the public life of the country. Taking their lead from Telegram, YouTube, low-cost airlines, and globalized pop culture, they could hardly be further removed from Lukashenka’s archaic authoritarianism.

For many young Belarusians during the 2000s, the dream was to emigrate. But in more recent years, this trend has been overtaken by the emergence of a new and self-confident Belarusian identity that embraces the country’s ancient cultural roots and rich European heritage while rejecting the imperial narratives imposed by generations of Russian and Soviet dominance. It is no surprise that young Belarusians are playing such a prominent role in the pro-democracy protest movement we see today.

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There have been a number of landmark events in the rise of this new and independent Belarusian national identity. The 2013-14 Euromaidan Revolution in neighboring Ukraine had a particularly profound impact on Belarusians, many of whom empathized with the Ukrainian struggle to rid itself of an authoritarian ruler and embrace a post-imperial national identity.

Thousands of Belarusians traveled to Kyiv to witness the drama first-hand. Meanwhile, back in Belarus, Ukraine’s national awakening helped generate unprecedented interest in Belarusian culture. In the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution, it became increasingly common to see Belarusians wearing folk-style embroidered fashions. Belarusian language classes began springing up all over the country.

Another symbolic moment was the 2019 reburial of nineteenth century Belarusian national hero Kastus Kalinouski, who was among the leaders of the 1863 Uprising against czarist rule. Kalinouski is widely regarded as the foundering father of modern Belarusian statehood. Executed by the Russians following the failure of his revolt, Kalinouski’s remains were identified in Vilnius in 2019 and reburied in a ceremony in the Lithuanian capital. Thousands of Belarusians attended the event, with many describing it as a life-changing experience. Significantly, Kalinouski’s funeral also revived discussion of the ties linking modern Belarus with Lithuania and Poland through a common Central European heritage in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Changing perceptions of Belarusian identity and history have been reflected over the past decade by an increasingly diverse media landscape. A growing list of independent outlets such as Belsat have offered access to uncensored Belarusian history. Meanwhile, the vibrant Belarusian cinema and contemporary arts scenes have played similarly influential roles in the evolution of a new, non-Soviet identity.

During the recent presidential election campaign, opposition figurehead Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and campaign partner Maria Kalesnikova did not initially embrace the politics of national identity. Instead, they focused on demanding free elections. This cautious approach reflected the opposition’s fear of alienating segments of the public, particularly older generations. Nevertheless, the growing presence of white-red-white flags at rallies reflected the underlying importance of identity issues as the pro-democracy movement began to gain momentum in July before erupting in early August.

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The white-red-white alternative Belarusian national flag that has dominated protests is a powerful symbol. It dates back to Belarus’s short-lived statehood in 1918 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and is considered an emblem of the Belarusian struggle for independence. In contrast, many regard the red-and-green version of the national flag adopted by Lukashenka in the 1990s as a token of Soviet-style subservience to the Kremlin.

The radicalizing events of the past few weeks have only served to strengthen these contrasting associations. Numerous victims of police brutality have been detained for displaying the white-red-white flag, while government-sanctioned rallies of regime loyalists have been immediately identifiable by the presence of red-and-green flags and banners.

These loyalist gatherings are likely part of a campaign coordinated by Russian specialists sent to Belarus by the Kremlin since August 9 in order to lead the Lukashenka regime’s information fightback. Their strategy bears many of the same hallmarks as Moscow’s infowar against Ukraine during the country’s 2013-14 revolution, with a heavy emphasis on Soviet identity and emotional appeals to the collective Soviet suffering during WWII.

Recent pro-Lukashanka rallies have been marked by the appearance of flags decorated with the Ribbon of St. George, a symbol of Russian imperialism with roots in Czarist history that was previously shunned in Belarus due to its close associations with the Kremlin’s ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Regime officials including Lukashenka have also begun branding protesters as Nazis and fascists.

Similar accusations of Nazism were once a mainstay of Soviet propaganda. In more recent years, they have become central to post-Soviet Russia’s information attacks against uncooperative neighbors. These slurs are rooted in Kremlin distortions dating back to the Second World War. As German forces swept east during WWII, they initially revived the suppressed national symbols of captive Soviet nations such as Belarus and Ukraine. Ever since, Moscow has sought to exploit this association with the Nazi occupation in order to discredit the independence struggles in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states by labeling them as a form of fascism.

Such tactics might have proved effective in previous years, but this no longer appears to be the case in today’s Belarus. The evolution of a new Belarusian national identity has been increasingly evident throughout the past decade, and events of the past few months have provided a powerful stimulus to this historic process. Russia’s Soviet-style propaganda still resonates with some sections of Belarusian society, but it has been hopelessly overtaken by events.

This shift in identity will inevitably complicate the relationship between the new Belarus and neighboring Russia. The emergence of an independent Belarusian national identity makes it difficult for Moscow to reconcile itself with the changes taking place in a country that remains central to Russia’s vision of its most vital national interests.

This does not mean that we should expect an imminent Russian invasion. The Kremlin appears to have learned from its mistakes in Ukraine and would prefer to stop short of alienating another “brother nation” via military aggression. However, it does mean that Russia can be expected to maintain its already considerable support for the Lukashenka regime, which currently involves economic, security, diplomatic, and informational components. Moscow must buy time and prop up Lukashenka until a palatable alternative can be found that would allow the Kremlin to avoid an embarrassing setback deep inside its own traditional sphere of influence.

At present, Russia looks to be relatively short of tools to counter Belarus’s national awakening. With a small contingent of ethnic Russians in Belarus, there is little scope for supporting the rise of a rival narrative based on appeals to Russian ethnicity. Nor are there are any pockets of concentrated pro-Russian sentiment that could serve a separatist function similar to Crimea or the Donbas in Ukraine. Instead, the Kremlin is likely to rely on appeals to Pan-Slavism and Orthodoxy.

Another key objective will be to downplay or discredit Belarus’s historic links to Lithuania and Poland. Modern Russia cannot compete with the allure of the Western world, but it likes to use the shared past to justify continued close ties with former imperial possessions such as Ukraine and Belarus. However, these nations also have deep historical ties to Central Europe that predate Russian involvement and are generally remembered far more favorably. The August 23 Chain of Freedom, which saw people form a human chain from Lithuanian capital Vilnius to the border with Belarus, was greeted with notable irritation in Moscow.

With the emergence of an independent Belarusian national identity, we are entering a new stage in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thirty years after the empire officially expired, the sun may finally be setting on the last remaining outpost of Soviet authoritarianism in Central Europe. Events in Belarus remain finely poised, but it is already clear that the country will never be the same again. The ramifications of this shift will be felt throughout the region, and could eventually hasten the final act of the Soviet collapse inside Russia itself.

Franak Viacorka, a native of Minsk, Belarus, is a journalist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He tweets @franakviacorka.

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