Irakli Tkhilaishvili, Russianist
Authoritarian regimes are very similar, and the political rhetoric and actions of governments obsessed with the fear of losing absolute power are often identical. Studying authoritarian regimes can help us to avoid the threats that jeopardize the democratic development of states, and, as such, with this in mind, the purpose of this blog is to describe the steps that Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is taking against the Belarusian identity.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has reminded Georgians of his existence twice of late, first by visiting Abkhazia in September, and then on February 21 in Minsk, by meeting with Aslan Bzhania, the de facto leader of the same occupied region of Georgia. Before that came his famous meeting with Putin in March 2022, where Lukashenko “showed everyone” that Ukraine was going to attack Belarus. Although the President of Belarus has brought equal amounts of tragedy and comedy to the previous year, the last signs of his legitimacy had already disappeared in August 2020. The Belarusian public is fed up living under the rule of this single authoritarian ruler, which they have done since 1994, and in 2020 responded with a wave of protests, seeing thousands of people coming out against the rigged presidential elections. The last dictator of Europe, supported by his loyal friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, suppressed public discontent with severe political repression and violence. Lukashenko, who had already been “elected” president for a sixth term, celebrated his “victory” with 33,000 detained individuals and more than 1,000 tortured protest participants in prison.
After the events of 2020-2021, many promising young Belarusian citizens left the country. The leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, also had to leave, and the majority of other opposition politicians ended up in prison. Alexander Lukashenko, in practical international isolation, thereafter fell out of the spotlight of the international media; the world lost interest in Official Minsk, and political life ceased to exist. The dictator, now in the shadows, in tandem with Putin, launched a relentless fight against the Belarusian identity, in accordance with Putin’s stated dream, and it is quite realistic to believe that these developments could end with the reunification of Belarus and Russia. The current process can be called a “silent occupation.” Lukashenko’s recent steps also help us to understand Vladimir Putin’s own tactics and desired objectives.
The first national symbol that was targeted by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime was the old white-red-white flag of the state. At the beginning of the 20th century, the independence movement was strong on the territory of modern Belarus, seeking to create an independent state. In March 1918, the Belarusian National Assembly, decorated with a white flag with red stripes, declared independence. After the Soviet occupation, the white color on the symbols of the republic was replaced with green. After gaining independence in 1991, for the first four years, the colors of the official flag of Belarus returned to white and red. In Belarus, the old national red and white symbols associated with freedom, independence, and patriotism, became the go-to attribute of activists fighting the Lukashenko regime. Europe’s last dictator, who saw nationalism as the main threat to his regime, banned the old national flag, and now use of the country’s symbol of freedom in Belarus is punishable by a rather substantial monetary fine.
Yet, it turned out that Lukashenko’s fight against Belarusian identity was only just beginning with the banning of the flag associated with the independence movement. Official Minsk in 2021 began suppressing publishing houses that printed literature in the Belarusian language. Interesting developments took place in the renowned bookstore “Knihauka” in Minsk, which was famous for selling Belarusian and foreign fiction translated into the Belarusian language: The store was attacked first by the government’s propaganda media, and then by the police, who confiscated more than 200 books, including the Belarusian translation of George Orwell’s “1984”. The former head of the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Henadz Korshunau, opines that anyone who now speaks, reads, or makes Belarusian music can consider themselves a member of a persecuted minority. It is a fact that Lukashenko always preferred the Russian language, but many could not imagine he would declare a war against “books” printed in the Belarusian language.
It will come as no surprise to many that after mass public demonstrations, Lukashenko’s regime openly began suppressing civil society, banning hundreds of non-governmental organizations in Belarus. It is interesting that the majority of civil unions declared illegal did not engage in political activities at all, and it is impossible to attribute to chance the banning of numerous organizations whose activities were related to national, historical, and cultural issues. For example, based on the request of the Ministry of Defense, a Minsk-based non-governmental organization that was working on Belarussian cultural heritage sites was banned. The repressions also affected the National Museum of Minsk, from which 18 employees were fired in December 2022 alone, including the deputy director of the Museum for Scientific and Educational Work, Svetlana Aneiko.
After the August 2020 demonstrations, Europe’s last dictator actively challenged the free media. He banned BelaPAN, the oldest Belarusian-language news agency in the country, four of whose journalists were sentenced to severe prison terms in October 2022 by the Minsk Regional Court. It may be a paradox, but journalistic activities carried out in the Belarusian language are strictly limited on Belarusian territory. Interesting to note is the fact that the already outlawed Belarusian news agency BelaPAN informed us back in 2014 that Official Minsk had been asked to recognize the “independence” of Abkhazia.
The judiciary aspects in the process of the Russification of Belarus are also significant. The integration program signed by Lukashenko and Putin in September 2021 is also noteworthy. The document combines 28 sectoral programs and aims to create a supranational entity that will connect Russian and Belarusian legislation, tax codes, courts, and customs. Alexander Lukashenko for years avoided signing such an agreement with Vladimir Putin, which, to put it simply, will see Belarus transitioning to Russian legal norms.
At the end of February 2023, the “Kyiv Independent”, Estonian “Delphi”, American “Yahoo”, and Swedish “Expressen”, along with several other media and research centers, announced that they had obtained a 17-page document that details Putin’s plan to abolish the independence of the Republic of Belarus and join it to the Russian Federation. Western sources inform us that the Kremlin intends to establish complete control over Belarus in the military, financial, media, cultural, and other fields over the next decade. With the initiation of this new aggressive war against Ukraine by Putin, thousands of Russian soldiers and heavy weapons have been deployed on the territory of Belarus. On the one hand, Russia is using the neighboring state as a launch-pad to attack Ukraine, but on the other, Putin’s army is a guarantee for Lukashenko to maintain his power. The Ukrainian Rada, with the support of representatives of the Belarusian opposition, has already submitted a resolution that seeks to declare Belarus as a territory temporarily occupied by Russia.
It is unfortunate that, in 2020, the President of Belarus decided to become Putin’s puppet, and is now seemingly ready to destroy the Belarusian identity, to fight his own nation, language, history, and culture, in exchange for power. Considering this, it is no longer surprising that Lukashenko met with the puppet leader of occupied Abkhazia, and as a result negatively impacting Belarus-Georgia relations.
We can say unequivocally that the developments in Belarus are extremely disturbing, and should be watched by Georgian society and the political class with great attention. Knowledge is power, power that will help us come to the right conclusions and take the right steps. And we should wish the people of Belarus victory in their fight for freedom against authoritarianism.