Does Belarus Belong to Central Europe?

“Lukashenko saw the development of the Belarusian national identity as a threat to his power. He was very slow to grasp that a politics of memory enriched with nationalist elements would strengthen rather than weaken his power,” says Wojciech Konończuk in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: In your latest work published by the Centre for Eastern Studies, “Opposites Put Together: Belarus’s Politics of Memory”, you claim that alongside Moldova, Belarus is the only country in Europe where the formation of national identity is not yet complete. We are talking about a country that was initially unwanted and forced to become independent, because in the first years after 1991, only one in five Belarusians opposed the restoration of the USSR. Does Alexander Lukashenko hinder the creation of a modern Belarusian nation?

WOJCIECH KONOŃCZUK: He is definitely impeding this process. Lukashenko is a man with a Soviet mentality who, until the annexation of Crimea in 2014, saw the development of the Belarusian national identity as a threat to his power.

Lukashenko comes from a small village in eastern Belarus, situated in the most Sovietized region of the country – indeed, Belarus itself was the most Sovietized part of the USSR. It was a republic almost devoid of national elites. Belarusians lost them first through Stalinist and then Nazi repressions. As one of the few Soviet republics, Belarus did not even have the nucleus of opposition in the mid-1980s. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in 1994 a person like Lukashenko became President (and he succeeded in doing so under the slogans of a return to the Soviet legacy), nor is it a coincidence that he enjoyed very high public support for a long time.

Lukashenko is a historian by education, he even taught at school for some time. Some of his blunders are sometimes recalled, like when he said that the sixteenth-century Belarusian humanist Francysk Skaryna was born in St. Petersburg – over 200 years before the city was built. Is history important for Lukashenko?

We need to understand what kind of history he absorbed during his studies in the 1970s. He heard then that Belarusian statehood had not begun until 1918 when Soviet Belarus was founded, and before that there was nothing – Belarusians were only colonized and occupied by Poles and Lithuanians.

In Polish history books after 1989, most of the elements mentioned before remained unchanged – the principal changes regarded the role of the Church and Russia/USSR. However, there is a consensus in Poland about the foundations of its own history, while in Belarus the dispute concerns almost everything. Has much changed in the school books and politics of memory in Belarus after 1991?

A great deal has changed; some of the changes are revolutionary, but also sinusoidal. It should be recalled that in the first years of independence – before Lukashenko came to power – national history was introduced into textbooks. The Medieval Principality of Polotsk, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or the Belarusian People’s Republic appeared – but only for a while. The textbooks had to be written and printed, they were introduced in 1993, but a year later Lukashenko came to power and they started to be withdrawn in 1995. At that time there was a full return to Soviet historiography, of which Lukashenko is an advocate.

A thousand years of history were thus erased and the Bolshevik Revolution was considered the beginning of Belarus.

But after some dozen years, the sine wave bent over again and the nationalist elements were reintroduced. This was because Lukashenko concluded that a politics of memory–based not only on Soviet narrative, but enriched with nationalist elements, would strengthen rather than weaken his power. The reshaping began tentatively at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century and gained momentum a few years ago.

The factor that made Lukashenko hesitant to develop a politics of memory was the fact that he had to take over part of the narrative from the opposition. It was the opposition that had placed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or the People’s Republic of Belarus on its banners.

Lukashenko could not and did not want to give up key elements, such as the fact that the Great Patriotic War and the BSSR were at the heart of his policy of remembrance. He did not replace this memory with another one, but added new elements to it.

He combined the ‘post-Soviet’ narrative with the nationalist one.

It resulted in an eclecticism, the best reflection of which for me are the cities with Kościuszko and Suvorov streets next to one another – the leader of the Polish fighters for independence is a neighbor of the Russian general suppressing the Kościuszko uprising. There are many more such contradictions existing alongside one other.

Lukashenko was very slow to grasp that memory politics could be important in strengthening his power. He was surrounded mainly by Sovietized people like himself. Over time, he only began to listen to those few advisors who explained to him that the sense of national identity should be strengthened. To this end, Minsk began to cautiously look for the roots of statehood back in the Middle Ages. This was the second time that the Principality of Polotsk was utilized.

This is the only element of Belarusian history that is not shared with other nations, unlike the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the USSR. It is exclusively theirs. The Duchy existed from the ninth to the fourteenth century, and today it is not quite convincingly portrayed by the regime as the prototype of today’s Belarus. A state that did not dare to fight with anyone and pursued a peaceful policy, which is how Lukashenko saw his own state in his dreams.

The breakthrough was 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. At that time, Lukashenko and his people realized that betting on an indeterminate post-Soviet or all-Russian identity could make it easier for Moscow to subjugate Belarus as well.

Before 2014, the patriotism promoted by the regime was linked not so much to history as to geography – we are Belarusians, because we live in Belarus. In the face of Russia’s great-power policy, this has proved insufficient. Lukashenko did not question the claim that there was a single East Slavic nation – the Ukrainian-Russian-Belarusian nation…

Public opinion surveys show that the percentage of Belarusians who agree that there is such an East Slavic nation, to which they belong, is stable and amounts to around 65%. So these people believe that there is no separate Belarusian nation?

No, that is definitely not true. These two layers are not mutually exclusive: on the one hand, they feel that they are Belarusians and, on the other, they are part of a wider supranational community with Ukrainians and Russians. When Belarusians are asked from time to time whether they want to be part of Russia, only a few percent of them say they do. The vast majority prefer to live in their own country.

Is Lukashenko succeeding in strengthening national identity by referring to old history?

Yes. Let me give you an example. For several years now, school textbooks have been signalling that the Belarusian statehood may not have been born a hundred years ago, but after 2014, this narrative has begun to be used much more courageously. At that time, Lukashenko grasped that he needed symbols that could unite all Belarusians, and one of such symbols could be the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a Medieval empire that encompassed a large part of Eastern Europe, created its own culture and left a rich material legacy behind it.

The regime renovated the Radziwiłł castles in Nesvizh and Mir and turned them into the largest tourist attractions in Belarus. Earlier, Lukashenko spoke of the GDoL as an occupying power in the Belarusian lands, but then began to mention certain elements of Belarusianness that existed there, and finally declared in 2019 that the GDoL had been a Belarusian state. The regime was successful in this and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania quickly became a familiar name. Opinion surveys show a sharp increase in public support for the claim that the GDoL was also a Belarusian state.

You spoke of the Principality of Polotsk as the only polity which Belarusians do not have to share with anyone. Poland has many conflicts of memory with Ukraine and Lithuania, while with Belarus, there are almost none. Apart from the subject of World War II, Minsk is difficult to provoke.

The Polish-Belarusian historical card is incomparably cleaner than the Polish-Ukrainian or Polish-Lithuanian one, because we did not have many conflicts. Hardly anyone in Belarus will say that the Poles were colonialists in the east before 1918, while many Ukrainians would agree with this. Belarus has no active politics of memory abroad.

And if more nationally-oriented circles came to power in Minsk, could such areas of conflict arise?

I think so, although this should not be overestimated. Shortly after the break-up of the USSR in 1992, it was the Belarusian side that questioned the territorial integrity of Poland and claimed the Białystok region. Many Soviet Belarusians pacified Polish villages annexed to the USSR after World War II.

This also works in the other direction. For example, we had the post-Home Army band of Romuald Rajs ‘Bury’, who murdered Belarusians in Podlasie in the first post-war years.

I agree, but ‘Bury’ has no streets named in his honor and no monuments, while Belarusian NKVD officers in Belarus have.

Because decommunization in Belarus was carried out on a smaller scale than in Russia. In Belarus, for example, Felix Dzerzhinsky not only has many monuments, but the authorities are renovating them with great aplomb.

Belarus never actually experienced decommunization – another bust of Dzerzhinsky has recently been unveiled in Minsk itself, his family manor house has been rebuilt and so on. In Russia, most of these monuments were dismantled in the 1990s. Belarusians are much more Soviet than Russians in this respect. However, gestures by the regime such as the unveiling of the Dzerzhinsky monument have yet another dimension. At a time when Ukrainians are overthrowing Lenin monuments, Lukashenko is showing Russia that he is loyal and that there will be no such about-turn.

I would like to stress, however, that Belarusian disputes with other nations also exist today, and not only in relation to Poles. Belarusians, for example, have grudges against Ukrainians concerning the Ukrainian battalion in German service, which murdered Belarusian villagers during World War II. The figure of Roman Shukhevych is linked in Poland to the murders of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, and in Belarus to the pacification of Belarusians.

And the most symbolic disputes between Belarusian historians and Lithuanians regard the extent to which the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a Belarusian and to which a Lithuanian state. Lithuanians feel threatened. And while the aforementioned disputes with the Ukrainians are conducted by ‘official’ Belarusian historians from government institutions, it is mainly the opposition historians who are involved in arguments with Lithuanians. As the nationalist elements in Lukashenko’s politics of memory become stronger, however, these disputes will become increasingly significant.

If a more nationalist opposition were to come to power, however, the greatest conflicts of memory would break out with the Russians. This is particularly true as Belarusians have the greatest affinity with the Russians, and it is from the Russians that they must distinguish themselves.

This is definitely the case. It will be a matter of time for Belarusians to demythologise, for example, the tsarist period and the Russification that had begun then and continued in the USSR – because why do most Belarusians now speak Russian, rather than Belarusian?

There are also the Stalinist repressions, which are now barely mentioned by official memory politics. The authorities do not mention Kuropaty [a wasteland near Minsk where mass executions by the NKVD during the Stalinist era took place – editorial note] although such places of mass murders are near all Belarusian cities. Belarus is full of death pits. No exhumations have ever been carried out in Kuropaty, we do not know how many people are buried there, and the differences in estimates run into tens of thousands. Lukashenko was careful not to reopen this chapter, because it would be a blow to Russia.

The Kremlin has repeatedly threatened Lukashenko when he turned towards nationalism.

Perhaps Minsk would have gone further in recent years, but the factor limiting the more courageous introduction of nationalist threads into Belarusian politics of memory is Moscow. Russia has been signalling that it does not like the change in Minsk’s memory politics that has taken place in recent years. For Lukashenko, this is not without significance.

During the Dignity Revolution on Maidan, there was a lot of symbolism connected with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and images of Bandera. However, when we talked to Ukrainians about it, they were surprised by Polish fears: for them, it was not an apotheosis of the crimes against the Poles, but a symbol of the fight against the Russians. I can see the flags of the Belarusian People’s Republic banned by the regime during the present protests, but I wonder what they mean and what significance history has for the protesters.

For these protests, it has little significance. Belarusians are fighting not for historical justice, but for political and social justice. The white-red-white flag of the People’s Republic of Belarus has been divorced from its original meaning and has been taken over by the opposition. It is a symbol of the anti-Lukashenko protest. The protesters are also keen to use the Medieval symbol of Pahonia, a charging knight on horseback. It is a much more attractive motif than the official emblem of Belarus containing, among other things, a red star and ears of grain.

Belarusians are looking for their roots, and they like the narrative about the Medieval beginnings of their state, about knights and castles. I have mentioned the renovation of the latter before – hundreds of thousands of Belarusians visit them every year, and this is important because it gives Belarusians a sense of distinctiveness from Russians. There are no Medieval castles in Russia; there is no such architecture. This also shows that Belarus has, for much of its history, belonged to the Latin-Western cultural circle.

Exactly: Latin civilisation. Shortly after the Dignity Revolution, Ukraine expressed interest in becoming associated with the Visegrad Group, and invoked its Central European heritage, which in the case of Lviv, for example, is undeniable. Do some Belarusians aspire to be part of Central Europe?

For Belarusians, Central Europe is not as important as it was for Poles or Czechs. Belarus is anchored in Eastern Europe and always will be. The attitude of a large proportion of Belarusians to Russia is not negative. Most Belarusians share a common language and religion with Russians. That is why they are not looking for an opportunity to break away from Moscow and become associated with Western or Central Europe. The latter is important for the nationally-oriented opposition, which emphasizes that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was also an important player in Central Europe.

Belarus is condemned to straddling a fence between Central and Eastern Europe. Eastern European identity will continue to prevail, but at the same time, the sense of connection with the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, consequently, with Central Europe, will be strengthened among Belarusians.

Wojciech Konończuk

Analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, where he heads the department for Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova.

Zbigniew Rokita

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish reporter. He specializes in the issues of Central and Eastern Europe and Upper Silesia. In 2021, he was awarded the Nike Literary Award for the book Kajś. Tales about Upper Silesia (2020).

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