Moscow manufactures tensions in Minsk

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Russian “help” for ethnic Russians in Belarus?

Unsubstantiated claims of discrimination against Belarus’s ethnic Russian minority suggest Russia may be raising the pressure on President Alexander Lukshenko to tighten control of events in the country. Andrei Gerashchenko, head of the Coordination Council of the Russian Compatriot Organizations in Belarus, stated 17 February that “recent events [in the country] reinforce fears about the future,” according to the Vzglad news site. “I have already been persecuted for my pro-Russian stance. I lost my job,” said Gerashchenko, though he did not offer any evidence to support his charges. Russia’s dominant narrative, by contrast, has long been that that Belarusians and Russians are “brothers”—and even that Belarusians are part of the Russian nation.

Thanks to a long history of russification in Belarus, ethnic Russians have largely been integrated into society. They live in a country where almost everyone speaks their language, they can watch Russian television, read Russian newspapers, and travel easily to Russia.  There is little evidence of political or economic discrimination against Russian speakers.

  • According to the latest census, more than 785,000 Russians (or 8 percent of the population) live in Belarus. A 1995 referendum established Russian and Belarusian as the country’s two official languages, though an estimated 69 percent of all Belarusians on speak Russian on a daily basis. 
  • More than 50 percent of Poles, the third largest ethnic group, also primarily speak Russian. 
  • Moreover, more than 90 percent of university students are taught in Russian. 
  • In Minsk, up to 98 percent of pupils in primary and secondary schools are taught in Russian.  
  • Although street names and shop signs in Minsk are in Belarusian, on the streets it is far more common to hear Russian.

Gerashchenko’s claim that Russians suffer persecution in Belarus thus is likely a propaganda stunt resulting from the worsening relationship between Moscow and Minsk. Recently, the country’s pro-Russian media have argued vaguely that Belarus needs Moscow’s help to stabilize the domestic situation. Pro-Moscow media have widely covered recent street protests against the introduction of a tax for people who do not work. These stories apparently intend to show that Lukashenko cannot keep order in his country. “Today, both the government and the opposition are acting against the interests of Belarusian protesters,” writes the pro-Moscow EurAsia Daily.  “Both Alexander Lukashenko and nationalists, really, do one thing and play on the same team. And the only force capable of really improving the situation of the protesters is the Russian state.”

The Russian media propose two options to deal with the trumped-up crisis. The first would be to introduce a “Russian card” patterned after the “Polish card” issued by Poland for ethnic Poles in Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania. Such a card proves one is an ethnic Pole and also facilitates the process of obtaining a Polish visa to visit Poland. The pro-Kremlin website Imperia claims that Moscow has a responsibility to protect ethnic Russians in Belarus, and that that the ultimate goal of issuing a “Russian card” should be to facilitate getting Russian citizenship. At the same time, the portal suggested that such a card, as well as citizenship, should be available to everyone who speaks primarily Russian, not just ethnic Russians. Such arguments reflect the view of extreme Russian nationalists, who argue that Belarusians and Ukrainians are not separate nations, but a part of the “great Russian nation.”

The second solution, proposed by some pro-Moscow media and ethnic Russian organizations, would be to let ethnic Russians abroad obtain Russian citizenship. Gerashchenko says: “In such a situation, the Russian passport but would be a modest protection against nationalists. And Belarus is not on the new list of countries from where, in certain cases, you have the right to political asylum in Russia.”

No polls so far indicate how many Belarusians would want such a “Russian card” or outright Russian citizenship. If, however, either approach is adopted, the Belarusian state would be undermined, since in the past Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to defend the rights of ethnic Russians abroad. Although there is little evidence Russia will invade, people in Minsk are on edge. As the independent website Belarusskiy Partizan recently commented, Moscow could be planning to turn Belarus into a “people’s republic”—a quasi-independent entity like those in nearby eastern Ukraine that depend entirely on Moscow for their viability.

Photo: Rianovosti