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Great Belarusian Disaster

Sadakat Kadri

The customs post at Bobrowniki was looking busy a couple of weeks ago. Inactive, too. When I drove there from Białystok, the stationary juggernauts snaked back ten miles. A driver halfway along said he’d already spent two nights in his cab. Individuals headed for Belarus could jump the queue, but only if they surrendered all goods acquired in Poland. When I optimistically suggested to Nikita Grekowicz, a Belarusian-Polish journalist, that we one day meet in Minsk, he smiled. ‘Not today though,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t take a cookie. And they’d probably arrest me as a spy.’

Alexander Lukashenko announced he was closing the borders in a surprise speech at an official women’s forum on 17 September. Five weeks after his highly contested re-election, with riot police assaulting female protesters across the country, the self-anointed president of Belarus told the ‘beautiful and patriotic’ delegates that he’d been busy with ‘purely manly things’ – before moving from gender issues to geopolitics. He urged Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians to stop their ‘crazy politicians’ from launching a war. Until then, he was closing all crossings to the West.

Since the disputed election of 9 August, Lukashenko has warned that Poland hopes to annex the Grodno border region and alleged that ‘specialists’ in Warsaw and Berlin fabricated stories about Alexei Navalny’s poisoning ‘to discourage Putin from sticking his nose into Belarusian affairs’. Russia is one of the few countries Lukashenko is still courting, but even that is a recent tilt. In the run-up to polling day, he all but accused the Kremlin of despatching mercenaries to Minsk to carry out a massacre.

The invocation of threats to the nation might seem predictable – demagogues routinely pose as defenders of the homeland – but pragmatism has kept Lukashenko in power for 26 years. It’s hard to identify much about Belarus other than its Soviet past that he actually values. The Belarusian language doesn’t inspire him (all but one of his presidential speeches since 1994 have been delivered in Russian), and he hasn’t bothered to dress up his tolerance of docile clerics as anything more spiritual (he once described himself as an ‘Orthodox atheist’). The only national vision he’s articulated with passion is the menacing assurance of dictators everywhere: without him, the country would go to ruin.

This might – up to a point – sound refreshing. In the borderlands of Eastern Europe, where war cemeteries are ubiquitous and every forest is liable to contain a mass grave, chauvinism has a lot to answer for. But Lukashenko is no internationalist; he simply equates patriotism with loyalty to his regime. As Alexander Lapko of the Belarusian Solidarity Centre in Warsaw pointed out to me, the historical myth that Lukashenko prizes most – Communism’s relentless struggle against Nazism – exploits nostalgia for political advantage, while ignoring the millions uprooted and slaughtered during Stalin’s two-year alliance with Hitler. ‘For my grandparents and three million other people, it wasn’t a Great Patriotic War,’ Lapko said. ‘It was a great Belarusian disaster.’

The sense of national pride that’s building among activists like Lapko, angry as they are, couldn’t be less cynical. Despite widespread suspicions of Vladimir Putin, many feel attached to Moscow (three-quarters of Belarusians speak Russian as a first language), and expressions of patriotism weren’t characterised by pent-up resentments against anyone. A more common attitude was surprise: everyone I met acknowledged that Lukashenko’s political longevity reflected a degree of popular passivity, and they were happy to see habits of obedience turning into acts of courage. When I asked Lapko what had inspired the earliest anti-Lukashenko protests in June, he paused, before identifying Lukashenko’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We were not a nation before this summer,’ he said, ‘just an agreement to let Lukashenko govern in the public interest. But when he called Covid a “psychosis” while patients lay dying in overcrowded hospitals, the social contract was destroyed.’

The mood could easily change. Whether the demonstrations wane or the violence intensifies, polarisation is likely as opposition leaders look for help and the European Union vies for influence with Russia. Lukashenko has twice responded to the mass protests by appearing on state TV brandishing automatic firearms, and he’s regularly declared that there will be no fresh elections unless his enemies kill him first. Even his recent warnings of Polish territorial ambitions may be fuelled by self-centred obsessions. According to rumours, he thinks he’s destined to die near Belarus’s western border – because a fairy once told him so.

On Saturday, Lukashenko unexpectedly visited various imprisoned opponents, including Viktor Babaryko, who was once his most popular rival – an indication perhaps that Putin is pushing for compromise. But Belarus’s dictator isn’t likely to negotiate away power. One observation about his political narcissism has stuck in my mind. ‘Lukashenko has said his mentor is Salvador Allende,’ Nikita Grekowicz told me. It wasn’t the politics of early 1970s Chile that fascinated him, though; it was the overthrown president’s martyrdom. ‘He wants to go down with a gun in his hand.’