‘Why are Belarusians allowing Russian rockets to be fired at Ukraine from their territory?’ asked a British friend. ‘If Belarusians don’t want Russians on their territory, why don’t they fight them like the Ukrainians are doing?
I asked her what she knew about Belarus. She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Lukashenko and that woman who leads the opposition’, she replied.’ They are allied with Russia, aren’t they?’
Pointing out that there are nearly ten million other people, most of whom do not feel allied with Russia, is a pointless exercise because this is the impression most people get from mainstream Western media. Rarely is there focus on what Belarus really is, much less the point that Belarus has had its own unique historical path, much of it, bloody. Let me summarise.
In World War 2, up to 30% f the population perished. At the beginning of World War 1, the people of Belarusian soil were made homeless and starving by the Russian scorched earth policy in 1914. Up to 50% died during the Russian retreat in the face of Napoleon in 1812. In the Swedish wars of the 18th century, locals died en masse. These tragedies happened because they were on the fault-line between invaders from the West and an Eastern Empire where the lives of normal people were merely dispensable cogs in a war machine.
Why is history relevant? In Belarus’ case, it has taught them that sustained resistance to the invader results in obliteration, mainly because nobody would help them. This is still true today. Unlike the situation inUkraine, those in Belarus who challenge the authorities’ power or the Russians will not have visits from Western politicians pledging unwavering support. There would be no Himar missile systems or Javelin surface to air missiles nor billions of dollars from the West to help their cause, should Russia ever decide to invade. Belarusians would be on their own. In the meantime, Belarus’ leaders will allow Russian rockets to be fired on Belarus without the permission of the Belarusian people, because Russia has free reign to destroy them if they protest.
However, while the West is focused on the war in Ukraine, the people of Belarus are slowly and imperceptibly shifting Westwards in their own way. Belarus gained its statehood 30 years ago and I have met very few Belarusians who wish to go back to being ruled from the Kremlin. They are becoming increasingly unhappy with Russian influence. They fear being ushed into fighting. The younger generation, who are more worldly than their elders, have ambitions of a better future, both economically and politically. They dream of living in London, New York, Warsaw, Vilnius or Berlin, not Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Many have already fled to Western countries as they see no future in a Lukashenko-controlled, and Russian-influenced, Belarus. Those who are left accept the situation either willingly or, more commonly, unwillingly.
This became evident in August 2020 when hundreds of thousands of people gathered to demonstrate. They greeted strangers with smiles and hugged policemen who were standing by looking menacingly at them. Neighbours who hardly knew each other held parties and impromptu music shows in the courtyards of apartment blocks. None of this had ever happened in the history of this area because, up to then, the state had the monopoly on initiating all forms of entertainment. They feared spontaneity as a threat to their rule. In the summer of 2020, people found the heady freedom of grass-roots activity.
However, once Putin announced his support for Lukashenko, the police grew more brutal. They beat protesters, imprisoning or killing those they saw as a threat. The courts were free to condemn people for trivial offences or for no offence at all. The huge powerful state machine reacted violently against any show of red and white, the flag of an independent Belarus, which had long been discouraged by the authorities in favour of the official flag colours of Red and green. The reaction of the authorities has increased to preposterous proportions. They arrested people who wear red and white clothing or hang their red and white cloths to dry in their balconies. When we left our homes, we had to check our colours, lest we be arrested and fall into the hands of the viscous police.
However, while the imprint of those August demonstrations against the President is now firmly embedded in the Belarusian psyche, the rest of the world seems to have forgotten that they ever happened. To those who underwent police custody and the brutality that went with it, and for those who are still there, the question, ‘why don’t you fight them?’ is as naïve as it is grotesque.