‘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.’ Belarus is allied with Russia, isn’t it?’
Pointing out that, besides Lukashenko, 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% of the population perished. Earlier, 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 in order to impede the German advance. Earlier still, up to 50% died during the Russian retreat and scorched earth policy in the face of Napoleon’s advance 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.They know that Russian treats its neighbours either as vassal states or as enemies and either will mean extermination of the Belarus state and many of its people. Therefore, Belarus is trying to walk the almost non-existent line between the two. They have to, for nobody in the West has ever helped them and this is still true today. Unlike the situation in Ukraine, those in Belarus who challenge the authorities’ power or potential Russian aggression will not have visits from Western politicians pledging unwavering support. There would be no Himar 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. In short, protesting would be pointless and Belarusians know it. Instead, they resort to acts of sabotage and their heroism will not be noticed.
While the West is focused on the war in Ukraine, the people of Belarus are slowly and imperceptibly shifting Westwards in their characteristic unostentatious way. Belarus gained its statehood 30 years ago and there are few Belarusians who would wish to go back to being ruled from the Kremlin. They are becoming increasingly unhappy with Russian influence. They fear being pushed 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 across the country. The demonstrators walked the streets together with an energy and sense of purpose unknown in authoritarian societies. They greeted strangers with smiles and hugged policemen who were standing and 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 all forms of entertainment and group initiatives. Indeed, the authorities 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 stamped out any spontaneous group activity. 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 leave our homes, we have to check our colours to make sure we weren’t wearing this colour combination. To do so would attract the attentions of the authorities, risking arrest 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, for those who lost their jobs for participations in the demonstrations, the question, ‘why don’t you fight them?’ is as naïve as it is grotesque.