Staunton, December 22 — Belarusian nationalists over the last year “not only have come out of ‘the political ghetto’ into which they have been since the end of the 1990s but also have become an influential political force” in Minsk, indeed a force that even Alyaksandr Lukashenka has had to take into consideration and play up to.
As Lukashenka visited Kyiv and restated his support for Ukraine, a Congress in Defense of the Independence of Belarus met in Minsk and declared that it had succeeded in gathering a million signatures on a petition in support of that goal, something its organizers said showed the vitality of Belarusian nationalism.
The group said that it saw the main threat to the independence of Belarus not so much in Russia but rather in the Eurasian Economic Union which is supposed to begin operation on January 1, a distinction that may have made it easier for the organizers to hold their meeting and to gather support in the population.
Elena Anisim, head of the organizing committee, said that the group’s goal “was to declare before the end of 2014 that the Belarusian people does not intend to become a part of any other country. Despite all its difficulties…the Belarusian Republic must remain an independent, neutral and self-standing state.”
She said that the congress was not opposed by the Lukashenka regime because “today the interests of the nationalists and the authorities coincide, both the first and the second are concerned about the loss of independence and falling under still greater dependence on Russia.” Anisim is sometimes mentioned as a possible opposition candidate for president.
According to the Gazeta.ru report, “practically all the participants of the Congress for Independence in their speeches one way or another referred to the situation in Ukraine, above all in order to illustrate the negative role, from their point of view, of Russia in the post-Soviet space.
That Lukashenka did not try to prevent the congress shows some “serious and very rapid changes in the politics of the Belarusian authorities” over the last year. Lukashenka had been an active opponent of Belarusian nationalists, exiling or suppressing their leaders and regularly attacking their ideas.
He replaced the national flag with the Soviet-era one and the government shield as well. And he helped engineer the slit of the main political organization of the nationalists, the Belarusian Popular Front, into two competing factions. As a result, the nationalists were ever less significant players in the opposition. Instead, the democrats and former communists dominated that wing of Belarusian life.
The Belarusian nationalists began emerging from what Gazeta.ru calls their “’political ghetto’” just before the end of 2013 and the Maidan in Kyiv. Belarussianness once again became fashionable, and the leaders of this trend both promoted and took advantage of that development.
But the nationalists were also inspired to act by the emergence in Belarus of pro-Russian groups. Given that choice, Lukashenka increasingly gave the nod to the former as a means of protecting his own position. He used the Belarusian language which he does not know well, increased the number of hours of Belarusian language instruction in the schools, and so on.
At the same time, the Belarusian leader began to comment about Russia’s unfriendly acts and the “threats to the sovereignty of Belarus coming from Moscow.” He continued to oppose the titular democratic opposition and at the end of last year blocked it from holding a Congress of Democratic Forces.
Nonetheless, the holding of the current congress of nationalists would have seemed unlikely only a year ago, an indication of just how far and how fast things have changed, especially since the congress announced that it would be a continuing organ, something that makes it almost into a political party just a year before presidential elections.