A Temporary Thaw

Belarus’ president reaches out to the West, but can we trust him?

Alexsandr Lukashenko

On the ground in Belarus, Russia’s politically tempestuous belle poitrine, it is hard to overlook the graveyards. There are the actual cemeteries—almost a third of the country’s population died during World War II, including 90 percent of its Jews. And there is the metaphorical death mask wrapped around the face of Belarus society—with easily the most repressive government in Europe, Belarus’ tattered pedestrians, empty stores, and crumbling apartment blocks look like they are in the authoritarian, unreconstructed Soviet dictatorship that the country has remained since independence nearly two decades ago.

But during a trip to Belarus, I saw the way people in Belarus defy their history and their leader—the intransigent and at times buffoonish president, Alexsandr Lukashenko—to dig out an oasis of normality during their day-to-day lives. Master of a nation of 10 million highly educated citizens in the heart of Eastern Europe, Lukashenko may rule the public square but not the public conversation nor the public mood. In Minsk, picnic spots are carved out of every square foot of green space while rich social evenings are excavated out of loud, inclusive, beery conversations in bustling, well-managed restaurants. Through the sheer force of national will, Belorussians seem to push their government to an on-high abstraction.

It’s an understandable impulse to push government away when national politics is ruled by capricious whim. Lukashenko has recently been giving off neck-jerking mixed messages. He has warned that Belarus will cut off all communication with Western countries if they fail to recognize the legitimacy of the Belarus parliamentary elections that were held Monday. (The United States has expressed concern about discrepancies in the voting process, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the “election fell short of democratic standards.”) It is a draconian threat set against Lukashenko’s unexpected promise, in response to overtures from the West, to substantially improve ties with the European Union and the United States if they only credential his election as democratic.

The West has also taken the election seriously. A high-ranking official at the EU Embassy  in Washington, D.C., told an audience last week at Radio Free Europe: “The freer the election, the more likely Belarus will enjoy better relations with the West.”

Lukashenko has been whipsawing Belarus observers all summer. Angered by American sanctions against his government, Lukashenko in May summarily expelled 10 U.S. diplomats. After their expulsion, the top American diplomat in the country, Jonathan Moore, held a press conference where, visibly angry, he taunted, “For the United States, the political prisoners in Belarus are much more important than the number of American diplomats in Belarus.”

Then in late August, Lukashenko released the country’s last two political prisoners. The State Department cheered the move, declaring it had “a real potential for an improvement in relations with the United States.” Yet the 54-year-old president promptly arrested 20 journalists for mocking him in a cartoon, and days later he declared his support for and “solidarity” with Russia’s decision to invade its southern neighbor Georgia.

Beginning a long driving tour around Minsk one bright afternoon, my friends Olya, a waitress, and her husband, Sasha, a bullish-looking 35-year-old, swung by my hotel in a spanking-new BMW to pick me up for dinner. Sasha explained his business: importing cars from Germany. From Olya’s back-seat squirm, I gathered Sasha’s method of acquiring expensive cars was not a topic of further conversation. Both the car and Sasha purred from neighborhood to neighborhood. Sasha drove well, but Olya voiced increasingly angry corrections when Sasha made, at an accelerating pace, conversational wrong turns. (Olya: “Minsk is not one of the most beautiful cities in Europe”; “there is not a lot to do in Minsk”; “Jews do not control this country.”) But when I asked about the Belarus government, there was no disagreement: Both scowled at me and promptly changed the subject.

A sizable number of Belorussians support Lukashenko, a skilled populist admired for standing up to the West and, when it suits him, to Putin. Yet he is often as much a source of embarrassment as an architect of national repression. Like some of the president’s colleagues elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Lukashenko has the post-Soviet taste for verbal goose-stepping. He once called Hitler “not all bad.” And before the 2006 presidential elections, he warned that anyone attending opposition protests would have their necks twisted “as one might a duck.” Even more serious, Belarus is one of the world’s most dangerous illegal arms exporters. Lukashenko has sold armaments to Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah.

So is this week’s election an opportunity for the West to entice Belarus from some of its roguish behavior, perhaps loosening Russia’s grip on one of its most steadfast allies?

Most Belarus-watchers say no. Lukashenko’s feelers to the West are probably a means to seek leverage in his relationship with Russia, which has doubled the price it charges Belarus for natural gas and with which his relationship is generally more troubled than is frequently understood.

Ties with Russia have been more difficult this year than in the past, surmises Alex Brideau, an Eastern Europe analyst in the Tokyo office of Eurasia Group. Brideau points out that even though Belarus—and Lukashenko in particular—are highly dependent on the Russian government for support, there have been tensions for years, particularly in Lukashenko’s relationships with senior Russian leaders. “The leadership in Minsk likely still sees Moscow as its main supporter over the long term, but the problems in the relationship this year may have led Lukashenko to try to send a message to President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin that they need to pay attention to him,” said Brideau.

“Lukashenko’s move to free opposition politicians from prison suggests he is willing to ease tensions with Washington and Brussels, and the U.S. government’s lifting of some sanctions suggest it is willing to acknowledge the steps he has taken,” said Brideau. “The thaw may not go much farther than it already has, however, as the two sides are very far apart. I think it likely that the U.S. and Europe will be very cautious about overtures from Lukashenko, out of concern that he could at some point change course again.”

In any case, it will take more than a mild warming of relations with the West to alter the enduring Soviet hangover that pervades daily life in Belarus. After a week in Minsk, I went to Vitsebsk, a hilly, forested, largely preserved city in the far northwest near Latvia remembered (when it is remembered) for sheltering Marc Chagall until early adulthood. Chagall opened an art school in Vitsebsk in 1919, and the town continues to claim the arts as a civic birthright.

In Vitsebsk, at last, Belarus steps away from its Soviet Forever fantasy and yields to its long Eastern European history. Cafes fill with art students. Couples stroll through well-tended parks, past men on benches concentrating on games of chess. The ballet and three theaters are booked solid for the night.

But to the eastern shore of the deep canyon sculpted by the Vitsba River, a carapace of crooked streets wind through neighborhoods of ancient, faltering little homes with sad metal roofs. Warmed by coal stoves responsible for the blackened trees, the houses huddle against tiny stores and small gardens; only a museum occupying Chagall’s childhood house gives notice that this honeycomb of Eastern European outlier life was once a Jewish shtetl and is now home to Belorussians who appear no more moneyed, forced by a warped politics to inhabit a world just as small as a century before—and perhaps smaller.