Belarus has a long history in Europe. It is located in Europe and a major part of its political history is dedicated to this continent. Moreover, increasingly more Belarusians are leaving the country for the EU due to political reasons. However, Belarus itself is under the heavy control of Russia, including economically, politically, culturally and militarily.
Stay with its big eastern brother
As polls demonstrate, Belarusian society is critical toward its connections with Europe. People consider Russia a closer partner, both culturally and socially. However, the situation is a little more complicated here.
Talking about any political alliances, such as CIS and EU, Belarusians rather support the idea of being a part of the former one. However, this doesn’t directly demonstrate the alignment towards Russia. In fact, the choice of CIS and other forms of cooperation with Russia here indicate the preference of the existing state of affairs. In polls, the choice to quit all unions correlates with the idea of being a part of CIS. In fact, people usually associate both the status quo and true neutrality as situations which guarantee peace. Considering the current war and the role of the Belarusian government in it, it can be surprising to hear this opinion, but it is worth mentioning that the majority of Belarusians do not directly associate the war with Belarusian cooperation with Russia. So, here this logic works.
It’s worth mentioning that the society as a whole, in fact, wants to be closer to the EU too. Currently, this sphere is rather demonstrated by the attitude towards sanctions: polls suggest that Belarusians want the sanctions to be lifted and connection with the EU to be restored. This idea is supported, and, possibly, motivated, by rather pragmatic reasons.
The reasons why Belarusians want to intensify relationships with Russia or the West are different in their nature. According to Chatham House reports, Russia-leaning individuals base their choice rather on ephemeral reasons. Those include cultural ties, common language, feeling of relatedness, etc. On the other hand, the reasons to support western orientation are more pragmatic: people consider western countries better in their economy, social security system, and education. This split is seen even among people supporting the current regime.
The perception of foreign countries also depends on one factor: the media that a person watches. The main division here is between state-owned media, which produces propaganda, and opposition media channels. Belarusians consuming opposition media content are usually not supportive of Russia and rather prefer the West, considering it better developed economically, politically, socially, and academically.
On the contrary, state-media viewers tend to support Russia and see this country as rather developed, while of course having some drawbacks. This auditory, however, doesn’t directly criticize the West. For them, the list of the worst enemies looks the following way: the US, the UK, Eastern Europe. The first two countries are considered rivals by Russian state media, while the latter group is targeted specifically by Belarusian rhetoric. What is interesting is that West Europe, – such as Germany, Netherlands, Spain – is considered rather developed and sometimes even favorable partners. As we have already discussed, this partial support is rather based on the country’s level of economic and social development.
However, both camps consider one country relatively positively: China. China is considered a counterbalance which can prevent superpowers from doing something aggressive. This fact makes it look better for both camps, since pro-Lukashenka media tend to accuse the US of aggression, while pro-democratic audiences tend to criticize Russia for the same reason.
Implementation of these attitudes
Unfortunately, despite support from the West, Belarus is now deeply dependent on Russia. It is worth mentioning that the current political system, centered on Lukashenka, doesn’t seem to be able to escape the present state of isolation. Nor does there seem to be any desire to move in this direction. In addition, even if Belarus starts going towards a more western position, there is a high risk of Russian invasion in this process, which will deteriorate even emerging attempts to cooperate with the EU.
Therefore, the only viable way to strengthen the relationship with the West is after the fall of Lukashenka. However, even in this scenario, when the office is taken by democratic forces, there is no guarantee that Belarus will follow the pro-western route. There are several examples in the world, including Georgia and Moldova, where declared aims to join the EU can be countered either by a significant pro-Russian fraction of the population (Moldova) or by the actions of the authorities (Georgia).
One of the factors that can somewhat secure the pro-western future of Belarus is the ongoing generational change. If we look at Belarusian society’s structure, we can see that among the youth, the support of democratic values and Euro-integration is increasingly high. Therefore, in the long term, we can conclude that the geopolitical choice of Belarus will depend on today’s youth. Specifically, will the youth choose Russian or European education, job market, social security systems, etc.
However, even this tectonic change cannot guarantee the future of Belarus.
As multiple examples – fall of the USSR for instance – demonstrate, the generational change can be countered and the country can fall back to a non-democratic system after a promising commencement. Considering the above-mentioned, it is severely complicated to predict the future of Belarus from this point.
Messages should be sent not only to the regime and Lukashenka, but to Belarusian society itself. What is problematic with it now at present is the lack of a uniform idea. In fact, some EU members sometimes change their rhetoric towards Belarus, and this can decrease the level of popular belief towards those agents. Therefore, the EU should adopt a more consequential media policy.
In fact, as it was mentioned before, there is a problem with the perception of Euro-integration in Belarusian society, since the status quo and neutrality are preferred more. For this reason, one should be attentive with the messages to Belarusian society: integration with the EU can trigger people, but the benefits that the cooperation with the EU offers can be used as an asset in media strategy.
Photo: J. Stacevičius/LRT