After Belarus’ fraudulent presidential elections of 2020, the Minsk regime began a vicious hunt for any signs of dissent against it, a hunt which still hasn’t ended. After brutally quelling protests in the autumn of 2020, Belarusian authorities began arbitrary arrests of thousands of people around the country and the closing down of organisations which they thought could threaten the regime’s legitimacy.
The Kremlin’s economic and political support was Lukashenko’s only lifeline. Therefore Lukashenko began more or less severing his relationship with the West and blamed it for instigating the political unrest in Belarus and quite quickly managed to turn himself into a pariah.
Last year, Lukashenko also began an escalating military rhetoric towards Ukraine, which on February 24 this year materialised in Russian troops beginning their full-scale invasion of Ukraine partly from Belarusian territory.
Initially, Lukashenko thought that Kyiv would fall in three to four days. Most likely, he hoped that a Russian puppet government in Kyiv would make major economic concessions to Belarus and initiate broad economic and political co-operation with the Minsk regime. As a bonus, Lukashenko’s security forces could then also easily go after any political dissidents hiding out in Ukraine, as they had already done with the head of the Ukraine- based “Belarusian House” Vitaly Shishov in August last year.
However, Lukashenko’s regime started to worry when it became clear that Ukraine would not surrender, managed to fend of Russian attacks on Kyiv and anti-war demonstrations and activism began in Belarus.
In March, Lukashenko attempted to position himself as a peace mediator but failed when Turkey took over the role. He tried to lightly criticise the invasion, but ultimately had to opt for showing public support for Russia’s invasion and ramp up his military rhetoric towards Ukraine in order to show loyalty to the Kremlin. His contradictory rhetoric has made many political commentators and analysts debate whether Belarusian forces would in fact join Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.
However, Ukraine’s General Staff and military intelligence has repeatedly said that it does not fear a ground operation by Belarusian forces.
While everything is of course possible (especially with Lukashenko), the chances of Belarus joining the invasion are slim, as the Minsk regime is well aware of its army’s poor equipment, its low level of morale and non-existent combat experience.
What is more, Lukashenko is afraid that joining the war would cause large-scale protests in Belarus again. Since the Belarusian military was instrumental in quelling the 2020 protests, his security forces would then run the risk of being outnumbered by protesters if the military went to fight in Ukraine.
The war is widely unpopular among Belarusians and the Western sanctions regime against Belarus is also creating economic problems for the country’s population, which is resulting in economic emigration to the EU alongside the already existing political emigration.
If 2020 was a political awakening for the majority of Belarusians, the war in Ukraine has opened the eyes of many more and radicalised many existing political activists.
According to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Kremlin views Belarus as just another region of Russia which forces Belarusians to fight for their independence vis a vis Russia and thereby their very existence as a nation.
Tikhanovskaya also claims that 30,000 people have joined the Belarusian anti-war partisan movement, the same movement that is behind countless acts of sabotage against Russian military transports on Belarusian railways.
No doubt Lukashenko and his regime fear the influence of the exiled opposition currently residing in neighbouring EU countries. Emigrating Belarusians rally around the opposition’s organisations in neighbouring EU countries, which help to keep their political consciousness alive; and it’s only through the exiled opposition that people still residing in Belarus can get independent news coverage of what’s happening in the world and in Belarus.
Turning the tide
However, Belarusians face discrimination for the acts of the Minsk regime both in neighbouring EU countries and in Ukraine. A recent Ukrainian sociology study found that Ukrainians attitude towards Belarusians keeps getting worse. In April 2021, 4% of Ukrainians had a negative attitude towards Belarusians; in April this year, that number had risen to 33%; today, 52% of Ukrainians have a negative attitude towards Belarusians.
While many Russians rally around Putin and his invasion, the majority of Belarusians don’t support Lukashenko, and an even smaller amount (3%) support Belarus joining the invasion.
Still, Belarusians are being dragged into the discussions of a general visa ban and visa restrictions on Russians due to their support for the war. Most recently, as the Czech FM announced, the Czech government will propose that other EU countries completely suspend visa-facilitation agreements with both Russia and Belarus.
If the West wishes to help Belarusians access political activism and experience democracy, this is clearly the wrong way to go. As Tikhanovskaya has previously stated, “more assistance programmes, more visas and openness to ordinary people and those who fight the regime,” is what’s needed. According to her, “Europe for Belarus means safety, and it means prosperity. It means independence, ultimately.”
Banning or heavily restricting Belarusians from acquiring EU or US visas would make the opposition activists remaining in the country practically unable to either flee or meet with their counterparts in exile, which in the end would create a rift between “those who left” and “those who stayed” in Belarus, effectively destroying any aims the exiled opposition has of increasing its legitimacy.
Moreover, proponents of the “European vector of development” would have no ways of showing Belarusians what democracy in the EU really means. Most Belarusians who wish to travel would opt for Russia, increasing Russia’s importance as the destination for work, development and study for young Belarusians.
It goes without saying that this runs contrary to any democratic aspirations which the West may have for Belarus. While a completely “visa-free” regime requires a certain amount of diplomatic trust and co-operation, which is non-existent between the Belarusian and Western governments, the least thing that Western countries could do is to not further complicate Belarusian’s possibilities to obtain visas. If the West wishes to support the Belarusian opposition, it will also try to further ease visa facilitation for Belarusians.