Acting Chairperson of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions Maksim Pazniakou is sure of this, and believes that neither Belarusians nor Lukashenka are ready to fight for Russia’s interests. However, will this be enough to refrain from war?
War is a huge phobia for Belarusians; but both Lukashenka’s regime and the opposition forces are using this phobia by playing it now. Neither side is directly in favour of war, although all have chosen sides in the conflict. We tried to find out: what do Belarusian workers think about the war in Ukraine?
Recently, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged Belarusians to be ready for war and to do everything to “protect themselves and their loved ones.” The alarming appeal made everyone wonder - for what reason did the office of the opposition politician alarm people? Do they possess such information that proves Belarus will inevitably be involved in the war?
Probably, Tsikhanovskaya’s office reminded itself so loudly after some lull to return to the information agenda. Be it a PR move, or the presence of an insider, or both at the same time, it hit the main nerve of Belarusians. Their main phobia.
Stability as a core value
Stability and peace were the main ideologies defining the foundations of the current regime in Belarus. The victory of the USSR in the Second World War and huge human losses, stability and a peaceful sky - all this was the main leitmotif of state propaganda for the last 30 years. And for good reason: the main argument of Lukashenka’s policy, until some time ago, sounded like this - I wish there was no war.
The dictator himself likes to put on the mask of a peacemaker and guarantee stability. This was the case during Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and 2014; during the hostilities in Donbas, when official Minsk took the role of a negotiating platform. At one of his public meetings, Lukashenka proudly declared that “the global community considers Belarus as a donor of regional security.”
From August 2020 violent suppression of peaceful protests in Belarus with the use of army units, the dictator’s rhetoric began to change. In order to maintain power and sustain constant terror, he found it necessary to justify the militarization of the country to consolidate his goals.
State media use a propaganda stamp about the external threat and militarization of neighboring countries. The Belarusian provocation regime brings ten thousand migrants from the Middle East to the border with these countries. It is gradually turning from a “donor of regional security” into a “donor of danger.”
Analysts interpreted Lukashenka’s provocation to attempt to incite a border conflict, to divert attention from questioning his legitimacy that have developed in 2020. It could have been the aim of the dictator to secure his position. But the situation changed dramatically in the winter of 2022.
An ally of the aggressor
On the night of February 24, units of the Russian troops began shelling Ukraine with rockets and bombs from all possible directions. The most shocking moment of those days for millions of Belarusians was the fact that a part of the Russian troops invaded Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, where, as it were, they were on joint exercises with the Belarusian army. Belarusians became hostages of Lukashenka’s personal decision to allow Russian aggression from the territory of a sovereign country.
- There was anger from powerlessness, from not being able to do anything and somehow help, - says Pavel, who at that time was working in Belarus. - I watched the news from Ukraine all the time, all these missile attacks on Ukrainian cities caused only hatred and anger in me. I started looking for an opportunity to help financially, and began to donate money to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and civilians who had to leave their homes.
The state of shock paralyzed active Belarusians for several days. The feeling of helplessness has become basic for most citizens. But this did not prevent thousands of protesters, four days after the war started, from going to anti-war protests in Minsk. And this happened despite the fact that repressions and mass arrests have been taking place in the country for more than a year. On that day, February 28, more than 800 protesters were detained near the building of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Belarus.
Even after the arrests, Belarusians did not come to terms with the war. Dozens of acts of sabotage took place on the Belarusian railway used for transporting Russian military equipment. During the arrest of the Belarusian rail partisans, authorities used military weapons shooting at them. So they shot through the knees of detainees and demonstrated wounded people on propaganda channels on state TV, scaring other people willing to resist.
To this day in Belarus the hunt continues for those who speak out against the war, leak information about the movement of Russian military equipment, or post messages of solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
An exemplary case was the arrest and trial of a pop singer Mary Gerasimenko, who performed a song by the Ukrainian band “Okean Elzy” at one of her concerts in Belarus. All Ukrainian national symbols, as well as Belarusian ones, become grounds for arrest. Therefore, one really gets the impression that Belarus is secretly under Russian occupation.
The regime officially continues to support Russia - its last ally, providing everything necessary for its support: military equipment, test sites, transport infrastructure, instructors for the training of the mobilized. But the society itself doesn’t support Lukashenka’s military orientation. Despite the fact that all newspapers, TV and radio media are in the hands of the state. All the same, Belarusians do not support war.
During the conversation with us, one of the Minsk businessmen, who is currently in Belarus, noted that he had not even seen people supporting the war:
- Among those with whom he communicated, I did not see a single person who approves military actions. There are people who say that a war was brewing, or that something was going to happen. But there are no people I know who approve of the war.
For many citizens who were apolitical, this position on war of Lukashenko became unacceptable. Those who had the opportunity to do so - decided to immigrate.
Even the participants of the 2020 protests, who continued to stay in Belarus, began to leave. Those who did not have the opportunity to get a visa to the EU, went to Georgia or Central Asia. They were mainly representatives of small and medium scale businesses, and the representatives of the IT sphere.
According to the migration services of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Georgia, more than 100,000 citizens left Belarus from 2020 to 2023. Some experts claim that 300,000 have left the country. The latest wave of mass exodus was triggered by reports of imminent mobilization in Belarus.
Yauheni, an entrepreneur from Minsk who moved to Batumi (Georgia) a few months ago, believes that the reason for many to leave the country was a complex of problems, but the involvement of the country in the war was a key moment:
- The war had an impact, of course. There is absolutely no judiciary, no laws protecting people. Thus, there is no feeling of security. There is an understanding that your business is conducted as long as you are not touched by the authorities; but as soon as the authorities start investigation against you, you can lose everything or go to prison. This is despite the fact that you are running a legal business and paying taxes. I believe that the Belarusian people and the military, after all, will not enter into this unnecessary and senseless conflict.
The voice of the workers
Between the 2020 protests and the start of the war, a small number of non-governmental organizations remained legally established in Belarus. During this time, the authorities liquidated about 700 organizations and initiatives.
The only mass organizations that remained in Belarus at that time were democratic trade unions. Of course, the leadership of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, BKDP could not but condemn the aggressors. Therefore, BKDP openly called on Russia to stop the war and condemned the complicity of the Belarusian regime in the aggression. A few weeks later, the trade unions were searched, union leaders and activists arrested, and later, all independent trade unions were liquidated. Today, more than 40 representatives of independent trade unions have been convicted and dozens are in prison.
Maksim Pazniakou, acting chairperson of the BKDP, who managed to leave Belarus, believes that any war is unacceptable for the majority of Belarusian workers:
- If we take into account the data of sociological studies, we see that the majority of workers do not support the war. This is most likely due to several reasons. First of all, historical rejection of war is characteristic of Belarusians. We have survived many wars that have passed through our territory. All the horrors of the war remained in the genetic memory. Secondly, it is the fearr of having to fight. There are no fools among the workers who are ready to put their heads down for something unknown. Belarusians have no imperialistic ambitions. Therefore, there are no Belarusian interests in the war of aggression that Russia is currently waging. Thirdly, it is very good neighbourly relations between Belarusians and Ukrainians.
The trade unionist believes that the majority of young people will try to avoid mobilization:
- Because this is a new generation that was brought up on humanistic principles. The protests of 2020 showed that society is against violence. Older people will most likely silently participate in the mobilization, but they will be very demotivated as soldiers. I think that even the representatives of the state repressive power are not motivated and willing to take part in this war en masse. Because, in part, people went to serve in these state structures to get housing, cheap loans, and a pension that is not bad by the standards of Belarus. Therefore, if Lukashenko collects an army, its effectiveness will be very doubtful. I am sure that if there is a war with the participation of Belarus, it will be a war of defense for the authorities of Belarus. Or if the hostilities move to our territory. Then for Lukashenko it will be the protection of his power and his life.
Yahor, an employee of a Salihorsk enterprise, believes that the workers are intimidated, as is the whole society:
- People are worried, but at the same time they reassure themselves: it will not affect us and Lukashenko will not risk the Belarusian army. But at the same time, the fear of war is always present. As for the participation of Belarus in the war, I do not rule it out, it is possible.
Aliaksandr, an employee of one of Gomel’s enterprises, believes that there are few supporters of “Russian world” and war in the workforce:
- Most of the workers condemn the beginning of the war and speak out against it, but everyone is afraid to openly state their position. Because it is very dangerous and for conviction you can go, in the best case, for a day to jail. Therefore, when people talk about this topic, they choose the safe environment in which they talk about it. If we talk about the percentage ratio, in my opinion, about 85% of workers are against the war and 15% are those who support Russia and against Ukraine. The longer all this drags on, the less likely it is that Belarus will get involved in this war.
Oksana, an employee of an enterprise in Brest, believes that this war will be fratricidal for Belarusians:
- Many of my friends and relatives have relatives in Ukraine. My husband is Ukrainian by nationality. We keep supporting Ukrainians since last February. We are against the war unleashed by Russia. Not a day goes by in close circles without discussing Ukrainian news. We communicate with relatives from there. They tell us the terrible realities of war.
Colleagues at work are also against the war, they condemn it. They want everything to end soon. After all, some also have relatives there with whom they keep in touch. Now at work I hear little discussion about the war in Ukraine. Maybe they are afraid, or maybe they just don't want to share their pain with other people. I did not observe ardent defenders of Russia in this war, but they also exist, as my colleagues told me.
I am more inclined to the fact that Belarus will not be involved in hostilities. All the men from my circle say that they will not go to fight against the Ukrainians. This is pleasing and gives hope that Belarusians will not go to foreign lands with weapons.
Although there are quite a few supporters of Russia’s actions in Ukraine among Belarusians, it was not possible to talk to them. There is also a category of those who are ready to defend Russian interests with weapons, but sociologists believe that this is a rather small and marginal part of society.
Sociologists: those who are in favor of the war are becoming fewer and fewer
The researchers also tried to find out the attitude of the Belarusian society to the military events. The most recent studies were conducted in the fall of 2022. They were done jointly by “Belarusian Analytical Workshop” and “Chatham House”.
Doctor of Sociological Sciences Andrei Vardamatski reported that the vast majority of Belarusians, including representatives of the regime, are against the entry of Belarusian troops into Ukraine - 85% of those polled. 51% of respondents disapprove of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while almost 40% approve it. More than 50% sympathize with Ukraine and only 20% with Russia. 61% of respondents do not consider Belarus to be an accomplice in the conflict, 33% do.
According to the “Chatham House” research, 42% of Belarusians consider the war in Ukraine, which was unleashed by Russia, meaningless. This was reported by the head of the Belarusian initiative “Chatham House” Ryhor Astapenia.
Thus, according to the survey, the number of those who believe that it was necessary to support Russia after the start of the war (without Belarus joining it) decreased by 6% in six months (from 28% to 22%). And those who are in favour of the war are becoming fewer and fewer. At the same time, the idea of Belarus entering the war on one side or another was, and still is, marginal. In total, only 7% of supporters of Belarus joining the war. 45% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s actions. Note that 30% of respondents expressed full or partial support.
The interviewees also believe that the Belarusian military would try to avoid participating in the war if Belarus decided to enter the war. In August 2022, 20% of respondents answered that our soldiers and officers would refuse to fight and lay down their arms. It is interesting that in April 2022 the actions of the Belarusian military to lay down their arms were approved by 42% of the respondents, then in August 49% supported such a decision.
Does the citizens’ opinion matter?
The representativeness of the sociological research could be questionable; however, the general picture shows the attitude of the society: Belarusians do not want to take part in the war. What more, the state officials do not voice the opinion of the country’s residents, although the state sociological services can provide the results the state orders.
Most likely, the authorities are also perfectly aware of the position of the overwhelming majority of the citizens and are trying to preserve at least the last of the regime’s promises - not to participate in an open war. In addition, Russia’s military successes seem fragile. Therefore, the belligerent rhetoric of the Belarusian dictator began to change a little. Here is a public reminder of the idea of a non-aggression pact with Ukraine, as well as an assurance to his supporters that the dictator has no plans to attack Ukraine:
- Today they shout: “Lukashenko wants to send his troops to Ukraine!” I have already said 1200 times that I have no such plans. [...] We have nothing to do there - in Ukraine. And we don’t need to send people to fight there.
But can these statements be taken seriously? Many remember Lukashenko’s 2015 statement that Belarus will never attack Ukraine. However, then he added that if it does not contradict the interests of the country.
Lukashenko’s main interest is his power, which today is completely dependent on Putin’s support. And the fate of Putin and Russia is now being decided in Ukraine. Therefore, everything will depend on whether Russia needs Belarusian cannon fodder or not.
And hardly anyone will ask the opinion of the citizens of Belarus. The authorities have not done this for the last 30 years. They won’t do it now, either. Moreover, obedience is a specific feature of Belarusians. And the results of the reconciliation of the number of conscripted citizens of the Republic of Belarus, which took place a month ago, confirm this opinion. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Belarus, 95% of conscripts came to the military commissariats on the first call.
A sad conclusion is obtained. Belarusians en masse do not support the war and do not want to take part in it, and their opinion does not affect the actions of the political regime in the country. The problem of Belarusians is the lack of subjectivity.
Author: Philip Stary