Minsk Forum XXI Warsaw Session: Belarus in the context of the war in Ukraine

Guest articles

Despite the involvement of the Belarusian regime in this war, there remains an important question regarding how to address Belarusian society on a broader scale. Discussion paper by Dr. Hanna Vasilevich

When the war erupted in Ukraine, Belarus and its people were inevitably drawn to the midst of the situation. The regime led by Lukashenka allowed Russian troops to be stationed on Belarusian soil. As a result, Belarus is often perceived as a co-aggressor in this war, although Belarusian troops have never participated in the atrocities in Ukraine. Furthermore, the Lukashenka administration accepted Ukrainian children into Belarus under the pretext of their protection from war and providing them with medical treatment. This has led to the accusations of Lukashenka of war crimes and suggests that this person should face an international arrest warrant, similar to Putin.

Despite the involvement of the Belarusian regime in this war, there remains an important question regarding how to address Belarusian society on a broader scale, and more specifically, with regard to those who fled the country to avoid imprisonment for their political opposition to the Lukashenka regime and the war in particular.

In any conflict, multiple perspectives must be considered. In this specific case, we can identify the following voices:

‒ Russian propaganda,

‒ the Ukrainian discourse seeking for military and financial aid,

‒ the international community advocating for peace in the region, and

‒ Lukashenka’s propaganda has limited reach beyond the country’s borders.

What is conspicuously absent from this public discourse is a distinct vocal resonance from Belarusian civil society. From the first day of the war, the office of Sviatlana Cichanouskaja and other democratic factions released formal statements censuring the aid that Lukashenka’s regime had bestowed upon Putin while affirming that Belarusians robustly endorsed Ukraine in their legitimate struggle.

However, these statements articulate two competing narratives:

  1. Belarusians prioritize Ukraine, overlook their own needs, and promote the Ukrainian voice to be heard.
  2. In many instances, Belarusian democratic leaders accept and often promote the discourse of Belarus as a co-aggressor state, thus inevitably sharing the responsibility for assisting attacks against Ukraine.

Despite the support provided by Belarusian society and democratic forces in Ukraine, their actions at the expense of their own people have created grounds for further discussion and potential criticism.

One of the key issues surrounding the sharing of responsibility for Belarus, within the context of its society, is the de facto legitimization of Lukashenka’s actions as an elected president. This contradicts the central idea behind the 2020 protests as well as all other protests that preceded them. In the current circumstances, it is evident that the Lukashenka regime lacks legitimacy. Therefore, the question of shared responsibility is called a question.

The second crucial aspect to consider is whether the Lukashenka regime operates independently or whether Belarus should be considered under occupation due to the heavy Russian military presence. It reveals the discrepancy between purely legal definitions that are quite conservative and the objective reality of the hybridization of wars and threats.

It is clear that placing responsibility for Lukashenka’s actions solely on Putin is inappropriate. Nevertheless, for some time, Lukashenka’s choices have been affected, and at times authorized, by the leadership of the Kremlin. Furthermore, in 2020, concerns were raised about the potential deployment of Russian military forces to handle the protesting situation (as was later the case in Kazakhstan). Therefore, one can describe the current situation in Belarus as a “hybrid occupation” of Russia.

As a result, Belarusians must first address the question of what responsibility Belarus should bear for its participation in the war: as a country, as a regime/administration, or as a civil society.

This distinction is crucial from several perspectives:

‒ to avoid associating the regime with the state and its people.

‒ to maintain a Belarusian agenda at the EU level, it is important to highlight the struggles of the Belarusian people and the crimes committed by their own government, primarily against their own people.

However, it would be challenging to keep Belarus in the focus of the European agenda while repeatedly discussing Belarus in the connotation of the co-aggressor. Moreover, according to the Definition of Aggression, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX):

the question of whether an act of aggression has been committed must be considered in light of the circumstances of each particular case.

This means that in the case of Belarus, the illegitimacy of Lukashenka and de facto hybrid occupation should be taken into consideration when addressing limitations that would affect the Belarusian population within and outside the country.

In the future, when the war is over, there might be claims from Ukraine to bear the responsibility for stationing Russian troops and weapons fired from Belarusian territory. When the time comes, the case of Belarus should be addressed through the prism of international examples of aggression and collaboration with aggressors, both in contemporary and historical contexts.

However, this is not what Belarusian democratic forces should focus on. The core agenda of democratic forces is as follows:

– differentiating Belarus and Russia when addressing possible limitations imposed on the citizens of these two countries,

– Basic survival of Belarusians within and outside the country, especially in the case of those forced to flee due to political repression.

– Timely effective countering of the challenges caused by legal amendments introduced by the Lukashenka administration (discontinuation of issuing new passports via embassies, etc.).

Dr. Hanna Vasilevich is Chair of the Board at the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies (Prague)