As Alexander Lukashenko once said a long time ago: «If my speech repeats in some way the theses of the President of Russia, this is not plagiarism. It shows that we sometimes think alike.» Indeed, there are many times these two employ similar messaging. For example, the «fact» the West wants to bring Russia/Belarus to its knees. Or, the intimidation of their own population with the spectre of a «return of the terrible 1990s». Both leaders similarly search for the fifth column from within and envisage a great confrontation with the West. More broadly, they have the same idea of the international situation.
At the same time, Lukashenka is a more outspoken and emotional speaker. There were situations when Lukashenka, in the presence of journalists, openly spoke out on issues sensitive to Putin, putting the latter in an uncomfortable situation.
Often in Lukashenka’s statements one can find something that Putin is silent about. For example, at the recent CSTO summit, Lukashenka raised the issue of insufficient solidarity among CSTO members in the face of Western aggression, and said what Putin might have wanted to say too, but had to show restraint. What would sound like a threat from Russia sounds like a comradely call from Belarus.
The period after the start of Russian hostilities in Ukraine can literally be called a honeymoon between Putin and Lukashenko. The presidents met with enviable frequency and talked about cooperation and a commonwealth of the two countries. However, such a unity is not so clear-cut.
Some views of Lukashenka and Putin on national identity and relations between the two peoples differ significantly. And although now none of them focuses on this, this question still regularly pops up in the speeches of both leaders. At this point of disagreement lies conflict potential.
In 2021, Vladimir Putin announced his concept of the «historical lands of Russia», where Ukraine as such does not exist, and the Ukrainian people are an integral part of the Russian people.
At a joint press conference with Lukashenka on April 12, 2022, Putin went further and voiced the idea of a triune people, which included Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians: «Also, strange as it sounds today, I have always said this, we are a triune people: and Ukraine, and Belarus, and Russia». And he added a very interesting phrase: «This has always been the case throughout our centuries-old joint history. We don’t particularly distinguish where Belarus ends, where Russia ends, where is Russia and Belarus.»
Lukashenka did not openly react to the idea of a triune people. It is understandable, during the period of hostilities it was not appropriate for the allies to swear in public. In addition, it is obvious that as long as Russia is dealing with Ukraine, and Belarus acts as an ally of the first, there is nothing to worry about.
However, it cannot be said that Lukashenka is attracted to being part of a triune people. He doesn’t mind being a «junior brother» as long as he is independent. At every opportunity, he emphasizes that the peoples of Belarus and Russia, although «connected by a common history» and «culturally and spiritually close,» are «independent nations.» And the existing Union State between Russia and Belarus is a «fair community of free nations.»
Putin, on the other hand, is an adherent of the idea of a single people, without distinctions on nationality — a new version of the «Soviet people». This desire is clearly manifested in his public speeches. In a speech on April 12, 2022 at the Vostochny cosmodrome, recalling the first manned flight into space, he said that it was «a triumph of our people», the people of the former Soviet Union, thus uniting both Russians and Belarusians into one people.
Lukashenka, on the contrary, when speaking about the Soviet Union, seeks to highlight the role of the Belarusians and show that they are a separate nation that made a great contribution to the development of the USSR. See how his rhetoric differs during the same event at the Vostochny Cosmodrome: «The theme of space is our common theme. In the era of the Soviet Union, Belarusians made a significant contribution to the development of cosmonautics.» If Lukashenka mentions the Soviet people, he emphasizes its multinationality.
On March 23, 2022, that is, already during the war in Ukraine, Belarus changed the name of the memorable date on June 22 from «The Day of National Remembrance of the Victims of the Great Patriotic War — June 22» to «The Day of National Remembrance of the Victims of the Great Patriotic War and the genocide of the Belarusian people — 22 June.» The explanatory note to these changes on the President’s official website provides data on the losses of the Belarusian people during the Second World War. At the same time, neither the Soviet people as a whole, nor the Soviet Union in general, are mentioned.
On January 5, 2022, the Law «On the Genocide of the Belarusian People» was adopted in Belarus, according to which «the facts of the commission by Nazi criminals and their accomplices, nationalist formations during the Great Patriotic War and the post-war period of atrocities aimed at the systematic physical destruction of the Belarusian people are recognized as genocide of the Belarusian people. It is obvious that Lukashenka also joined in the process of forming the memory of the Second World War, claiming the separate glory of Belarusians and not wanting to dissolve in some kind of triune people.
Will Russia annex Belarus?
The topic of Russia’s takeover of Belarus is not new and has been raised in the public space more than once. During the discussion of the terms of the program for deepening integration within the Union State between Russia and Belarus in 2018, Lukashenka expressed fears that Russia wants to turn Belarus into one of its regions: «I can read between the lines, and I understand these hints. You just have to say this directly: «Destroy the country and join Russia.»
Subsequently, Lukashenka changed his mind and began to assure everyone that the Russian president had no intentions to include Belarus in Russia. However, this did not convince the media, which in 2021, after almost every meeting between Putin and Lukashenko, asked the same question: will Russia absorb Belarus?
At a meeting on September 9, 2021, Lukashenka assured journalists that neither he nor the Russian president was sick with «this disease» [referring to the takeover]. As journalists noted, Putin reacted to this statement with a smirk.
The idea of a single nation, held together by a common history, came to Putin quite a long time ago. The multinationality of Russia and the former Soviet Union is of little importance to him. He believes that in order to «not dissolve in this world», it is necessary to be a «single» people, Russian, «regardless of ethnicity.» «For centuries, Russia developed as a multi-ethnic nation (from the very beginning), a civilisation-state bonded by the Russian people, Russian language and Russian culture native for all of us, uniting us and preventing us from dissolving in this diverse world. To the rest of the planet, regardless of our ethnicity, we have been and continue to be one people.» Putin said during his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2012. He repeated the same argument in 2014, commenting on the annexation of Crimea, and in 2022, justifying the need for a «special operation» in Ukraine. At the same time, Putin’s idea of a «single Russian people» is evolving and scaling up. If in 2012 it was only about the peoples living on the territory of the Russian Federation, now he is already talking about the triune people of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians.
Often people do not attach importance to the words of politicians, calling them «just rhetoric.» But Putin, by his actions, confirms the main thesis of social constructivism: language not only reflects reality, but also constructs it. Therefore, all these words, as if in passing, that we do not distinguish between the borders, where Russia is, and where Belarus is, and we do not distinguish between Tatars and Russians, should be taken seriously.
Belarus as a future constituent part of Russia — for Putin, most likely, is a resolved issue. Lukashenka saves himself by not only supporting the Russian president, but even eagerly anticipating his every step and statement. However, in the depths of their relationship there is a significant potential for conflict, which, perhaps, Western experts should take into account when developing a strategy for relations with Russia and Belarus.