Some former subjects of the USSR, such as the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), immediately chose the European and Euro-Atlantic vector of their development, launching the process of integration to the Western world. In fact, these republics returned to the point where they were separated from by the Red Moscow after the World War II and whose occupation was never recognized by the West.
The other ones (and they constitute the majority) still remain in the Kremlin’s geopolitical focus and arrange their inner and foreign policy according to the Russian authorities’ will.
Ukraine can partly fall into this category. After all, its ruling elites out of their old habit kept finding themselves looking at the “senior bother” implementing into practice the multi-vectoral foreign policy. As a result, Kyiv delayed its independence progress for many years, failing to replicate the model Baltic example in its own experience.
However, after the policy of non-alignment and a shameful attempt of the President Viktor Yanukovych to refuse to sign the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union – a unique chance to get rid of Russia’s influence – the Ukrainian people decided to put an end of Ukraine’s semi-colonial existence in the international arena.
And although the then ruling regime still held on to power, hoping that Moscow would help manage the situation, mass protests already erupted in Ukrainian squares and streets, and they at the extremely high price of human lives prevented our state from falling into the jaws of the authoritarian hatred-based ideology of Putinism which is a direct descendant of the Soviet General Secretaries and the ideology of the Communist Party (CPSU).
After the events of the Revolution of Dignity, when the change of power in Ukraine took place and it began to develop in the democratic and pro-Western way, and in addition to this got dragged under direct armed aggression of Russia, it became clear that Ukrainian nation had finally decided which direction to head. In fact, Ukraine has followed the path of the above-mentioned Baltic countries which managed to do it in 1991.
The effects were not long in coming. In 2014 the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement was signed and later Ukrainian citizens got the possibility to cross the border with the EU countries without visas, and in 2020 Ukraine joined the NATO’s Enhanced Capabilities Program.
Although the path to the West is a long process confronting many hurdles, Ukrainians have already felt what it is like to live in a country without dictatorship, enjoying the freedom for expressing views and beliefs within the country and travel to all corners of the European continent without any barriers. Therefore, it is quite clear why Ukrainians mostly support the European and Euro-Atlantic vector of their country’s development.
Concerning our northern neighbor, Belarus – after the collapse of the Soviet Empire the situation here developed in a completely opposite way. The Republic of Belarus failed to break free from the Moscow’s sphere of influence, joining all possible Kremlin-initiated organizations in the post-Soviet area. And since Alexander Lukashenko took power in 1994 the total dictatorship and censorship overwhelmed the country. In addition, the process of active “Sovietization” was launched due to which in many ways Belarus became more like the mini USSR.
Such course of events definitely suits the Kremlin, because according to the Russian authorities, to have its absolute influence on the country which is almost in the heart of Europe, is worth struggling to leave everything as it has been for the last 26 years. And although the Belarusian leader used to emphasize that Belarus conducted the “multi-vector” policy (ringing any bells?), yet the experience of it is completely different, and in fact it is a verbal veiling of an openly pro-Russian course.
More than a quarter of a century has passed. And the situation in both the domestic and foreign political spheres of Belarus has hardly changed. Moreover, the Russian leadership has recently begun to make even more active attempts to draw Minsk into its orbit.
It is worth recalling that back in 1997 the two countries signed the Treaty on the Union of Belarus and Russia and the Charter of this confederation, which aimed to gradually establish a single political, economic, military, customs and currency area.
Over the last few years the leaders of Russia and Belarus have held more than a dozen meetings to complete the process of the states merging, or to tell more truly the absorption of one country by another. However, during one of such meetings, disputes arose between Minsk and Moscow, in particular over the price of energy for Belarus. This made the latter resist to the Kremlin’s intentions.
There was an open hostility between the two dictators, and within the progressive circles there were some hopes for a possible rapprochement between Belarus and the West. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Minsk, the EU’s simplification of visa procedures for Belarusian citizens, and the flow of American oil to the Belarusian refineries have often been taken as harbingers of positive change; or as a kind of the “soft” way to “Westernize” Belarus.
However, as the old Bible saying goes, “no one puts new wine into old wineskins”. In this sense the Belarusian realities are no exception.
As well as Yanukovych, who by means of criminal order beat the protesters who disagreed with his not signing the Agreement on the Association, Lukashenko, after falsifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, using the same aggressive methods, openly opposed the active representatives of Belarusian society who did not agree with the injustice in their country.
In a matter of days, the Lukashenko’s regime has erased all the recent minimal gains with the West. The free world states not only sharply condemned the actions of the Belarusian authorities against their citizens and members of the opposition, but also began not to recognize the pseudo-victory of the “batska” (the father), reintroducing the targeted sanctions against those responsible for the election fraud and repression against the Belarusian people.
In response to this, sharp anti-Western narratives appeared in Lukashenko’s rhetoric again. The frequency of communication with Putin has also increased. The latter even began to support the “capricious” Belarusian leader in various ways, in particular by sending Russian citizens to Belarus for their involvement in various spheres of public life there.
Looking at these feels awfully familiar. After all, six years ago in the midst of the most heated phase of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, Yanukovych also tried to do the same. However, the then ruling regime was defeated and Maidan gained the victory.
What happened next, of course, was a period of protracted Russian-Ukrainian war, where the casualties on our part were measured in thousands and when the occupation of the sovereign territory became a terrible routine. However, this is the price at which Ukraine has established itself as a different state than it was before. Not the totalitarian and not the pro-Russian anymoreeng. The geopolitical choice was made. Same cannot be said for the modern Belarus, where protest has not yet defeated the tyranny and where the foreign policy course has still remained “multi-vectoral”.
To crown it all, it can be stated that in the neighboring Belarus we can witness the course of events in real time that could have taken place in Ukraine, in case the Revolution of Dignity had failed. Yanukovych, as well as his Belarusian counterpart, would continue his bloody rule with such brutal methods, eradicating all the possible manifestations of dissidence and directing the Ukrainian state into the jaws of Moscow.
This gives a kind of explanation why Ukrainians are so empathetic to Belarusians. They are watching an alternative scenario that could have taken place in the post-revolutionary Ukraine, where the Maidan would face the destiny of failure.
In view of this, it is also quite clear why during the celebration of the 29th anniversary of Ukraine’s Independence thousands of Ukrainians gathered on squares and streets again both in Kyiv and in other cities. After all, against the background of turbulent events in Belarus where people came out to defend their right to choose, the memory and understanding of the price for freedom flourished even more in the Ukrainian national consciousness.
PhD in Political Science, top specialist
at Hennadii Udovenko Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine
at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine