Pavel Barkovsky: "The Belarusians are not ready for war

Philosopher and journalist from Belarus Pavel Barkovsky on whether Lukashenko needs war with Ukraine and what Belarusians think about it. A new view in the "Eyewitnesses" project.

Tell us about yourself

- My name is Pavel Barkovsky, I am 43 years old, I am a philosopher by education. I worked for a long time at the Belarusian State University, but after the events of 2020 I had to leave the state structure, and then worked in private companies. And now I am a professor in Poland.

When did you leave Belarus and why?
- I
leftat the beginning of 2022 for an internship. My departure was quite forced because the internal situation in the country was growing more and more tense. Repressions became tougher and I was in the risk group.

Your first thoughts and feelings on February 24?

- Of course, the first emotion was disbelief. What do you mean, "a war might break out"? That's ridiculous. But the second emotion, when it became clear that no, the war had started after all, was the emotion of fear. Because the attack was actually coming from Belarus. It was a feeling as if your relatives were betraying close friends and close acquaintances.

Are there friends and family who support the war?

- Among my closest relatives there are probably no such people. In Belarus, support for the war is very bad in general. If you look at the data of sociology, which our sociologists somehow manage to do, although it is officially prohibited, the percentage of the Belarusians supporting the war in any form is extremely low. Both Belarus and Ukraine have recently perceived Russia as a common threat.

Everything that is happening now in Belarus since 2020, we consider as the aggression of Russia, just by other means.

Why is there such a low percentage of support for the war in Belarus?

- There is a psychological version. Belarus suffered a great deal during World War II. Fierce battles took place on its territory, and the territory was occupied by the German army for a long time. It was almost genetically prescribed that the war was very bad. For many people, especially the older generation, the statement "if only there was no war" was the main condition in life. Everything else can be tolerated. Purely psychologically Belarusians are not ready for war. But then other circumstances are added, because our people rather perceive Ukraine as a good neighbor and friend.

Who is to blame for millions of people's lives going wrong?

- In fact, we are all to blame. The Russian people are no less to blame than their government. It was allowed to become this way, it was allowed for a long time to oppress its civil society, to squeeze out the independent press, to imprison opposition politicians. In other words, they have actually turned society into a silent herd. The Russian authorities are directly responsible for this way of resolving issues, beginning in 2014. And if we look a little further historically, it is 2008 - aggression against Georgia, when in fact certain territories were also annexed.

And we, the Belarusians, are also, to some extent, accomplices of the crime. Because although we tried to overthrow our government, we failed to do so in '20, and in fact now we are hostages of the situation when our territory is used for aggression: missiles are fired from it in the direction of Ukraine. Now we are talking about the fact that the Belarusian army may still be involved in this conflict.

Is it realistic to involve the Belarusian army in the conflict?

- We do not know exactly how strong the dependence is, how short a leash Alexander Lukashenko has on Putin, how much he can force him. It is clear that he helps in every possible way: he supplies both ammunition and fuel to the Russian army, trains Russian soldiers on his territory. So he is actually involved in the conflict.

He allows shooting from his territory, only formally still Belarusian soldiers are not shooting at Ukrainians. If this funnel drags him down for good, he may, of course, give an order, but there is another circumstance. The Belarusian authorities are not sure that the Belarusian army will carry out this order. There is a fear that, firstly, some of the soldiers may rebel and refuse to carry out this order. Or another option is that they can desert and go over to the side of the Ukrainian army. And this is also a direct threat for the government, because it will be left without its power unit. 

And so, it balances, and it keeps trying to sell the Russian leadership the message that we need these forces here, if we spend them, quite possibly you will lose Belarus.

Why does Putin need war?

- He's at that age now, when a man has already achieved everything he could have achieved in life. And he may have crazy thoughts about greatness in his head: what name you will go down in history with. He probably wants to be Vladimir the Conqueror or Vladimir the Gatherer of Russian lands. But, accordingly, there may be purely political issues: NATO, which keeps coming closer to Russia's borders. There is a complex of issues here. From Putin's individual ambitions to attempts to change the regional balance in Russia's direction. Although, in fact, it turns out that Russia, on the contrary, has weakened itself very much. And now there is talk about how Russia should not lose its territories, especially in the Far East.

Does Lukashenko need this war?

- In this form, as it is now, probably not. Because he was satisfied with a small victorious war of Russia against its neighbor, where he could have his own gesheft. Well, for example, the Black Sea ports freed up for him, through which he could transit his goods. Such a version could be. Plus it draws the attention of residents away from internal problems, just like in Russia, and concentrates them on the problems of their neighbors.

This is the message - "I wish there was no war," but we do not have a war, look what is happening next to us. With these slogans, he won the 2015 campaign: "I did not allow a war in Belarus, look what is happening in Ukraine.

Now the war is dragging on, Lukashenko sees that in fact Russia is stuck in this war up to its neck, that it is losing practically all international allies, that it is exposing its rear along the entire border. The troops have been withdrawn from the Kaliningrad region; there is practically no one near the Finnish border. Near the border with NATO. And what is going on there in the Far East? Is there anyone there, apart from border guards, to defend the Chinese borders - also a question. They have naked all the borders, have actually quarreled with most of the allies, and have very dubious allies like Iran.

Alexander Lukashenko is afraid that he will finally be sucked into the vortex of this conflict, which has no good future. He is afraid that he, too, will end up in court, in the dock of the new Nuremberg Tribunal. But, on the other hand, he cannot break away either. He cannot already betray Putin, because for him it would probably be a bullet in the head.

Has the attitude towards Russians changed in Belarus as a result of this war?

- It is changing, of course. Although it is not changing as rapidly as with Ukrainians. Friendship with Russians, with Russians, has long been such a mental construct in the mind. At the level of outlook, it was hard to imagine that we could have any bloody conflict with our closest neighbors, the Russians, Ukrainians or Poles. Despite the fact that sometimes this could slip into the official rhetoric. And for this reason, if we look at the data of sociology, there is a decrease, but not an extreme one.

Probably one-fourth of society is in the Russian information field, that is, it is a viewer of Russian news agencies, most of them state-run, and, of course, television. They, too, are influenced by the propaganda narrative to some extent. The majority of the Belarusians in this situation rather support their southern neighbors - Ukraine. And they are more willing to sympathize with them as victims of aggression than with the Russians, whose interests are not transparent for them. 

They do not understand all these historical things, because, according to this logic, let the Germans start claiming Kaliningrad (Koenigsberg) from the Russians, which belonged to Germany before 1945. Or the Belarusians may also remember that they once owned Smolensk. Well, let's also hold a referendum in Smolensk, or in Bryansk, and see where they [residents] want to join. So this is a Pandora's Box. This is an absolutely insane way to solve international issues.

Has the attitude of Ukrainians to Belarusians changed?

- Yes, this is also shown by the results of opinion polls. And, according to the last poll, the changes for us are not very good, because more than half of Ukrainians began to have a negative attitude towards the Belarusians. Of course, this is incomparable with almost 90 per cent of dislike of the Russians, but it is also very much for the neighbouring country, for the neighbouring people.

Do you protest against the war in any way?

- I express it, in general, on a daily basis, but it is easier for me, since I am abroad. Another thing is how do people who are inside the country do it now?

Because for any public statements of anti-war position, even just for hanging up the Ukrainian flag, people are threatened with real prison sentences. Of course, Belarusian partisans still express themselves through graffiti, through performances and actions, but it has become much more difficult to do so, because people are, of course, afraid. We have been living in an atmosphere of terror for the last two years.

What does the future hold for Belarus?

- For Belarusians, of course, the most optimistic scenario is a time of turmoil in Russia, when there will be a partial disintegration of this system, and politicians in Russia will not care about their Western neighbors. In this situation, there is a great chance that Belarus will be able to repeat the path of the Baltic States, to leave the orbit of Moscow's gravity, to become a small boring European country. And accordingly, to have its own opportunity to go further along the democratic path. Because right now, Alexander Lukashenko's power is largely based on fear, repression, and, among other things, on Russian bayonets.

In the twentieth year, many realized that if the Belarusian Revolution had succeeded in winning, the Russian army would most likely have already been in Belarus.

How will the future relations between Belarus and Ukraine develop?

- Despite the animosity sown between us, I still think that Belarusians and Ukrainians have too much in common - common history, common interests, common memory, etc. - to overcome the consequences of these conflicts after all. If Russia becomes a country that cares more about domestic politics than foreign ones, then I'm sure our mutual neighborhood [will have] the most optimistic outlook.

Are you ready to return to Belarus? Under what conditions?

- Right now it's dangerous for me to go back to Belarus. Upon my return I'll immediately go to jail, because I'm quite a public person, I don't hide my position. I'll probably be more useful here than behind bars, where I'll join the number of political prisoners, of which there are already more than 1300 in Belarus. As soon as the situation changes, I'm ready to go back and work for the future of my country.

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