Is Ukraine rejecting its natural allies?

Immediately after World War II, the Paris-exiled Polish intellectual Jerzy Giedroyc (of Lithuanian origins, born in Minsk) coined a phrase that would come to define Poland’s foreign policy towards its eastern neighbours: ‘There will be no independent Poland without an independent Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine.’

Since the fall of communism, it has been an article of diplomatic faith in Warsaw. Ukrainian patriots, who inspired current Ukrainian policies, have thought similarly. Even if Ukraine fully liberates its Russian-occupied territories, Poles and Ukrainians will not feel truly secure as long as Belarus’s longtime dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, continues his misrule. An alliance between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration and the Belarusian opposition therefore seems natural. Unfortunately, nothing of the kind has emerged.

Instead, some Ukrainian leaders have spurned potential partners. Consider the reaction from Mykhailo Podolyak, an important adviser to Zelensky, following news that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize would be shared by the Belarusian human-rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, the Russian NGO Memorial, and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties. He tweeted: ‘Nobel Committee has an interesting understanding of word ‘peace’ if representatives of two countries that attacked a third one receive @NobelPrize together. Neither Russian nor Belarusian organizations were able to organize resistance to the war.’

Such nonsense can only damage Ukraine’s cause. Far from being a ‘representative’ of Putin’s Russia, Memorial—which was founded to unearth the crimes of the communist era—was shut down by the Kremlin last year. And Bialiatski’s organisation, Viasna, has been fighting the Lukashenko dictatorship’s human-rights abuses for more than two decades. Bialiatski himself has been locked away in a Belarusian prison for more than a year. Was he supposed to have organised his cell block to oppose Russia’s invasion?

Podolyak’s divisive statement illustrates a broader phenomenon that could have far-reaching consequences: the growing tensions between Ukrainians and Belarusians, two peoples who have long been subjected to Russian oppression. At issue is the Ukrainians’ growing sense of superiority. While Ukrainians ousted a Russian-aligned president in 2014, Belarusians failed to topple Lukashenko following the fraudulent election there in 2020; and protests at the beginning of the war were quickly shut down by security forces.

But this criticism is unfair. Unlike in Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition never had half the country in its hands, nor any kind of control over local governments or parliament. Belarusian democracy has been a sham for more than a quarter of a century. Lukashenko has built a totalitarian state in its place. It was a miracle that Belarusians managed to stage mass protests in 2020.

Instead of honouring that courageous moment and motivating Belarusians to survive and rise again when the circumstances become more favourable, some Ukrainians like Podolyak accuse them of being wimps or conformists. Abroad, refugees from Belarus are being treated like Russians, in what amounts to a repression of the repressed.

Such disdain for Belarusians is not only immoral, it is politically stupid. Ukrainians, Poles and others across the region should be standing with the Belarusian opposition and advocating the country’s liberation.

As the Belarusian opposition politician Pavel Latushka points out, three regiments of Belarusian volunteers have been fighting the Russians in Ukraine, and some have died there. Belarusians have also been sabotaging their country’s rail lines to disrupt resupply shipments to the Russian army. When captured, they receive sentences of up to 16 years in prison. Why alienate these allies?

Before Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian government did not want to irritate Lukashenko, because Belarus had yet to recognise the Kremlin-backed separatist ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk. That was why Ukraine did not join the sanctions imposed on Lukashenko’s regime after it hijacked a passenger plane to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich.

Neither country wanted open hostility. But those days are long gone, and one must ask why Zelensky’s team has not invited the real winner of the 2020 Belarusian election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to stand in solidarity with them in Kyiv.

Now that Lukashenko is preparing a covert mobilisation and letting Russia use his military bases and airfields to launch attacks on Ukraine, the Zelensky government should consider ending diplomatic relations with him and recognising Tikhanovskaya’s recently formed government-in-exile. That would set an example for other governments and strike a major blow to Lukashenko, who is effectively starting his own full-scale war with Ukraine. Zelensky wants the rest of the world to declare Russia a terrorist state; he should demand the same for Lukashenko’s dictatorship. If Lukashenko sends troops into Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition’s pleas to them to surrender will be very important.

Fortunately, voices in the Ukrainian press are pushing for the Ukrainian government to change its incomprehensible position. ‘Will Kyiv start communicating with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at least sometimes?’ asks an editorial by European Pravda. ‘She has become a symbol of the Belarusian opposition to the whole world, and Kyiv conspicuously ignores her.’ Similarly, Bohdan Yaremenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament, writes, ‘In front of us is a window of opportunity to protect ourselves and help restore freedom to our brotherly people, whose representatives defend the Ukrainian will in the same order of battle as the Ukrainians.’

Perhaps Podolyak’s unfair words will shock someone in Zelensky’s government into recognising the harm being done to Ukraine’s own cause by disdaining the Belarusian opposition. So long as Belarus remains subservient to Russia, Ukraine will be at risk, even if it succeeds in expelling the Russians from its territory. By spurning Tikhanovskaya, Zelensky’s government risks damaging Ukraine’s relationship with a future free Belarus. No one needs such divisions between natural allies—except the Kremlin, of course.