Is Belarus Russia’s North Korea?

Posted January 22nd, 2011 at 9:52 am (UTC+0)

US and EU diplomats stayed as far away as possible from Friday’s inauguration of President Lukashenko.

But in Moscow, Vladimir Putin posed Thursday with his visiting counterpart from Belarus. Turning to the microphones, he announced $4 billion in energy subsidies to Belarus, plus a brand new $6 billion nuclear power plant.

Is Belarus, Russia’s North Korea?

As a reporter, I have visited Belarus three times and North Korea three times. Compared to North Korea, a nation run by the Kim family like an 1830s American cotton plantation, Belarus is a land of milk and honey.

For decades, China has propped up North Korea, repeatedly facilitating the prolongation of the Kim dynasty rule. A collapse of Kim family control of North Korea, the Chinese reason, would mean two things: millions of impoverished northern Koreans flooding into a Chinese border area that is already dominated by ethnic Koreans. (Some Korean maps of “greater Korea” include Chinese territory.) More importantly, Chinese fears a North Korean collapse would mean American troops again on the Yalu River. The arrival of American troops on China’s river border in 1950, triggered the Chinese invasion and the restoration of North Korea as a buffer state.

In Russia’s case, Belarus stands between NATO expansion east to the Russian border. Although there may be a maximum of 100 American tanks left in Europe, Russian generals still play war games based on an armored threat rolling in from the west.

The threat is never far from people’s minds.

In Fortress Brest, a blockbuster movie that played across the Russian world during the Christmas holidays, a heroic band of Red Army soldiers hold out against the Nazi onslaught during the first days of World War II.
Brest, then on the western border of the Soviet Union, is now on the western border of Belarus. At one point in the film, a captured German soldier is interrogated about the Nazi invasion plans. The movie German’s answer drew an audible gasp from Saturday night patrons sitting around me in a theater in Minsk. “In one week,” he said, “we will be in Minsk.”

For the Kremlin, Belarus buys time.

This does not mean that the leaders in Moscow or Beijings like the leaders of their buffer neighbors. Both find them irritating, demanding, hard to control, and generally untrustworthy. But as foreign ministers have said for centuries: countries don’t have friends, they have interests.

That said, buffer states are inhabited by real people.

Twenty years ago, the peoples of Central Europe unexpectedly rose up.

Moscow lost a wide belt of buffer states it had nurtured for almost half a century. Vladimir Putin knows this from experience. As the Berlin Wall fell, he was barricaded in the KGB’s office in Dresden, East Germany while colleagues feverishly burned files.

In Belarus, the length and depth of the Lukashenko crackdown indicates that he believes he can only keep power through fear, by bullying the people. How long Belarussians will put up with him is anyone’s guess.

Two days before the election, I interviewed Andrei Sannikov. He said he was tired of living in a buffer state, and wanted to live in a normal country. Belarus Sannikov Buffer

Two days later, after Sannikov placed second in the election, riot police broke his legs and detained him incommunicado. Police then turned on his wife, Irina Khalip, yanking her out of a car while she was conducting a radio interview. She also is detained incommunicado. Child welfare officials then threatened to take their 3 year old son away from his grandmother and put him in an orphanage.

Thanks to Warsaw’s Belsat television, Washington’s Radio Liberty, and the internet, most Belarussians are believed to know this story. Maybe that is why the streets of Minsk were oddly empty Friday afternoon when President Lukashenko was driven to his fourth inauguration.

For a man who enjoys winter sports, it is appropriate that President Lukashenko has bought a large ski chalet in Krasnaya Polana — a ski resort in southern Russia.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

2 responses to “Is Belarus Russia’s North Korea?”

  1. Ravi says:

    If Americans prop up dictators it is for ‘war against terror’.

  2. Pyotr says:

    As Russian I respect and love Belorussia and Belorussians. The WWII for both our nations is a sacred history. Belorussians imho is the european nation which suffered from WWII the most. The Nazi’s killing machine rolled over its entire territory. The whole villages and towns were destroyed and their populations entirely massacered. It was Russians who had freed Belorus not American troops. Had it been Americans perhaps there would be no Soviet Union anymore. Using the victory in WWII communists continued to strenthen their rule. I deeply regret that our grandfathers didnt turn their weapons against their opressors when they returned home after WWII, they saw how people lived in Europe. And the picture differed much from how they actually lived and from what the soviet papers drew.
    The fear of envasions from the West deeply rooted in “soviet” people and is still exploited by many dictators of former SU, Lukashenko and Putin among them. But anyway all these regimes are doomed because new generations come which get the information not from official sources like state run TV and radio but from internet. Sooner or later our nations will see the lies of our rulers and arise for freedom! Belorussians showed us Russians that the time has come and I respect them for this even more.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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