On 14 December 2021, the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus adopted the Law on the Genocide of the Belarusian People in two readings at once. On 22 December, this law was approved by the Council of the Republic. It is only a matter of time before Aliaksandr Lukashenka signs it, since the law was prepared on his behalf and is perfectly in line with the current ideological guidelines of the Minsk regime. In this text, we will try to answer two questions. Firstly, what is this creation of legal thought? Secondly, why did official Minsk need this law?
An unnecessary necessary law
On 7 December 2021 a round table entitled Historical Memory: Genocide of the Belarusian People was held in the Belarusian parliament. During this event the draft Law on the Genocide of the Belarusian People was presented to the public. As it was mentioned above, a week after the official presentation, the law was adopted by the Lower House of Parliament, and in two readings at once. From the text of the law it follows that its adoption was necessitated by the need to “preserve the memory of millions of Soviet citizens who became victims during the Great Patriotic War and the post-war period”. In addition, the law is intended to provide “legal protection of the fundamental values of the Belarusian people,” thereby preventing attempts to revise those or other events of that war, as well as its outcomes. Besides, in addition to the Nazis, the regime imposed liability for crimes also on their local accomplices, defined as “nationalist formations during the Great Patriotic War and in the postwar period. At the same time, the post-war period is limited to 31 December 1951, although the document provides no explanation. Even a not particularly thoughtful reading of the text of the law evokes a feeling of mothballs, as it abounds with traces of Soviet rhetoric, slightly and not very carefully adapted to modern Belarusian realities. Furthermore, the document speaks of the “Great Patriotic War”, which, as the starting date for the time period defined by the law as the period of genocide, suggests 22 June 1941, i.e. the day Hitler’s Germany attacked the Stalinist Soviet Union. It is worth recalling that for Belarus, World War II did not begin in June 1941, but in September 1939. Thus, the law does not cover the events of September 1939, when on the basis of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact the Soviet Union acted as an ally of Nazi Germany in the campaign to destroy the interwar Polish statehood. Here it is worth pointing out straight away that interwar Poland was not a model of democracy, including in the context of ensuring the rights of national minorities. However, it was certainly not a totalitarian state, unlike Adolf Hitler’s Germany or Josef Stalin’s USSR.
The wording “nationalist formations” is particularly worrying, as it provides the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka with virtually unlimited and politically motivated ways of interpreting the activities of certain historical events, organizations and their key figures. Given the historical context, the regime can include in such “nationalist formations” not only representatives of Belarusian organizations, but also Polish ones and those affiliated with other nations. However, it is unlikely that the official Minsk will rely on criteria other than the ethnic and territorial affiliation of these organizations and their key figures to the context of Belarus and its own immediate or medium-term political expediency.
A number of other issues are also of interest. For example, the law refers to the Constitution as well as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) and the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity (1968). The reference to the conventions should rather be regarded as an attempt to give additional weight to a garish ideological structure, which is the “genocide of the Belarusian people” in the form proposed in the law. However, the reference to the Constitution is quite interesting in the context of the forthcoming constitutional referendum in February 2022. It is worth mentioning that the draft of the new constitution, submitted for public discussion on 27 December 2021, contains innovations on the memory of the “Great Patriotic War”. Thus, article 15 is to be supplemented with a postulate that “the state ensures preservation of the historical truth and memory of the heroic deeds of the Belarusian people during the Great Patriotic War”. In other words, the new constitution will further extirpate what is stipulated in the law, thereby formally and legally strengthening its ideological message.
The law considers the actions of the Nazis and their accomplices as “systematic physical extermination of the Belarusian people”, accordingly assessing them as genocide. It is also important to emphasize that the law interprets the Belarusian people as “Soviet citizens who lived on the territory of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus during the Great Patriotic War and (or) the post-war period”. Such maximum “inclusiveness” again creates an additional field for the ideologists of official Minsk to maneuver on the basis of their own expediency. At the same time, the law in no way singles out the Belarusian Jews and Roma as special categories, dissolving them into the impersonal multinational “Belarusian people” according to the Soviet patterns.
Finally, the law amends the Criminal Code of Belarus, establishing liability for denial of genocide as interpreted in the law. Moreover, the provisions of the law call for the Prosecutor General’s Office to continue investigating the criminal case of genocide of the Belarusian people during the “Great Patriotic War”, which began in April 2021.
Such interpretations allow us to use the tautology “unnecessary necessary” in relation to this law. By and large, there is no real benefit for the socio-economic development of Belarus, as the essence of the law is limited to just ideology. However, it is the expediency of creating a new aligned ideological line of the regime in Minsk that is the reason for its adoption. This also includes the reference to the “Great Patriotic War” in the draft of the new Constitution.
Law as a universal means of ideological subjugation
What has been described above suggests a question, why the official Minsk needs this law and how it can be used. To this end, it is worth recalling that the investigation of the Prosecutor General into the genocide of the Belarusian people began in April 2021, as well as a series of events related to the situation around the “illegal” Union of Poles in Belarus that took place a little earlier. Thus, the April statement of the Prosecutor General Andrei Shved was full of references to the history of World War II, with an unclear connection to the situation in Belarus after the presidential elections of 2020. Andrei Shved stated that Belarus was “infringing on its sovereignty and territorial integrity”, behind which were “certain Western European states involved in the mass extermination of Belarusians and representatives of other nationalities during the Great Patriotic War and the post-war period”. The statement of the Prosecutor General did not provide any details. Instead, he talked about the deployed “information war” against Belarus (read: Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime), allegedly aimed at “distortion of historical events”. Therefore, initiation of the criminal case on the genocide of the Belarusian people can be considered as a countermeasure of the regime, subsequently realized in the offensive on the internal information field and mopping up of the independent organizations of the civil society. The Prosecutor General mentioned the alleged lack of public awareness of the events of the Second World War in terms of “the facts of genocide committed by the nationalist gangs of the accomplices of the fascists” as the official reasons. In the opinion of the official, all this sets the stage for “the destruction of the values on which the Belarusian statehood is built”. Here one must ask two questions. Firstly, where was the current Minsk regime before? In other words, why did this rhetoric emerge only after the 2020 elections? If there was an alleged lack of public awareness, it is clear that the regime’s ideologues were not doing or sabotaging their work. Secondly, why are these actions linked to the context of the election, when for the first time in many years a significant (if not the overwhelming) part of the Belarusian society openly declared that it did not want the social contract with Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime to be extended? Therefore, such rhetoric of the Prosecutor General is nothing else but an attempt of the regime to delegitimize at least a part of basis, on which the non-Soviet Belarusian identity is based, and which in 2020 were used as symbols of disagreement with the new social contract imposed by the regime. First and foremost, we are talking here about national symbols (the white-red-white flag and the Pahonia coat of arms), some key personalities, as well as the historical context.
Besides, it is worth recalling the history of the Belarusian-Polish diplomatic scandal about the memory of the so-called “cursed soldiers” (Polish: żołnierze wyklęci) that took place in March 2021. At that time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus protested against participation of representatives of the Polish Consulate General in Brest in events dedicated to the “cursed soldiers” who fought against Nazism and, later, against communism. Their Memorial Day is celebrated annually on March 1 in Poland and among Poles abroad. The official Minsk considered this event as “glorification of war criminals, cynical justification of genocide of the Belarusian people, gross violation of obligations of the Polish side not to glorify Nazism. The logic of the representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus was that “by their crimes in the places of compact residence of the Belarusian national minority the “cursed soldiers” under the command of Romuald Rajs put themselves on a par with the Nazi executioners. Media of the Belarusian regime went even further in this matter, replicating statements that “Polish diplomats promote Nazism in schools in Belarus”. It is obvious that the actions of the unit of Romuald Rajs in Podlasie at the beginning of 1946 were criminal towards the Orthodox Belarusian population, and these events are very important for the collective memory of the Belarusians in Poland. However, the Polish state has long ago given a proper legal assessment of the actions of Romuald Rajs. Moreover, among the representatives of the Belarusian minority in Poland such a reaction of the official Minsk prompted the opinion that the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka only needed a pretext to crack down on the independent organizations of the Polish minority in Belarus.
In the context of the new law, however, the reference to the Polish “cursed soldiers” is important for another reason. It is obvious that they fought against Nazism for an independent and non-communist Poland. Any crimes of these soldiers that took place during that period should be evaluated on the basis of appropriate legal assessments, which also create conditions for comprehensive interethnic dialogue of Poland with its neighbours on problematic issues of the historical memory. However, the actions of the “cursed soldiers”, even if criminal, cannot be connected with Nazism in any way. And the above-mentioned statements by representatives of official Minsk allow us to draw two interrelated conclusions. Firstly, understanding of the historical truth by the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka has very peculiar limits, when for the sake of political expediency those who fought against Nazism are put on the same level as Nazi criminals. Secondly, such a loose interpretation of the story of the “cursed soldiers” in the context of the legislative changes discussed in this text leads to the conclusion that these innovations are primarily aimed at the ideological subjugation of Belarusian society as a whole and its individual segments in particular. In this case, the seeming absurdity of the logic of the official Minsk should not mislead from the outside. It is primarily a mechanism for further instrumentalization of the needs of the regime with a view to further application of the adopted innovations to achieve even greater hegemony of the internal political discourse.