Moscow may or may not get the airbase it wants in Belarus, but the Russian Orthodox Church is training young people in that country in special “military-patriotic” clubs for young people to be fighters for Russia and the Russian world, and these groups may be an even greater threat to Mensk than a base would be.
That Alyaksandr Lukashenka has not closed these things down suggests that he either doesn’t want to or may not for one reason or another to do so, but if he is not concerned about these extreme Russian nationalist groups, their anti-Belarusian and anti-Western attitudes, and their possession and use of advanced weapons, others are or should be.
This week, “Nasha Niva” has published a detailed look inside some of these 14 clubs and organizations that exist near or in all major Belarusian cities, focusing in particular on one such operation in the extreme western Belarusian oblast of Grodno.
These “doubtful ‘military-patriotic’ clubs for youth operate under the patronage of the Orthodox Church in Belarus and are making out of [Belarusian] school children ‘black berets’ and ‘true children of the Holy Russian Orthodox Church,” the Belarusian journal reports.
In these camps, young people are taught to handle weapons, to be loyal to Russia and to support the Donbas militants. Moreover, they are shown maps “where Belarus is shown as part of Russia.” Belarusian figures ranging from Poznyak to Shushkevich to Lukashenka are presented as failures or traitors or worse.
Those instructing the young people treat Belarus as an artificial creation, openly call for dividing it up, and treat the Belarusian language with contempt. Of particular concern is the fact, “Nasha Niva” reports, two of the instructors at the camp its journalists visited were serving officers of the government militia [a Belarusian term for federal police – Ed.].
That such camps exist in Grodno may strike many as strange. It is “the most catholic region of Belarus, and the share of Orthodox believers is less than in other oblasts. But the Grodno bishopric leads in another way: by its activity in the establishment of so-called ‘military-patriotic’ clubs.
There are now five such clubs in that oblast. There are nine others in or near Vitebsk, Mensk, Brest, Turov, Berezino, Mohilev, Homel, Polotsk, and Bobruisk. Given that Belarus is a peaceful country and that there is no threat to Orthodoxy, why are such clubs being organized, the magazine asks.
“Nasha Niva” telephoned Archpriest Yevgeny Pavelchuk, who is the Grodno bishopric official responsible for relations with the military and law enforcement bodies and who oversees the camps there. He initially refused to talk with the journalists but later agreed to speak with them after the bishopric’s public affairs officer arranged things.
“We teach the children patriotism, Belarusian patriotism,” he said, “and if you evaluate this work only by pictures on the Internet, this isn’t correct. You must know the work of the clubs from the inside. We are offended that you accuse us of what we are not guilty. We are preparing believing citizens of Belarus.”
Pavelchuk said that it was not true that among the instructors at these camps were Russian chauvinists. But “he changed his tone when we reminded him of the photographic reports posted on the site of the Cossack Spas organization.” Then he said that he “does not see anything negative in this.”
These militarized organizations recruit “primarily ‘difficult’ and aggressive youths,” the journal says. They have meetings four times a week and then practice with handguns once or twice a month in the woods. When they have passed enough tests, they are rewarded with the right to wear black berets and get to take part in adult military exercises, including parachuting.
Enormous sums of money are being spent on uniforms, food, arms and so on, the journal continues. And it seems unlikely it is coming from Mensk especially as the camps invariably feature Russian flags, Russian slogans, and Russian declarations like “We are the strongest nation in the world; we are Russians.”
The heroes of those who take place are Nicholas II and the Russian national Demushkin, and many of those involved see themselves as part of the RNE (Russian National Unity) organization or as part of a Cossack group, even though the only time when there were Belarusian Cossacks was in the 17th century in Ukraine.
“Present-day Cossack organizations of Belarus,” “Nasha Niva” says, “are a doubtful collection of militarized structures, not one of whom has any relationship to the real historical Cossacks.” Instead, they are radical Russian nationalist militants of the kind the Belarusian police earlier moved against.
“If Belarusian children at the age of ten are handed over for ‘training’ by instructors who do not recognize the Belarusians as a nation and who would be glad to see the liquidation of Belarus as a state, is this not a delayed action bomb?” the journal asks – especially if these people include serving members of the Belarusian government militia.