How Europeans View Belarus

How interesting is Belarus for Europeans? This was the question held in mind by a group of students of European Affairs in Sciences Po Paris, who have been conducting for already five months a project dedicated to Belarus, 'Бelarus Project'. To find the answer to this question, they have interviewed a good number of young, and not so young, people from Europe and from all over the world. 

The survey was completed in the first days of 2012 by more than 233 people. 63% of the respondents, aged between 20 and 35 years, were either from Italy, Germany or France. The rest represented citizens from all the other countries of the European Union. As is common, there were some exceptions: some replies arrived from Russia, Peru, Brazil, Egypt and even from Japan. Three simple questions were asked: why is Belarus interesting, why is it not interesting, and what would you like to find out about it. Here is what people replied.

Not very surprising was the refrain 'I don’t know anything about Belarus', with some highlights from Great Britain such as 'I can’t place it on a map'. In fact, the general impression was that people know very little about this country. Several stereotypes emerged: vodka and beautiful women were of course present, but cold weather and similarity to Russia were also mentioned. Nevertheless, the most popular answer in all categories was politics, with 20% of all replies. Let’s take a closer look.

Question 1: What Do You Think Is So Particular About Belarus That Makes or Can Make People Interested In It?

More than 25% of people replied that they did not know what could be interesting about Belarus. Only 3% proposed the opposite argument, stating that Belarus could be interesting because it is mostly unknown abroad.

In about 21% of replies, the interest of people was captured by Belarusian politics: among them, concerns about human rights and the death penalty, the international isolation of Belarus ('It has still an iron curtain'), but most of all the Belarusian regime, was described in half of the replies as 'the last dictatorship of Europe'.

The majority of Germans were interested in tourism, they asked about language, culture and Belarusian cuisine, but somehow in very general terms. Yet, Grodno (the city) and Belovezhskaya Pushcha (the national park) were mentioned absolutely unambiguously, to our surprise. Some people wrote about Belarusian nature and geography, about the proximity to our sister country, Russia. The latter caught interest due to its influence on the Belarusian economy. Intriguing was that 12% considered interesting the history of Belarus, in particular its Soviet period. Maybe it is high time to build a museum of the Soviet Union in Belarus?

Question 2: What Do You Think Makes People Not Interested In Belarus?

As expected, the majority wrote that Belarus is not interesting because it is unknown. The reasons, however, varied. So for example the French complained about 'lack of media coverage in international press' and Italians spoke about 'lack of tourism'. Besides those who could not find Belarus on the map, there were some quite extreme answers, expressing a 'lack of knowledge of the very existence of the country'.

Another 16% of replies considered Belarus uninteresting because it is unimportant 'either politically or economically'. One third of them described Belarus as nothing special, and one very brave German even went so far to say that Belarus 'is everything but cool'. Our interest was also drawn by the replies that compared Belarus to Russia saying that 'it is almost the same as Russia, but less interesting', or for example that other neighbouring countries (obviously meaning Ukraine) get more attention.

Other responses mentioned again the political situation (11%), mainly attributing the low interest for Belarus to isolation and stability (it is boring if nothing happens), and also economic conditions, together with crime and other social factors. Some other replies referred to geographical reasons, characterising Belarus as 'a small, cold country in the middle of nowhere'. Our team hoped that the answer was written by someone who could not locate Belarus on the map, but was ashamed of saying it.

Question 3: What Would You Like To Find Out About Belarus?

After a bucket of ice-cold water, let’s have a look at what the European neighbours wanted to know about Belarus.

Roughly 30% expressed a will to find out about Belarusian culture, from the language to the food and its history. Particularly interesting was the origin of the name of the country 'Belarus' and the difference of the nation compared to Russia. Tourism has also not been forgotten, as someone from Germany asked: 'Will I be able to travel there without knowing a local language?'.

Besides the position on the map, there were questions about the Belarusian civil society, economic situation and everyday life of Belarusians. Respondents also wanted to know 'Who are Belarusians?', 'Why do they hate Russians?', 'What relationships do they have with European Union and Russia?' and 'How do they fight for their freedom?'

Conclusion

It is obvious that people abroad know almost nothing about Belarus. It is quite surprising to hear Europeans saying that Belarus is small and far. But by far the most shocking is the label of a sad and grey country hanging on it. Europeans see Belarus only as an arena for political disputes: the last dictatorship of Europe. Famous Belarusian hospitality and warm-heartedness were not mentioned even once.

Nevertheless many replies concerning tourism indicate the desire to get to know the country, its culture and originality. Some 10% wrote: 'What is there interesting about Belarus?' or 'Why should I be interested in this country?'. These questions need to be answered by Belarusians themselves, who should take position on how they should be seen from Europe.

By Marta Palombo and Artyom Pugachev. The original version of this article was prepared for the Belarus Project, a blog on Belarus run by Sciences Po students in Paris. 

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