New Eastern Europe Is Unmasking Belarus

The latest issue of New Eastern Europe, an English language magazine published in Poland, devoted nine articles to Belarus.

Are Belarusians pro-European? Do activists care about the language issue? Why trade unions in Belarus cannot play the same role as Solidarity movement in Poland? This volume offers an interesting discussion of these and other topics.

The editors of the journal hoped to offer a different look at Belarus, a country which is “probably the biggest victim of western misconceptions.” From this point onward, the issue does not question the more obvious issues surrounding Lukashenka's regime, but rather invites readers to analyse Belarus from different angles.  

What gives the Belarusians strength

Alexander Milinkievich emphasises that although the state continuously peddles anti-Westernism, a significant segment of Belarusians remain pro-European. As statistics show, around 35-40% of Belarusians remain in a favour of integration with the Eurasian Union. He attributes it to the predominantly European identity that characterises Belarusians' perception of themselves. Milinkievich advocates for not rejecting Belarusians, because their history is “the legacy of a European people.”

Certainly, for all appearances this looks an appeal from a pro-European politician. He calls, however, for a reasonable approach: “There is too much talk about Lukashenka and too much of a defeatist attitude in Belarus.” Milinkievich proposes something different – let's talk (and do) more about society and work on its potential.

The numbness of the society?

Two authors, Dzmitri Hurnievich and Jedrzej Czerep, elaborate on the issues of identity and language.

Dzmitry Hurnievich, a Belarusian journalist, starts with a depiction of the linguistic landscape in Belarus. He explains the process of the marginalisation of Belarusian and the gradual Russification of the public space. As a matter of fact, today one is increasingly less likely to find Belarusian language appearing in educational settings, the state media, but even on the streets.

In his view, “The Belarusian nation is still in the process of defining itself. And this process will not be completed until the language is back.” Despite some civil society initiatives only campaigns at the state level can effectively popularise the language, Hurnievich notes.

Jedrzej Czerep, a Polish journalist, in his text “Redefining Identity” claims that many activists from the younger generation do not prioritise the linguistic issue. In his opinion, “the type of Belarusian identity that is being chosen by many young people today places different accents than that as promoted by the revivalist generation.” He introduces an interesting discussion of the approaches of two Belarusians, a journalist Jan Maksymiuk and a writer, Viktar Martynovich.

“In the early 1990s, attempts to impose Belarusian as the dominant language were unsuccessful,” he writes. He argues that through a referendum Belarusians voted “for reinstalling Russian as the second state language.” The author does not, however, mention the wide-spread view that the results of the referendum of 1995 had been falsified. Also the rejection of symbols of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and “revivalists' white-red-white flag” occurred in large part due to top-down ongoing policy of Russification rather than as a result any free choice made by Belarusians themselves.

According to Czerep, the main reason behind people turned away from a policy of top-down Belarusianisation was due to the heavy handed rhetoric of nationalists. No discussion, however, was offered on how the top-down ongoing Russification of the society since 1995 may have had an impact on the situation.

Why trade unions in Belarus do not play the same role as in the Solidarity movement in Poland?

In his intriguing contribution, Andrzej Poczobut observes that unlike the Polish Solidarity movement, the Belarusian trade unions have not turned into a body of social resistance in Belarus. Paradoxically, despite the economic crisis in the country, Belarusian workers neither protest nor openly express their demands. This is the result of the state-managed official unions’ leadership loyalty to the authorities. In reality, they tend to aid Lukashenka’s policies, Poczobut points out.

The journalist scrutinises the protests that took place at the state-run company “Granit” in 2011. Although a number of workers left the official trade union then, the protests failed materialise into a serious social force. Since they remain under the complete control of the authorities and thus cannot even truly represent the interests of the labour force.

In the text, “In Search of One Voice” Alena Zuikova argues that Belarusian civil society organisations should get more involved in the national decision-making process. ”Civil society needs to take an equal place in the development of Belarus along with the national authorities and external actors”, she claims.

Zuikova argues that to become an active player, civil society organisations need to overcome their own internal divisions and consolidate their strength. This would allow them to become a “respectable counterpart in the dialogue, [and] is the passport to success.”

Miroslav Kobasa in his text “Challenging Cooperation on the Local Level,” draws attention to the problems that civil society organisations face in Belarus. According to him, one of the main impeding factors is the standing negative attitude of the local authorities towards them.

40 per cent of NGOs registered in Belarus in 2012 fell into either the categories of sport and leisure, or in other words, they did not have any particular social or political component to their work. The authors indicated that the challenges that civil society faces come primarily from the centralisation of power in the country. Such a model imposes their own total dependence on the local authorities and subsequently on the centralised govermental apparatus.

Kobasa, a Belarusian social activist himself, notes, however, several cases of positive cooperation of the NGOs with the local authorities. It happens usually with projects regarding issues that are of a non-sensitive nature, he explains. “Interaction and cooperation give both parties extremely valuable experience, improve their mutual understanding,” he stresses.

At the EU and the Eurasian Union fronts

Two analysts, Anna Maria Dyner and Andrej Liakhovich, took a closer look respectively at the relations of Belarus with the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union.

Dyner shows that the economic crisis pushed Lukashenka into Russia's Eurasian integration project. Minsk was hoping that this large scale economic project would be a remedy for all of its economic problems.

"Belarus' economic situation and open borders with Russia have led to the mass emigration of the Belarusian labour force," the author emphasises.

The Polish analyst also explains that Minsk will have to pay for its own economic integration, and "the Eurasian Union may become a curse for the Belarusian government."

Liakhovich took a look at the foreign policy of Brussels towards Belarus. In his text “Rethinking EU Policy towards Belarus,” he argued that EU member states do not all share the same priorities with international relations. Minsk, like Kiev, is trying to do business both with Moscow and the West at the same time.

And the EU has, however, certain goals in regard to Belarus. They include the maintenance of formal independence from Russia, but also a reliable transit hub for goods and energy through the territory of Belarus. The analyst highlights that the EU had not worked out yet a strategy towards Belarus.

Unmasking Belarus?

The recent issue of New Eastern became a platform for a discussion of Belarus. It also provides an opportunity to view Belarusian society from a variety of angles. On the whole, the publication seems to make good on its promise and managed to put forth many interesting points for discussion.

On 10 February this discussion about Belarus will continue.  New Eastern Europe together with the Casimir Pulaski Foundation organise in Warsaw a panel on Belarus: Prospects and Challenges”. One of the topics will be how Europe and Poland should engage with Belarus.  

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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