Belarusian Science: Gerontocratic, Isolated, and Unproductive
At the end of March, Aleksander Lukashenka gathered the management of Belarus' scientific institutions and top government officials to discuss the problems of Belarusian science.
The meeting revealed that much of what the National Academy of Sciences brands as its cutting-edge achievements are simply revamped successful projects from Soviet times and have no breakthrough value today.
Two major factors that explain the low productivity of Belarusian science have to do with ageing researchers and their international isolation. These problems stem, among other things, from poor financing and restrictive bureaucratic rules.
Whereas the government cannot overcome its budget constraints quickly and increase expenditures on research-and-development dramatically, it could, at least, change the rules that hinder the internationalisation of Belarusian science.
In Aleksander Lukashenka’s opinion, Belarusian scientists fail to deliver world-class results. At the meeting in March, he named only a few noticeable achievements from recent years: the creation of a supercomputer, a Belarusian satellite, a medicine that fights cancer, transgenic goats, and the establishment of a centre for cellular technology.
Independent experts, however, criticise even these achievements. According to the former President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Alexander Vaitovich, the satellite that the authorities take pride in has only one Belarusian component and its creation dates back to the 1970s. And the widely advertised Belarusian supercomputer hardly breaks into a Top-30 list of similar technologies in a ranking of Commonwealth of Independent States, not to mention world rankings.
The statistics of the State Committee of Science and Technologies that demonstrate a 75% growth in the number of registered intellectual property patents in recent years were not very impressive for Lukashenka. He demanded real global-level breakthroughs that would expedite the economic development of the country.
two factors account for the current state of things: a growing gerontocracy and international isolation of Belarusian scientists Read more
But the situation has failed to improve recently. And at least two factors account for the current state of things: a growing gerontocracy and international isolation of Belarusian scientists.
Compared to 1985, the number of scientists in Belarus has decreased by 30% and their average age has risen considerably. According to a study by Andrei Laurukhin of the European Humanities University, today pensioners make up more than 60% of all the professors and more than 40% of the kandidatskaya degree (a PhD analogue) holders. In 1988 these numbers stood at 35.8% and 5.9% respectively.
Humanities, social and natural sciences have experienced the biggest damage. For example, the share of humanities representatives in the overall number of Belarusian scientists has faced a sevenfold decline since 1988.
Financial shortages appear to be the main culprit behind why many young Belarusians refuse to choose careers in research or look for academic opportunities abroad. In 2013, all scientific organisations combined in Belarus received about $250 million in government funding, which equalled 0.46% of the GDP. Companies’ investments in R&D, according to the State Committee of Science and Technologies, were even smaller.
Compared with developed countries, these figures look modest. The average level in the EU stays at 2-2.5% of the GDP. And the world’s average is about 1.7% of a country's GDP.
In a regional context, Belarus also lags behind most of its neighbours. According to the Research and Development Expenditure study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in 2012 Belarus outperformed only Lithuania.
Such low numbers result, among other things, in poor salaries for Belarusian scientists. The average salary of a NAS associate is around $450-550 a month. To put it into a regional perspective, the average salary at the Russian Academy of Sciences hovers around $1,100. One can hardly expect the best Belarusian scientists to stay in research institutions at home considering such a striking imbalance.
Not surprisingly, therefore, an estimated 4,000-5,000 researchers have left Belarus since the mid-1990s. And fewer and fewer young Belarusians aspire to become scientists in their native country.
Another reason for the low productivity of Belarusian science – its international isolation – results from specific government policies in this field. Thus, one can even call it self-isolation.
In 2004, a presidential decree established a list of journals regarded as scientific in Belarus. The list contains no original English-language periodicals. In other words, the leading international academic journals with the highest impact factor indicators have no proper legal status in Belarus. Whether Belarusian researchers can refer to such “illegal” journals in their dissertations depends on the goodwill of the Highest Attestation Commission (VAK), a governmental body that oversees the awarding of advanced academic degrees.
Obviously, this does not stimulate Belarusian researchers to monitor world-leading journals and submit their papers to them. Instead, they have an incentive to keep track of Russian language journals, the majority of which do not enjoy real recognition by the international scientific community.
As a result, Belarusian scientists and research institutes remain chronic outsiders in the Hirsch index (h-index), which measures the productivity and impact of scientific publications in the world. Belarusian researchers’ impact is absolutely marginal in a global context, which also points to the isolation issue.
Last year, only three Belarusian academic institutes had a reasonably good h-index:
- The Scientific and Research Institute of Physics and Chemistry Problems at the Belarusian State University;
- The Physics Institute at the National Academy of Sciences;
- The Belarusian State University.
Others had a low or zero h-index, which means that the majority of Belarusian researchers make no contribution to global science at all. Their publications go unnoticed by colleagues across the globe and stay within the attention of very limited audience.
One may argue that the Belarusian authorities cannot resolve the issue of low budget allocations on sciences very quickly as the economic situation in the country grows more precarious by the quarter.
Within the existing economic model, they even have difficulty stimulating R&D expenditures by companies. Still, they could at least amend the restrictive rules that literally keep Belarusian science isolated from the rest of the world.
This would be a more effective measure than increasing the productivity of Belarusian science by means of multiple meetings in the presidential office.
Will Belarus Last for Long?
The Crimean crisis stirred up a number of comments on the probability of Russian annexation of Belarus.
The topic is not completely new. Since the 1990s, fears of Russia taking over Belarus – under pretext of integration process – were one of main issues for national politics.
Later, the public's mood calmed down a bit as Lukashenka made clear that he did not intend to give away anything despite the authorities' integration declarations.
The survival of the Belarusian state today does not seem to be any more endangered than any other moment over the past two decades. Independent Belarus always suffered from a bad reputation and was expected to disappear from the face of the earth for years.
Virtual Russian Annexation
Belarus appeared to be a complete unknown, and an exotic place ,for many outsiders to believe in its permanence. The director of Nasha Niva weekly Andrei Dynko likes to recall how historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, now secretary of the Académie Française, proposed in early 1990s to remove the then newly independent Belarus from the political world map – simply because such a state made no sense to her. The Academy itself discussed which gender to designate to Belarus in French.
Belarusian analysts also doubted the future of their country. Well-known political scientist Vyachaslau Paznyak in his 1998 article Belarus: In Search of a Secure Identity pronounced:
More than any other of the former Soviet republics, Belarus was unprepared for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and remains uncertain about its status as an independent country and about its national identity.
Belarus did not count on Western policies toward post-Soviet nations in early 1990s. The only major Western leader who ever visited the country was Bill Clinton, who came to Minsk for seven hours in 1994 – as a reward for Minsk's agreement not to maintain any claims on its Soviet nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, the president and executive director of Freedom House Adrian Karatnycky in his 1994 article ”Another Chance for NATO” in the National Review argued that “Russia has virtually annexed Belarus by integrating the republic's economy and military into its own.”
After the newly elected president Lukashenka launched a series of integration initiatives with Russia, it led to a new bout of negative perceptions of Belarus. Alexander Vondra, then deputy foreign minister, and later foreign minister and defence minister of the Czech Republic, argued in 1995 that, ”Already Belarus has not succeeded as an independent state. … Belarus is a model of reintegration and of an increase in Russian influence in the Western direction at the smallest cost.”
As Edward Lucas of The Economist commented later on,
The idea that Belarusian statehood might be a temporary phenomenon gained ground. […] it seemed inevitable to many that Mr. Lukashenko’s strongly pro-Russian, pan-Slavic approach would end with the country becoming part of a new Kremlin-led confederation that in the future might include other pro-Russian anomalies such as Transdniestria […] or the two separatist, Russian-backed enclaves in Georgia.
Lucas included these ideas into his list of what the West got wrong about Belarus.
Dissenting opinions about Belarus as a political reality that would stick around remained almost unheard of until 2002-2003. Nevertheless, Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard insisted that,
Although Moscow managed to retain a politically dominant position in the formally newly independent but highly Russified Belarus, it was far from certain that the nationalist contagion would not eventually also gain the upper hand there as well.
The experienced scholar and politician knew that the nationalism in Belarus might be simply misunderstood and it already emerged as being entrenched in some kind of specific state-focused form, unlike the nationalist movements in neighbouring countries with their focus on ethnicity and language.
Meanwhile, even a nationalistic Russian politician such as Alexei Pushkov at the end of 1998 warned in a publication of the Russian foreign ministry that:
As far as Belarus is concerned, we shall develop the foundations of the existing union. It does not matter whether it is declaratory, still it is better than nothing. To unite? The Belarusian elite doesn't want to unite. Why would it be willing to lose the authority that it possesses? It will be drowned out in the Russian elite, it will be like a kind of Russian province – something like the Maritime Province. The elite will not give away their power. […] Nobody ever gives away their power.
Belarus as Cambodia under Pol Pot
By the early 2000s the Belarusian regime became integrated into the global narrative of 'rogue' nations. First, Michael Kozak, the US ambassador to Belarus, described Belarus in an opposition newspaper in 2001 as 'the Cuba of Europe.' More odd speculations were yet to come.
In November 2002, the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank linked to the Bush administration, hosted a conference entitled, “Axis of Evil: Belarus-The Missing Link”. Radek Sikorski insisted at the event that, “the message from this conference with Lukashenka is: 'President Lukashenka, be careful, because if your buddy in Baghdad gets thrown out, we will find the evidence of what you've been up to with him.” Nothing substantial, however, has yet to been found.
Meanwhile, US senator John McCain has proclaimed, that “Thanks to Lukashenka's leadership, Belarus now joins a group of nations, including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that are both isolated in the modern community of nations and face a newfound American commitment to change the way they do business or go out of business.”
To put Belarus alongside, say, Iraq became a handful of issues that are considered completely ordinary even in scholarly quarters, seems a bit extreme. Robert Rotberg did precisely this in his 2003 Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators. “There is a special category of weak state: the seemingly strong one, always an autocracy, which rigidly controls dissent and is secure but at the same time provides very few political goods.” Among them he specifically named North Korea, “Cambodia under Pol Pot,” Belarus, Iraq, and – with some doubts – Libya.
Doomsday Scenarios Replace Sound Debate
Sound analysis of the situation surrounding Belarus remains a rare commodity in western and western-addressed discourse on Belarus and its regime. All respectable western monographs on Belarusian politics can be easily placed on one bookshelf. Gloomy forecasts, comparisons blown out of proportion and colourful rhetoric prevail. Discussions over Belarus' fate after the developments in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine exhibit much of the same pattern.
Ukrainian analogies dominate today's discussions and usually are followed by some grim predictions about an approaching doomsday for Belarus. The lending of Ukrainian concepts does not, in fact, make much sense because of the diametrically different political, economic and cultural developments that have occured in Ukraine since 1991. Many analysts miss the completely incomparable strategic calculations involved in Belarus-Russian and Ukraine-Russian relations.
Belarusian statehood is stable despite the creeping degradation of some state and social institutions. Broad consensus support the value of Belarusian state. The nation displays no geographical cleavages comparable to those found in Ukraine, and there far fewer ethnic Russians – only 8.26% (according to a 2009 census, a number which is decreasing) – living dispersed amongst Belarusians and feeling rather secure as on the absence of any hostility towards them.
The state apparatus in recent years has been informally reshuffled to ensure its loyalty to Belarusian statehood. Although the government articulates Russian-friendly rhetoric, everyone who goes too far with it gets punished.
Economically, the current modus vivendi with Russia, despite its regular trade wars, enables Minsk to monetise its friendship with Moscow and compensate for economic failures elsewhere. Russia, on the other hand, is aware that undermining Belarusian statehood comes with serious risks and does not offer any particularly grand prizes.
The Kremlin is striving to acquire profitable Belarusian factories through having them privatised by Russian oligarchs. Yet they do not seem to be interested in annexing thousands of square kilometres – land which is, in any event, already ruled by the government friendly to Russia.