Faces of Belarusian politics: political archaeologist Ihar Marzalyuk
Almost everything about Ihar Marzalyuk, a rising star in the Belarusian establishment, contradicts stereotypes held abroad about the Belarusian state. While he is definitely not a liberal democrat, he has even less in common with grey, Soviet-style bureaucrats. With his criticism of Russian chauvinists and love for medieval Belarusian history, he embodies Minsk’s ideological evolution over the past decade.
On 28 September, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka in a rare move appointed a Belarusian–speaking official the dean of Mahilyou State University. Some media, like Nasha Niva, connected the appointment to Marzalyuk’s growing influence. Reportedly, the new head of Mahilyou University has ties to Marzalyuk.
A standard oppositionist’s biography
The beginning of Marzalyuk’s biography sounds similar to biographies of leading Belarusian opposition politicians. His was the last generation that came of age under the Soviet Union. He has a strong interest in Belarusian history and comes from Mahilyou province. A study by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies shows this region has the strongest Belarusian identity in the country. At the peak of Gorbachev’s Perestroika, he started speaking Belarusian openly and joined opposition movements.
After becoming a professional archaeologist, historian and administrator at Mahilyou State University, Marzalyuk rose to prominence following his 2009 book, which criticises nationalist concepts of Belarusian history. He did not return to Soviet-era concepts but expressed views aimed at developing an ideological foundation for an independent Belarus. Even Marzalyuk’s son, Alhierd, got his name in honour of a ruler in the Great Duchy of Litva, a medieval state where the ancestors of Belarusians played the leading role.
Minsk as a centre of the Russian world
Marzalyuk’s ideas raised interests within Belarusian government. By the late 2000s, it was deemed necessary to fend off Moscow’s increasing ideological pressure. An eyewitness told Belarus Digest about a row behind the scene of a conference in Minsk in December 2010 between Marzalyuk and Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian philosopher with links to the Kremlin.
While Dugin reportedly insisted that the so-called Russian world should have only one pole, i.e., Moscow, Marzalyuk argued that it should be multipolar, reserving a place for Belarus as one of such poles. Moreover, his other writings and speeches imply that Kyiv should be another centre, too. In effect, this turns the concept of the “Russian world” upside down: from a tool of Moscow’s domination in Eastern Europe to a model of coexistence in the region.
Confronting Belarusian nationalists and Russian imperialists, Marzalyuk proved himself as one of the few persons in the Belarusian political establishment willing and able to level sophisticated responses at opponents. No wonder in 2012 he got elected—or perhaps better to say selected—into the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament. For four years, he served on the prestigious Commission for international affairs and national security.
Despite getting into the parliament, he kept speaking Belarusian and expressing original views. In August 2016 meeting voters in Mahilyou, he commented on Russia‘s annexation of Crimea and activities in Eastern Ukraine. “Russia has done a terrible thing. What had existed at the level of mass consciousness, the feeling of East Slavic commonality, of East Slavic unity was destroyed in one day,” he said.
Marzalyuk does not conceal his interest in politics, even in its most basic forms. Two cases illustrate this point. First, he left the Council of the Republic – the upper (and more closed) chamber of Belarusian parliament—essentially a political sinecure. Instead, in 2016, he went on to be elected to the lower chamber, the House of Representatives. It offers more opportunities to publicly articulate one’s views and even engage in political debates—as much as it is possible in the existing political system.
Secondly, when in spring 2017 the protests broke out over the government’s attempt to tax people who were not officially employed, Marzalyuk became the only high–level Belarusian official to meet the protesters to discuss their grievances.
It seems Marzalyuk wishes to profile himself in Belarusian political establishment as a man of direct political action. After all, he has to compete with other ideologists of the current government, like Vadzim Hihin, who also generate intellectually sophisticated products. Indeed, what makes Marzalyuk’s unique in this power game is his willingness to meet people on the street and readily talk to independent media.
Marzalyuk makes a point of his right wing, conservative views. He emphasises his coming to them after participating in activities of Nationalist Belarusian People’s Front and Social-Democrat Party.
While articulating his views of a Belarusian national idea in 2014, he openly referred to certain views held by Vyacheslav Lypynsky, a conservative politician active in the short-lived, independent Ukrainian state after WWI known for his criticisms of socialism and ethnic nationalism. In addition, Marzalyuk picked up Lyavon Bushmar, an anti–hero of Belarusian Soviet literature as his human ideal. In Soviet times, this figure represented a negative type of hard-working, yet individualist and a narrow-minded peasant. Bushmar eventually sets fire to a local collective farm.
His views of contemporary Europe follow the same lines. As Marzalyuk said in an interview to the European radio for Belarus in February 2013, “My European ideals are in the past—I prefer the Victorian British Empire. Not because they were colonisers, but they had a more honest position. Europe is sick with socialism in the worst sense of the word. Hence all their [Europeans’] problems.”
Some other top officials hold similar conservative, statist views. Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei chose Bismarck as his ideal statesman. And even while Internal Minister Ihar Shunevich might throw on the uniform of a Stalin-era police officer for a parade, he can also be found personally designing and inaugurating a monument for Imperial Russian policemen.
Paving the way for a compromise in society?
To continue the consolidation of an independent Belarusian state, a dialogue between the ruling elites and those who oppose them must develop. Marzalyuk might be the figure to facilitate such dialogue.
Indeed, there are already signs this may be happening. Persons with known affiliations to the opposition have welcomed Marzalyuk’s advancement in power. Thus, former opposition politician Valyantsin Holubeu praised Marzalyuk in an interview published by Nasha Niva on 8 December. “I have known Ihar for a long time, back when we both participated in social initiatives. Marzalyuk is Belarusian historian and proponent of Belarusian statehood [dziarzhaunik], with his own vision. All he is doing he does only for the sake of Belarusian independence,” said Holubeu.
In a word, most foreign stereotypes about the Belarusian regime hold only until closer examination. Belarusian state officials and their varying ideology are a case in point. Key personalities in Belarusian government profess a conservative, statist ideology with few traces of Soviet socialism. They are also developing original concepts of Belarusian history and visions of a future which avoid unnecessary Russophobia, but also insist on the necessity of Belarusian independence. Marzalyuk rose up in the state hierarchy due to a gradual changing of the the regime’s ideology. His ascendancy illustrates just how wrong are those who insist that the Belarusian state has not changed in the last two decades.
Russian television turning into the ‘Trojan horse’ in Belarus?
On 28 November 2017, participants of the Russian political talk-show Mesto Vstrechi [Meeting Place], compared Belarus to an ‘unfaithful wife,’ a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘second Ukraine.’ The show reflected angry reactions to the participation of Belarus in the recent EaP summit in Brussels and its recent attempts to improve relations with the EU.
Soon thereafter, Belarusian TV and Radio Company, which controls the content of the Russian broadcaster NTV within Belarus, removed Mesto Vstrechi from the TV schedule. Both Belarusian official media and the president of the country complained of foreign media destabilising and misinforming the society.
Currently, Belarusian TV channels eagerly use Russian-produced content, ranging from news to entertainment. Yet the other side of the coin is the Russian domination of the Belarusian media market, with a potential to become a security issue.
NTV crossing the line?
The Russian TV has a history of going after Belarus and its leadership. Back in 2010, on the eve of the presidential elections, it broadcast a film, presenting Lukashenka in a negative light and reprimanding him of not keeping his ally promises. Eventually, Belarusian president had to negotiate with Putin a special agreement to stop personal attacks.
This year, Belarusian president did not directly comment on the NTV incident but lamented in general about the disgraceful behaviour of the powerful states’ media and their pseudo-analysts. Speaking at the 2nd Congress of Belarusian Scientists on 13 December, he blamed them for the destabilisation of the Belarusian society, yet cautiously refrained from specifying the states he meant.
Belarusian official media were more clear on the subject. One of the leading official newspapers, Belarus Segodnia, reacted to the NTV talk-show with a sarcastic caricature, accusing the channel of “bringing dirt into the house.”
One of the ONT channel’s shows in early December also took time to uncover the anti-Belarusian hysteria in the Russian media. Participants criticised their one-sided approaches to Belarus and a selective choice of participants, depriving Belarusians of opportunities to defend themselves in a fair discussion.
Both the head of the oppositional Popular Front (BNF) Ryhor Kastuseu and political scientist Vadzim Baravik pointed out the fact that Russian media had been spreading a provincial image of Belarus for a long time. The deputy of the Belarusian House of Representatives Ihar Marzaliuk stressed a strategic partner status of Belarus for Russia. At the same time, he confirmed that Belarus would not renounce friendly relations with Ukraine and has a right to pursue its own interests, including the rapprochement with the EU.
Hybrid media market in Belarus
Television and radio within Belarus remain under strict state control and supervision. According to the survey on the Information Security of Belarus, presented on 14 December 2017 by the Eurasian States in Transition (EAST) Research Center, the domination of Russian TV and radio in Belarus remains unchallenged. Currently, only one TV channel, Belarus-3, uses exclusively Belarusian language for broadcasting.
The EAST survey reveals that up to 90 per cent of the content offered by the Belarusian cable TV providers is Russian. For instance, all popular entertainment shows, such as X Factor, are available only in their Russian versions, as these are less expensive to acquire than to produce new ones.
Entertainment shows, along with news and political talk-shows are also available on so-called ‘hybrid’ channels, such as NTV-Belarus and RTR-Belarus. Controlled by the Belarusian TV and Radio Company and carrying Belarusian names, most of their content nevertheless remains Russian. Nearly 43 per cent of the viewers in Belarus watch Russian and ‘hybrid’ channels on a regular basis.
Apart from spreading a colonial view on Belarus, some entertainment shows have dubious quality, offering stories about aliens, conspiracy theories, and anti-science. In October, Belarusian STV announced that it would broadcast a Russian REN TV show, presenting the ‘flat Earth’ hypothesis.
A long fight against the Russian propaganda ahead
After the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014 and the flood of pro-Russian propaganda, Belarusian authorities have been trying to limit the Russian information power on the ‘hybrid’ channels.
Yet taking off the schedule some of the most offensive shows or moving them to late time slots turns out to be insufficient. According to the political analyst Valer Karbalevič, Aliaksandr Lukashenka still has not figured out how to deal with the issue of the Russian TV in Belarus.
Opening up the TV market for other neighbouring countries, such as Ukraine, might be a viable solution. However, Belarus slows down this process, even though Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents agreed on this issue three years ago.
In the ideal-case scenario, the increase of the Belarusian-produced content could be achieved by liberalising conditions for Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel broadcasting from Poland. Having celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2017, it is known for providing independent coverage of Belarus-related themes and producing political and entertainment programs in the Belarusian language.
Considering these options, Belarusian authorities’ greatest fear is that media based outside Belarus could become the major providers of alternative views and opinions, dangerous for the regime’s own stability.
Hence, the usual practice of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry is to deny accreditation for Belsat journalists, making their work in Belarus illegal and placing them at risk of persecution or arrest. For instance, in April 2017, the accusation of “illegal production and dissemination of media content” resulted in several fines for Belsat journalists from Homiel Larysa Ščyrakova and Kastus Žukouski. The amount of the fines for both exceeded € 3.700, which equals an average annual salary of a working Belarusian.
In the long run, going cheap by broadcasting Russian television further cements dependence of Belarus in the Russian sphere of influence, as it has been in the Soviet times. For the future, Belarus has to figure out a viable strategy to survive in information wars, yet one thing remains clear – the regime is unlikely to loosen its control over the media.