Holocaust Discourse Raises Controversy in Belarus
During her speech on 12 June 2016 in New York, Belarusian Nobel laureate in literature Sviatlana Alexievich criticised Poles for actively murdering Jews during World War II.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately reacted with a protest note demanding explanation and an apology from Alexievich. Sviatlana Alexievich had to elaborate on her position in an interview with a Polish journalist later. In the meantime Belarusian bloggers and journalists condemned her words.
On 8 July 2016 vandals poured paint on the "The Pit", a memorial sculptural complex devoted to the liquidated inhabitants of the Minsk ghetto. This issue was not widely reported by the Belarusian media and was ignored by the state as well.
This was the first time people desecrated the Holocaust memorial in central Minsk in years. However, it reflects the problematic nature of memory politics in Belarus. It also shows that the Belarusian public remains unprepared to fully reflect on the Holocaust and would rather speak out when the discussion focuses on neighbouring countries.
Memory of the Holocaust in independent Belarus
Traditionally marginalised and suppressed in the Soviet Union, Holocaust discourse had a chance to emerge in independent Belarus.
However, in the early 1990s Belarusians seemed too preoccupied with their own identity, economic problems, and nation and state building to begin discussing the Holocaust. Belarusian historians were busy trying to research and fill the numerous blank pages in Belarusian national history. Politicians were involved in political and economic problems accompanying Belarus’s transition to an independent state.
History textbooks for schools and universities provided little information about the Holocaust, and scholars had other. The authorities did not speak much about that episode of Belarusian history despite the revival of the Great Patriotic War cult in the official ideology following the election of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The politics of memory under Lukashenka
Lukashenka made the Great Patriotic War one of the key elements of the state ideology. Two of the main official holidays in Belarus commemorate the Great Patriotic War – Victory Day and Independence Day. The Independence Day celebrations changed from the day Belarus became independent from the USSR (27th of July) to the day Minsk was liberated (3rd of July) as a result of a referendum in 1996.
A subject called “The History of the Great Patriotic War” entered syllabuses at all universities in 2005 following Lukashenka’s order. The same year, the authorities opened "Stalin's Line," a historical-cultural complex “to become a symbol of a heroic struggle of the Soviet people against German-fascist invaders,” as the complex’s web-site states.
The Holocaust was practically excluded from the new politics of memory in Belarus. The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews on Belarusian territory by Nazis and their collaborators – often local – is muted during official speeches by the president on Victory and Independents Days.
This topic has still not entered mainstream public discourse, although some positive steps have been taken, including the erection of bronze statues at “The Pit” memorial in 2000. "The Pit" was initially founded in 1967 and was first visited by Lukashenka in 2008.
The erection of 45 new Holocaust memorials between 2005 and 2010 and the participation of Belarusian officials in the 65th and 70th anniversaries of the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto also mark an improvement in Holocaust memory politics in Belarus.
However, guring his presidency Lukashenka afforded himself being derogatory when speaking about Jews. One of the latest incidents was in April 2016 when the Belarusian president publicly asked the then Head of Hrodna region Siamion Shapira “to take all Jews under [Shapira’s] control”. This request stemmed from the fact that tut.by, an independent news portal owned by the Jewish Yury Ziser, published articles criticising a new law “on social parasites."
Lukashenka later explained that the year before Shapira had been asked to take control over Jews in Belarus, but Ziser's independent behaviour was not acceptable to the Belarusian president. Later Shapira said that this situation was not insulting to him although many other Belarusian Jews and Belarusians expressed their dissatisfaction with Lukashenka’s words.
The prospects of Holocaust discourse
Overall, the problem of silence surrounding the Holocaust in memory politics remains relevant in Belarus both on official and unofficial levels. Both the Belarusian state and the Belarusian public are very much distanced from that part of their history due to current historical discourse. Anti-Jewish clichés occasionally are articulated even on the official level since Soviet Union times.
Belarusians seem to be unready and unwilling to uncover the dark sides of their past. The fact that the Jewish population in Belarus decreases with each census means that it it unlikely that local Jews will force Belarusians to answer uncomfortable questions about the Holocaust.
At present, writer and Nobel Prize winner Sviatlana Alexievich is one of very few Belarusians willing to publicly discuss the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Her intellectual status and popularity might finally attract some public attention to historical memory problems in Belarus.
However, Belarusians appear to be more eager to discuss Alexievich’s words regarding Polish attitudes towards Jews during World War II in her New York speech than to pay attention to her interview with The Voice of America four days later.
The writer named the liquidation of the Jews in Belarus during the WWII as one of the reasons for the lack of elites in Belarus today. In her opinion this is also to blame for the longevity of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s rule.
Analytical paper: Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict
Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, the Kremlin has persistently tried to expand its control over Belarus, a process that has had quite the opposite effect as Belarusian government policy became more independent in 2014-2015.
There has always existed a paradox in the simultaneous contingence and estrangement in Belarusian-Russian relations.
Estrangement looks the stronger of the two today, evidenced by the decrease in Belarus’ military dependence on Russia and its refusal to allow the establishment of a Russian military base on its territory; the reduction in the Russian economy’s role in Belarus; discrepancies in the foreign policy and media spheres; and conflicts between the political elites of both countries.
These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.
This paper examines the integration/disintegration tendencies in Belarus-Russia relations since November 2013, when protests started in Ukraine. The ensuing Euromaidan, annexation of Crimea, and war in the Donbass have considerably altered European politics, including relations between Minsk and Moscow.
Despite close relations and the formal joint construction of the Union State, which also provides for integration processes, Belarus and Russia are becoming estranged from each other, in numerous ways. There are two reasons for this.
Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus Read more
First, the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine led to a re-thinking inside Belarusian authoritative circles of the possible steps that Russia could take with regard to Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus as he did when he claimed in May 2015 that the Belarusian army needs to be so strong that it is capable of “being thrown from Brest to Vitebsk in half a night to strike a blow”.
Secondly, the decline of the Russian economy lessens the Kremlin’s role as guarantor of Belarus’ well-being. In the conditions of slumping prices, shrinking of the domestic market, and declining GDP growth and forex reserves in Russia, diversification of the Belarusian economy has transformed from wishful thinking into a vital necessity.
Military disintegration: how to say “no” to your ally
Military cooperation has always been the “holy cow” of Belarusian-Russian integration, and the basis for journalists’ and Western experts’ statements presuming that the Belarusian army remains a part of the Russian one.
One of the grounds for such a presumption is the existence of the Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System which, according to the Russian military, started functioning in 2016. The agreement on its creation was signed back in 2009 and in fact brought nothing new to Russian-Belarusian military cooperation. It looks likely that announcing the establishment of an antiaircraft defense system was aimed at making milder Belarus’ refusal to place a Russian military air base on its territory.
The refusal to create the airbase reflects a broader trend – i.e. Belarus’ attempts to reduce its military dependence on Russia. The presence of so many Belarusian military personnel in Russia has always ensured that there is a mental connection between the Belarusian and the Russian armies – it is hard to find any top Belarusian military official who has not studied in Russia.
However, the number of Belarusian military cadets at the Russian military’s higher educational establishments is decreasing: last academic year there were 447, this year only 374.
The joint Shield of the Union exercises in 2015 gathered 1.5 times fewer military personnel than the 2011 Shield of the Union or West-2013 exercises (i.e. 8,000 participants compared with 12,000). While military exercises seemed all but impossible without Russia before, today the Belarusian paratroopers practice with the Chinese every year.
Although the scope of such training exercises looks miserly in comparison with the exercises with Russia, it shows Belarus’ desire to find new partners.
China, in general, has become a noticeable partner for Belarus. This is most clearly seen in the joint development of weapons systems by Minsk and Beijing, the multiple launch rocket system fire Polonaise being an example.
Failure of the Eurasian Economic Union and economic cooperation
In many ways, Russia’s economic decay is responsible for the fact that in only its first year of existence, the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) became a failure for Belarus.
First, the integration project inherited practically all the tariffs (about 600) that existed in the Customs Union. Due to such mechanisms, about two third of goods and services have been withdrawn from the common market of the EEU. Secondly, economic interaction between the countries has reduced. According to data provided by the Eurasian Economic Commission, the trade turnover of Belarusian goods with the EU countries in 2015 was only 74.8 % of that in 2014.
Thirdly, although Belarus has introduced unpopular measures like increasing fees for the import of cars, the regulations of the economic union serve Russia’s interests, as evidenced by the continuing economic wars. Fourthly, the importance of oil and gas, which were the key motivators for Belarus to join the EEU, have fallen sharply
Discrepancies in foreign policy
Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and economic decline have become one of the most important motivators for the Belarusian authorities to normalise relations with the West. Data provided by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) shows that since 2013 Belarus has intensified its relations with the European Union, and today contacts with the EU outnumber those with Russia.
The BISS data reflects the fact that Belarus started normalising relations with the EU and building up contacts with “developing countries” at the beginning of 2013. This included support for Ukraine’s European integration. This shows that the increase in dialogue with the West started not because of Russia’ expansionist policy, but for internal reasons.
It is nonetheless indisputable that the activation of Belarusian contacts with the world and deepening discrepancies in the foreign policies of Moscow and Minsk in 2013-2014 were in many respects a product of Russia’s foreign policy and economic decline.
It is important to note that Belarus’ normalisation of relations with the West is not an attempt at a geopolitical U-turn. So far, neither Belarus on the one side, nor the European Union and the United States on the other, have taken any cardinal steps in the form of big economic projects (Belarus still hasn’t even managed to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund) and contact in the political and military spheres remains at a low level.
Despite Belarus’ lessening dependence on Russia, relations seem unlikely to come to the point of a dramatic breakdown in integration.
First, Belarus remains overdependent on Russia financially – it continues to receive from Russia loans and “subsidies” – i.e. discounts for oil and gas and access to the common market. Furthermore, it remains highly important to Lukashenka that Russia acknowledges the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. Secondly, Belarus remains an important country in Europe for Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin won’t allow the total disintegration of the two countries’ relationship.
Nonetheless, the process of estrangement will continue further, and this is also connected with the generational changes inside the societies. The number of Belarusians who once lived in the same state as Russia – the USSR – is steadily decreasing and the quantity of people who identify themselves as ethnically Russian is reducing. Also a new nomenclature elite is emerging, interest in Belarusian culture is reviving, and young people are becoming more open to the world.
And the last, but important change: a political class that is accustomed to sovereign power, in which decisions are taken independently, has formed in Belarus.
- Read full paper: Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict
- Чытаць аналітычны дакумент: Беларуска-расійскія дачыненні на фоне канфлікту ва Украіне
- Читать аналитический документ: Белорусско-российские отношения на фоне конфликта в Украине
Ryhor Astapenia & Dzmitry Balkuniets