How geopolitics increases the heft of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus
During mass on 1 November, Catholic Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič called the 1917 October Revolution in Russia an “existential disaster,” which brought immense suffering to Belarus. He noted that Belarus still celebrates the revolution date as a public holiday, while the Catholic population do not have official day-offs on All Saints Day and Memorial Day to perform their rites.
This year, the Catholic Church strengthened its criticism of unjust state policies against it when compared with the dominant Russian Orthodox Church. Against a backdrop of warming Belarus-West relations, the Catholic Church seems to feel more confident and, therefore, more able to publicly voice its problems with the authorities.
Meanwhile, Minsk realises the importance of the Church for reaching its strategic goals and understands it will have to listen to Belarusian Catholics more carefully.
According to official data, the share of Catholics in Belarus stands at 1.4 million people or 15 per cent of the population. The Roman Catholic Church remains the second largest denomination after the Orthodox Church. Belarusian Catholics differ from the Orthodox majority in several ways. Catholics practice more regularly and identify their religion more closely with personal faith—and not with national or family culture—as a 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre suggests. In addition, the Orthodox Church has long worked in a close partnership with the secular state and, thus, enjoys all kinds of privileges.
The Orthodox Church reserves the exclusive right to influence certain spheres of the state’s activities, such as education, healthcare, and crime prevention. The state has also granted it the status of “one of the most important social institutions” with “which cultural heritage in the past and today accord influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural and national traditions of the Belarusian nation.”
Belarusian Catholics are still waiting for a similar agreement. The Belarusian authorities have postponed concluding a concordat with the Catholic Church in Belarus for several years. So far, Catholics have fewer rights in comparison with Orthodox worshipers, but Catholics seem to be advocating for rights more publicly and actively. Throughout 2017, the Catholic Church has issued an unprecedented amount of criticism against official state policies.
Struggling for equality in holidays
Belarus’s Orthodox population have an official holiday for their Memorial Day—Radaŭnica, celebrated on the Thursday a week after Easter. Unlike them, Belarusian Catholics—who celebrate All Saints’ Day on 1 November and Memorial Day (called Dziady or Grandfathers in Belarusian) on 2 November—do not have an official day off to perform their rituals.
At a mass during All Saints Day on 1 November, Metropolitan of the Belarusian Roman Catholic Church Tadevuš Kandrusievič said that he is advocating the establishment of new official holidays in Belarus. He urged the believers to join an online petition dedicated to the cause.
He also spoke of the the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution, which is celebrated in Belarus on 7 November according to the Soviet tradition. The Metropolitan called the October Revolution an “existential disaster.” He noted that it brought immense suffering to the Belarusian people, but still remains an official holiday in Belarus.
The day before the speech, on 31 October, Kandrusievič and a few other priests held masses at Kurapaty, an execution site during Stalin’s Great Terror, and at Trascianiec, the location of a Nazi concentration camp. The aim of the two masses was to clearly signal of the position of Catholic Church on the issue of historical memory and past crimes.
The Belarusian state has yet to fully condemn Communist crimes. Meanwhile, the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II remains at the heart of official state ideology. However, it should be noted that some progress has recently been made in the acknowledgement and memorialisation of the Kurapaty executions. In February, prominent state figures and historians held a roundtable discussion on whether Kurapaty should become a National Mourning Memorial site.
Discrimination of Catholics Continues
Speaking at the Academy of Public Administration on 2 May 2017, Kandrusievič cited numerous facts that prove the discrimination of the Roman Catholic Church by the Belarusian state.
Discrimination includes the restriction of foreign priests’ right to work in Belarus, attempts to control Sunday schools, unequal rights in army conscription for students of Catholic schools, and even false accusations of automotive speeding as grounds for rejecting a work permit. Kandrusievič noted that during his religious work in Russia and Europe, he never met with these kinds of obstacles.
However, he also noted some progress in relations with the authorities. “I have had several meetings with the leadership of the Presidential Administration to discuss these issues. I think they have heard me and I hope the problems will be resolved. The relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church are not frozen, they are developing,” Kandrusievič said.
Is the Catholic Church increasing its influence?
The Roman Catholic church has had a rocky relationship with the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka. Supported by Poland, which until recently was a steadfast critic of Belarus and continues to be a source of unwelcome foreign priests, the Roman Catholic Church has seemed like an agent of Western civilisation in an Orthodox-dominated, pro-Russian society.
The authorities have repeatedly criticised the Catholic Church. The Belarusian Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs faulted the church with “insufficient cadre training” and accused “some Belarusian priests of the destructive activities.” However, Lukashenka himself has had to maintain friendly relations with the local church and abstain from any public accusations.
The Belarusian leader has long sought the support of the influential Catholic hierarchy for his attempts to normalise relations with the West. In April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI held a private audience with President Lukashenka in the Apostolic Palace, an event that was seen to signal a break from Lukashenka’s diplomatic isolation.
Despite some international criticism, the Vatican has remained committed to its policy of engagement with Belarus and has been ready to help the Belarusian authorities improve their ties with the EU. In 2016, for example, President Lukashenka had a meeting with the current Pope Francis, where the Belarusian leader reminded him (again) of an earlier invitation to visit Belarus. However, some obstacles will not make a visit possible anytime soon. The remaining issue is the over-dominant position of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The current geopolitical environment and Belarus’s changing foreign policy are increasing the influence of the Catholic Church as an important Western actor, because it seems able to publicly voice issues with the Belarusian authorities. Meanwhile, Minsk realises the importance of the Church for reaching its strategic goals and it is adapting to new rules as they develop.
Forsaking Private Korzhych: how hazing kills Belarusian soldiers
On 3 October 2017, a soldier from a military base located in Pechy, a town northeast of Minsk, died. The day after, fellow servicemen found Aleksandr Korzhych, a 21-year-old Belarusian, lynched in a noose made from trouser material. His wrists were tied with shoelaces and a sleeveless shirt covered his head and face. The public, along with Korzhych’s parents, believe Korzhych had been the victim of bullying and murder.
In the days following the discovery of the soldier’s body, more than 10 thousand Belarusians signed a petition calling for an official investigation and for the dismissal of the Minister of Defence, Andrei Raukou.
Public solidarity has forced the authorities, who initially insisted the soldier’s death had been suicide, to change their position on the issue. They are now promising a thorough investigation.
These unhappy events have demonstrated, once again, Belarusian authorities seem only respond to pressure. However, they still try to maintain a balance between displays of power and attempts to soothe public opinion.
What happened in Pechy?
On 4 October, military personnel found Korzhych’s body in the basement of an army base in the town of Pechy. The first investigative committee decided the cause of death was suicide by hanging. Korzhych’s parents claim their son’s body was heavily bruised and showed signs of beatings.
Aleksandr’s parents believed their son was murdered. They sent photos of their son’s body to Radio Liberty, where traces of trauma and violence were clearly visible.
It emerged that the soldier’s whereabouts from 26 September to 3 October were unknown. These facts, among others, prompted Aleksandr’s parents to demand a fair investigation.
Some facts indicate that Korzhych became the victim of extortion. Aleksandr himself admitted to his parents he had to pay €7 a-day to stop other soldiers from beating and bullying him.
Along with the money, which he asked his parents to send, his expensive phone also disappeared. Korzhych complained the hazing and extortion originated from the base’s commanding officers. Evidence has recently emerged that an officer at the base had withdrawn money from Korzhych’s bank card.
A strong public reaction to hazing
As more details of Korzhych’s death came to light, many citizens actively expressed their outrage. More than 10 thousand signatures were collected calling for the resignation of Defence Minister Andrei Raukou. Shortly after, the webpage collecting the signatures was shutdown at the request of the Defence Ministry. The petition, officials complained, was an attempt to discredit the Ministry of Defence.
The Defence Ministry then took the time to send letters to those who had signed the petition, asking them to confirm whether they had, indeed, signed it. On 26 October, The ministry issued an official statement in reaction to numerous electronic appeals, while at the same time ignoring the demands for Raukou’s resignation.
Some well-known young Belarusians, such as Frantsishak Viachorka and Ivan Shyla, shared their military service experiences on their Facebook pages.
Despite the buzz around the death of Korzhych, his ordeal does not appear to be the first of its kind. In March, Private Arciom Baysciuk apparently committed suicide after complaining to his family of extreme hazing and bullying. An investigation into his death has produced few results.
Baysciuk’s parents suspect their son’s death was closely linked to hazing. Human rights activists believe a culture of hazing remains the most negative aspect of the Belarusian military.
The authorities remain reluctant to take real responsibility
At first, the authorities were slow to react. On 12 October, the Defence Ministry promised an investigation into the death of Korzhych and punishment for the perpetrators. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka gave his condolences to Korzhych’s family ten days after the soldier’s death. So far, five officers, including the army base’s head, have been suspended. In addition, the investigative committee has initiated eight criminal cases against sergeants at the base. After this slew of indictments, the authorities’ response seems somewhat overzealous.
However, the Defence Ministry’s and investigative committee’s reactions are arguably defensive in nature. On 5 October, they called the soldier’s untimely death “a suicide.” As more facts emerged and the public became incredulous, the cause of death switched to acts of hazing and bullying. Indeed, the government fired several high-ranking officials at the military base without any investigation. By 25 October, as the public’s attention appeared to be starting to shift, the investigative committee stated that besides the lacerations from the noose, Korzhych’s bruises appeared after his death. This appears to be a stratagem to calm the public, rather than an effort to solve a case.
Belarusian authorities tend to respond to public concern when it touches upon sensitive issues, especially if it involves many people connected to the state. For example, when the Kurapaty campaign was accompanied by protests and online-petitions, it pushed the authorities to cancel the construction project atop the historical site. And again, it was the protests of angry Belarusians that caused the suspension of the hated unemployment tax.
While the authorities may be willing to compromise on socio-economic issues, they continue to violate the rights citizens in other areas. Recently, authorities have put pressure on anarchists.
On 31 October 2017, the KGB, Belarus’s national intelligence agency, arrested activist Mikalai Statkevich for the sixth time this year. His arrest comes a week after his participation in street protests against Belarusian social and economic policies. At the demonstrations, the hazing of Belarusian soldiers became one of the central issues raised. It appears involvement in politics is still the most arrestable offence for a Belarusian citizen.
What kind of future for the Belarusian army?
Military service remains compulsory for young Belarusians. However, because of the frequent cases of physical and psychological abuse, many young men shun military service. The case of Private Korzhych has added resonance to this point.
Circumstances around Korzhych’s death have forced both the Belarusian president and the Defence Ministry to react. However, the authorities’ tradition of offering a few conciliatory words are not enough this time around. Belarusian human rights groups, the media, and local activists are keeping the public’s attention focused on the issue.
Even under an authoritarian regime, the government still finds it necessary to respond to the appeals of more than 10 thousand Belarusians.
Officials have already taken a few steps to respond to public concerns about hazing, for example reopening the investigation and firing army commanders. However, this merely appears to be an attempt to deflect public anger and attention away from the root causes and existing problems surrounding arm hazings. A substantive change to the conditions of military service would likely demand constant pressure from civil society, until the authorities feel pressure to react.