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.
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.
Belarus-EU Border: Iron Curtain or a Safety Valve?
On 27 January, in an address to the State Border Committee, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka sounded appeared to be in a cooperative mood with Brussels urging officials “to more effectively use the interests of the EU in creating a strong border.”
Border-related projects were among few positive achievements in relations between Belarus and the EU in recent years. They have achieved results wherever possible without running into politically controversial matters and could help launch projects in other spheres.
Furthermore, at the Eastern Partnership summit in November Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makey said that “the time has come” for negotiations on visa facilitation with the EU. In late January, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna discussed in Brussels the official launch of these negotiations.
Despite these developments, nobody should expect rapid success. Minsk is known for pragmatically using such issues for rapprochement with the West without giving in on issues which could undermine the current regime, such as human rights. Nevertheless, steps like visa facilitation pave the way for changes in Belarus.
Guarding the Border For the EU…
Lukashenka did not in the least sound idealistic when he recently insisted, “they [EU and international community] shall see that we fight both [illegal] immigrants and smuggling and hunt for radioactive materials… So, value us as your partners.”
Minsk has used border control as a bargaining chip in the past. In 2002, after the EU had introduced a travel ban on a group of Belarusian officials, Lukashenka warned that 200,000 illegal immigrants, eager to reach Western countries, were trying to make there way through Belarus to travel further west.
In 2012, an official from the State Border Committee expressed their intent to prioritise control entries for all arrivals on Belarus' borders. Earlier, he stressed, border control had been balanced between arrivals and departures. In this context, recent Lukashenka's words look like an attempt to reach out to the EU.
… at the EU's Expense!
Belarus apparently hopes to secure financing from the EU to strengthen its borders. The EU Delegation in Minsk reports that in 2002-2012 the European Commission allocated over €50m on border management projects in Belarus. In coming years, the Commission plans to spend more than €40m on such projects. In addition, more than €72m have been spent on other joint projects related to border management and migration.
Not everyone is happy about Belarusian-EU cooperation in this sphere. As exiled Belarusian politician Andrei Sannikau told The Telegraph newspaper, he was detained and searched by the border guards using equipment which allegedly carried EU logos.
In reality the border guards and customs service occasionally create nuisances for some Belarusian opposition activists by questioning them on the border and checking their belongings with extra zeal. The truth of the matter is that they can do so even without EU-supplied equipment.
Emigration serves as a safety valve that helps to ensure the stability of his government Read more
Lukashenka understands that emigration serves as a safety valve that helps to ensure the stability of his government. The more opposition politicians activists that leave the country, the better for the regime. In the name of fairness, there was a period in Belarus' history when oppositional politicians, activists and journalists faced serious restrictions on their foreign travel.
The government resorted to employing these repressive measures on a broad scale between March 2012 and early 2013, as the Belarusian authorities promised to ban some activists and journalists from leaving the country. The names of those on this black list remain unpublished as of yet according to Radio Liberty. In the ensuing months the border guards turned back about two dozens of activists and journalists at the border. By early 2013, however, the Belarusian authorities lifted the ban on all of them.
Open Border For Whom?
The Belarusian state hardly sees any political problems in easing its visa regime with the EU. Which immediate dangers could threaten the regime if Belarusians had even more opportunities to visit the EU? They could change their mind after seeing another reality – but, concerning short-term visits, it seems unlikely that many more of them would go to the EU countries than presently do so today.
The removal of visa restrictions will bring benefits for relations with the EU countries in the more distant future by facilitating business, study and people-to-people contact. But the Belarusian regime, which is concerned only with surviving today, has little time to think about tomorrow.
Some economic considerations – like visa revenues – may count more. Nowadays Minsk is clenching onto every source of revenue that it can. While it asks the Germans for €60 for a tourist visa, it demands from own citizens €175 for permission to reside abroad.
Belarusian officials have also expressed concerns over the drain on foreign currency reserves which are making their way to Lithuania and Poland. In September, Lukashenka famously proposed to put a special tax on Belarusians going abroad to shopping.
A very peculiar trade flourishes on the borderlands with Lithuania and Poland. Belarusians smuggle in to the EU numerous items which are cheaper in Belarus (cigarettes, gas, alcohol), while purchasing consumer goods in Vilnius and Bialystok both for personal use and for resale in the country. Belarusians also regularly take foreign currency out of the country, a phenomenon which further deteriorates Belarus' negative balance of payments problem.
Sometimes it has little to do with healthy entrepreneurship and does not necessarily make either Lithuania and Poland happy. Lithuanian business openly complains about problems with its tobacco market that is largely due to Belarusian smugglers.
It partly explains why the Belarusian government equivocates on the implementation of local border traffic agreements with Lithuania and Poland. Minsk suspects that with any hasty implementation of these agreements it will itself face a growing trade in suspicious transborder activity. Even more worrying for Minsk is what special visa regulation for border regions can lead to — namely, a marked increase in their economic reorientation towards neighbouring countries.
While the Belarusian government avoids creating special conditions for its border regions, it also demonstrates its own reservations about visa facilitation. Their recent moves in this direction mean that they explore opportunities both for a new rapprochement with the EU and the new benefits they would bring for Belarusians before the 2015 presidential elections.
Minsk also has to afford a great deal of care and attention to easing visa regime with the EU due to the regional context. Moldova has effectively achieved its abolishment of a visa regime with the EU. Ukraine is implementing the first stage of its action plan on visa facilitation, and even Russia is negotiating on visa removal.
Best Way to Deal with Minsk?
The border issue serves as a good example of fruitful cooperation between Belarus and the EU. Brussels rightly considered it unwise to endlessly wait for the regime in Minsk to change and launched cooperative projects with a minimal potential of being used for any form of political suppression.
Border management projects have transformed borders by, in the very least, making crossing the border more comfortable for people. They have effectively facilitated the links both between common people and border security agencies of Belarus and the EU.
The Belarusian regime may be still be hideous, yet it has no actual interest in fanatically opposing the EU. Minsk sometimes resorts to fierce rhetoric, yet it displays a sense of responsibility by seriously guarding its borders with the EU. And this itself has nothing to do with closing off the country to the outside world – oppositional activists have usually fled the country in some other way – in particular through the open border Belarus shares with Russia.
Undoubtedly, Belarusians should have more opportunities to travel to the West. Undermining Belarusian border control or making it slower and less efficient will not help it. Brussels' best strategy would utilise its support for Belarus' long-term prospects by using the current momentum to push for visa facilitation and ensure that Belarusians can easily travel to the rest of Europe.