Political Sphere Journal Discusses the Problems of Belarusian Intellectuals
The 21st issue of the Political Sphere journal considers the current intellectual situation in Belarus in the context of its authoritarian political regime, the structural problems of the development of the Belarusian state and nation, and the constantly changing regional and global environment.
Political Sphere is a leading Belarusian academic journal in the social sciences with a special focus on politics. It has been published by the Institute of Political Studies ‘Political Sphere’ since 2001.
The issue presents a history of the formation of Marxist philosophy in early Soviet Belarus, a review of a doctoral thesis from an official local institution that demonstrates well the ongoing crisis in the social sciences, and a poll of prominent intellectuals regarding their views on Belarusian national development. The second part of the issue extensively examines the situation of modern thinking and challenges Belarusian intellectuals .
In the Intellectual History section of the journal, Ivan Novik shows how the Marxist paradigm was established and institutionalised in science and education during the first decades of the Soviet regime's rule in Belarus. The article examines the influence of famous Soviet philosophers who were born in and made their academic careers in Belarus – Siamion Valfson, Salamon Kacenbohen, Ruvim Vydra, Bernard Bychoŭski – on the creation of Soviet Marxism.
Soviet ideology was able to obtain complete ideological domination and how those who disagreed with it were excluded from intellectual circles Read more
The author shows how Soviet ideology was able to obtain complete ideological domination and how those who disagreed with it were excluded from intellectual circles. But unlike in 1920s, the years of creation of Soviet Marxism and its transmission, in the 1930s Belarusian Soviet intellectuals shifted their scholarly focus to the legitimisation of Stalinist repression.
The next section presents a review of a doctoral thesis which was defended at the Faculty of International Relations of Belarusian State University. The thesis discusses the foreign policy of Iraq in 2003-2011. The author of the review works as an expert at the Highest Attestation Committee – a state institution which decides on whether or not an individual will be awarded an academic degree.
In the introduction to the document Andrej Kazakievič demonstrates that in fact the Committee declined the dissertation because the author did not use a particular conspiracy theory in his argument and, to make matters more complicated, he also lacked the ideological accuracy and requisite anti-Americanism. The review, for its part, has no academic argumentation whatsoever to supports its claims and demonstrates the depth of degeneration in state-run political science departments.
The discussion section of the issue presents a poll of several well-known Belarusian intellectuals on three main questions: what is the impact of intellectuals on contemporary Belarusain society and culture? What can justify the continued existence of intellectual thought in modern Belarus, as social sciences and humanities are playing an increasingly minor role in society? And what is the biggest current challenge for Belarusian intellectuals in terms of thought, the current social situation and culturally?
The rest of articles form a section that discusses the state of modern thinking in Belarus. Valiancin Akudovič in his text suggests three stages of modern Belarusian thinking: the end of 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, when creation of Belarusian philosophy in the context of a national culture occurred and it dissociated itself with the prevailing institutionalised philosophy, which it viewed as dogmatic and anti-Belarusian.
In 2000-2010, intellectuals mainly focused on personal and collective projects instead of conceptual ones, especially those with a national flavour. At that time they also returned to being on good terms with the academic community. Today, Akudovič states, intellectuals do not see any real tasks to solve in front of them as philosophy is facing a major crisis and is merging with literature.
The intellectual arena became politicised and polarised on the grounds of language, history and culture Read more
In describing the development of the field of philosophy in Belarus, Tacciana Ščytcova employs the concept of “the negative dialectics of liberation”, where liberation means de-ideologisation. Deprived of an ideological framework, philosophy in Belarus appeared to lack academic and public recognition for its activity. The collision of three contexts – global, regional and national, and a political task of formation of national project complicated the issue even more.
The intellectual arena became politicised and polarised on the grounds of language, history and culture, but all camps now face a common threat – the decline of classical philosophy, when knowledge becomes a means of seeking utility. In the end, the author leaves it an open question on whether or not philosophy can survive at alll in current Belarusian regime.
the majority of Belarusian intellectuals and researchers fail to resolve practical problems Read more
Tacciana Vadalažskaja states that the works of the majority of Belarusian intellectuals and researchers fail to resolve practical problems, and the results of their activity do not reach the general public. Belarus thus lacks philosophical thinking and inquiry as a widespread practice, and it also lacks the infrastructure of thinking which can transmit it to new generations. Individuals and organisations do exist, but sustained schools of thought have not yet appeared.
Pavel Barkoŭski looks at the current situation surrounding Belarusian philosophy through the lens of a situation filled with uncertainty and dwelling at the crossroads. Belarus is in fact but a part of the intellectual periphery of Europe. Belarusian intellectuals themselves are struggling with whether they should accept eastern or western patterns of thinking and reject local approaches as being alien and provincial, which in the end promotes a kind of colonial style of thinking.
Belarusian intellectuals themselves are struggling with whether they should accept eastern or western patterns of thinking Read more
To overcome this, the author suggest a few directions for the nation's overall intellectual development: historicise the thinking, or understand one's place between the past and future. Furthermore, people should continue working with the deconstruction and reconstruction of meanings, which vanish in modern societies. Society should also strive to rid Belarusian philosophy of its universality of thinking and contextualise it. Finally, promote philosophy as a search for the unknown and make it practical at the same time.
Ihar Padporyn in his article describes a few major problems that Belarusian official intellectuals have: thinking within a framework that the authorities have set up for them in order to reap the benefits from regime support; trying to scientifically justify and elaborate everything that Aleksandr Lukashenka says; using Marxist-Leninist terminology to explain modern society and ignoring western theories and approaches; using outdated approaches to develop practical recommendations; writing vague and unclear texts.
the regime is not interested in critically thinking people and therefore does not support either social sciences or the humanities criticising them Read more
Viačaslaŭ Babrovič in his analysis uses the analogy of a patriarchal family, in contrast with intellectuals who believe they have the role of an “unloved child”. He claims that the regime is not interested in critically thinking people and therefore does not support either social sciences or the humanities, criticising them for a lack of efficiency and practical results.
On the other hand, official intellectuals carry out their work only formally, having no incentives and freedom for development and creativity. Babrovič also claims that 2010 protest put a clear division among Belarusian intellectuals, those supporting and opposing the regime.
Aliaksandr Sarna defines an intellectual as a composition of three aspects – an erudite, who has certain knowledge, an expert – a person, who not only possesses knowledge but is able to apply it practically in social projects, and an intelligent – a nation’s moral authority and protector of public interest.
In practise, however, intellectuals cannot usually balance these aspects and have to act as double agents, separating private life from state and society. Otherwise, they become a function of the system. To avoid this, intellectuals should not identify themselves with business and state and instead critically discuss their operation.
The issue also publishes a number of book reviews about social sciences and history, which study Belarus and the Eastern European region.
Foreign Investment in Belarus: Mission Possible
Last week, the Ministry of Transport of Belarus and the Belavia national air carrier revealed that they have been negotiating with Boeing.
Minsk is proposing to Boeing that it participates in the reconstruction of the Minsk aircraft repair plant and help establish a Boeing maintenance hub in that nation's capital.
In May a new Swiss investment project – a railroad engine and car plant – opened in Fanipal near Minsk. At the same time another EU firm – Czech Papcel – received approval to start construction on a major paper mill in Shklou.
For some opponents of the current Belarusian government these developments would appear to be a form of silent collaboration between Western business and “last European dictatorship”. In reality Belarusians are in need of economic development, regardless of who rules the country. Widespread poverty and the prevailing backwardness that exists in Belarus presently only helps promote populism and, by extension, the tyranny that props the whole system up.
The EU has no need for a poor dysfunctional state on its borders, regardless if its political regime or the degree to which it is or is not considered pro-Western.
New Production in Two Years
As the story of a major Swiss company Stadler Group shows, foreign investors can indeed sucessfully work in Belarus. The company's work in the country began when Belarusian Railways bought a few new electrical trains from them. After concluding their successful deal, the CEO of the company, Peter Spuhler, came up with the idea to manufacture their trains in Belarus.
In July 2012, the Belarusian government and the Stadler Group founded the open joint-stock company Stadler Minsk. The Belarusian state contributed the assets of Belkamunmash, a publicly-owned company that produces urban electric transportation vehicles, and some land. Stadler contributed a majority of the funds for the new company's launch and received 60% of its shares as a result. The construction of a new production facility for “Swiss trains” in Fanipal began over a year ago in April 2013.
TheSuch rapid implementation of this deal may impress those who think that Belarus is a bad place for doing business. Spuhler named three reasons for their decision to create train production facilities in Belarus. First and foremost, of course, was Belarusian Railways' interest in their products that led to the sale of Swiss trains. A second element that attracted the Swiss company was the availability of an established local partner – Belakamunmash – to help launch the project. The third item that attracted them to seriously consider opening up a manufacturing facility was the opportunities that Belarus presented the company as it seeks to access the markets of Russia and Kazakhstan through the Customs Union.
Yet there are other important aspects which make this success story appear so prosaic. The Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka recently used to refer to the Stadler Group's work in the country as a proverbial paragon that other foreign investors could, and should, follow.
“They brought new technology [to us], we did not have this kind of manufacturing earlier. They had not yet built the plant and had already signed contract to supply electric trains to Russia." Lukashenka added. When Spuhler proposed to privatise Belkamunmash, Lukashenka gladly accepted, though not without reminding potential investors that the last word in such matters would always be his.
By now, the well-established Western firm has already invested about 50m euros in the country. The Director of Stadler Minsk, Uladzimir Karol, emphasises that a number of new technologies have arrived in Belarus. Yet so far production is essentially reduced to assembly, as almost 100% of blue prints for their construction come from abroad. According to Karol, due to their internal limitations, it could not be otherwise initially.
Investors on the Ground: More Positive Than Negative Opinions
Most investors who actually work in Belarus assess business climate rather favourably. The Representative Office of the German Economy in Belarus, a member of the German Union of the Chambers of Trade and Industry, published in June a survey of investors' opinions on the ease of doing business in Belarus. 42 companies with mostly German investment responded to the questionnaire.
70 per cent of them would choose Belarus in the future as a destination for investment. Among the most attractive factors of the business climate in Belarus was the nation's political stability, overall infrastructure, human resources and the quality of its higher education.
Listing the most problematic issues for the business climate the individual surveyed mentioned access to loans and credit, the unpredictability of Belarus' economic policies, legal guarantees and the transparency of its tenders.
The Representative Office of the German Economy concluded:
Belarus as an island of stability obviously positively contrasts with the general regional background […] General assessments of Belarus' business climate internationally, comparatively, significantly exceeds the level of assessments of the business climate in neighbouring countries, Russia and Ukraine.
However, the level of foreign direct investments (FDI) fails to impress. Minsk boasted of attracting around $15bn in 2013, 7% more than in 2012. Yet 80.8% of this sum consists of money used to satisify debt repayments, with only a small fraction of this sum being true capital investment (in 2012 – $0.3bn, data for 2013 unavailable).
Russia leads the list of major investors in Belarus (48.6%), followed by the UK (21.4%), Cyprus (7.1%), the Netherlands (4.9%) and Austria (3.4%). A majority of these investments came from former Belarusian citizens or from businessmen in neighbouring countries who channel their investments through the UK or Cypriot companies.
Russia's share of investment, when compared to 2012, rose by 1.9%, much to the detriment of Western companies. This figure corresponds with longer-term trends in Belarusian foreign trade.
Recently, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey rebuked the EU, stating:
Last year, the trade turnover with Russia made up about 49% of [Belarus'] total turnover and with the EU – 27%. Several years ago, the numbers were almost equal. As a result of sanctions and some other actions, the situation has deteriorated. Now we have an imbalance.
Belarusians – More than Just Lukashenka and the Opposition
The major issue with investment stems from the poor reputation of Belarus in the West. Some of its political and human rights problems are frequently blown out of proportions. Even quite respectable German newspapers such as Der Taggesspiegel allow themselves to print articles with titles like “Hockey World Cup in Belarus: Blood and Games,” while forgetting to explain whose blood they were implying or specifying the scale of the political prisoner problem.
Meanwhile, despite the evident political suppression and fraudulent elections, Belarus has a functioning state apparatus and its regime enjoys a rather high level of popularity. The latter has even risen as Belarusians have observed the developments in Ukraine.
The idea that Belarus is a dangerous place where surveillance and the “KGB” thrive are accepted as common knowledge among a majority of Western politicians. The result of this general consensus is the continued international isolation of Belarus in the West, a policy that has contributed to preserving the current state of affairs both inside and outside Belarus since the 1990s.
There are millions of Belarusians who have nothing in common either with Lukashenka nor the opposition Read more
Western politicians can do a great deal of good even if their actions merely mean stepping aside and accepting that there are millions of Belarusians who have nothing in common either with Lukashenka nor the opposition and let business get to work in Belarus.
These millions of people have the right to live decent lives. After all, the European Union has nothing to win if one day on its borders a despondent and impoverished country pops up – regardless of whole rules the country.
The EU has to think about Belarus' development and as an initial step, it would serve both Belarus and Europe if they would allow Belarus to develop economically, regardless of the name of its acting president. Such a policy would help build a viable and robust Belarus, a country able to resist foreign pressure and become increasingly more integrated with the global community.
Some reasonable encouragement for Western businesspeople wishing to deal with Belarus will immediately have an impact on Belarus and the region in the foreseeable future.
By gradually changing the political economy of the country – without undermining those state institutions that have nothing to do with political persecution – investors will change Belarusian politics.
They will also help Belarus to change politically in an evolutionary way, helping it to avoid a Ukrainian-style bloody confrontation.