Pro-Russian Groups Become More Active in Belarus
On 9 November 2014 in Pastavy – a city in the Vitebsk Region of Belarus – members of the Holy Rus' Movement distributed flyers with a call for the unification of the 'Russian World'. Many similar events and military camps now taking place for Belarusian youth near Minsk and Vitebsk and exhibit a rather disturbing trend.
At camps organised by organisations such as Kazachi Spas or The Orthodox Brotherhood, soldiers and veterans instruct Belarusian youth and teenagers about the tactics employed by sabotage groups and how to handle weapons and survive. The Ukrainian 2014 revolution and subsequent events clearly triggered pro-Russian centres and groups to activate themselves.
Development of Ideological and Religious Centres
Kazachi Spas and The Orthodox Brotherhood promote themselves in Belarusian media as anti-globalisation, traditional and orthodox communities. They also pay a great deal of attention to religious and pro-Russian ideological aspects. In order to be able to work effectively, these radical organisations need support from the authorities in Belarus.
Opened in June 2014 the Centre of Russian Culture and Science in Brest became the first official regional pro-Russian headquarter in Belarus founded by Rossotrudnichestvo. According to the founders of the centre, institutions like theirs launched their projects around the world as a result of a personal order from none other than Vladimir Putin himself.
Trying to maintain Russia's influence in the CIS, Putin increased the budget of Rossotrudnichestvo nearly four times in 2014 – up to $300m. Rossotrudnichestvo is a federal agency in charge of maintaining Russia's influence abroad. Besides its new headquarters, Rossotrudnichestvo finances Rus Molodaya – an ultra-right movement with branch offices in Belarus. Closely linked to the ultra-nationalist paramilitary group Russian National Unity, Rus Molodaya also aims to establish a “New Russian World”.
Other Russian NGOs have become more visible too. Members of the Russian Public Movement for the Spiritual Development of the People for the State and Spiritual Revival of Holy Rus' (Holy Rus') also became active in Belarus in 2014. Registered in Russia, this NGO has basically transformed into a cult of pro-Russian ideology. It works on spiritual development and unity of citizens of all nationalities living in Russia and has several offices in Belarus.
The more recent activity of Holy Rus' in Belarus includes several other gatherings including, for example, in Maladzyechna near Minsk or a November 2014 meeting in Vitebsk. According to the Holy Rus’s web site they are also distributing leaflets at holidays in several locales like Homel, Vitebsk and Postavy. According to these leaflets, Belarus and Ukraine should become part of an indivisible Holy Rus' and unite with Russia in the future.
…and Even More Radical Organisations
Some other radical organisations have sprung up in 2014 as well, including the Military-Patriotic Orthodox Brotherhood named after he Holy Prince Boris and Gleb Tolochinsky (the Brotherhood) and paramilitary patriotic Cossack club Kazachi Spas. Oleg Plaksitsky, the Leader of the Brotherhood, is also an Orthodox priest in Belarusian town Drutsk. Members of the Brotherhood like to parade the symbols of the Ukrainian separatists. As Plaksitsky insists, as symbols that denote their anti-fascist principles.
On his web site Plaksitsky justifies young people participating in military training by saying they need to be ready to fight neo-fascism. He also states that Ukraine has become closely linked to fascism, and refers to the Ukrainians’ participation in punitive operations on the territory of modern day Belarus during World War II as proof.
Since 2013, Plaksitsky has organised camps in cooperation with military base number 71325 of the Ministry of Defence of Belarus in the village of Zaslonava near Minsk. This year at the patriotic summer camps near Minsk instructors taught youth mountaineering, how to handle an automatic weapon and how to find your way in and survive in a forest. The priest also taught the youth about the values of the Orthodox Church and its role in Russian culture.
Open Passage Provided by the Belarusian Authorities
The much more developed and influential group Kazachi Spas has been working in Belarus since February 2010. From the beginning Kazachi Spas co-operated with the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, Cossack organisations from all over the former Soviet Union and with the 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment located in Russia. Interestingly, the 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment took part in the First and the Second Chechen wars, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.
Cooperation with the Belarusian authorities is a clear indication about the real level of support for pro-Russian paramilitary organisations inside the country. From time to time the Belarusian Ministry of Defence lets Kazachi Spas visit and train at Belarusian military bases. The 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment, the Russian Union of Veterans of the intelligence and security services provide instructors and training materials.
Teaching About Russia and The Orthodox Church
For its younger participants, Kazachi Spas organises trips to various camps in several countries of the former USSR. Kazachi Spas presents its work to parents as a kind of recreational summer camp. Similar Cossack organisations also thrive in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Moldova. Military training camps for youth were already functioning in Crimea back in 2004. After the annexation of Crimea, the camp has continued its work but now with Russian instructors.
According to the Spas web site nearly 150 youth between 8 and 17 years old participated in its camps in 2014. The youth read about Soviet and Russian history and the role of the Orthodox Church in Belarus. Ideological work in the camps includes making presentations on Belarus and Ukraine as historical parts of the 'Russian World'.
According to the web site of Kazachi Spas “youth should actively train and know how to handle weapons in order to defend Belarus and prevent a Ukrainian scenario in the future”. Without further details about whom the youth should defend Belarus from, such statement are controversial.
In the past only a few organisations like the ultra-nationalist paramilitary group Russian National Unity carried out any kind of openly pro-Russian activity in Belarus. Nowadays organisations also lean heavily on religious and ideological indoctrination. Cossack movements have proven their efficacy in Ukraine. Their members were among the first separatists in Crimea, Lugansk and Donetsk.
A Real Threat to Belarusian Independence?
The 2015 Presidential Elections in Belarus and the Ukrainian Maidan revolution in 2014 launched a new wave activity by pro-Russian organisations. And it seems that the Belarusian authorities are not doing much to prevent these groups from carrying out their work. Perhaps the authorities hope that the paramilitary groups inside the country will prove to be an additional force against the opposition for the Belarusian regime. However, a more important question is whether or not Lukashenka can actually control them.
Lukashenka tries to reduce his dependency on Russia to maintain his post. But he cannot openly confront Russia due to Russia's economic and political support. At the moment, both Belarusian civil society and the authorities are in the same boat and should think about how they might be able to prevent Ukraine-style destabilisation efforts by pro-Russian paramilitary groups in Belarus.
Strengthening Belarusian national and civic identity as well as carrying out information campaigns about the threat of full dependency on Russia can play an important role in preventing a similarly violent scenario from taking place in Belarus.
Raman Kachurka is based in Brest and holds an MA in International Economics from the University of Warsaw.
Does Belarus Have High Social Capital? Understanding the Legatum Prosperity Index
Belarus ranks 53rd out of 142 countries in prosperity, ahead of Russia and EU member states Greece and Romania. The rankings stem from the Legatum Institute, a private think tank based in London. According to the ranking Belarus scores highest in social capital and lowest in governance.
It is striking for any post-communist state to perform well on measures of prosperity and social capital — let alone Belarus, the country sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship.
Analysis of this index suggests that personal ties rather than heterogeneous networks permeate Belarusian society. If accurate, this variety of social capital might hamper Belarus’s political and socioeconomic development.
Measuring Prosperity around the Globe
The Legatum Institute defines prosperity as a combination of wealth and wellbeing. It assesses the prosperity of 142 countries based on eight sub-indices, including economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, personal freedom, health, safety and security, and social capital.
In a feat of ambition, the index uses no fewer than eighty-nine variables. At times, however, quantity exceeds quality, making it difficult to interpret the data and draw comparisons between states.
To some extent, the Legatum ranking correlates with other measures of wealth and development. Western democracies rank highest, with Norway the most prosperous of all. Sub-Saharan states, on the other hand, perform poorly and cluster toward the bottom of the rankings.
Somewhat surprisingly Russia receives the worst prosperity ranking of any European country, based on low scores for governance, personal freedom, and safety and security.
The real curiosity, however, is how the index judges average performers like Belarus. Belarus’s overall prosperity score places it between Mongolia and China. All other post-Soviet states remain far behind.
Nonetheless, the eight sub-indices used to compose the overall index paint a more complex picture of Belarus. On education, Belarus sits between highly developed democratic states such as Austria and Japan, even though it lacks academic freedom and has abstained from all international assessment programmes.
Belarus performs best on the social capital sub-index, where it ranks 21st among 142 countries. On this dimension, Belarus comes right after Belgium, a wealthy democratic state in Western Europe. How can this be, given Belarus's authoritarian record?
One explanation is that Legatum relied on the Gallup World Poll. The sub-indices compare countries based on public opinion, as measured by Gallup in telephone surveys. The same question can be interpreted differently across cultures, and citizens of authoritarian states may lie when asked to critique their government.
Does Belarus Have High Social Capital?
If accurate, a high ranking for social capital is welcome news for Belarus. Social capital – generally defined as the norms and networks that facilitate collective action – can facilitate beneficial outcomes ranging from democratisation to public goods provision to economic growth. A diverse stock of social ties can encourage political participation, decrease corruption, and improve overall governance – the very indicator Belarus performed so poorly on.
Importantly, these positive effects of social connectivity apply only to the so-called "bridging" social capital, based on the diffuse ties between heterogeneous groups of people. They do not apply to "bonding" social capital, or the strong ties between friends, families, and people who are alike. Overreliance on such homogeneous networks can lead to nepotism, unfair distribution of resources, and corruption.
The predominant scholarly opinion has been that Belarus is low on bridging social capital – due to both its socialist past and the authoritarian present.
In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party dominated the public sphere, and participation in all civic activities was mandated and controlled by the state. In present-day Belarus, the lack of independent media and freedom of association continues to hamper the development of heterogeneous social ties.
Under these conditions, only tight networks within families and between close friends can prosper. This seems to be the state of social capital in Belarus today.
Bridging versus Bonding Social Capital
The high levels of social capital observed by the Legatum Institute resulted from a combination of unconventional measurements and a failure to distinguish between family ties and heterogeneous networks.
The index combines Gallup World poll responses on seven unrelated questions, which ask respondents whether they (1) donate money to charity, (2) help strangers, (3) volunteer, (4) trust others, (5) attend a place of worship, (6) live in a marriage, and (7) rely on their family and friends in times of need. While the first four questions more or less speak to the prevalence of bridging social capital, the reliance on friends and family measures bonding ties, while marriage and religion fail to relate to social capital altogether.
Belarus ranks well in the Legatum subindex to a large extent because 91.8% of respondents said they could rely on family and friends for help. In other words, bonding social capital is alive and well in the country. While family and friends certainly improve quality of life, an overreliance on such ties in Belarus is also indicative of low reliance on society at large and the inefficiency of state institutions.
At the same time, Belarus scores below the world average on questions that measure bridging social capital. In particular, only 15% of respondents mentioned donating money to charity; only one-third has helped a stranger or volunteered in the past month; and only one-third believes that people can be trusted. In short, bonding networks dominate while bridging networks are underdeveloped.
Belarus's social capital score is also boosted by the fact that 55.6% of Belarusian respondents are married.
While strong families could possibly produce more civic-minded and altruistic citizens, Belarus also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, which the Legatum ranking omits. Moreover, marriage rates may have more to do with social mores than with social capital.
Dysfunctional Social Capital in Belarus?
What the social capital questions used in the sub-index suggest is that personal ties and self-interest predominate in Belarus. As reciprocity and trust do not extend beyond one’s immediate family and social circle, people cannot work together to solve common problems. Strong family ties can be an asset, but only when combined with involvement in the broader community. Otherwise, they become a liability.
Most of the post-Soviet space abounds in this dysfunctional variety of social capital. Personal connections played a key role in compensating for institutional deficiencies and securing favours in the Soviet Union. This socialist legacy has persisted to this day.
Belarus has in fact retained many features of state socialism: a lack of clear rules, ineffective bureaucracy, corruption, and an arbitrary legal system. The result is excessive reliance on family and friends to game the system.
Though there are few things in Belarus today that money cannot buy, the exchange of personal favours between relatives and friends remains prevalent. A personal connection at the passport office, for example, can get documents processed sooner. A friend working at the hospital can help bypass the official waiting list for a medical procedure. Being related to a public prosecutor can mean lighter sentencing.
In sum, Belarus’s high rates of social capital are deceiving. Bonding ties remain strong and further weaken bridging ties. The potential consequences for Belarus’s political and socioeconomic development are pernicious: nepotism, corruption, and social anomie.