Rethinking Belarus After 20 Years of Independence
On 23 September 2011 the first annual congress of Belarusian social science scholars will begin in Lithuania. It will bring together a wide spectrum of political scientists, historians, sociologists and experts from other disciplines. Belarus Digest is the event's partner. We interviewed Andrei Kazakevich – who chairs the organizing committee of the first International Congress of Belarusian Studies.
BD: Why do you organise this Congress and why outside Belarus?
Initially, we planned to organize an annual event only for political scientists. But then we found out that there were no regular social science conferences for Belarusian social science scholars. In the past, there were similar conferences on Belarusian philology and linguistics. But political scientists, sociologists, philosophers, historians and representatives of other disciplines do not have any regular congresses. We decided to broaden the congress concept and to offer space for public and professional communication to all scientists engaged in Belarusian studies. political science, history, sociology and history of ideas will constitute the core of the Congress.
The event will be held in Lithuania because it was impossible to find an academic institution in Belarus, which would be willing to host such event without considerable organisational and ideological obstacles. We did not want to have any restrictions of topics and participants. The only way was to look for partners abroad.
Vitautas Magnus University In Kaunas agreed to become the main academic partner of the congress. Kaunas is home to a number of scholars interested in Belarusian studies. In addition, the location is convenient for many participants.
BD: What were other challenges you faced?
Formulating the main idea of the congress was challenging. We wanted to bring together as broad community of specialists as possible. Last year we also tried to establish connections with the Belarusian National Academy of Science and other state-controlled academic institutions. Prior to 19 December we had promising discussions. But after the presidential elections it all stopped. As a result, we will not have a full-scale cooperation with state institutions, which could facilitate better communication between researchers. However, there will be researchers from state institutions in their individual capacity.
BD: Is there enough interest in the event?
Initially we wanted to attract around 100-130 scientists, experts and analysts. But following the announcement the interest was much greater. Currently we have over 230 applications. The largest number of participants comes from the following countries – Belarus, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Lithuania and United Kingdom. Other countries also have representatives. We even have applicants from rather exotic countries for Belarusian studies such as Japan and Turkey.
BD: Would you be able to accommodate all interested to participate?
We have not decided what to do with such a high interest. Nearly all people are established researchers, almost no students. We have very limited financial resources and currently looking for additional support to accommodate all participants. Unfortunately, income of Belarusian scholars have doped dramatically as a result of economic crisis and it became much more difficult for them to cover travel and accommodation expenses.
BD: What do you expect as the main outcome of the event?
The main goal of the Congress is to create a platform for wide communication between social scientists and experts, to improve their regional and European engagement, to increase professional mobility. The target group is Belarusian research community in the wider sense – inside and outside of Belarus. People will be able to present their projects, to meet each other, to discuss new ideas and initiate joint projects.
The deadline to submit materials for presentation had already passed. Preliminary program of the Congress will be available on the Congress web site in late August. Those who want to participate in the congress without making a presentation should contact the organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org to register. We do not charge any fee on participants.
We hope to welcome many of Belarus Digest readers at the Congress in September.
Vladimir Putin Plays with the Old Imperial Nostalgia
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a provocative statement at a pro-Kremlin youth forum this week. When asked about Belarus and Russia becoming a single state, following the USSR model, the former president said: "It is possible, very desirable and depends entirely on the will of the Belarusian people."
A participant of the Russian Youth Forum in Seliger, described by Russian state media as a "representative of Belarus" said that Belarusian people want to join Russia in a single state. "So you should fight for it", Putin replied. Putin has made almost an identical statement about South Ossetia joining Russia.
It would sound outrageous if the German chancellor expressed a wish to annex Austria or a British prime minister would say that he saw Ireland joining the United Kingdom “very desirable”. However, the reality of the post-Soviet area is that such statements are being made and tolerated.
Vladimir Putin is known as the embodiment of the conservative, moderately revisionist part of the Russian elite. There is no doubt that he would really like to see Russia again annexing Belarus and other former Soviet republics.
Opinion polls, however, speak against what the Forum participant said to Vladimir Putin. According to a June poll by a leading independent institute IISEPS, more Belarusians would prefer integration with the EU than with Russia (25 and 35 percent respectively). The pro-EU sentiment has even risen during the current economic crisis in Belarus – even though Russia's policy contributed more to the situation than any sanctions from the EU.
As parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia are approaching, Russian elite faces struggles to secure public support. According to analysts, Putin’s recent creation of the All-Russian Popular Front to bolster pro-Kremlin party United Russia was a reaction to the party’s inability to gather support by itself.
Facing possible problems with popularity, Putin may use the topic of integration with Belarus to improve the the situation – just as Boris Yeltsin was doing in mid-1990s. Then Belarus and Russia signed a number of integration agreements with Russia with lots of pomp.
The difference between now and then is that in the 1990s Lukashenka's position was much stronger and he even dared to consider becoming president of the restored USSR made of Russia and Belarus.
Today Belarus is experiencing serious economic problems which are one step from turning political. It is likely that as the situation would worsen during the coming year or two, Lukashenka could end up on his knees before the Kremlin and agree to any conditions of his bail-out.
Whether the conditions would include a surrender of Belarus’ statehood will depend on the position of Vladimir Putin and his party at that particular moment.
Russia continues to consistently tighten its grip on Belarus while Europe cannot agree on even the easiest forms of support of the Belarusian civil society. As the time passes by, Belarus in getting closer to fall in Russian hands after the fall of Lukashenka.