Summary of the 6th Annual ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’ Conference
On the 18-19 February 2021 the 6th Annual ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’ conference gathered participants from various countries of Europe and North America to present and discuss academic research related to Belarus.
The University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum co-organised this year’s conference.
It welcomed 25 scholars who presented their research on Belarus with particular focus on the 2020-21 protests.
Professor Yarik Kryvoi, the Ostrogorski Centre, thanked the speakers for their contribution towards the demystification of Belarusian politics. Uprisings have never resulted in regime change in the history of Belarus. The unprecedented Belarusian protests of 2020-21 show that the potential for political change is unlikely to be lost.
Dr Andrew Wilson, the University College London SSEES, equally recognized the importance of research on the political history of Belarus. Dr Wilson announced the possible addition of an individual course on Belarusian history at the SSEES.
The Origins of the 2020 Uprising in Belarus
In his keynote speech Professor David Marples, University of Alberta, addressed the “question of when”. His view is that political change will occur when Alexander Lukashenka leaves office.
Both the myth of the Great Patriotic War and the appropriation of the Stalinist legacy serve to solidify the foundation of the authoritarian regime in Belarus. The lack of efficient response to the Covid-19 epidemic shows how a mantra of ignorance is strength also pervades the present.
The unprecedented size of protests in Minsk on the 23 August 2020 marked a turning point. Professor David Marples disagrees with Belarusian sociologist Oleg Manaev’s opinion that little has changed. The Belarus of Lukashenka is not there to stay for too long. Rural support has corroded, the Parasite Law has broken the state-worker social contract and Lukashenka has failed to offer economic change. Most importantly, an unprecedentedly large, dissatisfied population continue to protest in the cities of Belarus. It is demographically diverse and continually growing.
Political change will occur, but can only occur without Lukashenka. Ultimately, the economic situation will decide whether this will happen by decision or by force. For the dissidents it is a question of time, for the regime a question of fear and survival.
Lukashenka’s Ivory Tower at Home
The first panel of the day chaired by Prof Andrew Wilson from UCL focused on state media use. Dr Stephen Hall, University of Cambridge, used a collection of interviews to explain why Lukashenka has failed to understand his people. Policy briefs by the State Security Committee effectively cater to his own narrative. Lukashenka has built himself an ivory tower.
Andrei Kalavur, Masaryk University, presented on the state media campaign during the elections. Lukashenka’s lack of understanding of the power of non-state digital media meant that he never changed his campaign. In the lead-up to the 2020 elections Natallia Eismant, his press secretary, repeated the same “information dramaturgy”. The aim was the manufacture of crisis to promote the need for a strongman. Once more state press demonised the opposition, once more it warned of impeding external threats. It nothing but fatigued the Belarusian people.
Dr Nataliia Steblyna, Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University, analysed state media discourse. She compiled state media sources from 2005-2019 to create indices. These showed a significant increase in the representation of political actors and in political emotions. She also spotted a gap in digital coverage from 2005-2008. Only after 2008 did the state begin to disseminate its discourse digitally. The delayed response made possible the spread of network communities with alternative agendas. The internet became the adversary of the state.
Potemkin Village Abroad
A focus on foreign relations matched the domestic focus. Yahor Azarkevich, University of Glasgow, compared the foreign policy operational codes of Alexander Lukashenka and Donald Trump.
He compiled sources from 2010-2020 through the Verbs in Context System. Similar to Dr Steblyna’s research, he concluded that Lukashenka’s foreign policy discourse remains relatively stable.
Dr Sándor Földvári, Debrecen University, addressed the recurrent topic of Belarus’ foreign policy of drift. Although economically dependent on Russia, if Orban’s Hungary can exist in the EU then so could Belarus. The panel discussion spotted a lack of literature on the question of EU investment in Belarus. Dr Földvari encourages further research on this topic.
The presentation of Ekaterina Pierson-Lyzhina, Université libre de Bruxelles, discussed the multi-vector foreign policy of Belarus. This policy consists of a strategy of economic dependence on Russia and soft power rhetoric with the EU. The doors of the EU are now closing, however. Opportunism can only work for so long.
Dr Volha Charnysh from Massachusetts Institute of Technology chaired the final panel focused on the identity of resistance.
Dr Sasha Razor presented an incredibly engaging visual presentation on articulations of national identity through protest art. The medium of embroidery, by artists like Rufina Bazlova, shows that protesters have chosen white-red-white as their symbol. The red thread which weaves through all protest art is the binding call for a democratic end to violence.
Aliaksandr Kazakou, an independent researcher from Belarus, reengaged Professor Marples’ point on state appropriation of the Soviet period. Protesters carefully dodge everything which makes up the inherently repressive state discourse. Their national identity formation stands in antithesis to state discourse.
Lastly, Dr Joanna Getka presented on the visual contra-propaganda of the protest. Behind its playful and mocking nature lies rapid self-organisation and civil solidarity.
The first day closed with a vibrant discussion between panellists and attendees as to what, if not solely the slightly restrictive passport, constitutes Belarusian identity. The second day shifted the focus from contemporary political developments to the history, society and culture of Belarus.
Belarusian Historical Memory
The next chapter focused on Belarusian historical memory and was chaired by Dr Alena Marková from Charles University.
Dr Aleksandra Pomiecko, University of Manitoba, opened with a study of the Sluck insurrection of 1920, the first national uprising. Soviet historiography had wrongly discarded the insurrectionists as solely counter-revolutionary in aspiration.
The Belarusian state neither approved nor disapproved the Soviet narrative. Today, protesters view Sluck as an example of individuals fighting for their national belief.
But national identity is not majoritarian. Professor Boris Czerny, the University of Caen, has studied the Jewish population of Brest-Litovsk in 1915-18. An investigation rich in primary sources recounted the identity struggle of a population trapped between two occupying forces and a diktat treaty. Professor Czerny emphasised that 1916, the Jewish population trapped in war, necessitates a connection to 1942, its genocide.
Maryna Laurynovich, Charles University, concluded with a chronological study of Piotr Masherau, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Byelorussia. Previously, the figure of Masherau had personified the state’s founding myth. Then it steadily fell into the ash heap of history.
The Formation of a National Identity?
The second panel of the day focused on social history and chaired by Dr Peter Braga from UCL.
Dr Alena Marková, Charles University, agreed that Belarusian national identity has always formed under the auspices of the Soviet past. Identity formed after the state. The 1990 Law on Language saw letters of support in Belarusian, but also in Russian.
Mark Cinkevich, an independent researcher from Belarus, presented on the formation of state identity. To Miss Woolley’s question of whether Soviet history has swallowed up Belarusian history this presentation too answered with a resounding yes. Belarusian society never came to terms with its Soviet past because instead of de-Stalinization the state reappropriated the Soviet legacy.
Lizaveta Dubinka-Hushcha’s research at the Copenhagen Business School usually involves the international relations of Denmark. It was the intriguing story of the Cross of Dagmar which inspired a research detour on St Sophia of Polotsk. Based on consultations with Belarusian goldsmiths and her academic research she confirmed the high probability that the cross of Dagamar originated from Belarus.
Symbols of Belarusian Culture
Dr Karalina Matskievich from the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum chaired the final panel. It focused on cultural history.
Vitali Byl, University of Greifswald, presented on Ruthenian witchdoctors in the Lithuanian witch-hunt. Until the Catholic Church started to persecute witchdoctors their healing practices had symbolised folk culture.
Dr Simon Lewis, University of Bremen, spoke about poetry and music in the contemporary culture of the protests. In an expression of national solidarity poets have become leaders. At the end of the presentation, he recited The Stone of Fear, a poem by Julia Cimafiejeva on the suffocating fear of repression passed down from generation to generation.
A.M. LaVey, University of Rhode Island, showed how Belarusian textiles constitute national identity. Mr LaVey emphasised Dr Razor’s argument that embroidery and protest dovetail. Belarusian textiles developed from a utilitarian object into a political symbol. Meanwhile, national costume transformed into a state symbol. It is state resentment which gives potential to symbols of protest.
The University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum kindly thank the speakers. Many presenters will have the opportunity to turn their research into a journal article published in The Journal of Belarusian Studies.
Videos of each conference panel are available here.
Lukashenka’s Chinese options
On 26 October, prominent Chinese government expert on post-Soviet states Wang Xiaoquan warned that an escalation of Western sanctions against Belarus could disrupt China-EU transit routes. Paradoxically, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka needs to improve relations with the EU in order to advance his partnership with Beijing.
Contrary to stereotypes, China has provided Belarus with some new technologies and capital in recent years. In some cases, this cooperation has even strengthened Minsk’s foreign policy positions elsewhere, above all in conflicts with Russia. However, China has replaced neither Russia nor the West as a Belarusian partner. Moreover, China’s commitment to its Belarusian partner remains questionable despite persistent speculation over Chinese support for Lukashenka.
Going to Beijing for technology
In the face of recurrent problems in acquiring new technologies from Russia, the Belarusian government in recent years has turned to Beijing. This has benefited Belarusian space and military missile programmes, as well as numerous projects in the automotive industry. For example, Belarus managed to launch its first satellite, Belintersat-1, in January 2016 after the Export-Import Bank of China provided $258.6m of almost $300m of the project costs. Belintersat-1 was conceived as a commercial venture. However, already in March 2019 the Belarusian government began to notice that the satellite had failed to generate the expected revenue, and asked Beijing to cancel the debt. Last week, Belarusian oppositional media reported that China had refused to forgive Minsk an outstanding $233m in debt.
Later, in October 2018, the second satellite, constructed by Belarus State University for research purposes, was also launched into space with Chinese help. On 31 August 2020, Lukashenka signed an executive order concerning the launch of the second satellite, to be constructed by Belarus State University in 2021. Although no details concerning the launch have been published, most probably it will be done with Chinese help too.
The automotive industry provides more ubiquitous examples of Belarus trying to rely on China to achieve more economic sustainability as an independent nation. A joint venture between Belarusian MAZ and Shaanxi Fast Gear- the latter belonging to China’s Weichai corporation – has now completed construction of production facilities for manufacturing gearboxes for trucks and buses. The construction of the factory, whose products will replace Russian gearboxes, started as recently as August 2019.
Another successful case provides BelGee, a joint-venture with Chinese Geely, which manufactures cars. Since 2017 it has sold about 40,000 cars (including 10,520 in January-July 2020). Almost half of them have been exported to Russia. In an interview with AV.by in August, director of BelGee Hienadz’ Sviderski gave assurances that from 2018, the factory had been generating profits while also repaying the loan: BelGee manufacturing was built almost entirely from a $250m Chinese loan. According to Sviderski, the localisation of production has now reached more than 50%.
There is, however, one important caveat to this success story. BelGee, which last year became the fourth most popular brand in Belarus, enjoys unique conditions created by the government. The latter made clear in no uncertain terms its intention to implement this project by appointing Sviderski, even without relieving him of his position as Deputy Minister of Industry. To promote sales, the government forced banks to provide special loans for purchasing these cars. At the same time, the government has increased the import tariffs for second-hand cars.
Chinese money helping against Putin?
Belarus needs not only technological support but also money, especially as its isolation from the West has been increasingly compounded in recent years by tensions with Moscow. The most remarkable case of Beijing rescuing Minsk occurred last December. Back then, at the peak of the tensions between Minsk and Moscow over Putin’s new Russia-Belarus integration demands, China urgently provided a 0.5$bn loan to Belarus and granted Belarusian firms more access to its markets.
Besides loans, China has increased its technical and economic assistance, although the scale and final application of this remain unclear. On 30 June 2020, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister and former ambassador to Beijing Mikalai Snapkou said:
In the up eight years up to 2015, we received in total about $130m of this kind of assistance. Since 2015, after the meeting of our leaders, we have received $130m each year in assistance. It goes to social housing, hostels, infrastructure… In total, the absorbed and implemented technical and economic aid from China exceeds half a billion dollars. Taking into account the projected facilities, within 3-4 years, it will be $800m.
The question is whether the Chinese money is used to address the real needs of the country, or instead is spent on prestigious projects with little use for national development, such as international sports events. Indeed, this past summer China started building a football stadium and swimming pool for international competitions in Minsk, each at an estimated cost of around $120m according to forex signals Telegram reports.
In addition, Beijing frequently provides money on the condition that Belarus buys goods and services from Chinese firms. Minsk has already encountered such poor quality of work from Chinese subcontractors that it had to dismiss them. The case of the Svetlahorsk cellulose factory proves that. Initially, the Belarusian government had commissioned a Chinese corporation to construct the plant, but after it failed to deliver, Belarus in 2018 moved to build it on its own. A similar scenario took place with the construction of a paper factory in Dobrush, also in 2018: after delays and failures, the Belarusian government took the contract away from a Chinese subcontractor and gave it to an Austrian firm.
An exaggerated friendship
This demonstrates the contradictory nature of Belarus-China relations which is mostly ignored. Both supporters and critics of Lukashenka tend to exaggerate the degree of support that Beijing is willing to provide him with. The problem is that they mostly rely on Belarusian state media or Lukashenka’s own words in judging how close the Belarusian regime is to Beijing.
Furthermore, the Belarusian authorities are trying to create an impression of closeness, for example, by handling the Chinese ambassador to Minsk at least as respectfully as the Russian envoy. On 24 September, Lukashenka awarded Ambassador Jui Jimin with an order and discussed Belarusian domestic politics in great detail. The Belarusian president asked the ambassador to convey to Xi Jinping, “my good old friend, the kindest words of gratitude for the support he has always provided, especially recently. He was the first to congratulate me on my victory in the elections.“ Xi Jinping indeed congratulated Lukashenka on 10 August, the next day after the contested Belarusian presidential election, although not before Putin.
However, there is little evidence from the Chinese side for these claims by the current Belarusian leadership regarding Belarus’ closeness to Beijing. As Zhang Xin, a research fellow at the Centre for Russian Studies at Shanghai’s East China Normal University recently told Nikkei news outlet, “Beijing is unlikely to go out of its way to prop up the besieged Belarusian leader,” say in form of new investments or loans “just to support Lukashenko as a leader.” The logic is clear: for China, relations with Russia or the EU weigh more than those with Belarus.
To sum up, although Belarus constantly articulates its will to develop relations with China as a strategic choice, the role of this partnership should not be exaggerated. Its political aspects are analysed only on the basis of the claims by current Belarusian leadership which is inclined to exaggerate its proximity to Beijing.
The economic side of the relationship seem contradictory. To date, Belarusian projects with China have failed to compensate for the problems in Belarus’ relations with the West. Moreover, Beijing demonstrates no eagerness to side with Minsk in its conflicts with the EU.