The Land of Forgotten Heroes: Lenin vs Kosciuszko
For the Belarusian authorities, human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, who was sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison yesterday, is a criminal. For a significant part of Belarusian society, he is a hero. Twenty years after the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, Belarus still has two opposite pantheons of national heroes: the official and the democratic one, and many people believe they do not need any national heroes at all.
Every year on 27 November, the Belarusian diaspora celebrates the first day of the Slutsk uprising on what is known as Heroes Day. On 27 November 1920, a month after Soviet Russia and Poland split the territory of what was at the time Belarus in accordance with the Peace of Riga treaty, supporters of the Belarusian People's Republic, which was declared in 1918, raised an anti-Soviet uprising in the town of Slutsk. Several thousand armed Belarusian peasants fought for the independence of Belarus against a massive Bolshevik army for more than a month. Eventually, they had to capitulate.
After Belarus gained its independence in 1991, the Heroes Day tradition came from the diaspora to the metropolitan country. Yet, it has been accepted only by the democratic part of the Belarusian community. Meanwhile, the official state under 17-years of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rule still glorifies the Soviet-era idols who strongly and often violently opposed the idea of an independent Belarusian state and against whom Slutsk insurgents were fighting.
The Land of Lenins
Two years ago, Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian scholars conducted research into the toponomy of several former Soviet republics' capitals. According to the study, Minsk looked the “most Soviet” of the cities in the former USSR. One third of its streets carry names of Soviet heroes of World War II, and another third are named after heroes of Russian history. Only a small percentage of streets commemorate figures of Belarusian cultural heritage.
The situation with monuments is similar. More than a hundred Belarusian cities have monuments to Vladimir Lenin, and almost all towns and villages have monuments to Soviet heroes of World War II Besides that, almost 30 monuments across the country honour heroes of Russian imperial history, many of whom have no bearing on the history of Belarus in any way. Basically, all this is a Soviet legacy.
The Belarusian authorities also try to rehabilitate crimes of the Soviet regime in Belarus despite the fact that up to 1.5 million residents of Soviet Belarus became victims of Bolshevik terror. As a result, new monuments and memorials to bloodthirsty Soviet leaders Felix Dzerzhinsky and Joseph Stalin have been erected in Belarus over recent years.
One of the most respected Belarusian historians, Dr Zachar Shybieka, claims that all these facts prove the high level of sovietisation of Belarusian society, even when compared to other post-Soviet states. According to him, "Belarusians strongly lack a sense of national pride along with historical memory and national consciousness”. The historian points out that Belarus is still going through the transition period from its colonial status as a part of the USSR, to its sovereignty. “That is why Belarus often looks like a province of Russia."
There is Space for One Hero Only
On the one hand, the majority of Belarusian officials in charge of ideology grew up and began their careers under communist rule. On the other, the existence of the independent Belarusian state makes it necessary to establish Belarus' own historical identity, so officials have to borrow heroes and concepts from non-Soviet Belarusian history. Not surprisingly, there is an eclectic view of the country's history among them.
Thus, several monuments and street names honouring figures of Belarusian national history have emerged in the last few years too. Many of them have come into sight due to various initiatives by democratic activists. The authorities may reluctantly approve commemoration of medieval and other "distant" personalities, but not those who fought against Russian imperial oppression, such as leaders of anti-Russian uprisings Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kastus Kalinouski, or the founders of the Belarusian People’s Republic.
To examine this trend, independent researchers looked at Belarusian school textbooks over the past 17 years. They concluded that the books represented "plenty of different histories", but not a joint history of a single country. The recently published books funded by the state are reminiscient of Soviet-era propaganda literature. In particular, a number of distinguished persons, who were rehabilitated in the history of Belarus after the collapse of the USSR, have been disappearing from textbooks in recent years. Experts suspect that this has been done because the authoritarian state can only have one real hero – Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Six years ago Lukashenka renamed two main avenues of the country’s capital Minsk. It is widely believed that "the last dictator in Europe” felt uncomfortable that two central streets were named after medieval publisher Francysk Skaryna and Soviet Belarus leader Piotr Masherau. Belarusians regard both Skaryna and Maseharau as national heroes and many think that Lukashenka felt jealous. He renamed these avenues by removing any references to the past heroes. Now these streets have depersonalized names: Independence Avenue and Victors' Avenue.
Professor Barbara Törnquist-Plewa of the Centre for European Studies at Lund University explains that Lukashenka’s theorists have been creating state ideology on the basis of old-fashioned Soviet concepts that have a weak connection to Belarusian culture, history and traditions. According to her, “what they are trying to do is to build the Belarusian nation on the grounds of the charismatic personality of President Lukashenka. However, it is well-known from 20th century European history that nations led by such charismatic leaders have troubled relations with others. This is a very dangerous game."
So what about the people? Belarusian society is split into two parts. Each has its own understanding of the past and dreams about the future. For example, the democratic community predominantly speaks Belarusian. They regard the Belarusian language as the nation's main value, which has been suppressed by the mighty Russian neighbour for the last 200 years.
On the opposite side, Lukashenka, a former collective farm manager who has spoken the mixed Belarusian-Russian language known as "trasyanka" most of his life, has taken a pro-Russian approach to political, cultural, and economic issues throughout his presidency. He regards Belarusian as the language of his antagonists rather than as a national heritage.
Belarusian democrats respect the Pahonia (‘Chase’) emblem and the white-red-white flag, originating in the Middle Ages. These symbols were adopted as official by the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918 and by the Republic of Belarus between 1991 and 1995. Lukashenka and his supporters, on the other hand, prohibited historical symbols and instead reconstructed those from Soviet Belarus.
In 2009, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies in cooperation with NOVAK Research Laboratory conducted a survey of the national consciousness of Belarusians. 25% of all respondents named Francysk Skaryna, who was the first publisher in Eastern Europe, as the most popular national hero of Belarus. Soviet leader Piotr Masherau and rebel leader Kastus Kalinouski came second and the third respectively. However, 40% of respondents could not name any national heroes at all.
A significant number of Belarusians already see non-Soviet Belarusians as their national heroes. This is clear progress in the process of nation building achieved during the years of sovereignity. But the process will be painfully slow as long as the official propaganda continues to glorify the personality of Lukashenka and obsolete Soviet myths.
The Hidden Problems of the EurAsian Union
On 18 November presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia met in Moscow and launched the Single Economic Space. They also signed the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Commission.
If three countries ratify these acts in the near future, on 1 July 2012 the Customs Union’s Commission will be abolished and all its powers will be transferred to the Eurasian Economic Commission.
The Eurasian Union founders use the European integration experience as a model. However, it is hardly possible that they will form a harmonious union because of a number of political, economic and intercultural problems.
How Is It Supposed to Function?
The main governing bodies of the Single Economic Space (SES) will be the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council of heads and prime ministers and the Eurasian Economic Commission. The Commission will also be the first major supranational institution in the post-Soviet space.
If any member country violates international agreements or the Commission’s decisions, the Commissions’ Board can bring an action against this state in the EurAsEC Court located in Minsk. Nevertheless, it is still unclear how widely its decisions will be implemented given that Russian state institutions are often reluctant to follow decisions of another supranational structure – the European Court on Human Rights.
The Commission staff will be shaped in proportion to the state’s share in distribution of the customs duties so it will consist of 84% Russian citizens, 10% Kazakh citizens and 6% Belarusian citizens. Russian citizens will therefore dominate the Commission. The Commission's first chairperson will be Russian Minister of Industry Victor Khristenko.
It should be noted that member countries are not planning to speed up integration in their respective parliaments, regions, business associations, youth and civil societies, though it is often a crucial point for approval of the integration process by societies.
Real Aims or Demagogy?
The main aim of the SES is to create a common market of goods, services, capital and labour. In order to achieve it, the Commission was given 175 functions in different spheres, including industry, transport, energy, the agrarian sector as well as natural monopolies and competition. Nevertheless, the interstate agreements do not specify the exact content of these wide powers. It means that most likely they will be hotly debated in the future. It took the European Law system over 50 years to develop and mature and it is naïve to hope that 2-3 years will be enough for the Eurasian Union to adopt legislation in these important areas.
Given the importance of ‘champion enterprises’ such as MAZ and Belkali for Belarus or Gazprom for Russia, it is still unclear how the states can agree on regulation of these enterprises by supranational institutions, especially when they are governed not by economic, but political, logic. Previously the Russian authorities had an experience of imposing different decisions on gas and oil companies in order to achieve some political aims and assert themselves as the ‘energy superpower’.
Member states claim that they want to pursue the coordinated macroeconomic and currency policy and to limit the level of external public debt and inflation. However, given the weak rule of law in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, it is difficult to posit that all provisions of the agreements will be complied to by member states.
Prospects for Eurasian Integration
The states plan to introduce a common defense space based on the CSTO as well as a single currency for the Eurasian Union. Alexander Lukashenka said that the Russian rouble could be used as the common currency, but from Nazarbayev’s point of view, it should be a new currency. Actually, it is almost impossible that Russia will drop its rouble and agree to emission centers outside Russia. Thus the situation with the single currency is likely to reach a deadlock very soon, as has happened many times before in the case of the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
On 18 November Victor Khristenko said in his interview with Russia Today that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan can also join the SES in the near future. This may sound good to Russian voters, but in practice these countries are quite poor and not important enough in the regional context to make the Union more attractive to further candidates.
Medvedev stated that the future Eurasian Union will avoid the eurozone's problems, but it is hardly likely, given the fact that Russian economy will play an even bigger locomotive role in the new Union than Germany does in the European Union. There is a high probability Russia will have to lend to and invest large amounts of money in neighbouring economies for the maintenance of coordinated macroeconomic indicators.
Decisions of the Commission will be based on consensus, which means that coordination of the positions of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan will take a long time. This is especially so since the Belarusian presidential administration is not ready for economic reforms and even clashed with its own government on this issue two weeks ago.
Implications of the New Wave of Integration for Belarus
Belarus should approach participation in the Eurasian Union pragmatically and use available opportunities to achieve its own ends, including modernization of enterprises and market reforms. A shift to common policies can further the process of Belarusian modernization due to the forced adaptation to modern norms and regulations that are used by Russia as a consequence of cooperation with the WTO, the USA and the European Union.
Despite popular objections, the participation of Belarus in the SES does not contradict its participation in the EU Eastern Partnership or the development of its relations with Western countries. Moreover, the SES constituent agreements stipulate that the WTO norms are of higher legal force than these trilateral agreements.
It is symbolic that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev left for Bali to take part in the East Asia Summit the day after signing agreements with his Belarusian and Kazakh counterparts. Russia is not retreating from the world market because of Eurasian integration, and there is nothing to prevent Belarus from doing the same, except a lack of imagination.
Participation in the Eurasian Union may help the Belarusian authorities to reduce social tension and improve Belarus' difficult socio-economic situation in the near future if Russia agrees to the substantial cut in hydrocarbons prices. Its decision will be known on 25 November during the Union State’s Supreme State Council's session. According to influential Russian daily Vedomosti, natural gas prices for Belarus in 2012 could be halved to $150 per 1000 cubic meters, with a decrease to the level of internal Russian prices in 2013.
What is the Future of the Eurasian Union?
To sum up, the founders of the Eurasian Union refer to a large extent to the EU experience and have set similar aims, mechanisms and institutions. However, a weak legal culture, the absence of proper democratic mechanisms, and the differences in the economic structure and economic interests of these three countries cast doubt over the future of all agreements.
Today it is difficult to say whether this new Union will stand the test of time or be used by Russian politicians to increase their popularity in Russia, and by Belarusian authorities as yet another rent-seeking opportunity.
George Plaschinsky is an associate analyst at the Centre for European Transformation in Minsk.