The Myth of Belarusian Tolerance
If you ask a Belarusian about the most important national feature of Belarus, he will most probably mention tolerance.
This opinion seems to be deeply rooted in mass consciousness. Lukashenka's regime often uses it in ideological discourse to prove that Belarusians have been peaceful throughout their history and cannot stir up any conflicts, internal or external.
However, in 2012 the Institute for Economics and Peace ranked Belarus at the bottom of its Global Peace Index (109 among 158 countries), suggesting that Belarus actually belongs to the group of the least peaceful nations.
Belarusian think tanks researched public opinion to understand this issue. The research showed that the Belarusian people can, in fact, be quite hostile to "otherness" in terms of cultural and identity matters. At the same time they are much closer to European norms when it comes to political and civic values.
The Tolerance Narrative in Belarus
Many in Belarus like to refer to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) as an example when they speak about tolerance. Indeed, in the GDL many religions and ethnic groups coexisted peacefully for centuries. No religious wars ever occurred throughout its history. The local population tolerated other religions and ethnic groups. Plenty of Jews and Muslims lived in peace with their Christian neighbours.
Belarus had four official languages - Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish Read more
After the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed in 1919, Belarus had four official languages – Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. But this multicultural society vanished after the Second World War, which dramatically changed not only state borders but also the ethnic composition of Belarus.
Today, Belarusian officials employ the history of tolerance to prove the good nature of the Belarusian people: these people have never attempted to occupy or destroy other cultures, all they want is to leave peacefully on their land, work hard and raise children. The problem, according to state ideologists, is that Belarus is surrounded by enemies, such as the EU member states and NATO. They pose threats to tolerant Belarusians, who need to unite around a strong leader and resist the aggressors.
Tolerance has already become an important element of Belarusian social consciousness. If you ask a Belarusian what national features seem typical for his countryman, he would most probably name tolerance amongst a few others. However, regular people hardly try to critically analyse this concept and how it actually plays out in Belarusian society.
Independent experts try to prove the opposite, but they rarely do empirical research to support their claims. However,oOne such research project was conducted a couple of years ago and yielded truly interesting results.
Belarusians have Strong Social and Cultural Phobias
The Novak laboratory and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies conducted research on this topic in 2010. The research aimed to compare current Belarusian political culture with European values. Contrary to widespread opinion, the results showed that Belarusian are more prone to accept the political standards of the EU rather than its cultural norms.
Belarusian are more prone to accept the political standards of the EU rather than its cultural norms Read more
Polls showed that Belarusians remain very homophobic. More than 60 per cent of Belarusians support criminal prosecution of homosexuals. Only 6 per cent said that gay people should exercise equal rights with the rest of society. No wonder that the Belarusian authorities put pressure on gay activists.
The famous myth of religious tolerance was also completely debunked. According to 57 per cent of respondents, the state should restrict the spread of non-traditional religions, like Hare Krishnas or Buddhists.
Tolerance for other nationalities also received weak support. 46 per cent of Belarusians think that the state should restrict incoming immigrant labour. Moreover, 20 per cent are ready to do their best to prevent their children from marrying representatives of another race.
However, Belarusians Remain Politically Liberal
On the other hand, Belarusians demonstrated a more European approach to political freedom and citizens' relations with the state. 65 per cent of respondents believe that the state should promote international contacts between students and teachers to raise the quality of education, while only seven per cent spoke in favour of restricting such contacts.
40 per cent think that the state should the respect rights and freedoms of citizens even when citizens abuse their rights. Only 25 per cent believe that the state's primary duty is to maintain order even where it involves the violation of citizens' rights.
60 per cent think that the state should provide business with more freedom Read more
Economic freedom appeared to be of great value to Belarusians: 60 per cent think that the state should provide businesses with more freedom, while only about 20 per cent believe the state should control business.
Freedom of consciousness also appeared important: 50 per cent of Belarusians believe that disagreements on government actions should not be an obstacle to professional development and education, while less than 20 per cent gave an opposite answer.
Belarusians are slightly less liberal with regard to organised opposition to the government and censorship. The number of opponents and supporters of restricting organised opposition activities are almost equal – around 25 per cent. More than 40 per cent think that the media should be censored in order to prevent the spread of extremist and anti-government ideas, while the share of opponents of censorship is smaller – 27 per cent.
What Does it all Mean?
This shows that Belarusians are not who they think they are, and what the regime wants them to be.
In fact, they resemble their historical and geographical neighbours from the EU – Poland and Lithuania. These countries remain rather conservative in cultural and identity matters, be it gay rights, immigrant labour or religion. On the other hand, they share European political values of democracy, respect for human rights and the free market. Europeanisation of new member states, however, develops these values further, while the Belarusian regime hinders such development.
Indeed, how can real tolerance emerge in Belarus, when no public discussions ever appear in the mass media? It looks like such problems do not exist in Belarus, so it is not worth speaking about them. The Belarusian regime aims to conceal any controversies that contradict the official ideology. It often refers to other countries in this context, where there are numerous ongoing conflicts and then points to Belarus; a model of total tranquillity with no social cleavages.
Such a policy only enhances conservativeness and prejudice amongst Belarusians. They can hardly formulate any pros and cons of a problem based on scientific facts or research, and usually employ narrow-minded phrases and myths in discussions. As a result, it is quite difficult to be “different” in Belarus.
The other part of the research, however, leaves some hope for a brighter future. Politically, Belarusians are ready for democratisation and change. This fact is most important, as it creates grounds for dialogue. Political pluralism and freedom of media will contribute to the emergence of public discussion, which will subsequently lead to the tolerance of other cultures and identities. No one knows, unfortunately, when this brighter future will come to Belarus.
Socially Oriented Mobile Applications – Digest of Belarusian Civil Society
Belarusian civil society and NGOs engaged in a whole plethora of activities – from developing socially-oriented mobile phone applications to preparing books on organic farming.
Socially oriented mobile applications: Mobile company Velcom under its contest of applications for Android gave the first two places to socially oriented projects. First place went to the application GreenMap Belarus, which allows finding on the map places of collection of different species recycling. Second place went to the mobile application in Belarusian, which allows identifying a user's location next to the object of historical architecture. The authors got respectively $5,000 and $4,000 awards.
Interactive map of Kalinouski's rebellion: To the 150th anniversary of the rebellion led by Kastus Kalinouski, the initiative Belarusian national memory composed a map with illustrations and texts of Belarusian areas related to the rebellion, its leader and participants. The map is made using the service maps.google.com; it allows not only viewing information but also to complement and refine it.
Budzma! events in regions: On January 18, in Gomel, Budzma! campaign conducted a talk show Cultural climate in Gomel: Cold or Hot? attended by 35-40 Gomel residents affiliated with cultural topic. The event was the last in a series of the similar events titled Culture Improves Life! held in all regional cities. On January 25, in Mogilev, Budzma! organizes the Fair of projects to find promising ideas for Mogilev as the cultural capital of Belarus and the CIS in 2013.
Alternative brand concepts of Minsk: Belarusian designer Alexei Latinnik offered two brand concepts of Minsk and their visual solutions. To remind, at the end of 2012 the official logo of Minsk developed by Instid, received mixed public feedback and made many designers to think about creating an alternative brand of Minsk.
Cultural lectures in Homel: Since February, Homel activists launch a series of cultural lectures on the local wooden architecture. Meetings are a part of the campaign to preserve Homel historical heritage and will take place at the Vetka Museum of Folk Art. The first out of six meetings is to be held on February 2; entry is 2,500 rubles (about $0.3).
Fair of Projects in Mahileu: On January 25, Fair of Projects was held in Mahileu. Initiated by the campaign Budzma! and supported by the Mogilev city executive committee, the event was to find interesting cultural ideas to enrich Mogilev as the Cultural Capital of CIS countries and Belarus in 2013. For the first time in the history of Belarus project ideas’ discussion happened in the format of public debate.
Workshops and Conferences
Study visits to Tallinn: E-Governance Academy and Pact, Inc start a new series of study visits for Belarusian activists to get to know with information communication technologies for civil society development. The first visit is to take place on February 24 – March 2, in Tallinn.
BOSS teaches leadership: Brotherhood of Organizations of Student Self-Government (BOSS) conducts a series of trainings and workshops under the project Golden Lessons of Leadership. The closest session Negotiations is to be held on January 27; the cost of participation is 30 thousand rubles (about 3.5 USD).
Training course on Mediation: Center for Effective Communication Feedback in cooperation with Education Center POST invites to participate in the training course Mediation as a method of effective conflict resolution. The training course will be implemented in January-October 2013, and includes 10 thematic modules. The first workshop will be held on February 22-24, 2013; participation is for charge.
Gender likbez: A brochure on the informal gender education Gender Likbez was published in Vilnius. The brochure is the outcome of the project Development of gender sensitivity as a prerequisite for gender equality in Belarus, implemented for two years by the Belarusian Human Rights House in Vilnius, EHU Center for Gender Studies, Legal Initiative, Belarusian Association of Journalists, Third Sector Centre, International Center for Gender initiatives Adliha.
International conference on elderly issues in Grodno: Third Sector Centre invites to take part in the conference Intellectual, physical and social revitalization of elderly. The event is to be held on March 29-31, in Hrodna. The conference will be attended by experts, scientists, and practitioners from the public and governmental organizations of Belarus, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine. The event is held in the framework of the project The Golden Age University.
Achievements in political science will be awarded in memoriam of Vitali Silitski: Vitali Silitski Commemoration Committee launched the Award For Contribution in Development of Political Science in Belarus to maintain the memory of a Belarusian political scientist and the first director of BISS. The nomination lasts from January 15 till February 28. The Award Ceremony will take place at the beginning of April 2013.
Conversation with Günter Verheugen: On January 24, Liberal Club together with the Minsk International Education Center, German Society for Foreign Affairs, Robert Bosch Foundation held a meeting with the former Vice President of the European Commission, Günter Verheugen. Prof. Verheugen shared his vision of economic and foreign policy challenges currently facing the EU, and responded to questions from participants.
Meetup event GMOs – For and Against: On February 1, the Academy of Sciences hosts the first public meeting on the issues of actual genetics and biotechnology GMOs – For and Against. The meeting is held in an informal "meetup" format which enables live discussions on concern issues. The organizer is the community Meetup.by with the support of the Institute of Genetics and Cytology.
First scientific book on organic farming: Center for Environmental Solutions supported by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ministry of Agriculture published a collection of scientific papers Organic farming in Belarus: prospects for development. The book provides practical recommendations how to start organic agriculture and how profitable this field is. The electronic version is available at the Center's website.
Monitoring of a barrier-free environment – presentation of results: The Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities invites to the presentation of results of the project Monitoring of a barrier-free environment. The speakers will present Guidelines for monitoring the availability of architectural sites and buildings for people with disabilities and a developed tool to survey the availability of objects for people with disabilities. The event is to take place on February 6, at the venue of the Office.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.