The Old Belarusian Diaspora and New Political Exiles: How Do They Differ?
After the brutal repression of the regime that followed the Presidential election in 2010, many opposition activists moved to the West. New emigration centres, poorly connected with the old diaspora, mushroomed in Europe and the United States.
The new wave of emigration differs significantly from their predecessors when it comes to financial resources and attitudes towards politics. The West should be careful with the political ambitions of emigrants and focus on achievable results. Instead of hoping to quickly overthrow Lukashenka, it should consider realistic opportunities to improve the situation in Belarus step-by-step.
European Belarus is Dividing in the Exile
On 7 October, the leader of the European Belarus civil campaign and former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau stated that “Zmitser Barodka is not a coordinator of European Belarus any more due to a loss of confidence”.
Zmicier Barodka was one of the key activists of the European Belarus civil campaign, who as several other prominent figures from this organisation ended up in exile after the latest presidential elections in Belarus. Sannikau's statement resulted from Barodka's refusal to transfer leadership to the emigrant umbrella organisation Belarusian House in Warsaw to Sannikau's team.
The Belarusian House is an actual house in a prime location in Warsaw near the Polish Parliament. Zmitser Barodka was not the only head of the House. Ales Zarembuk, close to the For Freedom Movement and the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, remains the House's co-director and tries to maintain his distance from these kinds of problems.
According to Barodka, Andrej Sannikau's team asked him to pass two organisations registered in Poland – European Belarus and Belarusian House – over to them, placing them under their control. Barodka agreed to transfer control over European Belarus, but refused to give up Belarusian House.
The Belarusian mass media did not write about it, but a week after Sannikau`s statement Barodka ceased to be a co-director of the Belarusian House in Warsaw. Uladz Kobets, another Andrej Sannikau co-worker, got this position.
New Centres of a Belarusian Political Struggle: Real and Fictitious
The Belarusian House in Warsaw is more than an expatriate political organisation. This House became the largest association of new emigrants, and therefore attracts far more attention.
At the same time a number of similar offices have emerged in various Western countries. Some of them exist primarily on paper, other conduct specific types of activities. In total, more than ten such initiatives have arisen in recent years.
1. Belarusian House in Warsaw (Poland)
2. Civil and political representation of Belarus in Lithuania (Lithuania)
3. Free Belarus Now (UK)
4. Belarusians in exile (USA)
5. Belarusian Tribunal (Netherlands)
6. Belarusian Center in Ukraine (Ukraine)
7. Office of Belarusian Political Emigration (Belgium)
8. The Union for Democracy in Belarus (Warsaw)
9. Coordination Centre in Riga for Belarusian Civil Society (Latvia)
10 Belarusian House in Prague (Czech Republic)
While in most European countries a number of old Belarusian organisations operate such as the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain established in 1946, the new emigration has decided to create its own structures. This at times caused misunderstandings between the old and new wave of the emigre community.
The Public Association of Belarusians in the Czech Republic Pahonia called last year's establishment of the Belarusian House in Prague a performance directed by former presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich. Many from the old emigration accuse the new emigration of being too politicised and too financially dependent on Western donors.
Differences in their approaches of how to democratise Belarus has also split organisations working abroad. Last year Brussels-based Office for Democratic Belarus (ODB) made a statement about the need to soften EU sanctions. In response, nearly ten emigre organisations publically condemned the statement and called the West to increase pressure on Belarus.
Need to Learn Lessons of the Previous Generations
According to the former presidential candidate and current political exile Ales Mikhalevich it is impossible to be a politician in exile. But for some, political conflicts in exile serve as a substitute for domestic politics in Belarus. On the other hand, political emigres do a good job by keeping Belarus on the agenda of foreign governments and raise the level of interest in Belarus among Europeans and Americans.
Old diaspora organisations, such as the Belarusian-American Association or Association of Belarusians in Great Britain, provide good examples for the new emigration. They maintain traditions, based on the Belarusian language and values of independence and democracy, which they value higher than short-term political manoeuvring. The old diaspora often has its own property and income which allows them to support projects in Belarus, such as publishing books on Belarusian history, academic journals and scholarships for Belarusian students.
To reduce internal conflicts, the new emigration should adopt the good practises of the old wave. It may consider focusing more on cultural and educational issues, developing others' knowledge of their homeland and support publishing about Belarus. These would make a real, albeit slow, impact on the development of Belarus.
Zianon Pazniak, a political refugee and leader of the main democratic movements of the 90s, is very much involved in these issues and pays special attention to them. He remains the only Belarusian politician whose public meetings in exile gather crowds of people.
The West should also be careful with the political ambitions of emigrants. Unfortunately, the longer they stay outside of Belarus the more distant they become from the problems of ordinary Belarusians. Supporting projects that have real outcomes inside Belarus should remain a priority.
Third International Congress of Belarusian Studies Kicks Off in Lithuania (Online Broadcast)
On 11 October, the Third International Congress of Belarusian Studies starts in Kaunas, a city in the west of Lithuania. The congress remains a unique event which brings together many scholars of Belarus.
Some call the event an academic supermarket, as it combines a great variety of topics and experts. In addition to panel and sanction discussions, the organisers will arrange presentations on various books and scholarly projects. This year, an international panel will also select the best scholarly works of the past year and reward their authors.
Though most of the participants are Belarusians, foreign researchers have become a significant part of the convention, and in some sections they may even constitute a majority. This conference displays researchers who focus on Belarus at an international level and breaks down the isolation of Belarusian academia.
Online Boadcast of the Congress
Belarus Digest will live broadcast selected sessions from the congress programme at the following times (UTC+02:00, Lithuanian time zone).
Friday, 11 October 10.00-11.20, 11.50-13.20
Saturday, 12 October 17.00-21.00
Sunday, 13 October 12.30-14.00
History of the Congress
The International Congress of Belarusian Studies will start its work for the third time. Since 2011 the congress takes place annually, bringing together a large range of researchers, journalists, civil society leaders and students. It remains the largest event of scholars and experts working on Belarus. This year, about 400 researchers will come to Kaunas from 16 countries.
Deutsche Welle compared the event with an academic supermarket. This year, experts will cover a range of topics from the problems of transformation of the economy and the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and neighboring states, to politics and international relations, culture and historical heritage, gender rules and psychology. Multiple parallel sessions will take place simultaneously.
Among other events, Makoto Hayasaka, a professor from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, will present his book "History of a Borderland: Speculations on the Past of Belarus". The Centre for Transition Studies will present the Journal of Belarusian Studies, the only English language peer-reviewed periodical of Belarusian studies.
This year, for the first time, the congress will recognize the best publications in the field of social sciences and the humanities with a special award. 28 nominees have a place on the short list, among them a contributing author to Belarus Digest, Vadzim Smok.
The Institute of Political Studies "Political Sphere" remains the main organiser of the Congress. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, the German Marshall Fund, the International Consortium "EuroBelarus"/Forum Syd, Nordic Council of Ministers are funding the event. Vytautas Magnus University and Institute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well as the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies and an online magazine "New Europe" feature among the other organisers of the event. It is noteworthy that all these organisations are registered abroad.
Breaking Through The Isolation of Researchers
The Director of the Institute of Political Studies Andrej Kazakevich explained to Belarus Digest that "two-thirds of the participants will be Belarusians. In addition to Belarusians, neighbours of Belarus like Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania will also be well respresented. Only a few people represent Western Europe, USA or Asia." Although most participants are Belarusians, the presence of other researchers remains prominent. Last year, in the literary section there were more foreign researchers than Belarusians.
Though the event remains purely academic, the authorities of Belarus have not yet developed their own official line towards it. Last year, Siarhiej Tokc, a historian from Hrodna, could not visit the conference. The administration of the university where he teaches said that his speech was undesirable and prevented him from going. However, organiser Andrej Kazakevich said that such cases happen very rarely. On the other hand, last year, even the staff from the Information and Analytical Centre of the Presidential Administration and representatives from Belarus State University took part in the event.
In today's Belarus universities often face restrictions regarding certain participants or topics. The event in Lithuania is free from such constraints and provides a unique platform for debates and exchange of ideas. It also increases the quality of Belarusian studies and helps integrate Belarusians into the global research community.