The Split Between Belarusian Elites and Society on Ukraine Widens
On 17 July, Belarusian state media tried to strike a balance between Russia and Ukraine's respective positions when reporting on the MH17 crash.
Russian media clearly stated that it was Ukraine which had shot down the plane and the majority of Belarusians seem to believe it.
The Russian war against Ukraine has shown that the Belarusian elite and society see the world very differently.
Nearly all members of the Belarusian elite (both the authorities and the opposition) have a negative perception of the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine. It seems that Lukashenka`s position is the closest it has ever been to that of pro-European democrats and the business elite of Belarus.
However, the majority of ordinary people seem to support Russia's narrative. The Kremlin's propaganda has found fertile soil for its world view in a Soviet mentality that has been perpetrated and cultivated over the years by Lukashenka’s regime.
As of late, it appears that the authorities are trying to strengthen Belarusian identity, but despite their efforts, it is clearly not enough to turn back the tide of 20 years of propaganda. Whether they realise it or not, the only way to remedy the issues facing Belarusian society is for Lukashenka’s regime allowing society an opportunity to develop intellectually and co-operate other groups of elites.
Otherwise, the gap between the political decision-makers and the people will only continue to widen.
Elites Support Ukraine
The conflict in Ukraine has become perhaps the singular issue in which the entirerty of the Belarusian elite hold virtually the same opinion.
Though the Belarusian authorities have made several concessions to the Kremlin, they managed to maintain neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and be supportive of the Kyiv leadership.
Lukashenka calls on Ukraine to wipe out the militants in Eastern Ukraine Read more
Moreover, the Belarusian head of state has time and again shown that he has a much more pro-Ukrainian stance than many politicians from the European Union. While Angela Merkel advises Poroshenko to call for another ceasefire and negotiate with the separatist forces, Lukashenka calls on Ukraine to wipe out the militants in Eastern Ukraine.
Pavel Yakubovich, editor in chief of Soviet Belarus, the main propaganda newspaper of the regime, criticised Russian media for warmongering in one of his latest columns. Belarusian state media has maintained a certain level of balance in its coverage of the events in Ukraine, while many independent media outlets like Belgazeta, previously neutral, took the side of Ukraine.
The business elite in Belarus are typically silent in public, but unofficially many of them are very upset with Russia's actions, actions that have been to the detriment of the private sector throughout the whole region. For example, shares of the US-Belarusian IT corporation EPAM Systems fell by a third due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The company has many offices, but its largest ones are located in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
All of the significant opposition politicians have been supporting Ukraine since the conflict began, although some marginal figures have been trying to flirt with Russia. For example, Ihar Drako of the Tell the truth campaign said Ukraine's division into three parts is in the best interest of Belarus.
The similarity of the entirety of the Belarusian elite has its roots in their common interests. They view Belarus as an independent, united nation and realise that by protecting Ukraine, they are also protecting themselves.
Society Supports the Kremlin
While the elites are preoccupied supporting Ukraine, a large section of the society is doing quite the opposite. Sociological data made available from the Belarusian Analytical Workshop show that 65.7% of Belarusians support the Russian annexation of the Crimea.
Only 15% of Belarusians consider it illegal. It seems logical to believe that that their views on the Donbas may be much the same. The vast majority of people have a negative attitude towards the new Ukrainian authorities.
Russian media dominates Belarus' airwaves, presenting only the Kremlin's views on the events in Eastern Ukraine Read more
This is the result of aggressive Russian propaganda and the absence of any adequate attempts to bring about some form of informational balance from the Belarusian authorities. Russian media dominates Belarus' airwaves, presenting only the Kremlin's views on the events in Eastern Ukraine. As the Russian media is much better funded and offers higher quality products, most Belarusians choose them over their Belarusian counterparts when given a choice.
A restricted-access sociological study to which the author has access to shows that the programme 'News of the Week with Dmitry Kisilev' remains the most popular informational television programme of its kind in Belarus. This Russian television program has become one of the main mouthpieces of the Russian information war against Ukraine.
The Belarusian authorities have been cultivating a Soviet way of thinking for a considerable period of time, an issue that they are now having to contend with. The regime has systematically weakened Belarusian national identity, reducing the value of its national history and symbols, and as a result Belarusians tend to perceive the world through the lens of Russian interests.
At that moment, as Western scholars are almost entirely absent from Belarusian academic institutions, universities host guests like hardcore Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin. Other similar phenomenon have long been accepted in most arenas of public life. As a result of this isolation and identity maintenance, even the authorities are finding that they lack qualified and capable people for public service.
How the Elite Can Fix Belarus' Problems
The Belarusian authorities grew afraid of the war in Ukraine not only for a fear of Putin, but also because the Belarusian public appear much more pro-Russian than their own elites. Hence, the regime has recently begun to quietly work on developing Belarusian national identity.
Earlier this month Aliaksandr Lukashenka, for the first time in many years, spoke Belarusian in public Read more
On 3 July, Independence Day, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, for the first time in many years, spoke Belarusian in public. This month Vitsebsk officials erected a monument to Algerd, the Grand Lithuanian Duke. The Mahiliou city authorities announcedthe renaming of their Soviet Square, reasoning that the name was now obsolete. But these gestures all appears to be too little, too late.
Every year, the Kremlin every strengthens its role in Belarus and Lukashenka seems to be unable to stop curb its growing influence, though he does try to slow its growth as much as he can. The Belarusian economy hums along largely thanks to Russian money. The Kremlin controls Belarus in almost every aspect of its existence, including its culture. Belarus remains the only country from the former Soviet Union where the Russian language was given official status.
If the state elites want to have public opinion be closer to their own, they should support the national identity of the people and the intellectual development of society to greatest extent possible. The regime, over time, could find ways to cooperate with other elites, at least on a basic level, to help develop the nation's identity and bring it out of isolation.
Previous efforts in this direction can be found in the creation of the Advisory Board at the Presidential Administration, which functioned between 2008-2010, and could be a means to open up societal dialog once more. Another idea would be to invite members of the business elite to high positions in the government of Belarus. Improved relations with the West would also bring no harm.
On the one hand, the authorities would have to carry out their new policy quietly in order not to draw the wrath of the Kremlin for a pivot west. On the other, they need to do so quickly, as no state can function if the elite and society maintain largely opposing perceptions about their national and civic identity.
Dealing with Alcohol Abuse, Cycling in Minsk, REFORUM – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Movement For Freedom invites to a summer school programme entitled 'Belarusian idea and the ways of national consolidation'.
The New Eurasia Establishment held in Minsk a USAID-supported workshop Financial Management for Non-profits for directors, finance and program managers from civil society organisations.
A senior government official met with opposition activists to discuss problems of alcohol abuse.
Interaction between state and civil society
First deputy prime minister meets with opposition activists campaigning against alcohol abuse. First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka met with activists of the Belarusian Christian Democrats (BCD) campaigning against alcohol abuse. The government has demonstrated its readiness to take the public's proposals against the 'alcoholisation' of society into account, said the BCD press office.
Belarusian Language Society asks for Belarusian language to be used again in legal acts. The Belarusian Language Society (BLS) has appealed to the House of Representatives with a proposal to return the Belarusian language to national legislation. In fact, at present almost all the laws in the country are adopted only in Russian.
REFORUM project completed the preparatory phase. The project, implemented by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), over the next two years will offer 16 reform proposals, a dialogue between various stakeholders, including the opposition, authorities, experts and business. For the first six months the project has established relations with stakeholders, created a Council for the project and conducted a study to identify the attitude of Belarusians (society and civil society) to reform.
Food for Thought – 4. On 8 July at the Minsk café, Fond of Ideas held its fourth business breakfast in the series Food for Ideas. The theme of the breakfast was the policy of forming a strategy for social marketing. For the first time together with the businessmen representatives of Belarusian NGOs working with social projects attended the breakfast. The event took place as a part of a project to raise awareness about CSR in Belarus.
Information Day on European opportunities and gender equality. On 17-18 July the Office for a Democratic Belarus (Brussels) and the Office for European Expertise and Communication (Minsk) invite interested parties to information sessions in Brest and Hrodna. CSOs' activists will learn step-by-step how to prepare successful projects, get to know about available EU support mechanisms as well as learn about the incorporation of European values and cross-cutting issues (gender) into their project proposals and during the implementation of their projects. The event is being organised under the Clearing House project.
Round table on public administration. The civil campaign Tell the Truth conducted a regular round table on the issues of the efficiency of public administration, the prospects for reforming the power vertical and the need for modernisation. According to the invited politicians and experts, the modern system of the state decision making and implementing is closed of from public control and is not in line with Constitution. BIPART analyst Natalia Ryabova noted that one of the main problems facing public administration is a low level of training and retraining.
Civil society initiatives
Belarusian Christian Democracy party (BCD) initiates a Minsk Forum of NGOs and civic initiatives. The Forum aims to solve the local problems of the Minsk citizens; among priorities are the elaboration of alternative plans for Minsk's development; coordination of Minsk civil and social initiatives; conducting campaigns to address actual local issues; civil control over the city authorities, etc. Journalists, however, doubt in the potential sucess of the new initiative and have stated that this is merely a way for BCD to try to expand its electorate.
CityDog.by launches a joint project with the Institute Strelka. Every week, the Minsk city online magazine CityDog.by will publish articles created by students and graduates of the Institute for Media, Architecture and Design Strelka (Russia). Architects, urbanists, sociologists will share knowledge how to study and improve the urban environment; the articles are designed to teach and motivate the readers of CityDog.by to improve the environment of Belarusian cities.
I Bike Minsk. From 10 July to 24 August a campaign I Bike Minsk will be held in Minsk and include about 20 different activities – workshops, street actions, lessons on how to ride a bike, bike tours and trips. Additionally, 60 bikes will be available to rent. According to the belngo.info
New Eurasia held training on financial management. On 8-9 July the New Eurasia Establishment held a workshop entitled Financial Management for Non-profits for directors, finance and program managers from civil society organisations. The event was organised in the framework of the USAID-supported Capacity Building for Civil Society Organisations project. Participants had the unique opportunity to learn about the specifics and professional secrets of financial management in non-profits.
School to study Belarusian identity. Movement For Freedom invites individuals to participate to a School 'Belarusian idea and the ways of national consolidation'. The School will be held from 24-29 August with the participation of well-known Belarusian experts, public figures and politicians. The School aims to consider the potential and opportunities for the consolidation of Belarusians in light of the new threats and challenges facing Belarus. Participation is open to Belarusians 18-30 years of age that are active in social and/or political sphere.
E-Teacher Scholarship Program. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk announces a call for applications from teacher trainers, tertiary/secondary teachers of English, and program administrators in Belarus to participate in one of the ten English Teacher Professional Development DISTANCE LEARNING COURSES provided through the University of Oregon. The deadline for submitting applications is 15 July 2014.
EU removes eight Belarusians from its blacklist. On 8 July the Council of the European Union lifted entry bans and asset freezes against eight citizens of Belarus and placed one Belarusian on its blacklist. A total of 225 individuals, including Aliaksandr Lukashenka, are currently subject to travel bans and all of them, and 25 economic entities, are subject to asset freezes.
Belarusian Delegation Visit to Brussels. On 8-10 July a delegation from Belarus, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna, visited Brussels to take part in a second round of consultations with the European Union on modernisation issues. The delegation included representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Economy.
Call for Proposals: European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. The Delegation of the European Union to Belarus is seeking proposals for projects to be implemented in Belarus or projects which would directly benefit Belarusian society with financial assistance from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. The deadline for submission of proposals is 2 September 2014.
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.