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Why Belarus is not Egypt

Many are wondering these days – why demonstrations in Belarus two months ago were not as massive in Egypt and have not led to political changes. Belarus is not Egypt in many important respects, but this does not necessarily...

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Many are wondering these days – why demonstrations in Belarus two months ago were not as massive in Egypt and have not led to political changes. Belarus is not Egypt in many important respects, but this does not necessarily mean that changes are impossible in Belarus.

The most obvious difference between Belarus and Egypt is that Belarusians have not yet fully formed as a nation – neither politically, nor culturally. Although there are two official languages, those who speak Belarusian are usually treated with hostility because this language is seen as a sign of a certain political position. A dominant religion is also absent – although nominally the majority are Russian Orthodox, as far as those actually practicing religion are concerned, the number of Catholics and Protestants is higher than those of Orthodox. The vast majority of Belarusians do not practice any religion at all.

More importantly, until the 1990-s Belarusians have never enjoyed a prolonged period of their own statehood, outside of control of foreign nations. That prevented them from cementing their own vision of history and their place in the world. Belarusians as nation are political teenagers who need time to grow and mature.

In addition, centuries of wars and foreign domination on Belarus territory have made their trick – people often prefer to be satisfied with the bare minimum. The official propaganda portrays an image of a happy Belarusian who only needs two things – a shot of vodka and a piece of pork on the table. Obviously, most Egyptians need neither vodka nor pork to be happy. To be absolutely fair, in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union Belarusians have seen more freedom and prosperity than ever in their history. Even today there is much more freedom in Belarus than in the Soviet times.

The other reason why Belarus is not Egypt is that it is very difficult to organize people in a country with cold climate. Belarus is the world’s northenmost autocracy. Having such a political regime in the North is already an anomaly because countries in the North such as Sweden or Canada are usually exemplary democratic countries with very low political corruption. Perhaps Charles de Montesquie was right when he attributed national character to geography and climate. He observed that “you must flay a Muscovite alive to make him feel”. The same applies to Belarusians today. As northern people they are relatively insensitive to pleasure and pain which makes them different from Egyptians who live and protest in warm climate.

Not surprisingly, after Lukashenka was first elected in July 1994 he organized presidential elections in cold months. When it was relatively uncontroversial that he would win the second term, the elections were held in September 2001. The next elections were held in March 2006. In 2010, when it was clear that he was losing support of the population the elections were held at the end of December. Then the winter cold helped the regime more that its riot police.

Finally, Belarus is not Egypt because it remains heavily dependent upon Russia both economically and politically. Russia is comfortable with the status quo and will continue to facilitate alienation of Mr Lukashenka’s regime from the West. The Eastern neighbor is so influential in Belarus not only because of the language but also because Russian TV channels dominate Belarusian media landscape. The Belarus nation has not yet formed as such and therefore particularly vulnerable to outside media influences.

Belarusians obtained its independence nineteen years ago and soon the nation will no longer be a teenager. It is important to help Belarusians mature as a European nation by strengthening its national identity and language. The country’s dependance on Russian media can be reduced by offering alternative sources of information so that Belarusians can see the world through their own lenses. After all, it is not always cold in Belarus which makes the prospect of political changes more promising.

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Yarik Kryvoi
Yarik Kryvoi
Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.
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