World Congress of Belarusians Discuss Challenges to Belarusian Identity
On 23-24 July Belarusian emigrants from 21 countries participated in the two-day Congress of Belarusians of the World in Minsk.
It was a rare occasion where top state and churches officials as well as opposition politicians attended the same event. Organisers of the Congress managed not only to gather people with different worldviews and political affiliations, but also representatives of the old and new wave of emigration.
Assimilation, the popularity of the Card of the Pole, and easier access to Russian citizenship remain the most serious challenges for Belarusians no matter where they live. The congress presented an opportunity to present initiatives – from mobile phone applications to serious academic journals. More importantly, it was an opportunity to see what problems Belarusians are facing abroad.
Belarusians of the World
Although today over 3.5 million Belarusians live outside Belarus, this year event attracted significantly less Belarusians than 20 years ago. The First Congress of Belarusians of the World took place in 1993 and has been held every four years since then. Around a thousand Belarusian emigrants came to the then nearly independent Belarus.
This time over 300 representatives of the communities stretching from North America to Russia’s Siberia took part in the Congress. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the organisers of the first congress. This year Barys Sviatlou from the Ministry of Culture represented the state authorities.
Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan host the largest Belarusian communities outside of Belarus. A historical Belarusian minority lives also in Podlasie, a region on the Poland-Belarus borderland. The participants of the Congress noticed, however, a drop in the number of people self-identifying as Belarusians. Concrete figures suggest that this is happening in Poland and also in Russia.
Challenges to Belarusian Identity
In the words of Alena Makouskaya, one of the organisers of the 6th Congress, the assimilation of Belarusians abroad poses a threat to both Belarusian society and its diaspora. The relatively small number of young Belarusians that participated in the Congress may be a sign of the ongoing assimilation of Belarusian youth abroad.
Another challenge, according to Makouskaya, is the Card of the Pole (“Karta Paliaka”). This document allows people from Belarus (and other post-Soviet republics) who claim Polish roots to apply for additional rights in Poland. The Card of the Pole simplifies travel, education and work in a neighbouring Poland. Provisions still attract many Belarusians to apply, however, many have spoken out about the harmful effect for Belarusian society in the long-term that this Polish policy can cause. Since its introduction in 2007, around 42 thousand Belarusians have received the Card, as data from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows.
Work migration remains another challenge for today’s Belarus. Due to the economic situation, more and more Belarusians have decided to leave the country and search for better job opportunities abroad. Since it has no visa requirements, Moscow attracts lots of Belarusians. The Russian parliament is considering the simplification of obtaining Russian citizenship for its compatriots abroad. In terms of demography, it may also be a blow to Belarusian society.
It seems that the problems of Belarusians in Belarus and abroad remain more or less the same. The diaspora sees no assistance from the state when it comes to financing community centres or supporting cultural events or the promotion of the Belarusian language, whose usage is shrinking even within the country.
Until now the state authorities have failed to adopt a law regulating relations with the Belarusian diaspora. Such a law exists already in the neighbouring Poland and Russia. The World Association of Belarusians “Baćkauščyna” over the last decade has been encouraging the authorities to draft such a law.
The Minister of Culture, Barys Sviatlou, confirmed at the Congress that the authorities together with diaspora representatives have already prepared a law and should introduce it soon. In his words, a new project would help the state to develop the positive relations with Belarusian living abroad and programmes supporting their cultural activities. But in practice, not much is being done.
Nearly all major organisations of Belarusians in Western Europe and North America are critical of the political regime of Alexander Lukashenka Read more
The authorities refrain from giving additional rights to Belarusians living abroad because they feel that the Belarusian diaspora from the West could engage in activities which they would consider unfavourable. Indeed, nearly all major organisations of Belarusians in Western Europe and North America are critical of the political regime of Alexander Lukashenka, his treatment of political prisoners and Belarusian culture.They are proud of the white-red-white flag and trace the Belarusian statehood back to the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Belarusian People’s Republic rather than from Soviet time.
Some Russia-based organisations, however, support the current Belarusian regime. One Moscow-based Belarusian finished his speech by banishing a Soviet flag saying that most people at the Congress were also citizens of the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
The delegates of the Congress called on Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners in a collective statement entitled “On an Act of Good Will” adopted at the Congress. A group of delegates, mainly from Ukraine and Russia argued that it was an internal affair Belarus. The issue caused a heated debate, but only eight people supported the removal of the statement from the Congress’ agenda.
Promoting Belarusian Culture
Language has traditionally been the core identity ingredient of the Belarusian diaspora. However, the number of Belarusian-speaking people in Belarus has been decreasing annually by 10-15 per cent over the past years. This means that fewer and fewer emigres speak Belarusian. Most of the speeches at the Congress were in Belarusian and many spoke up in favor of the need to protect and promote Belarusian culture and language.
The event gave a chance to present projects and initiatives that help to lessen the level of alienation among Belarusians abroad but also in Belarus from Belarusian culture. One of them, a mobile phone application “Belarus Land” promotes the most interesting places to visit in Belarus. Another application “ABC Belarus: Native Alphabet” (in Belarusian “Bukvar: Belaruskaja Azbuka”) helps children to learn Belarusian alphabet in an amusing way.
A representative from Bialystok, Poland presented an online project, kamunikat.org, which offers access to Belarusian literature and press in electronic versions free of charge. Belarusians from the United Kingdom presented The Journal of Belarusian Studies, an academic journal revived after a 25-year break in London. Even Belarusian official television reported on the Journal and the congress during prime time.
The congress presented a unique meeting point – the speakers included high level officials and opposition politicians, pro-government delegates and those who do not recognise the Belarusian authorities as legitimate. They all agreed that diaspora could play an important role for Belarus. However, without significant political changes in Belarus, the Belarusian diaspora will have to continue survive on its own, without much help from the Belarusian state.
Why Belarusians Emigrate
On 12 July, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich proposed the introduction of a tax on non-working Belarusians.
Although official statistics show that the unemployment rate stands at 0.5 per cent, the prime minister acknowledged that 445,000 Belarusians do not work – about 9 per cent of the working-age population. The authorities avoid talking about it officially, but everyone in Belarus is aware that most of these people work abroad.
The majority of migrants from Belarus find jobs in Russia. Although most Belarusian workers perform low skilled work in Russia, the brain drain is becoming a threat to the country. People who are well-paid by Belarusian standards and have higher education and pro-European attitudes increasingly want to leave Belarus.
According to a recent study of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), 35.6 per cent of Belarusians think of emigrating. If all these people went away, the population of Belarus would be reduced from 9.5m to 6.1m, Belarus would lose its youth, business and public elites.
Who Leaves Belarus?
The Belarusian authorities decided to deal with people informally employed abroad, as the state receives no taxes from them. At the same time, families of Belarusian migrant workers employed abroad enjoy some cheap social services in the Belarusian system. For example, the monthly payment for kindergarten is just $10, and a litre of A-95 petrol is $0.88. However, the Belarusian authorities prefer not to emphasise the fact that migrant workers sent home about $913mln last year.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced bigger figures than the Prime Minister Myasnikovich. IOM’s data shows that up to 1.2 million Belarusian citizens work abroad. Belarus keeps no official statistics or independent studies on how many Belarusians leave Belarus, where they go and whom they are working for.
However, many Belarusians privately know a few people who have gone to Russia and earn their bread through heavy physical labor. The Belarusian media often convey the deaths of Belarusian workers in Russia. In general, Belarus has the awkward prospect of becoming a “second Moldova” – a country that supplies a cheap labor force.
The research conducted by BISS shows that the typical Belarusian migrant-worker is a divorced man aged between 30 and 44. He has secondary or vocational education and lives in Minsk or in small towns in Mahiliou and Viciebsk regions.
Who Wants to Leave Belarus?
In addition to people in low-skilled jobs, young people leave Belarus en masse. According to BISS, only 13.7 per cent of young people want to stay in Belarus, either to study or to work, or for a permanent residence in another state.
The youth sees no economic prospects in today’s Belarus and no chances for political change. Although going to Russia is the easiest route, the West also became a considerable destination point. If you look at the Belarusian-Polish border crossing Brest-Terespol, a significant proportion of the travellers are young people going to study in Poland. According to the Polish educational foundation Perspectives, 2,397 Belarusians are studying in Poland. It is difficult to find concrete figures on how many Belarusians were studying in Poland five or ten years ago, but the figure was definitely lower.
The study mentioned above also demonstrates another dangerous trend. People with economic education and higher education in general, as well as Internet users, have expressed a strong desire to leave Belarus. 42.2 per cent of people with higher education want to leave Belarus.
In fact, a significant number of mid-level managers want to leave Belarus. Those in the same positions in Moscow, for example, can earn much more. Although emigration for these people remains a heavy damping off, many of them wish to go through the changes to leave Belarus.
|Average Wages in Moscow and Minsk (USD)|
According to the BISS study, many businessmen also want to leave Belarus. Some of them recognise that Belarus remains a more corrupt country than even Russia. While in Russia, thanks to privatisation, corruption in business has decreased, in Belarus bureaucrats still manage large state-owned enterprises and prevent the development of Belarusian business.
Although the authorities of Belarus have carried out administrative reforms, government employees still earn little. In such circumstances, state officials find themselves emigrating or working in Belarus for Russian businesses. Last year former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Siarhei Martynau was appointed a special representative of the Russian oil company Russneft in Belarus.
Many other officials leave for Russia. For example, two former foreign ministers (Ivan Antanovich and Ural Latypov) emigrated to Russia, and two former heads of the KGB (Leanid Yerin and Siarhei Matskievich) were among many other former ministers and senior officials to leave for Moscow.
Turn Off the Lights at the Train Station
When a financial crisis exploded in Belarus back in 2011, many Belarusians joked that the last one to leave Belarus should turn off the lights at the train station.
Two years after the crisis, the flow of migration has decreased, but a lot of people still retain the mood of the émigré. According to BISS, every third person wants to emigrate. Moreover, 15 percent want to leave for permanent residence. The idea of “shovimg off” remains especially popular among young people, who have no particular social contracts with the state or deep attachments in society.
Belarusian business owners are still willing to leave, but they cannot. The Belarusian market remains familiar to them, and the competition there is not so high. For them, it is easier to stay in Belarus with Lukashenka and the bureaucrats rather than move to another country and build their business from scratch.
However, Belarusian business managers, who do not own businesses, are ready to leave. For them, emigration remains a new challenge that has the potential to bring them salaries several times higher than in Belarus. The average salary in Moscow is about $1,500, while in Minsk it remains two times lower.
However, the Belarusian youth is growing like grass through asphalt. For example, a 22-year-old woman recently became the director Partisan football club, and another 20-year-old woman opened the third hostel in Minsk for the year. The only hope for Belarus is that not all young people leave.
The authorities should get the point that Belarus need economic reforms and to attract foreign investors. Without new innovative enterprises and new jobs, Belarusians themselves may become the main export of the country.