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Belarus in Focus
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Belarus in Focus 2011

15 Nov

Kiryl Kascian, (Belarus)

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Assisting a Little-known Nation

The Chornobyl tragedy brings empathy toward the Belarusian people from abroad but after 25 years it is fading from the media headlines.

The second Belarusian “brand” is its first and still current president Aliaksandr Lukašenka who has ruled the country for seventeen out of the twenty years of modern Belarusian independence. Lukašenka, who is often being called “Europe’s last dictator”, has brought the country quite dubious fame. Beyond any doubt, he has contributed to the recognisability of Belarus in the world but this recognisability is strongly linked with his apparently authoritarian ruling practices. Hence, Belarus is largely known abroad for its current political situation and thus is labeled as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, “European Burma” (T.G. Ash) or other similar names. Again, such recognisability brings nothing else but empathy toward the nation.

However, neither of these “brands” may really contribute to the in-depth recognisability of Belarus since neither underlines the distinctiveness of Belarus and the elements of this distinctiveness – language, culture, history. These “national” elements create a core for the nation’s recognisability abroad that goes deeper than just brief and often occasional fragments of knowledge that a foreigner may possess about Belarus.

But these “national” elements are virtually non-existent in the western discourse about Belarus. Hence, what kind of image can Belarus attain in the eyes of an ordinary European or American? Just another post-Soviet country where all speak Russian, that heavily suffered from the Chornobyl  disaster and that seriously suffers because of the unwise ruling practices of its president Aliaksandr Lukašenka. It is normal for a person to see these two handicaps combined and feel compassion for this poor land. It is apparently believed that elimination of at least one of these challenges would ease the situation in the country.

Hence, elimination of the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster and democratization of the country seem to be sufficient to “restore” Belarus as a “happy nation”. However, this approach requires neither a deeper acquaintance with the Belarusian “background, ” nor anything in  return. Hence, this approach per se fails to obtain (if it at all needs) comprehensive knowledge of the Belarusian society, its roots and contemporaneity. Thus, Belarus remains an unknown neighbor and the proper acquaintance with it has been postponed at least until the elimination of the political chalenge, i.e. the current ruling regime.

But does such an approach make sense? In other words, how can Belarus be politically assisted in elimination its current ruling regime if the country remains unknown and is apparently treated as a denationalized historically contested area that has always been an object of politics, unable to create something valuable by itself?

It seems that the country is automatically allocated to the so-called “Russosphere” and apparently among the western analysts and politicians there is a belief that it is Moscow that may potentially influence official Minsk and take on the role of a mediator in the negotiations between the current Belarusian regime and the West. Such an approach creates a trap for both sides. For the West, this   trap is both strategic and tactical – it simply becomes unnecessarily additionally dependent on Moscow, fails to do away with its settled stereotypes about Belarus and still treats the country as an object and not as a subject of politics. This approach is  argely supported by the rhetoric of certain politicians who ask Belarus to make a choice – to ally either with Russia or with the West.

Indeed, the stereotypical approach toward Belarus focuses on the special role that Russia can play and its apparent influence on Belarus’ domestic and foreign policy as well as changes within the Belarusian society. For instance, the reintroduction of the Russian language as the official language in Belarus in 1995 led to discrimination against the titular Belarusian language not only within the country (closed schools, classes, a decrease in the presence of thelanguage in the country’s public life, etc.) but also internationally. It is a quite frequent if not a general rule that the foreigners who deal with Belarus (with some exceptions)disregard the Belarusian language and its potential as a language for distributing information. They reason (or assume) that the Russian language is universally understandable in Belarus and is the main language of communication in the country. For instance, German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle uses the Russian language in its program about Belarus, but has a special service for Ukraine in the Ukrainian language. Also, it is quite common that transliteration of Belarusian personal and geographic names in the major international media appears from the Russian (for example: Grodno instead of Hrodna or Mogilev instead of Mahilio?).

Thus, this stereotypical approach of the West does not create any additional impetus for the development of the Belarusian language domestically or for the growth of the interest toward Belarusian culture, history and language abroad. Instead, the issue of the democratization in Belarus which has been put on the agenda by the West is not connected with Belarusian national culture, language and heritage, but is rather based on the indirect support of the already-settled stereotype of Belarus as a denationalized nation with a language that is all but extinct. Hence, by applying such a stereotypical approach the West leaves Be larus alone vis-à-vis its existing countries, further pushes Belarus even closer to Russia and creates potential for ultimately increasing Russia’s dominance in Belarus.

This article’s epigraph is authored by the famous Polish singer and songwriter Marek Grechuta who addressed it to his native Poland, the country with apparently the strongest national feeling in the CEE region. However, these words are equally relevant for Belarus – and its reach history, language and art are those “three flowers” (as Grechuta poetically calls them) to cherish, be proud of and to promote internationally.

Belarus has huge potential to offer the world through its historical roots and should not be treated just as a country to be pitied. This is not just another bunch of patriotic words but a quite conscious suggestion to concentrate upon this potential, in order to finally do away with the “historically settled” stereotypes about Belarus. To this end, if the West learns these “three flowers” ofBelarusian identity, it might get a clue about what Belarus really is. This knowledge could lead to a change in tactics and strategies in western policies toward Belarus and its society, treating it not as a nation for empathy but as a reliable and well-known equal partner. Hence, the key of the Belarusian enigma is quite simple, but the question remains whether the West is ready to settle it?

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