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Belarus in Focus 2011

13 Nov

Katarzyna Wróbel, (Germany)

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Forgotten Belarus, Forgotten EU?

Through different mailing lists came numerous emails with requests  to sign petitions which might have helped people unlawfully sent to jail. The atmosphere was tense. And? Nothing happened. Just like in the poem of Wisława Szymborska, the Polish Nobel Prize winner in literature, “(…) All the cameras have left for another war (…)”.[1] Fortunately, in the case of Belarus no one talks about war. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to be worried about.  Public attention is demanding. News should be diverse, fresh, and exciting. Thus, after some time media started to focus on other topics which became more important for the European politicians than Belarus. The so-called Jasmine Revolution in the Arab world, the tremendous earth quake in Japan and the directly connected issue of nuclear energy are only a few examples of problems which blinded European politics to the question of the Eastern corner of Europe. On the one hand, it seems strange that the EU averts from Belarus and concentrates on different issues. On the other hand, it is worth asking a) whether it is really true, and b) whether Belarusian people really care about sympathy from the EU.


Information is there

Although the amount of information about this country has visibly diminished, careful readers of English, German or Polish information platforms have had enough opportunities to receive current news from the Eastern neighbour of the EU. Articles were published about further persecutions of the opposition and about notorious breaking of human rights by the government. The Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza has been actively following the situation of its journalist Andrzej Poczobut who had been arrested by the Belarusian militants on April 6, 2011, and accused of the insult of President Lukashenka in his articles. However, other pieces of information also appear, for example, about the recent instability of the Belarusian currency or the country’s exclusion, on May 3, 2011, from the circle of countries participating in Euronest – the novel parliamentary assembly of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). The latter is especially interesting and at the same time worrying for proponents of the EaP. Decision about excluding Belarus from the assembly because of the dictator at the spearhead of the state is a sign that the doubts about the Belarusian participation in the programme are becoming increasingly clear.

Isolated island

In Germany the question of the EaP in reference to Belarus often appears during panel discussions and public debates organized by different associations dealing with Eastern Europelike Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde or Deutsch-Belarussische Gesellschaft. In a recent debate, which took place in the German capital in the Europäische Akademie Berlin on May 20, 2011, another issue was hotly discussed: the economic situation of Belarus. It concerns first of all inflation, international loans and dependence on Russia. Marie-Lena May, Programme Officer of the Center for Central and Eastern Europe of the Bosh Stiftung and fellow of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, claimed that Belarus is in kind of a bizarre “in-between” position at the moment. The country has crucial problems with paying its debt, developing its economy, and attracting investments. These issues should not only bother Belarus but also the European Union. On the other hand, the situation of specific handicaps and steady connections with Russia ensures peculiar stability on which Lukashenka can build his dictatorship within the country. In this way isolation of Belarus from the EU is deepening. Another factor contributing to this isolation is the visa question which makes the life of a great number of people significantly difficult. Especially those who want to develop, broaden their horizons, get in touch with other cultures – like students, scholars – may feel being fenced off.

Stefani Schiffer, the CEO of the European Exchange gGmbH, a German organization cooperating with NGOs from Eastern Europe, says that the Belarusian society is indeed isolated and does not feel a part of Europe. Changing this situation should be one of the tasks of the civil society which, paradoxically, develops in a very vigorous way. As Ms. Schiffer mentions, it creates a chance for  progress of the EaP in Belarus. What is more, she points at the development of local actors who, in her opinion, play a relevant role in building a new civil consciousness among Belarusians. Also media take an important place in this process. Such platforms as Bielsat, the Belarusian TV broadcasting from the Polish capital,[2] and various websites publishing news from abroad as well as from inside the country are crucial sources of credible information for Belarusians. Although politics often decides about their existence, some of them want to cut of dealing only with political issues and create platforms of cultural, intellectual, or entertaining exchange of experience, novelties, and news. During the 23rd European Meeting of Cultural Journalists in Linz (May 13-16, 2011) on freedom of speech and intellectual property organized by Eurozine – the network of European cultural journals – Ms. Iryna Vidanava confirmed this situation. She is the editor-in-chief of the 34 Media Magazine. The website calls itself an “underground project” whose main task is providing the youth with apolitical news. Ms. Vidanava makes states that young people are not interested in politics. Such programmes as the Eastern Partnership seem to play a role, however, only for particular communities, who are strongly interested in this topic, not for the society in general. This is why it is worth concentrating on other aspects of life as well, not only on politics.

Facing such a sober opinion, the question appears whether the EU still creates a subject for public debate inBelarus. Ms. May writes in her recent policy paper that the credibility of the EU in the eyes of Belarusians might be lost because of its strong engagement in the Arab world. Seeing the support North African countries receive from the European side, the Eastern part of Europe, especially the difficult case of Belarus, can have the impression of being forgotten. Thus, is it time for Belarus to do the same and forget about the EU? Is it possible at all? From the perspective of the intensively developing civil society, and especially for the young generation, it would be a painful decision.

However, hearing Ms. Schiffer’s opinion, one could assume that this scenario is relatively  unrealistic. In her view, young Belarusians are strongly interested in political affairs that simply determine their lives. Therefore, they should obtain the possibility to go and study abroad, invest in their own development. Initiatives like the Polish one that offers the possibility to Belarusian students to study at Polish universities seem to play an important role in bringing them closer to the European Union. Besides, the presence of Belarusian students in EU countries might be helpful in understanding the situation in their country. Spread of knowledge about the Eastern neighbour, though a little modest in recent times, still exists. In Germany, especially in Berlin, which is the actual centre of politics, there are a great number of open discussions, lectures or conferences referring to Belarus. The monthly journal Osteuropa, dealing with interdisciplinary topics about Eastern Europe, has devoted a lot of attention to Belarus in the issue published at the end of 2010. Therefore, people who want to get to know more about the current news have more options to deepen their knowledge.


Still, one might ask: what comes later?

What happens after the meetings? Do they end with the last speech or with the last question from the audience? Do they motivate people to do more in the case of Belarus? Or are they only a platform for discussion of the same scholars, politicians, journalists? This would be a rather poor result. However, publications and articles on the Internet, in the European press, broadcasts on TV and on the radio might stimulate people to conduct their own research and invent new ideas how to change the situation in Belarus. Still, it applies rather to the scholars than “average” citizens.

What about students? The initiative of allowing them to study abroad seems to be a brilliant one. Nevertheless, is there any concrete answer to the question what they are expected to do after graduating from the universities? Do they receive appropriate permissions in order to stay in the EU, live here and earn money? Or should they maybe come back to Belarus and prepare the basis on which they create a new democratic state?

The questions might be multiplied. Paradoxically, their increasing number gives an answer to the doubt whether the EU has forgotten Belarus and vice versa. Perhaps at the very first and superficial glance it seems that both sides have already lost their interest in each other. However, a look at the current situation in more detail delivers a great amount of information about ongoing tensions, relationships and cooperation between them. Maybe exactly because of the scale of complexity of the questions it is easier to say that they simply do not care. In reality they do. They have not forgotten. They are too strongly involved in common affairs to allow themselves a short memory.

[1]    Translated from Polish by Joanna Maria Trzeciak.
[2]    And having tremendous problems with finances in recent time… (,75478,9682068,Bielsat_bez_pieniedzy.html)


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