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Belarus in Focus
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7 Jan

Horia-Victor Lefter, New Eastern Europe, October 1, 2012 (Romania)

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Shades of Belarus

Belarus, a country located in the centre of Europe, has been giving the impression of examining the question of the alternatives between the European Union and the Russian Federation. Does the average Belarusian feel they have to make this choice?

A society overtaken by fear is hardly willing to answer anyone’s questions, and it is even harder to get answers when the means of communication and information are also controlled. The circle is completely closed when the authorities legally tighten control over sociologists while at the same time increase the pressure on civil society activists. Consequently, the availability of any reliable data is limited and creates an “information gap”. Belarusian society thus modelled by Alexander Lukashenko during his on-going 17-year presidency appears to be: no freedom but only panem et circenses (bread and circuses), in other words, the famous social pact. Trapped between the opposition and those in power, does Belarusian society which consists of 9.473 million individuals only divide itself into two camps?

According to a recent study, the two categories would rather be defined in terms of domination. As a result, from a macro perspective, “two Belarus’s have come to coexist on one territory”: those who depend on the system, opposed to those who are dominated by them. If this latter group is larger, and encompasses more than just the pro-European opposition to Lukashenko’s regime, what other approaches can be taken to better understand this apparently atomised and conflict-exempt society? Revealing the pieces of this complex social puzzle became my intention whilst on a recent trip to Belarus.

Digging deeper

As a Belarusian friend of mine rightly stated: “People around here don’t like to give their opinion, especially to direct questions.” So it made little sense to go around asking Belarusians what one thinks about Lukashenko. Moreover, from my own experience, my friend wasn’t referring to the political opposition or political analysts, whom I had already had the opportunity of talking to. In any case, the former groups are not always considered to be representative of Belarusian public opinion, while the latter have their own ideas on the topic. Hence, I aimed at finding the opinion of those who are less taken into consideration, which proved to be not such an easy task.

I was very lucky to find several Belarusians of the same early age who were willing to confide their opinions on East and West, the future of their country, and the way they conceive Belarusian identity. My inquiry aimed, therefore, at going deeper to uncovering the Belarusian mood, with opinion polls and political analysis as my background and the hope of revealing some of the shades of Belarusian society.

There are many in Belarus who think of their country in terms of belonging (the continent) and integration (regional organisation). In the West, the first doesn’t raise much debate; it is all about being a member of the European Union or not.

But, since Belarus is located “geographically in the centre of Europe”, with the controversies that this might raise, surveys have, for some time, established the question on the basis of the alternative between the EU and the Russian Federation or the Eurasian Union. From a national perspective, except for 2010 when the EU option prevailed, Russia has always seemed to be the choice that Belarusians would opt for (according to one poll in 2012, 47 per cent were in favour of this).

Young people usually justify this based on the proximity to Russia and both countries’ shared past, beginning with “the Russian Empire” or the commonly evoked Soviet Union. And even 20 years after the fall of the USSR, its “consequences are felt even now” as Russia seems to be “everywhere here”. This situation is usually explained as being a consequence of Russia’s near-abroad policy, with Belarus as “the last vestige of Russia’s colonial influence westward”.

Some also fear that in the future, Belarus might “insensibly disappear in the Russian web”. Those I talked to, however, would try to “reduce the similarities to a minimum”, and highlighted the following three aspects: “language, culture and ideology”. Should this refer to Lukashenko’s authoritarian concept of ruling the state, with which it has much in common with Russian methods of restricting one’s freedom? It surely does. However, if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thirst for power has lead him to adopt an advanced degree of control in a modern Russia, the Belarusian president has evoked Soviet values as “a cornerstone of the Belarusian modern identity” and considers Belarusians to be “Russians, but with a quality label”.

If EU sanctions on Belarus don’t have many consequences it is because Russia is lending its support from the other side. Moreover, Belarus not only rejoices in this support, which allows it to maintain its authoritarian system, but seems, for now, to be the one making the most out of its relationship with Russia, especially in privatisation reforms. But how long will this last?

Geographical dimension

While the closeness to Russia is felt by those I interviewed as conditioned by the historical context and decisions of the authorities, belonging to Europe seems somehow “natural” but only from a “geographical dimension”. Thus, not only does one “feel that Belarus is not connected to the EU” economically as well as sociologically, but for many, the EU seems to have turned its back on them. As proof: “Eto zametno pri poluchenii vizy"* (This is evident in the visa” – editor’s translation). Moreover, this “free, successful, pragmatic, technologically advanced society with a high level of social services” seems only for itself, if not just in appearance sending “a very weak response to the situation in Belarus”.

This double standard policy has, on the one hand, resulted from applying the same principals differently to EU member states or to neighbourhood countries in the Caucasus, while isolating Belarus by adopting sanctions. On the other hand, members of the EU have on several occasions bypassed sanctions by granting visas to Belarusians officials or, even by training its police: one of the pillars of the regime’s repressive machine. However, in the eyes of common citizens “this hypocritical community” is, in effect, “opened towards Belarus only in words”.

Despite the fact that many specialists have recommended facilitating Schengen visa processes as a part of the first steps towards democracy (which is a learning by-doing process) most Belarusians still feel that the West is “somewhere very far away that I can’t even enter”.

On several occasions the Schengen visa topic proved to be the reason of resentment against the EU: “Even tonnes of paperwork and 60 Euros for a visa aren’t enough to cross the border.” Nevertheless, this attitude is not coherent with the global situation. Indeed, according to the European Commission for Home Affairs, since 2010, Belarus has been the world leader with 61 Schengen visas per 1,000 residents, much more than Russia (36 visas), Ukraine (24 visas) and Georgia (13 visas).

However, Belarusians do have to pay a high price for their visas: 60 Euros; almost double in comparison to other neighbouring countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Belarus is also the leader in multiple entry and long-term visas, with 27.6 per cent and 5.9 per cent respectively. During the last two years the percentage of negative Schengen visa decisions made by the consulates of EU countries in Belarus was extremely low for the region, and is one of the lowest in the world. This is due to countries like Poland and Lithuania which not only share history but have national strategies particularly focused on the situation in Belarus. Outside these two EU states, however, it is much harder for someone from Belarus to be granted a visa. France, for example, is very often one of those who apply harsh procedures, despite its educational and cultural involvement in Belarus.

For some in Belarus, the EU equates to “enormous economic problems” and often for older people, to “utopian values”. This shows how persuasive and brainwashing Lukashenko’s rule can be. It is true that Europe has indeed been challenged by economic crisis over the last few years. But the economic model that Lukashenko has built and praised has also reached its limit, putting into peril the illusion of full employment as well as the guarantee of salaries and prices thus threatening the social contract – one of the regime’s pillars. As a result, many Belarusians have decided to search for jobs in neighbouring CIS countries or the EU. Some have estimated that the population loss due to this exodus is as high as three per cent per year.

Two opposite concepts

According to a recent survey poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, “53.7 per cent of Belarusians want to go abroad to work or study and 41.4 per cent would like to leave Belarus forever.”

One person told me that he even preferred to leave his position as a civil servant in order to set up home with his family in Moscow. Indeed, Russia is one of the main destinations, and according to another recent survey, 50.6 per cent believe Moscow to be better at providing economic assistance to Belarus than the state of Belarus itself.

When asked about the way they see the future of their country, the young Belarusians I spoke to are usually divided according to two opposite concepts. On the one side are those who believe that Belarus will inexorably become “the western appendage of the Russian Federation” as it economically depends on Moscow. Meanwhile, if Belarus is not to become part of Russia, Belarusians seem to prefer to move there.

On the other side, becoming part of the EU in ten years time, as much as the union may seem “bright and successful”, is expressed more as a wish than a certainty. For that to happen, it will need “a social-democratic upheaval” and not just “a change of government”, as the opposition doesn’t constitute an alternative.

In other words, a “miracle” is needed. In between these two concepts there are some who believe in preserving the independence of Belarus, which unfortunately, they admit, seems impossible for two main reasons. Firstly, Belarus has no history as an independent state. Secondly, many simply believe that Belarus will have to make a choice between the EU and Russia as it is dependent on both of them at different levels.

Nevertheless, it is commonly believed that patriotism and the desire for maintaining their “motherland” independent, especially from Russia, as well as fighting to make it better, define Belarusian identity. History, language and ancient symbols have all become the main pillars of a true young Belarusian. However, according to the latest survey polls, only 23 per cent can speak Belarusian fluently, with only 3.9 per cent actually using it all the time, and another 14.6 per cent who would also like to do so. Indeed, the Russian language is by far the language of mass communication, with Belarusian being “associated with the resistance against the regime”. Moreover, it doesn’t suffice to simply know the language, as one has “to take pride in using it”. One way to do this is through films in Belarusian, as 40.7 per cent of the adult population is said to be in favour of increasing Belarusian language films. Finally, concerning the social situation, the most optimistic people I talked to mentioned “free medical care, education, cheap public transport, clean streets and support for gifted children” as the positives of Belarusian society. According to the optimists, besides those who see it more of a “stagnation”, the majority of those who describe the situation from a dark perspective are being stopped from appreciating these advantages by the low wages, which cause their dissatisfaction. The dominant perception is that of “no stability and prosperity”, especially since the authorities cannot be trusted. And even though there is no money to finance the current system leading to “growing inflation, low salaries and social injustice”, adopting “the European model of social development” wouldn’t be possible either as “the vast majority of the population is not willing to pay for itself”. However, the most pessimistic in Belarus say: “Society is sick. It’s swelling like cancer.” And most of them agree on the deploring insufficiency of the benefits granted to young mothers, the degradation of the younger generation, and the brain drain which is deserting Belarus.

*Transliterated by SBIO, original article uses cyrillic.

Originally published in the New Eastern Europe quarterly (No 4(V)/2012)

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