The Many Masks of Belarus
On February 10th 2014, New Eastern Europe along with the Casimir Pulaski Foundation hosted a discussion in Warsaw focusing on Belarus and the current situation in the country as well as promoted the current issue of New Eastern Europe: Unmasking Belarus.
Alaksei Dzikavitski from BelSat TV opened the discussion by sharing what he felt was a new turn in Belarusian politics. For the first time, Mikhail Myasnikovich, prime minister of Belarus, has openly criticised the country’s economic policies on state-run television. Dzikavitski noted that Myasnikovich dared to argue with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka saying: “We cannot compete with our goods on the Western markets.” Pavel Latushko, the Belarusian ambassador to France, made a similar claim, stating that it is difficult for Belarusian products to be competitive when they do not operate correctly during presentations at trade shows abroad.
Dzikavitski noted that this may be a new sign of political dynamics in Belarus and that we should pay attention to what other high-level officials are saying. Magdelena Gawrońska from the Communities of Democracies added that the political situation in Belarus reflects the erosion of the social contract between state and the people in the country. She emphasised that the country is “not a ticking time bomb, but rather a pot on a fire; Belarus will not go through any top-down or bottom-up democratic transition anytime soon”.
The discussion on transition immediately focused on how Belarusians were following the situation in Ukraine. Wojciech Borodzicz from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Poland stated that the Belarusians are indeed following the situation in Ukraine closely and that they are interested in what will happen next. But he cautioned that it is unclear what effect, if any, the developments in Ukraine will have on Belarus and Belarusians.
Jędrzej Czerep, a research fellow from the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, added that he saw no signs that something like the Maidan could happen in Minsk. However, the success of the Maidan opposition could nonetheless inspire some in Belarus, Gawrońska said. Anna Maria Dyner from the Polish Institute of International Affairs added that the official media reaction to what is happening in Ukraine lacks commentary. Lukashenka obviously criticises the protesters and remains observant. Dzikavitski concluded that the situation in Belarus may actually depend upon what happens in Ukraine. If the opposition wins in Ukraine, Russia will place an even stronger focus on Belarus. If Ukraine turns its back on Russia, Belarus will remain the sole “good neighbour” to Russia. If Ukraine stays on course to engage more with Russia, however, it could mean less support to Belarus, which could affect the economic standing of Belarus and its society.
Dyner led the discussion on the economic situation in Belarus. The Belarusian economy is still in danger, even more so than previously. Belarus has no resources to pay its own debt, which means that an increase in inflation and the devaluation of Belarusian rouble are possible. It is also important to note the difference between the wage levels in Minsk and the regions outside the capital. An average wage in Minsk is around 600 US dollars per month while those outside the city make less than $200. What is more, $600 a month is not enough to sustain the cost of living in the city; hence many people have to find supplemental income. Dzikavitski added that there were two possible scenarios for the worsening economic situation: greater inflation and more loans from Russia.
Czerep’s discussion focused on Belarusian identity and the perception of the role of language. The Belarusian revival movement has always suffered from its selectiveness. It failed to inspire a single consciousness. In the early 1990s, attempts to impose Belarusian as the dominant language were unsuccessful.
The proportion of Belarusian speakers is declining. In 1999, 73.6 per cent of the Belarusians called it their mother tongue. That number fell by over 20 per cent in 2009. Czerep provocatively suggested that Belarusian identity should not be focused on fearing the decline of the Belarusian language and perhaps even accept the equal role of the Russian language as a transmitter of national culture.
Dzikavitski countered that identity is defined by language and that the Belarusian language will not disappear. But he agreed that there are Belarusians who do not speak Belarusian but who still respect the language, and maybe even understand it more than willing to admit.
The number of Belarusian speakers may be decreasing, but the quality is increasing. Today, the Belarusian language is an attribute of being in the know, or of savoir-faire, Czerep said. A Belarusian speaker is not a frustrated nationalist who lives surrounded by myths, but an educated, fashionable person with whom one can speak. He or she is a member of the young elite and intrigues and attracts with his or her appearance and behaviour. It is still a problem, however, that the state does not support language development with official enrolment in Belarusian-language studies at the university level at an all-time low.
Gawrońska’s remarks focused on the international place of Belarus, noting that the situation of Belarus on the international arena is not ideal. Addressing the question as to how countries should work with Belarus in 2014 when there still remain violations of human rights, she recommended that the EU take a unified approach. In addition, policies should focus on outreach and goodwill with increased professional and academic exchange programmes.
Borodzicz responded that the problem of visas to the EU contributes to Belarusian attitudes to the West. It is extremely difficult to get a visa to go to EU, while Russia is more accessible to Belarusians. There is no border between Belarus and Russia, and Belarusians can earn good money working in Russia.
But the situation in the country is not entirely negative, Borodzicz noted. Entrepreneurship is alive in Belarus and this are signs that if the Belarusians are willing to change something in their lives, they can do it. The popular video games World of Tanks and “World of Planes” were developed by Belarusians. The global software company EPAM was established in 1993 in Belarus. Viber, a free online calling and messaging service, was developed by Belarusian software developers. These are just a few examples of the ingenuity of Belarusians.
Is there a pro-European direction in Belarusian society? It is really hard to measure what real Belarusians think. The process of the atomisation of society is so large that it is becoming a problem. Neighbours do not know each other or what they think. This shows that the biggest problem in Belarus is trust. There is a strong need for more people-to-people contacts in Belarus, Borodzicz admitted. Simple communication between people lacks in Belarus and the opposition fails to provide this to society. That is one reason why the opposition is not considered a foundation for future change.
The future of Belarus remains open to speculation. All the panellists agreed that it was very difficult to predict what could happen in the country. Will the next presidential elections in 2015 be open and fair? Most likely not. In December 2010, the opposition was allowed to openly campaign and run against President Lukashenka, though election then was not unfettered. The response in society was that of frustration and protests followed by serious crackdowns by the authorities. After 2010, society came totally under control. Lukashenka will not be interested in a repeat of such a situation.
The panel discussion “Belarus: Prospects and Challenges” was held on February 10th 2014 at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation’s headquarters in Warsaw, Poland. The discussion was moderated by Adam Reichardt, editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.
Wojciech Borodzicz, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Warsaw
Jędrzej Czerep, Research Fellow, the Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Anna Maria Dyner, Polski Instytut Spraw Miedzynarodowych
Alaksei Dzikavitski, Belsat TV
Magdalena Gawrońska, Community of Democracies