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Why do they stay?

What motivates state security officers to remain in the service of a tyrant, and end up in a situation where the people they beat, torture and kill, are their fellow countrymen? The story of Andrei Ostapovich provides some insight to this key question in understanding the overlapping borders of morality and immorality, democracy and authoritarianism.

February 3, 2021 - Kevin Le Merle - Issue 1-2 2021MagazineStories and ideas

Photo: Homoatrox (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

If you listen to some philosophers, they would have you believe that borders can be everything and anything. There is talk of geopolitical borders, the thin line between good and evil, the border between the conscious and unconscious mind, or between inside and outside. With this thinking come the concepts of liminality and thresholds: the idea of an in-between that cannot be fully fathomed. The concept of borders is polymorphous. It takes any number of convenient shapes in public discourse to accommodate the whims of different speakers. Sometimes these borders overlap. And it is by looking at this overlap that thinkers can pierce through to the hearts of people.

The Polish-Belarusian border carries the full symbolic weight of overlapping borders in the public’s eye. Western Europeans are prone to view it as a border between democracy and authoritarianism, often overlooking the anti-democratic movements eating away at their own institutions from within. Belarus becomes stuck in a process of mystification and ostracisation; an “us” and “them” dichotomy. Fear of political upheavals drives foreign audiences to say that what happens there would not happen here.

Overlapping borders

This is, of course, erroneous to say the least. This imagined border between democracy and authoritarianism manifests itself even more strongly due to the hard geopolitical border set in place by Alyaksandr Lukashenka in an attempt to reduce potential foreign interventions. The forest rangers of the Białowieża National Park (which is near the border with Belarus) point and say “we are four kilometres away from the border”. They then point again and say “the border is two kilometres away”. That proximity carries a certain power, and the impending approach creates a crescendo of tension. And for good reason. To the foreign traveller Belarus has become stained with blood. Tales of detention, torture and violent repression have made it out of the country. One such story is that of Andrei Ostapovich, who hid in the Polish woods similar to those at the Białowieża National Park.

As reported by the Moscow Times, after beholding the lawlessness of the Belarusian police from the inside, Ostapovich decided to resign from his position as a security service official. He fled to Russia then to be apprehended by seven men from the Russian Federal Security Service. After being blindfolded and handcuffed to a 30-kilogram kettlebell, he was dropped off at the Belarusian border where the Belarusian authorities nearly captured him. Ostapovich survived for five days in the Polish borderland forest with nothing but a bag of Snickers chocolate bars. He spent the first days evading police, who were searching the woods with flashlights. After a close encounter with a wild boar and walking 70 km daily, he was able to tell his story.

It is extremely rare for state officials to dissent, as such the integrity Ostapovich displayed in refusing to continue to mistreat fellow citizens is nothing short of heroic. However, this story of overlapping borders also unearths age-old questions about human nature. That one man did the right thing raises the question: What motivates state security officers to remain in the service of a tyrant, and end up where they beat, torture and kill family members? Ostapovich had an answer to this in understanding the overlapping borders between morality and immorality, democracy and authoritarianism. Ironically, after he fled to the West, he addressed this question during a panel in the Sybir Museum in Białystok, a place of memory concerned with retelling the lives of those deported to the East. He spoke of this seminal topic, evocative of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was with powerful empathy that he revealed the mechanisms by which people continue to serve an immoral system.

According to Ostapovich, the security service regularly recruits young, uneducated people from the countryside in order to brainwash them. The riot police are especially made up of recruits originally from rural areas which facilitates the use of force against mostly urban dissenters. The way in which recruits are trained leads to a security service convinced of the righteousness of their immoral and violent actions. They view their actions as necessary to keep the peace, and view more urban and educated populations as “the other”. They are legitimised by an entire system whose ideology they have incorporated. They are the embodiment of state violence.

Although the pay might not be high enough to warrant staying with the security service, the economic repercussions of leaving certainly provide a negative incentive. If a recruit decides to leave, they relinquish their right to a retirement pension. More importantly, they risk being blacklisted and would therefore struggle to find further employment. This reinforces the ideology that they have internalised: the cost of thinking differently is too high when their livelihood is at stake.

Shared issues

Before these dystopian depictions become assimilated to the East, as opposed to the West, it would do good to remind ourselves that the recruiting processes of police forces operate along similar lines in some other democracies. Although poorly documented, in France, the divide between the rural and urban centres drove the recruiting process of the riot police in the 1950s and 1960s. When interviewed, a jubilant former French riot police chief, recruited from the Breton countryside, best depicted this unfortunate reality by criticising city-dwellers as “unwashed scum”. What is more, the vast majority of his colleagues were recruited in the poorest or most remote areas of the Breton countryside.

Whistle-blowers like Andrei Ostapovich play a fundamental role in not only revealing the vicissitudes of corrupt systems, but in showing their counterparts and colleagues a way forward. It is often only by pointing out the unacceptable flaws of institutions and placing individual ethics above “due process”, that we can hope to avoid becoming part of immoral bureaucratic structures.

This comparison between French and Belarusian security systems brings to mind the permeability of some borders, and the fact that fundamental questions have the potential to highlight issues that humanity shares. What is happening on the other side of that “hard” border matters just as much as what is happening at home. And it is only by taking a closer look at these shared issues, which somehow transcend borders of all kinds, that we can hope to find collective solutions.

This essay received the top prize in the recent writing competition titled “Dispatches from the Borderlands” organised for students of the College of Europe in Natolin (Poland).

Kevin Le Merle is a post-graduate student at the College of Europe in Natolin and the editor in chief of Lingua Natolina – a multilingual and hybrid publication featuring art, literature, journalism, and academia.

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