Updated at 11:50,16-10-2017

New Eastern Europe is unmasking Belarus

Paula Borowska, BelarusDigest

The new issue of New Eastern Europe, an English language magazine published in Poland, devoted nine articles to Belarus.

Are Belarusians pro-European? Do the activists care about the language issue? Why trade unions in Belarus cannot play the same role as Solidarity movement in Poland? This volume offers an interesting discussion of these and other topics.

The editors of the journal hoped to offer a different look at Belarus, the country which is "probably the biggest victim of western misconceptions". From this point onward, the issue does not question the Lukashenka's regime, but rather invite to analyse Belarus from different angles.


What gives the Belarusians strength

Alexander Milinkievich emphasises that although the state continuously peddles the anti-Westernism, a significant part of Belarusians remains pro-European. As the statistics show, less 35-40% Belarusians remain in a favour of the integration with the Eurasian Union. He attributes it to a predominantly European character of identity of Belarusians. Milinkievich advocates for not rejecting Belarusians, because their history is "the legacy of a European people".

Certainly, this appears as an appeal from a pro-European politician. He calls, however, for a reasonable approach: "There is too much talk about Lukashenka and too much defeatist attitude in Belarus". Milinkievich proposes something on the contrary – let's talk (and do) more about the society and its potential.


The numbness of the society?

Two authors, Dzmitri Hurnievich and Jedrzej Czerep, elaborates on the issues of identity and language.

Dzmitry Hurnievich, a Belarusian journalist, starts with depicting the linguistic landscape in Belarus. He explains the process of marginalisation of Belarusian and the gradual Russification of the public space. As a matter of fact, today less and less Belarusian language appears in education, state media, but also can be heard on the streets.

In his view, "Belarusian nation is still in the process of defining itself. And this process will not be completed until the language is back". Despite some civil society initiatives only the state level campaigns can effectively popularise the language, Hurnievich notes.

Jedrzej Czerep, a Polish journalist, in his text "Redefining Identity" claims that many of the young generation activists do not prioritise the linguistic issue. In his opinion, "the type of Belarusian identity that is being chosen by many young people today places different accents than that promoted by the revivalist generation". He introduces an interesting discussion of approaches of two Belarusians, a journalist Jan Maksymiuk and a writer, Viktar Martynovich.

"In the early 1990s, attempts to impose Belarusian as the dominant language were unsuccessful", he writes. He argues that through referendum Belarusians voted "for reinstalling Russian as the second state language". The author does not, however, mention the wide-spread view that the results of the referendum of 1995 had been falsified. Also rejection of symbols of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and "revivalists' white-red-white flag" happened because of the top-down ongoing Russification rather than as a result of free choice of Belarusians.

According to Czerep, the main reason behind this rejection was the top-down Belarusianisation of the nationalists. Did, however, the top-down ongoing Russification of the society since 1995 have any impact on that? The author does not elaborate on that.


Why the trade unions in Belarus do not play a role as Solidarity movement in Poland?

In his intriguing contribution, Andrzej Poczobut observes that unlike the Polish Solidarity movement, the Belarusian trade unions have not turned to be the main agent of social resistance in Belarus. Paradoxically, despite the economic crisis in the country, Belarusian workers neither protest nor openly express their demands. It relates to the loyalty of the official unions’ leadership to the state authorities. Actually, they aid Lukashenka’s policies, Poczobut states.

The journalist scrutinises the protests that took place in the state company "Granit" in 2011. Although a number of workers left the official trade union then, the protests failed to become a serious social force. Since they remain in the total control of the authorities and thus cannot even truly represent the interests of the labour force.

In the text "In Search of One Voice" Alena Zuikova argues that Belarusian civil society organisations should get more involved in national decision-making process. "Civil society needs to take its equal place in the development of Belarus along with the national authorities and external actors", she claims.

Zuikova argues that to become an active player, the civil society organisations necessarily need to overcome divisions and consolidate. That would allow to become a "respectable counterpart in the dialogue, is the passport to success".

Miroslav Kobasa in his text "Challenging Cooperation on the Local Level", draws attention to the problems the civil society organisations face in Belarus. According to him, one of the impeding factors remains a negative attitude of the local authorities.

40 per cent of NGOs registered in Belarus in 2012 related to sport and leisure, so they did not carry any social or political components. The authors indicated that the challenges the civil society faces come primarily from the centralisation of power in the country. Such a model imposes total dependence of them on the local authorities and subsequently on the centre.

Kobasa, a Belarusian social activist himself, notices, however, cases of positive cooperation of the NGOs with the local authorities. It happens usually with projects regarding non-sensitive areas, he explains. "Interaction and cooperation give both parties extremely valuable experience, improve their mutual understanding", he stresses out.


At the EU and the Eurasian Union fronts

Two analysts, Anna Maria Dyner and Andrej Liakhovich, took a closer look respectively at the relations of Belarus with the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union.

Dyner shows that the economic crisis pushed Lukashenka to the Eurasian integration. Minsk was hoping that the economic project would be a remedy for all economic problems.

"Belarus economic situation and open borders with Russia have led to the mass emigration of the Belarusian labour force", the author emphasises.

The Polish analyst explains also that Minsk will have to pay for the integration, and "the Eurasian Union may become a curse for the Belarusian government".

Liakhovich took a look at the foreign policy of Brussels towards Belarus. In his text "Rethinking EU Policy towards Belarus", he argued that all EU member states did not share priorities in the foreign relations. Minsk, like Kiev, is trying to make business both with Moscow and the West at the same time.

And the EU has, however, certain goals in regard to Belarus. They include maintenance of a formal independence from Russia, but also a reliable transit of goods and energy through the territory of Belarus. The analyst highlights that the EU had not worked out yet a strategy towards Belarus.


Unmasking Belarus?

The recent issue of New Eastern became a platform for a discussion of Belarus. It also gives a chance to look at the Belarusian society from different angles. This editors fulfil the promise and managed to carry an interesting discussion.

On 10 February this discussion about Belarus will continue. New Eastern Europe together with the Casimir Pulaski Foundation organise in Warsaw a panel on "Belarus: Prospects and Challenges". One of the topics will be how Europe and Poland should engage with Belarus.