Some call it Belarus – Why it matters

[In today’s episode of Some call it Belarus, GPPW’s Moritz Borchardt tries to make sense of the public lack of interest in Belarus and makes a case on why it is worth talking about in the first place.]

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Season I Episode VII – Why it matters

Talking and writing about Belarus is an eerie business. It is seemingly both very hard and very easy to get an angle on the country and the issues surrounding it. At first glance, the issues Belarus as a country and society is facing sound like a best-of of the classical large-scale problems:

  • Authoritarian political leadership
  • De facto dependence on a (voluntarily or not) beneficial regional power
  • International isolation due to Human Rights violations

That being said, these problems are hardly unique on the globe, or even in Eastern Europe. Especially in younger, Eastern democracies, the political and cultural heritage of past authoritarianism still looms large (as it was in the now settled democracies of Western countries like Germany 20 years after their democratization, but that’s a point for a whole different article). Similar are the subduing of political opposition and resource-dependence on other countries which are hardly unheard of. These days, there aren’t many countries around the globe that are doing well, and even should you ask people coming from those, their list of ‘things to be improved in the country’ will probably sound like an extended lecture on the end of the world.

So, what is so special about Belarus?

Nothing, really. And everything. As many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Belarus is still heavily influenced by its Soviet heritage, especially given Alyaksandr Likashenka’s pre-democracy /‘democracy’ career and on the ground policies (such as maintaining and upgrading Soviet-era military equipment up to the third decade of the 21st century). After his earlier ambitions to become Russian president, the former collective farm manager has now settled for Belarus, even though for life, most likely. Funded by Russian de-facto subsidies to the Belarusian economy (and military), the Belarusian government has been able to provide stability and a decent-enough level of social security.

Taking a look at Belarus from an amoral point of view, one couldn’t help but shaking Lukashenka’s hand and congratulating him on a job well done. He has managed to disempower democratic institutions in Belarus within the first three years of being elected president, established elections as little more than pesky rituals and diminished his opposition by predicting their moves even before they have been thought of. He has stabilized the economy of the country on a low, yet high enough level for no opposition to be able to benefit from it, has negotiated the tight-rope relationship between maintaining the many benefits from Russian goodwill and ensuring Belarusian sovereignty with the Russian Federation and managed that no one seems to care about all that.

There are many and more interesting stories to be told about Belarus, from hunger strikes and forced labour, to those of the presidential candidates who have spent years in prison and torture after the 2010 elections and the difficulty of sustaining a civil society from within and without. And while the world seems to be spinning ever-faster, any lens through which we might look at Belarus is fraught with misconceptions. Given the beat-down on any non-state sanctioned, independent thought and civic education efforts, any effort in this regard, starting out with or without political intentions, has been highly politicized. From a socio-scientific point of view, any and all data on Belarus is consequently by default biased as there is no data available that has been collected from independent sources. As an example, even the data available in English and seemingly is following scientific standards, has most likely been financed with funding from the EU or other international, pro-change sources.

Trying to summarize, the reasons for a public lack of interest in Belarus might be summarized as follows:

  • The situation in the country has been relatively stable for 20 years
  • The causes and interdependencies of the situation are as varied as they are many
  • This is unlikely to change due to the proven talent of the government to stop any change before it even begins
  • The casualties of the regime are well hidden and less publicized
  • Available sources for information are very likely to be biased, if at all existing
  • There are many more interesting conflicts and dramas happening around the globe that provide for more usable media footage

And all that is actually the main reason why the topic of Belarus needs to be better publicized. Yes, it is a bad situation; yes, it is more complex than the picture is being painted by partisan media; yes, change is not likely to happen any time soon; yes, as soon as you start writing about it, you are prone to picking the wrong sources no matter what; and yes, these days, the dramas around the globe are many and on a short term worse than that in Belarus.

Why should we talk about Belarus? – Because hardly anyone does, simple as that.

Just because it is hard to understand, it isn’t impossible to tell the stories; just because sources are biased that doesn’t mean a meaningful interpretation of them is out of the picture; just because other conflicts and dramas around the globe are in the spotlight for good reason, it doesn’t mean that Belarus cannot share the stage every once so often and just because the situation is stable and boring at first glance, it doesn’t mean that there are no interesting stories to be told. In fact, the opposite is the case, just take a look at its geopolitical position and the situation, effects and role of Belarus as a victim, mediator and actor in the Ukrainian Conflict.

  • Moritz Borchardt, 27/10/2014

Picture credit: Zachary Harden

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