A postcard from Minsk.
Here are some impressions from my recent trip to Belarus. Can my rather superficial observations be extrapolated, and can a general picture of the country be derived from them? Maybe not a complete picture – but some inferences can be drawn.
The violent pro-Western extravaganza of 2020 left Belarus sore, exhausted, and in need of recuperation. I don’t have specific research on this (there are no opinion polls in Belarus), but you can feel it in the air. I know it’s not scientific or incontrovertibly provable, but can any journalist ever claim to know something for certain? When we cannot get to the bottom of the issue, we are left with no choice but to speculate. Such are the allurements of our line of work.
The first thought that comes to mind is whether or not modern-day Belarusian society is as divided into hostile halves – like is the case with the pro- and anti-government camps in Polish society. Certainly not. There is no shortage of dissatisfied people, one can clearly see. However, following the authorities’ harsh repressive measures in response to the 2020 revolt, a significant number of those who were deeply dissatisfied with the state of affairs in Belarus left the country. Some were convicted and are in prison, while others simply retreated from the public sphere ‘into themselves’ and are preoccupied with minding their own business above all else. Some of my colleagues like to compare it to the climate in Poland in the early 1980s, during the martial law years. This comparison is far from accurate in my opinion.
But what about those who are not numbering among the dissatisfied? Why isn’t anyone giving them a platform to reach a global audience?
I meet with Grigoryi Azaryonok, a Belarusian state television host known for his support for the Belarusian government and his borderline vulgar comments about political dissidents. Throughout the conversation, he can clearly see my skepticism toward the Belarusian state propaganda that he is a key facilitator of. I told him I didn’t like the program he had just finished taping. “Man, we’re at war!” he exclaimed. “We must respond to this! We must confront the other side! Don’t you see the methods they employ? Don’t you see how they deceive you? How they constantly encourage violence? How they intend to turn Belarus into a carnage scene?”
Although the man undoubtedly has a point, any further discussion is rather meaningless once you reach this stage. The conversation would most likely have no end or would devolve into a moral one, which is always pointless. I’m not a fan of the West’s approach or behavior, and I’ve been outspoken about it. However, the state’s grip is so tight that a journalist like myself has very little breathing room. I struggle to understand how anyone could find the news format he’s presenting to be engaging. At one point, Azaryonok looked me in the eyes and said, “People like it, and people want it!”
Maybe! How could I possibly know? Even if this is the case, I can’t quite grasp it. Why would anyone ‘want’ or ‘like’ to see a host intoning Soviet and Belarusian patriotic songs on his show and then shouting and insulting some oppositionists he had invited?
Anyway, clearly, I wasn’t able to persuade him, and he wasn’t able to persuade me. We conclude the meeting by agreeing to maintain our positions and remain in respectful disagreement.
Today, the streets of Minsk are not dissimilar to those of other European cities. Perhaps they’re a little less crowded. Even though it is a dictatorship, people go to work, cinemas, theaters, parties, shopping malls, events, concerts, and pubs. They lead largely typical lives. In the evenings, Oktyabrskaya street is bustling with young people on their way to or from various bars and clubs. There are numerous cafes and pubs, as well as street music and crowds of mostly young people moving from establishment to establishment.
I go to see some friends who are vehemently opposed to the Belarusian authorities. They are overjoyed because their daughter recently graduated from university with a master’s degree. When asked if she intends to leave Belarus, she flatly denies it. She clearly dislikes Lukashenko, but when her parents begin one of their usual rants against the government, she tells them to stop. This family, like many others, does not protest Lukashenko. They also don’t support him. They’re just waiting. But what are they holding out for? They don’t quite know themselves.
Among its measures, the Russian Levada Center, an anti-Putin polling organization, includes the category “protest potential.” Using this term, one could argue that Belarusian society’s protest potential is low. Of course, this is also due to the fact that street protests today are associated with a far-too-high risk of repression. These, however, are not the only reasons.
Among the other reasons are the makeup of Belarusian society and the country’s memory of its recent history. Apart from Minsk, the wave of protests has spread to other cities, albeit to a much lesser extent than in the capital. But the countryside remained motionless. The 2020 protesters were counting on (or appeared to be counting on) working-class support for their activism, particularly from large industrial plants. The authorities would have been in big trouble if the MAZ truck plants, the Tractor Factory, and the potash mines had actually supported them and the workers had gone on strike. This, however, did not occur. Strikes at large plants are said to have been crushed ruthlessly in their early stages. Perhaps, but there was no evidence of a strong desire on the part of the workers to support the protests. Workers in various ‘kholhoz’ factories in the USSR were not completely satisfied, but they appreciated the stability provided by the authorities.
The most powerful sectors of the Belarusian working class held the same view of Lukashenko. Sure, the pay isn’t great, but it’s adequate. On top of that, there’s the welfare system: company-sponsored vacations, summer camps for children, and medical care without having to wait for hours for an ambulance. In a nutshell, it contains everything that Poles my age remember from the socialist era.
And then there is Alexander Lukashenko. He’s just like us! His indiscriminate language, the type of theater in which he publicly waves his finger at ministers and scolds them in front of cameras as if they were schoolchildren… It has a certain appeal, I must admit! And, of course! Who among ordinary people in our part of the world does not feel a smidgeon of satisfaction when high-level officials are publicly humiliated? The Belarusian president understands how to capitalize on this cultural quirk. Even his opponents admit it. Belarusian society, primarily peasant, proved to be a slippery substance on which the 2020 revolt flipped, with its rural system of values, rational and very down-to-earth approach to life, and a reluctance to make drastic changes.
One can be sad about the repression and the problems with democracy, and one can also be angry or disappointed. The reality is unconcerned, and neither are the people of Belarus. They do not want to join NATO or the EU, despite their occasional romanticization of ‘the West.’ They don’t want to be a part of it. It’s high time for all of us out there to face it.
What has happened and is happening now across Belarus’ southern border is another factor that has kept the country where it is now. Since 2014, the official media has worked hard to instill fear in Belarusians about Ukraine: that prices are rising, corruption is rampant, that the political class does not care about its own state’s political interests, but instead pursues someone else’s, that the new historical policy denies the results of World War II, and that supporters of the rehabilitation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and Dmytro Dontsov’s ideology are becoming more vocal. However, one did not have to invent anything to generate strong talking points in opposition to what has been going on in Ukraine for the past seven years.
At the same time, Lukashenko continued to do what he does best: balance. He insisted that Russia was Belarus’ most dependable ally, on whom they could always rely. He exhibited loyalty. At the same time, he refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, made jabs about Russia amassing Belarusian assets, and unexpectedly demonstrated self-reliance while detaining Russian mercenaries from the infamous Vagner group. While it is possible that the Belarusian president was trying to find his place in the Russian-Belarusian federal state, it doesn’t really matter at this point whether or not this was just theater. Almost everything changed after August 2020. The Belarusian authorities received unequivocal support from Russia. This complied, further tying the Belarusian authorities to Putin’s team.
When Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, things were once again reset in Lukashenko’s favor. It is now undeniable that the majority of Belarusians, regardless of their feelings toward the president, believe that Lukashenko’s continued presidency beyond August 2020 has saved Belarus from war. People express this fact with unmistakable relief. Of course, Belarus could still be drawn into the Ukrainian conflict, but the country’s territory and people are safe. Lukashenko himself has stated this repeatedly, but he also says that he has no interest in going to war with Ukraine. Once again: a balancing act.
Belarus, which is subject to sanctions, is not as powerful as neighboring Russia. It is still Russia’s gateway to Western Europe. And, to some extent, China’s. Occasional calls for additional sanctions against Belarus go unheeded. At least for the time being. The sanctions against Russia appear to have caused enough havoc around the world. The war is terrible, but do we really want to halt all Western production and trade?
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