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Belarus: the national vice

The Belarusian opposition seeks to map a path beyond the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko by establishing a claim to represent the true or real nation. But it needs to work on different ground - for this is a contest it can’t win, says Nelly Bekus.
Nelly Bekus
21 October 2010

The celebration of St Valentine’s day in Belarus has become a manifestation of the struggle between the two discourses of “Belariusian-ness”, of the Belarusian idea itself. Each year on 14 February since 1997, the Malady Front (Young Front) - a political organisation of young people - has held street political actions in the capital city Minsk under the slogan “I love Belarus”.

By 2010, these “actions of love” have defied an official ban for thirteen years. The authorities refuse permission to the Malady Front, and “decipher” its demonstrations as a sort of symbolic appropriation of the “Belarusian motherland” - which their own official discourse had already usurped. The “Belarus” “loved” by these young people and the “Belarus” presented by official posters declaring “I love Belarus” are - it is clear - two different countries.

The elusive nation

The understanding of Belarus’s post-communist reality is based on several “basic truths” which seem to become more self-evident the more they are used. One of these axiomatic truths of Belarusian contemporary development implies a lack of Belarusian national identity, which both became the main reason for the failure of democratisation of Belarusian society and helped stimulate the rise of Belarus’s authoritarian regime.

A number of factors is usually considered as indicative of the deficiency in Belarusian national identity. The idea of building a “union state” with Russia, linguistic Russification, and the lack (on the whole) of anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments in Belarusian society all fuel the image of a country of Belarusians who do not wish to get rid of their Soviet colonial past.

Another indication of the fundamental imperfection of the Belarusian nation is the destiny of political forces of Belarusian nationalism: the downfall of their popularity in society in the 1990s, their failure in the presidential elections of 1994, followed by their consignment to the margins of the political scene. In face of this trajectory, the political forces of nationalism are viewed as the only legitimate carrier of the Belarusian national idea. The acknowledgment of the anti-Belarusian nature of the current Belarusian regime derives logically from this assumption. 

The interrelation of these factors in Belarusia’s national development is complex, however. For example, a hypothetical consent to a political union with Russia does not in practice signify that Belarusians are prepared to give up their state independence (in 2005, the number of those who were ready to live in one country with Russia was only 12%). The evidence of opinion-polls is that those who use the Russian language are not necessarily pro-Russian in their political preferences; on the contrary, it is the Belarusian-speaking population (the major part of which are villagers) that manifests greater readiness to integrate with Russia.

Some Belarusians do not always distinguish themselves from Russians in terms of cultural identity (they are taught the common history, common traditions and roots of the Belarusian and Russian people). However, they manifest a high “index of pride” in being Belarusian.

In other words, the complicated cartography of the political, cultural and linguistic component parts of Belarusians’ self-awareness does not fit the simplistic image of a weak and underdeveloped Belarusian identity. The idea of the Republic of Belarus governed by Alexander Lukashenko as an anti-national political formation is yet another “basic truth” of the Belarusian political opposition (in 2003, the Soym Belarusian People Front [BPF] adopted the statement “On the ethnocide and elimination of the Belarusian nation”, of which the authorities of the Republic of Belarus are accused).

The data presented by independent polls is a true paradox to this interpretation of Belarusian reality. It shows that the majority of the society (or a bit more than half) supports the existing regime. The consequence is that - in the meaning the oppositional political discourse upholds - these Belarusians, alongside the political authorities they support, are expelled from the framework of the “Belarusian nation” (see Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative "Belarusianness" [Central European University Press, 2010]).

The discursive nation

For a long time, the Belarusian opposition preferred to ignore the fact that the authorities formulated their own version of the national idea. It was painful to acknowledge that for many Belarusians the version of the Belarusian idea formulated in official discourse seems both familiar and relevant, in the same manner that the ideas of the opposition national discourse appear to be familiar and appropriate for others.

Both authorities and opposition tend to mark the territory of their legitimisation in terms of unitary (or so-called "one-piece") notions - Belarusian nation, Belarusian people, Belarusians. Both versions of the national idea appeared as a result of different approaches to the development of the Belarusians’ history (see Timothy Snyder, "In Darkest Belarus", New York Review of Books, 28 October 2010).

The oppositional project of the Belarusian nation is built on an open confrontation with the notion of its Soviet-ness, and on the idea of the “return” to the original pre-Soviet Belarusian roots. The Belarusian nation is viewed here as a community which is to be developed in the European democratic political context (see Krzysztof Bobinski, "Belarus's message to Europe", 22 May 2006). By contrast, the Belarusian idea present in the official discourse is built on the basis of continuity with the Soviet past and is presented as a result of the adaptation of the Soviet formulation of the Belarusian idea to new conditions.

Both the official and the alternative discourses aspire to generalise and “globalise” their way of understanding Belarusian identity. Each is declared by its advocates to be the only true “Belarusian idea”. And in both cases the Belarusian “motherland” appears as an “indivisible” ideological entirety.

The existence of two different and, in many aspects, contradictory concepts of the Belarusian nation in present Belarusian political and cultural life leads to a potent confrontation on the symbolic level of the representation of Belarusian identity.

The alternative Belarusian idea is represented by profound political and historical narratives supported by a number of cultural manifestations: the independent press, alternative cinema, independent rock-music, theatres, national literature. All these kinds of cultural activity win a certain number of people over to the oppositional idea of the Belarusian nation. However, these cultural initiatives also remain practically unrelated to each other, with each aimed at its own audience. The only thing which unites them is the availability of a definite national ideology which disagrees with the official version of the Belarusian idea.

At the same time, the official project of the Belarusian nation is manifested and reified by means of numerous social practices and rituals at the micro- and macro-levels of everyday life, in which the state is involved directly and indirectly. (It is not without reason that Alexander Lukashenko is sometimes called “the master of micro-policy”). The main task of these rituals is the formation, on the level of individual perception, of the sense of belonging to Belarus (that is, the way it exists in the official doctrine).

The official national project is introduced through public institutions of all levels: schools, universities, work, official trade unions. This is the first lesson of the school academic year: “Belarus is my Motherland”, where children both listen to the stories about “their country” and even draw its national symbols.    

The alternative nation

From this perspective, the major problem of “alternative” Belarusianness is its opposition to the state. On the one hand, this equates to lack of access to the institutional resources of the state, which has great nation-building capacities that can be used as a tool of social reification of the nation at the micro- and macro-levels of social life.

On the other hand, it also means a loss of symbolic reference to the signs of official Belarusian statehood, which highlight Belarus both in the world and inside the country. Any events that traditionally contribute to the formation of the individual’s bond with the national community (such as numerous international, children’s, and sporting competitions, Olympic games, Eurovision, Miss World contests...) - all these in present conditions work for the establishment and support of the official Belarusian project.

The oppositional project of the Belarusian nation is being popularised on internet sites, in the publication of magazines and books, in competitions of children’s pictures, in the organisation of trips, in feature films and documentaries. All these events, however, remain locked in the parallel sphere of public life. They are not mentioned in the official electronic media, the memorable dates of the alternative history are not mentioned or described in the press, they are not studied in schools and, in general, are not present in the official public space.

The alternative national idea as a foundation for Belarusian self-determination appears to be implanted in the political opposition to the Belarusian regime; it thus exists as the result of a conscious political choice of every person to chooses to embrace it. The official Belarusianness, by contrast, proves to be implanted in the consciousness of those seemingly not involved in politics; for them, to “slide” to the official Belarusianness’ side, it suffices to watch news programmes, musical contests or sporting events, or to support the national team.

The paradox here is that the alternative Belarusian national idea, even though it operates with the underlying concept of the nation as a cultural and historical unit and is thus in essence far less politicised, can exist in Belarusian society only as a part of a specific oppositional political doctrine. At the same time, the official nationalism, based on the foundation of the utterly ideologised Soviet legacy, is in contemporary Belarusian conditions easily extrapolated to the self-consciousness of those who, at first glance, live outside politics and ideology.

The free nation

The struggle over Belarusian’s identity has thus become closely interrelated with the struggle against the authoritarian regime.

Belarusian opposition leaders consider “national awakening” to be the main condition under which the country’s democratisation can take place. Belarusian democratic forces, however, lack those institutional resources which would facilitate the implementation of their idea of the Belarusian nation into social practice. At the same time, the Belarusian regime, unlike the political and cultural opposition, has enormous institutional resources at its disposal to give practical effect to its idea of the Belarusian nation.

From this perspective, it appears highly unlikely that the democratisation of the Belarusian political system and liberalisation of society will result from the “nationalisation” of Belarusian self-consciousness in the meaning implied by nationalists.

The arguments for the liberation of Belarusian society from authoritarianism should be sought not in nationalist rhetoric, but in the liberation of people’s minds from the totalitarian heritage.

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