Originally published by Open Democracy Net
After years of being fed ideas of Belarus as a “social state” and “stability”, the values of consumerism have won out over everything else in the minds of ordinary people. “The state and public life is one thing, and we’re another,” – this narrative dominates many Belarusian families, and this is how children are brought up.
The result is the atomisation of society. An individual’s life becomes like a bubble, which reduces their contacts with other people around them to a minimum. I’ve read so many times how opposition journalists or politicians try to speak to people working at a factory – perhaps they’ve had their wages cut or the conditions have deteriorated. And very often, however paradoxical it might seem, the workers just refuse to speak to them and respond with cliches such as “We’re small people”, “We don’t go in for politics” and so on. Despite the fact that this is an opportunity to articulate their problems. And the reason isn’t just fear of repression, but the example set by their parents that the state is a mighty force, and you should avoid saying anything that could upset it out loud.
In your opinion, how effective are these “soft” and “hard” forms of repression?
The state’s efforts, even without using direct repression, are producing results. Ten years ago, I was studying in the Law Faculty of the Belarus State University. And there were four people from my group (25 people) who regularly went to opposition actions or cultural events. And that’s in a situation where you could be kicked out of university for being detained at a protest. Many of my friends from Minsk went to all the opposition meetings.
Today, when the repression for participating in a street action is a lot less fierce, there’s usually 200-300 people at them, in comparison to several thousand a few years ago, when the climate was more repressive.
An unexpectedly large amount of people turned up on 15 March to protest the “parasite” law. And this in a climate where it’s clear the formal opposition is under significant pressure. Given the large numbers of workers in the public sector and state-owned enterprises, is it not time for Belarus’ opposition to change its message? What opportunities are there for other groups to enter the field here?
For Belarusian society, which is mired in the past and requires change, it is critically important to know the answer to the following question: why is it that, with an apparently beneficial turn of circumstances, the opposition and civil society can’t motivate the population, in particular, young people, to fighting the regime and defending their rights?
On the one hand, you can blame the opposition and the issues it concentrates on. Belarus is in a state of permanent economic crisis. Wages are falling, prices are rising. Some enterprises have been transferred to working half the week. Unemployment is rising. And the state is only spending more on its security services, to put down protest movements. The president and the government respond to this situation by introducing a tax on “parasitism”, whereby every citizen who is not officially registered as employed has to pay an annual tax under penalty of fine or a 15-day prison sentence.
The opposition, in its attempt to mobilise people who are dissatisfied with this into fighting for their social and labour rights, could absolutely have had some success. But practically all of the dozens of actions carried out over the past two years have focused exclusively on historical, cultural-ethnic and statist thematics.
In Belarus, where the level of national identity is low, the opposition — with envious persistence — calls people out to demonstrations in memory of the soldiers who staged the Slutsk Uprising in 1921, a march in memory of the dispersal of the Supreme Council in 1996, and other actions around new ideas for a national flag.
The “national” agenda has completely pushed out the social, thereby alienating the significant number of people who aren’t at all interested in fighting for national values. A typical example of these tactics: the Belarusian National Front, the most recognisable of the opposition parties, at the start of March called on people to mark a day in honour of the Belarusian crest — the country was already experiencing week three of protests against the parasite laws. Such a move clearly talks about their priorities, their level of understanding of the problems the population is facing.
As a result, the opposition and, indeed, all political parties, were represented minimally at the February protests. The only youth group that really made itself known at the protests were the anarchists, who had no organisational structure, nor the support of the big civic organisations. You could call this a failure of Belarus’ traditional opposition — they couldn’t mobilise youth at the one moment it was needed more than ever before.
The result of all this was that opposition groups and all political parties were only minimally represented in February’s protests against the “law on parasitism”. The only youth group which openly declared its official presence at the protest were the anarchists, who have neither an organisational structure, nor the support of large public organisations. This is a clear indicator that the traditional opposition has failed to mobilise young people just when they are most needed.
Nevertheless, even this civic unrest is meeting a kind of “symbolic resistance” from the authorities. For example, not long ago the TV stations broadcast the propaganda film “Call to a Friend”, which raises suspicions that protesters, including the anarchists, are funded from abroad. How effective do you think this propaganda is? And how can it be resisted?
Not very. Firstly, much fewer people than get their news from the TV today then, say, 10 years ago. And in general, they’re from the older generation. Television propaganda looks backward, not forward. The youth has passed it by. As for “Call to a Friend”, the film was made very poorly, and clearly in a hurry. It’s just weak and unconvincing; even in comparison to Russian propaganda. Thirdly, the level of trust in the authorities and what they say has hit an all-time low. That’s why these broadcasts will convince nobody — actually, they may do the exact opposite and enrage people with their flagrant lies.
On the other hand, the now-infamous video of the president’s statements which caused so much fear were actually publicised by independent media. The authorities could reach their desired audience without resorting to TV propaganda. And due to this particular hysteria, opposition leaders decided to hold their march on 15 March in accordance with the authorities’ demands — instead of marching down Minsk’s central streets, they dutifully followed the route set out for them by the police.
But here it’s worth mentioning that the border between “soft power”, which forms public values directed against the opposition and in favour of the government, and direct propaganda is quite thin.
Many evening newscasts on state TV tell the stories of happy families who’ve found good jobs in state-owned enterprises, bought property with a preferential loan as well as furniture and household appliances, and are now busy raising their children. This discourse is constantly reproduced by president Lukashenka: “democracy is when the state guarantees you a stable and decent standard of living”. Or, when speaking about the opposition: “all they want is to riot! Riot in the parliament, riot on the squares, get into fights, beat each other with sticks, batter down the windows with wood, stab, crush, kill…”
Belarusian media report daily on events around the world, as long as they can be used to portray the Belarusian government favourably. Belarus Segodnya — a newspaper with a circulation of 400,000 in a country of 9.5 million, is nearly entirely full of non-political news. Any outrage or any protest in any part of the world is given an entirely negative connotation. It paints a negative picture of the EU’s migration crisis, with a very xenophobic tone — mocking “western tolerance” and waxing lyrical on the collapse of multiculturalism and dangers of the “Islamic threat”. All these negative connotations are meticulously tied into understandings of democracy and liberalism.
Of particular importance here is the truly immense propaganda effort by the Belarusian authorities around the time of the events in Ukraine and EuroMaidan. As the revolution (A fascist right-wing revolution, editor Enough is Enough) in Ukraine did witness many casualties, television channels did all they could to show that spilt blood and civil war were the logical and inevitable results of any attempts to overthrow the powers that be — that any social instability is tantamount to bloody chaos, and that preserving the status quo is always and better than risking change. In every news broadcast, in every “expert commentary”, in every presidential speech, the point is made loud and clear: “Not happy with the authorities? Do you want things to end up like in Ukraine?”
As a result, Belarusians have developed a steady fear of revolutions, which are associated with bombings, shootings and massacres. These days, many average Belarusians, on reflection, would rather suffer new humiliations by the authorities than rise up against them in a Belarusian Maidan.
Does the government ever resort to more open repression?
The government’s arsenal in this area is quite predictable. Young people are threatened with expulsion from university if they’re detained at opposition protests. Older people fear being fired from their jobs. If somebody works for a state enterprise (and there are many of them, for the state controls most of the economy in Belarus), that means there’s been a direct order to her boss from the KGB. If she works in the private sector, then there are other methods of putting pressure on the firm’s director — such as the threat of a thorough tax inspection.
Fines and prison sentences of up to 25 days are actively applied. Activists who “cross the red line” face criminal charges and face prison sentences. While the authorities have many years of experience in dealing with the organised political opposition, they have had to be proactive in learning how to confront politicised youth groups such as antifascists and football hooligans.
As a result of falsified charges or changing administrative cases to criminal ones, dozens of football fans of various Belarusian clubs are now behind bars. Chief among them, of course, are fans whose clubs voiced an explicitly pro-Ukrainian position during Maidan and start of the war in the Donbas.
Belarus is frequently referred to as the “last dictatorship in Europe” — the country is relatively isolated politically and is often seen as an anomaly, cut off from wider European processes. How do you think Belarus fits into the broader global picture?
Today’s triumph of populist, far-right and nationalist forces in several European countries, as well as the election of Donald Trump as US president, all indicate that the danger of losing hard-won freedoms is alive and well. Therefore, dissecting the experience of life under the dictatorship built by Lukashenka, another populist, could be a useful exercise for those living in western countries, long considered bulwarks of democracy.
Among the chatter of politicians and noise of electioneering today, you can already hear the alarm bells ringing, especially in the EU’s eastern member states. Take, for example, the Polish government’s interference with the constitutional court.
The battle against authoritarianism in Europe is far from over. For the effective treatment of any disease, you need to recognise its symptoms early on — such as those which have flourished in Belarus for the past 23 years.
It’s interesting to note that students across the post-Soviet space, who are traditionally catalysts of social change, appear to be suffering from apathy. What’s their situation in Belarus? What are the obstacles to their political activism?
Yes, apathy is typical for the student environment. I’ve heard from student activists that Belarusian students do not fight for their rights for the simple reason that they simply don’t know that they have any to defend.
The desire to get an education and find a good job prevails over all others, and there is no connection in students’ minds between civic activity and a better standard of living. Across higher education, the study of the humanities, which are easily connected to politics, is being reduced. The study and even the mention of political ideologies are cautiously avoided. The higher education system in Belarus strives against the politicisation of students wherever possible, and the emergence of critical thought among the youth.
The pro-government Belarusian Republican Youth Union, which openly declares itself a successor to the Leninist Komsomol, is quite active. They organise events which hail the ruling authorities and the many “achievements” of Lukashenka, as well as massive trolling attacks online. The movement intensifies its work before elections, when it is active in peddling the pro-government media’s line and advertising the president’s speeches.
At the same time, the Youth Union tries to dissuade young people from getting involved in protest — by both the carrot and the stick. For example, when the opposition announces a big demonstration, they’ll organise free concerts and discos that same day. Students are often forced to attend such events, on threat of facing problems at university.
The apathy and political passivity of the Belarusian youth are especially visible when compared to students in other eastern European countries, who readily — and successfully — locked horns with both Soviet and post-Soviet dictatorships. For its part, Belarus survived a large-scale political “cleansing” in the 1930s — practically the entire intelligentsia, including critically-minded communists, was annihilated. Nowadays, the Belarusian youth has no positive example of political struggle to look back to — with the exception of “our grandfathers, who won the war.”
During the Khrushchev-era thaw in Belarus, there were neither strong dissident movements nor a nationalist underground of any note. Supporters of independence and an anti-Soviet intelligentsia only appeared with perestroika, but even towards the end of the 1990s they were incapable of forming a mass movement along the lines of Poland’s Solidarność or Lithuania’s Sajūdis. Yes, Belarus did have its own “National Front”, but it never gained the same mass support as similar movements in other Soviet republics.
The absence of successful examples from the past suppresses the will to resist, and makes it very difficult for opposition movements to attract new supporters.
At the same time, there are some signs that Belarus’s youth are still trying to find a way into politics. How will they accomplish that?
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to say that the youth has entirely dropped out of civic life, or that it has no desire to change anything in Belarus.
But many young people in Belarus have changed the form of their engagement with political life. Alongside their dwindling participation in street protests over the past few years, there’s been a marked trend towards Belarusification [i.e. actions in support of the Belarusian language], which has political overtones — after all, the language issue in Belarus is very politicised. At first glance, the youth subcultures and public initiatives which are becoming popular have no directly political agenda. One example might be cultural events such as “Vyshyvanka Day” [an embroidered traditional Belarusian shirt] or performances by bands who sing in Belarusian, which attract much larger crowds than in years past.
Here, of course, a key point is that these kind of events are much less likely to face state repression than public protests, pickets and demonstrations — with Lukashenka’s endorsement of a “soft Belarusification” of public life, the nationalist paradigm is in higher demand by the authorities.
Furthermore, social initiatives continue to develop on a number of agendas — whether ecological, charitable, or even anti-capitalist. The Food not Bombs group, for example, distributes free food to the poor and homeless. Freemarket is an attempt to exchange goods and services on a wholly non-commercial basis. Another example is the Critical Mass movement which began in Minsk, and stands for environmentally-friendly public transport. Yet despite these groups’ formally non-political stance, the state nonetheless keeps a watchful eye on their events.
Whether this primarily cultural struggle is actually effective in resisting a dictatorship is a very controversial question. Still, during perestroika it was exactly these cultural circles of dissidents which laid the foundations of mass political movements. And while opposition political parties, due to their legal status, can easily simply be taken over by the government, it’s more of a headache to exercise control over these informal youth movements. Who knows? Perhaps, one day, their unpredictability, decentralised structures and engagement with the public could even become, under certain conditions, an instrument of change.
Translated by Maxim Edwards and Tom Rowley.