Belarus Defies Clichés

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 117

(Source: Reuters)
Even after more than twenty years of statehood, Belarusians have not developed a distinctive national identity. In most countries of the Old World, the marker of identity is language. According to the internet portal Budzma.org, Novak, a Minsk-based sociological firm, conducted a national survey devoted to the use of and mass attitude to the Belarusian language in Belarus. In 2012, only 23 percent of Belarusian adults attested to fluency in the Belarusian language (in 2009, 34 percent did). At the same time, only 3.9 percent of Belarusians use Belarusian all the time (in 2009, 5.8 percent did). Almost half of all respondents (46.5 percent) attributed not communicating in Belarusian to the fact that the Belarusian language milieu is non-existent, whereas almost one-third attributed this condition to their own ignorance of Belarusian. More than half of Belarusians (52.4 percent) are against broadening the use of the Belarusian language in business, whereas only 33 percent are in favor of that. About half of Belarusians (48.4 percent) are against more active use of Belarusian in the army, while 35 percent would welcome such a policy. The same pertains to use of Belarusian in legal practice or jurisprudence: 51.7 percent are against more Belarusian in that area and 36.5 percent are in favor. When respondents are allowed to name more than one native language, 52.4 percent name Belarusian, and 78.7 percent name Russian. It appears, therefore, that 35 percent of Belarusians attest to having two native languages. Only 29.5 percent of Belarusians said they would like to improve their knowledge of the Belarusian language and only 14.6 percent of Belarusians would like to constantly use Belarusian at work, although as many as 40.7 percent would like to see more movies in Belarusian (t-styl.info, May 31). 
Because Belarus resides almost entirely within a Russian language-based information space, Belarusians’ geopolitical leanings continue to interest researchers. According to Demoscope, a Russian demographic portal, about half of all Belarusians have relatives in Russia and one-third of them have close friends there. Only 17.5 percent of Belarusians have never been to Russia, while 51.6 percent have been to Russia multiple times (http://demoscope.ru/weekly/2008/0329/analit02.php). In this regard, the following data regarding the Belarusians’ contacts with the countries of the European Union, yet another center of gravity in Europe, seem particularly illuminating. According to the European Commission for Home Affairs, in 2011, for the second year in a row, Belarus was the world leader in terms of the number of acquired Schengen visas per 1,000 residents. In 2011, Belarusian citizens received 580,000 C-type (qualifying for up to 90 days of stay) Schengen visas (a significant number for a country with a population of less than 10 million) – 150,000 more than in 2010. For comparison, citizens of China (with a population of 1.3 billion) received about one million Schengen visas, whereas citizens of Turkey, a country seven times more populous than Belarus, received only 592,000 visas. With 61 Schengen visas per 1,000 residents, Belarus is far ahead of Russia (36 visas), Ukraine (24 visas) and Georgia (13 visas). Even in absolute, not relative, terms Belarus is the world’s fifth highest recipient of Schengen visas. This is despite the fact that Belarusians pay 60 euros for their Schengen visa – much more than citizens of other post-Soviet countries who pay only 35 euros (generation.by/news5407.html). This information implies frequent trips undertaken by Belarusians to the EU and is difficult to reconcile with the image of their country being the “last European dictatorship” – one more indication that the cliché-ridden thinking is inadequate for understanding Belarus.
And yet, as Mao Zedong once said, the wind from the east prevails over the wind from the west. For many years in a row, the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies has included the following question in its quarterly surveys: If you were to choose between two alternatives, joining the EU or unification with Russia, what would you choose? The Russia option prevailed over the EU option until 2009; in 2010, the EU option was briefly more popular; but by now, Russia has reclaimed its geopolitical advantage. According to the March 2012 survey, 47 percent of Belarusians would opt for unification with Russia, whereas 37.3 percent would opt for joining the EU (http://www.iiseps.org/press5.html). 
Russia has just delivered the third tranche ($440 million) of its stabilization loan to Belarus after a three month delay. According to Arkady Moshes, Director of the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood and Russia research program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, the transfer of this tranche is one more victory for Alyaksandr Lukashenka and a PR disaster for the Kremlin. This is because the entire loan and especially its third tranche were conditioned by the fully-fledged launch of the Belarusian privatization program whereby Russian tycoons were expected to obtain lucrative assets in Belarus. But nothing like this has transpired. Moreover, three weeks prior to Putin’s visit, Lukashenka, adept at using undiplomatic language, stated publicly that Russia “has no resources to strangle Belarus,” and still got away with it. Moshes believes that in the near future, Lukashenka’s appetite for financial support with no strings attached will only grow. Meanwhile, Moscow cannot afford to spoil its relationship with Minsk let alone twist Lukashenka’s arm in order to get concessions on Belarusian industrial property (ej.ru/?a=note&id=11865). 
Indeed, when Russian Ambassador to Minsk Alexander Sourikov stated that Belarus should switch to the Russian ruble because the country would not survive another financial crisis, President Lukashenka dismissed it with remarkable ease. Among other things, Lukashenka rejected Ambassador Sourikov’s proposals as irresponsible and likely to “destroy the common economic space.” The Belarusian President asserted that the privatization of Belarusian state-owned industries will be pursued anyway, but that “this is our [Belarus’s] privatization, and it is up to us to decide what to sell, for how much and under what kinds of conditions.” Finally, he said that Belarus is ready to forgo the establishment of the Russian-Belarusian truck-producing joint venture (which would unify the MAZ factory in Minsk with the KAMAZ factory in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny in Tatarstan, Russia) if the initially agreed upon parity of 50 percent of shares in Russian and 50 percent in Belarusian hands is not to the liking of the Russian side (gazetaby.com/cont/print.php?sn_nid=46339). Considering that Belarus was only recently in the grips of a major financial crisis, the vitality and resilience of its political regime is nothing short of remarkable. And with the Belarusians’ cultural affinity recently having swung back toward Russia, Minsk’s ability to maintain Moscow at arm’s length is even more notable.