In many ways, contemporary Belarus bears less and less resemblance to the persistent but worn narratives about this country. And three choice developments from the past several weeks illustrate this point in various telling ways.
First, it is worth examining Yury Zisser’s recent publicized contention about the Belarusian “national idea.” Zisser is the founder and owner of Belarus’s most visited online news portal, Tut.by, and he is also a generous philanthropist (NashaNiva, May 30). He first shared his views at the March 25 Freedom Day commemoration, in downtown Minsk, where he observed that nationalism is a thing of the past and that Belarusians need to focus on what unites, not on what divides them, the latter largely being history (see EDM, April 12). He reiterated and further elaborated his message at a brainstorming event organized by the Minsk-based non-profit Center of New Ideas, on May 19. To the opinion that Belarusians should focus on the future, not the past, Zisser added that speaking Russian does not undermine Belarusian identity, that nationalism equals statehood, and that the most widespread fear of Belarusians is fear of self-expression (Svaboda.org, May 19).
Zisser himself certainly does not share this cited fear. In Eastern and Central Europe, it has not been common for minorities (Zisser is Jewish) to make statements in the name of the majority communities. On top of that, Zisser was born and raised in Lviv, Ukraine, and came to Belarus at the mature age of 28. Little wonder that Zisser’s musings about the Belarusian national idea have been met with some disapproval. For example, the historian Siarhei Ablameika observed that Zisser does not like the Belarusian language and that he emphasizes civic nationalism in a region where all the other nationalisms are rooted in ethnicity. His interviewer provocatively asserted that Belarusians themselves do not show interest in speaking Belarusian and that even the capital of Ukraine remains largely Russian-speaking. But Ablameika replied that while this is indeed the case today, referring to it is “unethical” because it fails to fully understand Belarus’s unique historical situation (Svaboda.org, May 19).
A second instance of clichés fighting real life was on display on May 17, when the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Minsk hoisted a rainbow gay pride flag on the International Day Against Homophobia. Three days later, the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA; in charge of police), expressed regret on that account because Belarusians reportedly remain committed to “traditional values.” In turn, Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei shared two observations. On the one hand, he suggested that every national entity should think twice about the broad consequences of their statements. On the other hand, Makei opined that outsiders imposing their deep-seated attitudes on Belarus and other countries is hardly acceptable either (Tut.by, May 23). In that sense, Makei’s second point endorsed the MIA statement that “the initiative of a foreign country to create problems where they do not exist cannot be considered effective” (EurasiaExpert, May 21).
The latter statement may indeed provide food for thought. Undoubtedly, the status of the LGBT community in Belarus is below that in any Western country. In fact, not so long ago, the president of Belarus himself expressed prejudice against same-sex couples (Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 2014, pp. 163–164, 194–198). Yet, on the other hand, the LGBT lifestyle is no longer criminalized and grassroots attitudes reveal more tolerance than in most non-Western societies. Even more importantly, it is likely that the UK embassy’s initiative will end up being counterproductive precisely in the area British Ambassador Fiona Gibb described as “promoting the LGBT community’s rights and calling society’s attention to this community and to the discrimination it faces” (EurasiaExpert, May 21). Promoting Western attitudes and values outside the collective West likely calls for a more subtle touch, if the above incident can be considered instructive.
Finally, the popular Russian media outlet Lenta.ru seems to have joined Regnum and Eurasia Daily in expressing its disapproval of any manifestation of Belarus declaring its own separateness or independence. This time, Lenta focused on the Victory Day controversy around using the St. George ribbon as a symbol of Russian military glory (see EDM, May 16). “In Belarus, the official academic history […] suffers from an ambiguity. On the one hand, it is called for to justify the necessity of a separate Belarusian state. On the other, the authorities have not yet ultimately endorsed the transformation of national history along the Ukrainian path. The shelves of Belarusian bookstores, however, are full of […] volumes informing readers that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a Belarusian state and that the Polish nobility of the Rzeczpospolita was in reality Belarusian szlachta [Polish word for its historical nobility]” (Lenta.ru, May 30).
Apparently, no latter-day nationalism can justify Belarus’s separateness from Russia, in the eyes of Lenta.ru. And yet, contemporary reality tells a different story. No matter how close Belarus is to Russia, the former is nevertheless a different national community whose identity formation requires distancing itself from the latter. Indeed, that is what Belarus is doing—slowly but surely. However inherent, this requirement does not mean Belarusians will likely be able to unite around one version of their history or change the language of everyday communication any time soon. Similarly, conservative attitudes are probably not going to give way to liberal ones in the near term just because such a socially liberal outlook is prevalent across much of Europe west of Belarus. Thus, staying away from habitual clichés and preconceived notions continues to be the best prescription for foreign policymakers.