Two developments have been dominating discussions in Belarus in recent weeks. The first of these took place in Grosseto, Italy. On July 21, Violetta Skvortsova of Belarus won the triple jump at Europe’s junior track-and-field championship. During the awards ceremony, the organizers played the anthem of Bosnia-Herzegovina instead of Belarus. Having heard the beginning of the tune, Skvortsova stepped down from the podium and refused to climb back despite the threat of disqualification. When, however, the organizers understood their own mistake, they issued an apology and staged a new awards ceremony. By July 26, more than three million people watched the video online of Skvortsova leaving the podium (Youtube, July 23), and the incident plunged her fellow-countrymen into a heated debate. Many praised Skvortsova for Belarusian patriotism, while some others opined that Skvortsova pledged allegiance to the wrong anthem and flag (Svaboda.org, July 24).
To be sure, in 1992, Belarus legitimized the white-red-white flag and coat of arms that derived their legacy from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, in a referendum held in May 1995, Belarusians overwhelmingly (75.1 percent) voted to replace these symbols with modified versions of Soviet Belarus’s coat of arms and green-and-red flag. Unlike subsequent referenda and elections, the 1995 referendum was never accused of having been fraudulent. Nevertheless, since 1995, the officialdom and the opposition have pledged allegiance to different national symbols.
In addition, many in the opposition continue to believe that the true anthem of Belarus is “Mahutny Bozha” (“O God Almighty”), whose lyrics were written by Natalia Arsenneva, with music by Mykolai Rovensky. This, however, was not the anthem Skvortsova was listening for while at the podium. The official anthem of Belarus was composed by Mikhas Klimkovich (lyrics) and Nestor Sokolovsky (music). One of the problems with the “Mahutny Bozha” anthem is that the author of its lyrics collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
According to a ten-year-old national poll by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), 59.2 percent of Belarusians approved of the 1995 national symbols, 12.1 percent did not, and 26.3 percent were indifferent (IISEPS, January 2007). Skvortsova definitely takes those symbols to heart. “When you are competing far away from home,” she said in an interview, “the state symbols on your uniform and the anthem in your honor are those few things that connect you with your homeland. […] I dreamed of running at a stadium with the [national] flag and I did. I wanted to hear my country’s anthem. And even though it required a replay of the awards ceremony, this happened, too.” Her interview is titled “How emotions made Violetta Skvortsova a champion and a YouTube star” (Tut.by, July 26).
By coincidence, at about the same time, the results of Gallup’s 2017 Global Emotions Report (Gallup.com, 2017) made it to Belarus and became the second most debated topic in the country. Belarusians turned out to be the least emotional people out of 142 national groups probed by Gallup. The outcome is based on whether or not the respondents experienced certain feelings “yesterday”: five of the questions pertain to positive and five to negative feelings. Paraguayans appear to lead the world in positive feelings, whereas the Yemeni people have the fewest positive experiences. In terms of negative feelings, Iraqis are at top of the global continuum whereas the people of Kyrgyzstan are at the bottom. Belarusians registered the lowest frequency of yes-responses, 37 percent, to questions about positive and negative feelings combined. For comparison, the world’s most emotional people are Ecuadorians, with 60 percent of yes-responses. Belarusians reacted to that “emotionless” categorization with a great deal of emotion. The most widespread interpretations ascribe this apparent lack of feelings to their suppression during Soviet times or Belarusians’ much longer history of living under the rule of outsiders (Svaboda.org, July 23).
Whether or not these interpretations are valid, certain emotions apparently defy suppression, and the Skvortsova episode is but one confirmation of this fact. In some cases, though, levelheaded Belarusians try their best to quell anxiety on the part of outsiders and parody their emotions on Belarus. Thus, Andrei Porotnikov, who conducts the Belarus Security Blog, suggests that “the situation around Zapad 2017 [the upcoming Belarusian-Russian military exercise] is ever-increasingly assuming the nature of hysteria. I would not be surprised,” remarks Porotnikov, “if this hysteria in neighboring countries were initiated and funded by Russia. The goal is transparent. It is to demonstrate that, as a state, Belarus has foggy prospects; whereas, Moscow can do whatever it wishes in Belarus—whenever. Therefore, the European Union and the USA have nothing to talk about with Minsk. Only with Moscow does talking make sense” (Euroradio, July 24). For his part, the deputy chief of staff of the Belarusian Army, Major General Pavel Muraveiko, described the plan for the Zapad 2017 exercise with meticulous attention to detail at the 858th Plenary Meeting of the Forum for Security Cooperation (Osce.org, July 12).
A mock advisory—“How to communicate about Belarus: Advice to Western colleagues”—also deals with emotions of meaningful others. This document consists of ten “friendly suggestions.” For example, the phrase “Europe’s last dictatorship” ought to be used no less than on five occasions; pictures and videos of military parades with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his youngest son wearing a weird uniform are a must, as are pictures of riot police, women with extremely bright makeup and miniskirts and of monuments to Vladimir Lenin. You should also mention, the satirical document says, that you planned to be at some place but were not allowed and you sensed you were spied on. Visiting Belarus is not necessary; you can creatively reformat what others have aired. If, however, you choose to come, make sure the weather is nasty as an overcast sky is in perfect harmony with Soviet music written for marching (34Mag.net, July 26).
Setting a reasonable tone on account of Belarus is indeed overdue (see EDM, October 2, 2012). If even seemingly emotionless people understand that, so should the rest.