Two texts on issues of existential importance for Belarus appeared at the end of May. The author of the first is Sergei Lepin, an archpriest of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Belarusian exarchate (regional entity) and a chairperson of its Information Department. On several occasions in the past, champions of the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) have criticized Lepin for emphasizing major symbols of Belarusian national memory, like the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Belarusian People’s Republic (Telescope, April 5, 2018). This time, Lepin shared his experience of being interviewed by Euroradio, an opposition-minded Belarusian media outlet funded by American donors and administered from Poland (Serge-le.livejournal.com, May 25).
Euroradio has been conducting a series of interviews devoted to the so-called “Belarusian Idea,” the raison d’être for Belarus as a nation-state; and recently, Lepin was chosen as an interviewee (Euroradio, May 16). To Lepin, there is little sense in expanding the content of the Belarusian Idea beyond such notions as the Constitution, state borders, currency, representation at the United Nations, embroidery and language. On language, however, Lepin’s view diverged from the canonical opinion of the opposition. He essentially mocked the widespread notion that everybody would fall in love with the Belarusian language if it replaced liturgical Church Slavonic and Belarusian priests called on their flocks to memorize some poems by Yanka Kupala (a national poet, 1882–1942). This, according to Lepin, is unlikely. Moreover, to conduct sermons only in Belarusian “would mean building on an inadequate foundation, perhaps not on sand but rather on a volcano. One should not deceive oneself and engage in wishful thinking: Belarusians, for the most part, alas, have a lousy knowledge of their language,” observed Lepin. In contrast, he effectively shared his understanding of Belarus as a civic (rather than ethnic) nation: “Belarusians are not those people whose ancestors were Belarusians. Rather, Belarusians are those whose children will be Belarusians. If you decided to exclude people with wrong genes, wrong parents, a wrong history, a wrong jaw, a wrong religion, a wrong language, and a wrong profession, then yours is an anti-national idea with a level of political thinking equivalent to a mathematician unable to determine the cube of three” (Serge-le.livejournal.com, May 25)
The second text (Zautra, May 26) is a summary of Pavel Daneiko’s interview at the annual event called “Belarus Future Unconference,” conducted by the Center of New Ideas in a transformed industrial building in downtown Minsk (Unconference2019.ideaby.org, accessed June 1). Daneiko leads the IPM Business School. Though previously a tough critic of the political regime, more recently he has developed a much more positive way of thinking about developments in Belarus (see EDM, March 19).
At the “Unconference,” Daneiko shared his opinions on five issues. First, why is it that Belarusians en masse come across as unhappy? Why do they grumble so much about life? The latter comes naturally, believes Daneiko, if someone’s stereotypical ideas as to what should have been done do not match reality. Quite a few people think Belarus is the anomaly because it did not conduct mass privatization and did not enter the European Union. Had both things been done, everybody would be happy—or so some people think. In reality, however, Belarusians have progressed a long way from a total rejection of a market economy to now living in one of the business-friendliest environments in Europe. Losses befell many on that path. “My business school, for example,” observed Daneiko, “was closed on four occasions, and I had to reside abroad.” Predicaments like that make people think everything is bad. Today, however, 5 percent of college students already have their own businesses, and 46 percent of Belarusians overall want to own one. In Russia, only 2 percent profess such an intention (Zautra, May 26).
Second, will democracy come to Belarus? Democracy, Daneiko asserted, is the most effective governance tool. But one has to understand how to build it under existing conditions and acknowledge some potential strikingly negative consequences of promoting democracy in societies not yet ready for it.
Third, Belarusians like to follow proven rules of the economic game. In contrast, Russians tend to establish their own specific rules, whereas Ukrainians do not have a taste to follow any. Belarus, therefore, has better odds for entrepreneurial success because further economic progress depends on coordinated actions of the entrepreneurs. Yet, a deficiency of mutual trust still persists; so to transform a society, one needs forty years and two generations. But Belarusians still have a better chance of succeeding than some of their neighbors.
Fourth, however paradoxical it may seem, a delay in mass privatization has been good for Belarusian businesses. Russia and Ukraine started privatization before being ready for its civilized forms. As a result, the societal value system was badly damaged. In contrast, in Belarus, a marked delay created sustainable and positive forms of business. Among the most successful has been the cosmetics industry, where there are presently 49 private entities. Daneiko shared his belief that mass privatization in Belarus will begin in 3–4 years.
Fifth, in Belarus, where the population size is currently 6.7 percent below what it was in 1989 (not 29–32 percent lower, as in Latvia and Lithuania), there is a reasonable rate of outflow. If those who leave do so because they were unable to find opportunities at home, this is normal. However, if Belarus enjoys positive economic dynamics, 20–25 percent of those who left will return. The rest will integrate into the elites of other countries and then help Belarus develop economic contacts with them. According to Daneiko, this will create vital communications that cannot be created otherwise. Entrepreneurs from the United States entered the Chinese market through the Chinese who lived in America. Similarly, one of the most successful reforms in Poland was facilitated by the repatriates (Zautra, May 26).
Daneiko’s message exemplifies the type of positive thinking many Belarusians believe their country desperately needs today. As President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself has repeatedly stated, the only factor that can undermine Belarusian statehood is an unsatisfactory state of the economy (Belta, March 23). The above-cited Orthodox clergyman Lepin, meanwhile, has noted that if somebody is after Belarusian independence, Belarusians will not be able to defend it by a national idea alone. Something more tangible is required (Serge-le.livejournal.com, May 25).