Words matter. If only because they have the power to nudge an individual to see things from a wholly new angle. In that regard, the exchange between Mikhail Babich, Russia’s ambassador to Minsk, and the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) proves particularly meaningful. Two key phrases stand out in the MFA’s response to Babich’s recent interview with RIA Novosti (RIA Novosti, March 14). First, “Ambassador Babich has not yet grasped the difference between a federal district [i.e., administrative groupings of Russia’s oblasts and republics] and an independent state.” And second, “Frankly, there is not always enough time to read Babich’s interviews; but they all resemble one another in that their attendant mentor’s tone does not change much” (Belta.by, March 15).
It is important to note that, in colloquial Russian, “mentor” connotes more of a condescending preacher than a trusted counselor. So while many Belarusians have not yet cut the umbilical cord connecting them to mother Russia, the MFA’s aforementioned rebuke can be read as a step in that direction. It is what social science refers to as an act of “othering.” This concept is not about disliking someone; Belarusians, as underscored in dozens of surveys, still tend to consider Russia a close friend. Rather, “othering” suggests a conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified entity (in this case Russia) may pose a challenge to the favored group (in this case, Belarusians) unless they recognize they are not integral to that entity.
From this perspective, what exactly Babich’s interview contained may well be of secondary importance, although Tut.by’s Artyom Shraibman provides a useful roundup of its major points. First, the Russian envoy’s remarks to RIA Novosti include an evocative vocabulary. For example, “one should not teach Russia how to live,” and one should not “mobilize the electorate to forge an image of an enemy”—both in response to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s pronouncements to the media on March 1 (see EDM, March 7, 14). Babich’s second main point was that trusted ways of pressuring Moscow no longer work: “It is not worth thwarting the Eurasian [Economic] Union’s processes, because of our bilateral Union State problems.” The third point was a traditional evocation of Belarus’s crucial dependency on Russia’s aid. And finally, the Russian diplomat stated that if Minsk desires concessions, it will need to commit itself to tighter integration (Tut.by, March 14).
Yet another notable exchange occurred one week prior to Babich’s interview, when Lukashenka’s press secretary, Natalia Eismont quipped, in a TV appearance, that the word “dictatorship” has been overused so much it occasionally acquires a satirical or even positive meaning. As such, she continued, demand for dictatorship, as an antithesis to disorder and chaos, may grow throughout the world. Besides, dictatorship is our brand, suggested Eismont (Tut.by, March 7). The overwhelming reaction of opposition-minded Belarusians (Tut.by, March 11) was predictable outrage. Whereas, commentators with closer links to the “power vertical” in Minsk observed that the term “dictatorship” had shed its negative connotations because of the growing demand around the world for national sovereignty. So if even the president of the United States as well as the leaders of Poland and Hungary are accused of dictatorial ways, Belarus—which has emphasized strong presidential power for the past 25 years—no longer seems so marginal (NSN, March 13).
Both sets of responses thus literalized a sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek remark about a tired and overused term. Even ardent supporters of Western-style democracy promotion from among respected academics did not consider Belarus a “dictatorship” when the catchphrase “Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship” was coined 14 years ago (CNN, April 20, 2005). Hence, in 2005, Belarus scholar David Marples asserted that “there have remained important outlets for the opposition” but that “dictatorship [was] beginning to take shape” (see EDM, June 8, 2005). He repeated the exact same formula six years later: i.e., Belarus “wasn’t a true dictatorship before 2010 and may not be now… But it has taken a very significant step in this direction” (Eurozine, February 6, 2011). Yet, if Belarus was not labeled a full-fledged dictatorship then, there are even fewer reasons to view it as such today. Moreover, one may want to challenge the notion that all reasonable and benevolent people will always want Western-style democracy. After all, Modernization Theory suggests that democracy is an outcome of development, and consequently, by that set of criteria, present-day Belarus is by no means behind the curve.
Finally, Pavel Daneiko, the director of the Minsk-based IPM Business School, a private business consultancy, and a veteran opposition-minded thinker himself, confirmed that words matter by saying something quite unusual for his circle. In an interview with the online opinion journal KYKY, he noted, “If a society is not imbued with a value system that agrees [on the inherent importance of] private property but certain [businesses] are still transferred into private hands, claiming that is now private property,” the only possible outcome is oligarchy of the kind that exist in Russia and Ukraine. In contrast, in Belarus, private businesses have been relying not on former assets of the state but have been growing from the ground up; while at the same time, the population was gaining a more favorable attitude toward private property. This amounts to a much more “American model” of starting and developing a business. And just as you cannot implant that attitude from the corridors of power, likewise a democracy cannot result from perorations and wishful thinking. Daneiko used the example of British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is part of the political elite that used to be against Brexit but is now acting on the will of the people. “This situation does not lend itself easily to our understanding,” observed Daneiko, “as we are always inclined to fight to the bitter end” (KYKY, March 14). As could be expected, much of the opposition perceived Daneiko’s pronouncement as nothing short of sacrilege and an indirect approval of Lukashenka’s rule. But it is exactly because of this group’s willingness “to fight to the bitter end” that much of Belarusian society rejects their politics.
In summary, these various aforementioned remarks made in recent weeks have arguably collectively contributed to Belarusians’ self-awareness and national consolidation at least as much, if not more than, all of the persistent political chatter of the last quarter century.