My worries about an inevitable Maidan in Belarus proved to be exaggerated and unfounded last year, when the country went to the polls for the Presidential elections. Unlike in 2006 and in 2010, there were no mass protests this time, and the elections were duly won by the incumbent President Lukashenka for the fifth time in a row. My friends from Belarus, who by the way did not think much of the President and did not have illusions about the state of democracy in their country, were quick to dismiss my worries: “Our people are not like people in Ukraine, who stand up for their rights and freedoms”. And in fact many political commentators have observed that if the 2015 elections were a rather quiet affair, this may have had a lot to do with the events in Ukraine starting in November 2013, where the “Revolution of Dignity” was followed by chaos, separatism, “terrorism” and war. People in Belarus apparently did not want any of that.
I happened to arrive in Minsk just a few days before the Independence Day celebration on the 3rd of July. Incidentally, Belarus, unlike Ukraine, does not celebrate its independence from the Soviet Union, but rather the liberation of Minsk from the Nazi occupation on the 3rd of July 1944. Minsk, with its long and wide alleys and its monumental Independence Square, was overflown with red-green flags everywhere, almost North Korea style. I don’t think I had seen so many flags in my life and probably never will until I go back to Minsk for the next Den Nezalezhnasсi. Soviet-era jets and other rather vintage military aircraft, preparing for the air show, were flying low over Minsk a couple of days before Independence Day already. It was a strange spectacle. On the day of the celebration, when the night concert ended at around midnight and people began to move to the closest metro station, which was due to close in less than a hour, like on any usual day, no exceptions made, the large sidewalks of Prospekt Pobeditelei were overflown with a seemingly endless walking crowd for no less than 50 minutes under a torrential rain.
A few weeks ago, during the opening ceremony of Paraolympic Games, a man belonging to the Belarusian delegation was celebrated in the Russian media for defying the ban on Russian athletes and bravely carrying a large Russian flag as a symbol of solidarity between the Belarusian and the Russian nations. But you will not find a lot of sympathy for Russia among ordinary inhabitants of Belarus these days.
“I hate Russia, I almost got married to a Russian woman”, said Dmitri, as we are having a beer in a bar in central Minsk. Another young man sitting with us, who incidentally was incredibly nice, almost unnervingly nice, and smiled like a overgrown boy all the time, insisted on talking to me in Belarusian, even if I made it clear that I was a foreigner and that unfortunately I spoke only Russian. It was fun for a change, because in three weeks in Minsk I heard speaking Belarusian only from this guy, some woman working at the art gallery Ў, an institution famous for its focus on Belarusian identity, and the voice announcements in the subway.
The conversation then moved on to President Lukashenka. I am not one of these nosy visitors who always ask tactless questions, preferring to discreetly avoid some honestly quite trite subjects, but this was just the way the conversation went and I don’t remember how it happened.
“I hate him”, said Dmitri, looking demonstratively around himself, just in case somebody was listening. “Our President has schizophrenia, it is documented”, told me Maria, another young woman, almost whispering. In Belarus, the fear of being listened to or spied on by the local secret police seems to be universally widespread. People are very carefully of what they write on social media and in their private chats too, because in Belarus people believe that being spied on is a fact of life as the sun rising every morning. When talking about the political establishment in a less than flattering manner, people were careful not to be too loud even in the open street. Maybe I had my little encounter with some form of espionage too, although I cannot be sure. I don’t know who it was, but when my wife phoned me from England to Belarus, many times somebody else would pick up the call instead of me.
“Where is my husband?”, my wife would ask.
“He is coming, he is just resting”, the voice on the opposite end of the line would reply.
“Who are you?” asked my wife, losing her patience.
“Who are you?” came the reply.
“I am his wife”, said my wife, by now infuriated.
“Well, if you are his wife, then I am his lover” … the woman’s voice replied. They certainly did not lack a sense of humor, the guys from the local secret services, giving the lie to the their reputation as a bunch of soulless and irony-deprived thugs.
“No jokes about the President on the phone”, laughed a young woman working in a book shop when I shared the story.
The question of Belarusian identity and its relationship with Russia remains a very important and largely unsolved one. It seems indisputable however that not many people, especially young people, seem to believe in the legitimacy of the current government. And the current government is associated with the old Soviet days and in the eyes of many, it stands for a closer relationship with Russia, whereas many would apparently prefer a “progressive” European future.
I should not have been surprised. Somebody had already given me a very quick and simple but clear history lesson about Belarus: Russia had rewritten the history of Belarus during the years of the occupation (since the first partition of Poland in 1772) and even the very name of the country, Belarus, was actually nothing more than Russian propaganda done with the technology of the time, writing history books. I was a bit puzzled hearing this I have to admit, but I assumed that my Belarusian friends should have known better, since it was their country. Arguably Belarusians are not even Slavic people, they called themselves Litvini and they constituted the bulk of the population of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, only to be later conquered by the Russians and russified. And the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the “Republic of the Poles, Lithuanians and Belarusians”, was a European state, with European values, that it is to say, of which modern day Belarus and Belarusians aspire to be the natural heir.
There is a passage in the writings of Kapuscinski, an ethnic Pole born in 1932 in Pinsk, a town that today lies on the territory of Belarus, where he recalls that before the national “awakening” at the end of the XIX century, when the illiterate peasants in the area of today Belarus were asked “What nationality are you?”, they would not respond “Russian” or “Belarusian”, because they did not have a concept of national identity as we understand it: they would reply “Orthodox”. These disputes around the historical identity of the Belarusian people would appear to be meaningless questions which could be restricted to professional historians or even archaeologists, but these notions find wide usage and could cynically be exploited to determine the future of a country. It happened in Ukraine, where the creation of a “European” Ukrainian identity, the manipulation of history and the conflict in the Donbass have probably estranged and made Russians and Ukrainians enemies for many years to come. It could easily happen in Belarus too.
Were it not for the Belarusian police state, a Maidan style revolution would already have happened in Belarus too a long time ago. And it will happen as soon as the state loosens its grip. Lukashenka will go one day or another, and who will succeed him will not necessarily be able to resist the pressure of outside groups wanting to export “European values” and “democracy” to Belarus too.