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Belarus: Views From the Ground

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

In his June 20 text for The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, Grigory Ioffe discussed the prevalence of Russocentric tendencies in the cultural, political and economic sectors in Belarus, and, on the other hand, the country's relative lack of isolation from the West, concluding, among other things, that “the cliché-ridden thinking [was] inadequate for understanding Belarus.”

Below are some relevant statistics from Ioffe's article:

[...] According to Demoscope, a Russian demographic portal, about half of all Belarusians have relatives in Russia and one-third of them have close friends there. Only 17.5 percent of Belarusians have never been to Russia, while 51.6 percent have been to Russia multiple times [...].

[...]

According to the European Commission for Home Affairs, in 2011, for the second year in a row, Belarus was the world leader in terms of the number of acquired Schengen visas per 1,000 residents. In 2011, Belarusian citizens received 580,000 C-type (qualifying for up to 90 days of stay) Schengen visas (a significant number for a country with a population of less than 10 million) – 150,000 more than in 2010. For comparison, citizens of China (with a population of 1.3 billion) received about one million Schengen visas, whereas citizens of Turkey, a country seven times more populous than Belarus, received only 592,000 visas. With 61 Schengen visas per 1,000 residents, Belarus is far ahead of Russia (36 visas), Ukraine (24 visas) and Georgia (13 visas). Even in absolute, not relative, terms Belarus is the world’s fifth highest recipient of Schengen visas. This is despite the fact that Belarusians pay 60 euros for their Schengen visa – much more than citizens of other post-Soviet countries who pay only 35 euros [...]. [...]

And here is a selection of some “views from the ground” – recent posts by Belarusian bloggers about the situation in the country and what it is like for ordinary people to live there.

Minsk-based LJ user vandrauniczy loves to travel [ru] and is upset [ru] that there are too many negative stereotypes about his country, blaming it not only on the current regime, but also on some of the exiled representatives of the Belarusian opposition:

[...] 9.5 million people live in the country, and they want to have world stars [come to Belarus], and they want to have all sorts of world brands enter their market, instead of having to travel abroad for that, but these fighters [EU-based members of the opposition] do not understand this, as they have all of it right in front of them in the foreign lands. I totally cannot grasp how such methods would affect the political problem. I do understand, for example, calls not to do business with companies close to [President Alyaksandr Lukashenka], not to invest money in these companies. But it appears as if the goal is to isolate the country as much as possible – that is, if there's no way to get rid of the dictator, let's do everything so that those who do have an opportunity leave for good, and only [the most unworthy ones] remain. Take those calls to refuse to hold concerts [in Belarus]: the thinking is that the people would be deprived of the much-needed entertainment, they'd hate [Lukashenka] for that and would learn that such entertainment is only possible after the [political] changes have occurred. Personally, I feel nothing but rejection and aggression towards these “bright minds” because of their stance.

[...]

I am categorically against isolation of any country in general, and especially of my native country. For example, the lack of tourists [in Belarus] has nothing to do with the lack of places of interest – it is due to the horrible image of the country that has been created in the long 18 years of [Lukashenka's] rule (the lack of investments has the same explanation, but ordinary citizens do not feel the consequences as much). It is actually really clean here and even when I'm walking around the city at 2 AM, I've never faced danger from packs of stray dogs or groups of thugs. There are problems with service. But the main stereotype [that Belarus is a place] “where they can throw us in jail just because we are foreigners” has no justification whatsoever. [...]

LJ user rastaev writes [ru] about those who consider emigration to the West a better option than staying in Belarus – if not for themselves, then definitely for their children:

My old friend – once a successful businessman, who [had problems with the authorities], had his business taken away from him unlawfully, and even though he managed to keep his honor, [the ordeal drained him psychologically] [...]. He is not participating in any [political activities], isn't going to rallies, isn't trying to prove more than he has proved already.

He's just raising his daughter. A beautiful and bright daughter.

He's hiring foreign language tutors for her, music and drawing teachers, is trying to teach her the basics of programming. In general, he's doing everything so that she could enter adult life as a diversely educated person.

What's so special about it? Many parents do the same. But there's one important little aspect in his educational approach: the words “motherland” and “patriotism” are banned in my friend's house.

My friend is preparing his daughter for a life outside this country. And the daughter knows about it. And she knows why. And since she's a smart kid, she doesn't object.

“In this country, my life has been [wasted], and I don't want my daughter to follow in my steps,” my friend tells me, and I can't argue with him.

[...]

It is sickening here. Unbearably sickening. No matter where you look. [...]

It's sickening to watch how boorishness, ignorance and impunity flourish, how the basic human rights are violated, how innocent people are being thrown in jail and how this gets sealed with the “just” court decisions.

[...]

Sickening to understand that it's impossible to change anything, because a person capable of thinking and sympathizing is deprived of a possibility to influence anything here.

When people wish to express pride for a place they live in, they say “in our country.” When they want to emphasize their contempt, they say “in this country.” [...]

The country isn't to blame, of course. Like the majority of us, it is a victim, too.

[...]

It is not scary to find oneself in a foreign land in the age of fast internet and comfortable airplanes. What's scary is when your native land turns foreign. When the only way to stay in your motherland is to carry it inside you underneath the distant skies of the strange shores.

LJ user head-of-babulka writes [ru] about those who remain in Belarus, coping with reality by ignoring its ugly aspects, tolerating the regime, refusing to get involved in politics, seemingly unaware that eventually they'll have to face the consequences of the long-term destructive actions of the current regime:

[...] But collision with reality will take place sooner or later. The only question is what conclusions a person who'll hit his forehead on it would draw. Will he be able to see his own guilt behind the dirty floors of small-town hospitals, where severely ill people lie in the hallways, post-stroke patients for whom there's not enough space in hospital rooms, and the medical staff, detached and uncaring? When he sends his kids to schools that used to give excellent knowledge just 15 years ago, will he be able to see how rotten they've become, the degradation and opportunism that have replaced the joy and initiative of the teacher's profession? What will he decide when he notices that [schools are] fully staffed with people who do not give a crap about children's education and, naturally, about their future? Will he be able to notice the link between what he sees and the 20 years of the lack of alternative and the complete annihilation of competition of ideas?

Common sense tells me that no, he won't be able to see it. But I would very much want to believe that this person isn't blind, that he is just living with his eyes shut.

In a comment [be] to this post, LJ user genevien explained his decision not to leave Belarus:

[...] Because for me to stay is also one of the methods to influence the situation, to not detach myself from it.

On his blog, he posted [be] a user-created video for the song “Hray” (“Play”) by the Belarusian band Lyapis Trubetskoy, which is banned in Belarus. The video includes footage of the post-election clashes that took place in Minsk in December 2010, and the blogger posted it on the first anniversary of these events because he considers this song “an anthem for the past year [2010] and this year [2011].” (A similar video for this song, also using the December 2010 footage, was created [be] by LJ user manivid, who has also translated the song's lyrics into English.)

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