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BELARUS - December, 2000 - Words can kill -- did you know that?
Simple words, had been said by three men, looking slightly confused and tired: "Soviet Union [does] not exists any more" -- those are words that had killed millions of Soviet people at one stroke.
War veterans and young pioneers, sportsmen and scientists, doctors and all the babies that were born that historical night -- they all died with the Great Empire to be revived as citizens of the newborn independent states. I'm sure that was the first case in the world's history of such mass-annihilation of political identity.
The era of communistic administration was coming to its end and nobody knew what future could be expected in the divided republics.
What follows is a private view to the events of the last ten years and the present situation in one of the ex-Soviet republics -- Belarus. My point of view can be erroneous and preconceived, that's why I'll try to expound facts and nothing but the facts.
Any social process have to be considered in the context of historical, economical and cultural peculiarities of the society observed; sometimes the causes and motives of local conflicts and tragedies become understandable only after detailed examination of the circumstances of their origin. Therefore let's make a short trip into the history of Belarus.
Belarus -- in Soviet Union it's name was: " The Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic" is a European country, it is situated on the west of the Russian Federation and to the east of Poland. Those two countries have always played an important role in history of Belarus.
In the 10th - 12th centuries some Belorussian lands consisted of Kiev's Rus. Later almost the whole territory of modern Belarus and some western and eastern lands had formed the Great Lithuanian Princedom (it had no connection with Lithuania - just similar names.) After 1569 Belarus was included into Rzeczpospolita and at the end of 18th century it was -- some historians call that "occupation" some "reunion" -- one way or another, the whole of Belarus except the western part had reported to Russia until the Great October Socialist Revolution -- Now stop.
The history of Belarus is the history of conquering and reconquering its territories by its powerful and aggressive neighbours. Each power, naturally, had been setting up its own rules and, first of all, its language and religion.
Belarus changed hands many times, and every new power turned it now Roman Catholic, now Orthodox and the native Belorussian language was prohibited in all cases.
That was a battle of West and East and Belarus has always been between them, "between the devil and the deep blue sea", "between the hammer and the anvil" as it's said in Russian.
Now let's see what happened to Belarus in the time of Communist power.
By 1917 Belarus had no exact border of division between its Russian and Polish parts. In 1918 its territory was occupied by the German army, and in 1919 it came into the Soviet Union as a union republic.
Then and again Russia and Poland divided that stumbling block - Belarus - and it's western part went to Poland in 1921. In November 1939 the western territories were reunited with Soviet Belarus. Thus started the Soviet period in Belorussian history.
What was it? Occupation? Suppression? Development? I don't know. Nobody knows.
After being absorbed as part of the Soviet Union, all the republics shared one common history, which couldn't be divided into national parts. The tremendous size of these territories and the polyglot population were in need of unification; national, ethnic, cultural, religious and language differences - all that disturbed the building of one whole country - were subsumed.
Belarus lost its national peculiarities sooner than the others, and only it's western territories, which were closer to Poland, and part of intelligentsia, kept their traditions and language.
I know that most of the conscious Belorussians wouldn't agree with my opinion. God knows! how I wish I was wrong, but I promised to expose only facts, and the facts are that the Belorussian language is not used in daily intercourse, especially in cities, even more - speaking in Belorussian, one is taking the risk of being accused of nationalism or, at minimum, to be ridiculed.
Why are people so aggressive about maintaining their own language? Is it a heritage of the Soviet system? From the historical point of view - no; the process of the national self- determination is deeper and it does not cahnge after only two or three generations.
But the last three generations of Belarussians were born and grew up under the Soviet system and as a result they almost lost their national peculiarities.
The return to the national sources is natural, but Belarus didn't do it even being independent. Why? There are two explanations: psychological and social.
The title of the citizen of a great country, in this case the Soviet Empire, changed people's psychology. That's why every manifestation of independence was frightening for people (mostly the old and middle-aged ), depriving them of their hope for a return to the habitual and safe past. Is it slavish psychology? I don't think so. It is common human psychology.
- "I was well off by communism - now the new government is robbing me."
- "We all were like one big family, but today we are foreigners."
- "I wasn't worried about my future, I didn't know even such a word as 'inflation.'"
- "Soviet Union defeated the fascism, and now - what a shame! - Germans render alms to us!" [Render alms = give charity.--Ed.]
One can ask: "What about the victims of the Soviet regime? Is it possible to love that cruel system with it's prisons, repressions, executions of innocent people, total shadowing and endless fear?! Isn't it a slavish psychology?"
I have no answer.
What a strange creature the human being is! It is capable of adapting to any conditions.
Sometimes people do not want to know the truth (and are they only Soviet people?)
The less you know - the better you sleep. Everybody wants to sleep well.
Of course, Soviet people were not blind, but who wants to pay for civic courage? - a few, heroes, madmen, geniuses.
One of them has to pay for his courage with his life, another by banishment. People looked at them with fear and regret, but towards the evening they gathered in their kitchens to discuss forbidden books or to sing prohibited songs of the disgraced authors (very quietly, of course.)
Is this so ridiculous? That was their life, and it can't be ridiculous or awkward; that was the only life they had.
For war veterans and those who were born during the World War II (we call it the Great Patriotic War ) the collapse of Soviet Union meant the end of their lives. Most of them conceived the change of power as the abuse of patriotic ideals, as the ingratitude for all they've done in that war. Especially when Baltic ex- republics started the politics of discrimination, the Russian- speaking people in their countries calling them "occupants" and "murderers".
During the war a lot of Belorussian soldiers who were part of the Soviet army were liberating Baltic territories from fascists. It is a fact that Stalin had his own plans for those territories, but soldiers knew only one thing: fascism was evil and it had to be destroyed. It wasn't their fault that "liberation" was superseded by Stalin's repressions. They didn't know about that at the battlefield.
"Soviet Union, communism gave them freedom - and now they call us "occupants"?! I wish communists would come back and teach them a lesson!"
Old people don't want to know that "country" and "regime" are not the same, that a victory can not be communistic or capitalistic; they don't want to realize that the past was better only because they were younger -- But they do realize that it is too late for them to start a new life and they want the past to come back.
The changes brought to old and middle-age people of Belarus one more offensive event: Russia and the Russians had lost their importance in the opinion of the young generation.
Young people blamed their parents for unjustified impotence, accused Russia of the politics of "elder brother", which had made their country the servant of Russia, it's raw material's appendante. Russia, with it's contradictions, economical problems, inner conflicts did not attract young people any more.
The younger generation saw rich West countries, compared them with Russia and that comparison was not in favour of Russia.
"That damned communists are guilty in repressions, they are guilty in our poverty. Let Russia first solve it's own problems and separate with its communistic past!"
Hundreds of nations populated Russia's territory and the territory of ex-Soviet Union; some of them had submitted to SU peacefully (as Belarus did, for example); but some regions have been at war with Russia since time immemorial: first of all, Asia and Caucasian region.
Today a lot of people in Belarus are afraid of the consequences of union with Russia mostly because of it's local national and religious conflicts; they are afraid that terrorism could spread into Belarus.
Belarussian President Lukashenko has declared many times that none of the Belorussian soldiers would take part in local conflicts in Russia, but a proposed re-union portends a joint defense of the state boards and state integrity - that's why people are anxious about that re-union.
Generally, people's trust in government rather fell during the last ten years. Election struggling, "black" PR, corruption and economic problems - everything that disappointed people and destroyed their trust in democracy.
The new freedom of the mass media added fuel to the fire: the crimes of Soviet government, the truth about so called "countries of democracy" dethroned a myth of a new fair order and a hope of better life.
Today's Belorussian power system could be characterized as administrative- commanding. All the regional executive structures are straightly subordinated to the President. Agriculture has kept a few "kolkhozes" - collective farms - which are profitable and are not considered unproductive, but there are very few successfully working private farms - and no large private farms at all. All the main industrial plants and factories are state property; the state's tax system does not permit a class of small- and middle- producers to germinate. A large private business has to break the law in order to survive. Bureaucracy and corruption are firmly established in the power structures - this is common problem of all the countries in the former Soviet Union, but it could be less in Belarus.
The permanent inflation of the Belorussian ruble and inconsistent economic policy has resulted in a decrease in the standard of living and an increase in economic crimes.
The example of the economic development of ex-socialistic countries, such as Poland, Chekhia and Slovakia, East Germany is not suitable for Belarus (according to the President Lukashenko's words.)
Today Belarus has some kind of "socialistic economics with some tendency of market- regulating".
A lot of people have reasons to be discontented with the government, but they are afraid of the consequences of public protest. They know that here they could be arrested, dismissed from work, or victims of psychological pressure on their families. The official mass media, following the President's words, calls demonstrators "a crowd of idlers and traitors" or "criminals, who have been bought by the West".
It is a fact that the Belorussian opposition has lost its influence during the last five or six years. With the beginning of Lukashenko's administration the prosecution of the opposition became consistent and systematic. The unfair trials of the opposition leaders and informational pressure of the official mass media had compelled the opposition to make a series of wrong steps, which undermined its authority among the people.
First of all, the flight of Zenon Posnyak, the leader of BNF ( Belorussian National Front ) of that time to the USA. His leadership from abroad created a split inside the BNF and, as a result, the number of BNF followers was reduced very much.
The applications for support of the opposition to the Western countries and to the USA, their seeming agitation for Western interests, are not popular even among the adversaries of Lukashenko's regime. The few contacts of the Belorussian opposition with nationalistic parties in Baltic countries, which often propose frankly anti-Russian and sometimes pro-fascist policy, has also little support in Belorussian society.
A baldly non-democratic electoral system was evident during the last Parliamentary elections in October. Most of the opposition candidates were refused a chance to even register for that election. Those who were alloweds to register had no possibility of coverage of their opinions in official mass media. Their leaflets were seized from printing plants. Local executives in various regions urgently recommended to the the head-masters of factories, plants and kolkhozes (collective farms ) that they guarantee providing the required number of votes for the pro- president candidates.
In the end, 97 newly-elected members of the second House of Representatives(HR) are pro-president; 35 of them are the members of the previous HR; only 16 of them are the members of the outside Parties.
All that shows that next year's Presidential elections in Belarus won't be democratic and free; there wouldn't be a chance for opposition candidates.
So, what is positive in Belarus?
The only hope is in our young generation, not connected with communist past, not afraid to resist the regime, well- educated and free-thinking. This generation is growing up yet and I am sure it's time will certainly come.
COMMENTS? QUESTIONS? You can e-mail Natalia here.
NATALIA ABAKANOVITCH is a 25 year old television journalist in Belarus. This is her debut article for The World's Magazine.
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