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BELARUS - February, 2001 -"Are you a Catholic?"
"No! I am Russian!" --- (Two women talk at the bus stop )
The question of creed, religious membership, has always been a question involving policy for Belarus.
What freedom of choice?!?
Czarist Russia is the conqueror -- Belarus turns to Orthodoxy; Poland is here -- and where is Orthodoxy? Now Belorussians are native Catholics! And, vice versa: the more Orthodox in Belarus -- the more Russian it is; the more Catholics -- Poland must be the master of it's territories. In the fourteenth, sixteenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that process took place by turns many times (later the Soviet regime stopped all transformations -- no churches at all ).
Today -- in the twenty-first century -- who needs religious influence? High technologies are the main weapon and argument. But the West has its needs, the East has its needs; as for Belorussians -- nobody asks them.
The argument of goes on between the West (Europe) and East (Moscow) only: " Belarus has always been Catholic/Orthodox ," the say, respectively, " -- so it is a part of Europe/Russia; Belorussian language takes it's origin in Polish/Russian -- so come back, brother, we are one family."
The real reasons for the love expressed by such great brothers are too rough and practical from both sides to be mentioned aloud for the masses: who wants to be the object of trade? But for the politicians trade is habitual work. Belarus is not rich and powerful enough to buy anything; but it is pretty good to be bought. Both for the Western world and Russia buying Belarus is a bargain. The profits are obvious. From an economic standpoint, Belarus has lots to offer: free transit, duty-free trade, cheap man power, cheap natural resources.
And then, of course, there is the political profit. First of all, common borders. Russia is not Japan -- it needs large territories not because of overpopulation, but for more influence on the East (Asia) and West (Europe). Today Belarus is a part of Europe; after reunion with Russia it will be a western border of Russia with Europe.
The Western world is not Japan, too -- it does not need uncultivated territories with perplexed and beggarly populations. But - the more ex-Soviet countries and republics leave the fraternal arms of Russia, the weaker Russia becomes. And then -- Belarus would be the eastern border of the Europe with Russia. So it is not a battle for territories -- it is a battle for perceptual superiority.
One can say: "What battle?! Who is fighting? I do not even know of such a country -- 'Belarus'!"
Well, your ignorance about Belarus could be because you are not a politician. A few years ago, who knew about Yugoslavia? The Yugoslavians themselves and -- the politicians.
Thank God, the situation inside of Belorussian society gives no reason to talk about civil war. But if it was, I wouldn't know on what side of the barricade to be. To my own opinion, both Russia and the West are dangerous allies; they are too powerful and aggressive to consider what is in Belarus's interests. It is better to be independent and neutral. But is it possible to be independent being situated between Russia and Western Europe, between the devil and the deep blue sea?
A few years ago, when the process of reunion between Belarus and Russia was just beginning, President Lukashenko said: "If Russia does not help us, Belarus will turn it's face to the West."
Just imagine, if Belarus turned its face to the West, what would Russia see? -- Hmm, its back, I suppose. Today Belarus and Russia look straight to each other. And what does West see? -- It is hard to be neutral in this throng called Europe.
But let us go back to the battle for perceptual superiority. As I told you before, the territorial membership of Belarus has always defined it's confessional membership. Now a small historical review.
During the years of Soviet power religion was outlawed. Almost all the Orthodox churches were ruined or occupied for civic needs. But a small number of Orthodox churches and convents were left to function; so Orthodox Christians had a possibility to visit their churches. As for Catholicism, it was declared a "harmful hotbed of bourgeois ideas" and prohibited. The point was that the Catholic and Uniat churches were submitted to the Vatican, whereas the center of the Orthodoxy has always been in Russia. It is not a secret that the Orthodox priests in Soviet Union worked with the KGB (they had to), giving the information about their parishioners to the Committee. Very smart: Soviet people have a freedom of choice -- look, damned West! and, at the same time, religious life is under control.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia began to cultivate Orthodoxy among the population. Today the Russian Federation is a secular country, but Orthodoxy is the main and, in some senses, official religion.
And what is happening in Belarus? A battlefield, as usual. And, as usual, Belorussians have got a poor choice.
Both the Vatican and Moscow's Exarchate have activated their efforts to "conquer" Belarus. And during the first years of independence in Belarus, Catholicism and Orthodoxy were equal when judged by the number of parishioners, by influence on social life and culture - until the process of reunion with Russia had begun.
It started with a slogan: "We are brothers, we are Orthodox!" Almost immediately a lot of researchers -- priests and historians -- found hundreds of proofs that Belarus has always been Orthodox and Russian. I asked different people about the necessity of union with Russia; the most popular answer was: "Of course, we need this union. We are Orthodox, we are Russian." (There is no need to mention that all these respondents were Russian-speaking.)
Good work! Belorussian people in Belarus determine themselves as Russian! Not long ago the Patriarch of Moscow and the Whole Russ, Alexsi II, gave Belorussian president Lukashenko a special reward for his activity of uniting two Orthodox nations. "Welcome home, younger brother!" And let's leave the real reasons of uniting for cynical politicians.
At the same time, this does not mean that all the Belorussian Orthodox adherents agree with the official policy of the government, and it also does not mean that all the Catholics in Belarus are against the union.
The political position of the Catholic population of Belarus is complicated. Most of them are Belorussian-- and Polish-speaking Belorussians. For that reason some of the aggressive adherents of the union call them "nationalists" and "Poles" and - God knows, why, - "BNFists" (BNF -- Belorussian National Front, the opposition party ). Naturally, most of the Belorussian Catholics are not happy about the notion of union with Orthodox Russia. But they realize that their Western brothers, who give them financial support, are not that loving a family either. Russian power is a familiar fact of life for Belorussians; at long last, it is not communistic Russia power any more. One Catholic priest told me: "Catholic, Orthodox -- we are all Christians, we are all brothers."
One of the poems of the great Belorussian poet Janka Kupala starts with the words: "Who is coming there?"
It is about hard-working, poor, intimidated and tolerant Belorussian peasants, who do not want to bear their hard destiny any more; so they gathered together and are coming to -- where? And who is coming? Eastern Europeans or Western Russians? Ask any Belorussian -- and he or she will not give you the answer. Nor can I.
COMMENTS? QUESTIONS? You can e-mail Natalia here.
NATALIA ABAKANOVITCH is a 25 year old television journalist in Belarus. This is her second article for The World's Magazine.
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