Experience and its understanding

Experience and its understanding

What Belarus means for Europe

Unsplash / Jana Shnipelson
09.10.2021 Alexander Morozov

The Belarusian crisis has had many consequences. One of the notable consequences has been an explosion of reflection in different cultural forms. Belarusians have gone through an acute social experience. And now – and this is very noticeable in Europe – Belarusian artists, writers, philosophers, and economists are presenting their understanding of events in many places. Never has the «Belarusian experience» been so actively included in Europe’s own discussions about democracy and about the European future as it is now. Professor Elena Gapova maintains a blog called Analyze Belarus, where she collects links to the best works in the humanities published in world scientific journals and the Berlin blog of a German union of experts on Eastern Europe pulls together commentary from across German media concerning Belarus. You can see clearly how detailed and deeply the Belarusian experience is commented on and discussed. Now almost every festival in Europe has, albeit small, a part of their program dedicated to Belarus.

Three factors have played a role

The first has been the several waves of departure of the educated class from the country over the year. Despite this, however, Lukashenko has not lessened the degree of repression, which has led to there being a massive humanitarian environment outside the country.

The second factor is the headquarters of Tikhanovskaya. It has turned out to be not just a political headquarters in exile, but a kind of «platform» or «hub» that serves as an umbrella uniting many initiatives. Here are just a few of the things that drew my attention in September: the presentation of Olga Shparaga’s (an advisor to Tikhanovskaya) book in Germany, preparation for the opening of Tikhanovskaya’s office in Prague (where several exhibitions and screenings of documentaries dedicated to the struggle of Belarusians were held here during the year), and a meeting of Belarusian think tanks held in Vilnius where it was decided to create a common platform site for discussing reform topics. This conference also announced its cooperation with Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters.

The third factor is that the Belarusian experience of resisting a dictatorship fell into the contour of European discussions taking place after Brexit about the European Union and the outcomes of the post-Soviet transition in Eastern Europe. Following Brexit and Trump, the discussion about the future within Europe has taken on a new character. The central structures of the European Union continue to issue strategic messages, but at the same time the debate in the «small countries» of Europe about the development of their own societies has intensified significantly. This is leading to having the «transition» discourse of post-Soviet countries finally exiting the scene. And this makes the European humanitarian environment to look with new eyes – more deeply and without the usual post-Soviet schemes – at what is happening in Belarus. Although we, in the countries of the former USSR, continue to think about social changes in terms of «storming the Bastille» and evaluate everything by the standards of «coup success,» in Europe much more attention is paid to discursive and consensus changes in societies. And now – when the flows of educated Belarusians have swept out to Europe because of repressions – European societies have discovered that Belarus has indeed undergone strong discursive changes in recent years.

The myth of the «collective farm of Belarus,» which is fully consistent with Lukashenko’s style of government and his political model, has disintegrated.

Lukashenko promises a constitutional referendum by February 2022. He publicly showed that «the work has been completed.» The media under his control and «social activists» in Minsk are demonstrating their involvement in this process. However, the uncertainty of the result is clearly visible both in Lukashenko himself and among public figures. Recently, even the Kremlin has shown no interest in this reform, although at the early stage of the crisis it regarded it as a kind of instrument of stabilization in Belarus.

Reform hangs in the air, and it cannot be explained away as an element of «democratization.» An analysis of how official speakers in Minsk are trying to do this shows that there is an irrevocable gap between the state of society and this reform. This gap cannot be bridged or mixed through convincing discursive moves. At the same time, describing one’s own society, in which hundreds of Belarusian intellectuals who have left the country are now involved, is very fruitful. This description places Belarus in the ordinary world of small societies in Europe.

In the modern world, it is not the capture of Bastilles or tank columns that wins, as the Arab revolutions or the Americans in Afghanistan have clearly shown, but the “languages of describing society” that have a long-term, balanced, and simple mechanism.

Although Lukashenko paddles tirelessly to tread water, he cannot keep his head afloat.

But those who attend the annual international conferences of the Society for the Study of Belarus, Belarusian artists attending the large exhibition in Kyiv’s Arsenal or in Montenegro’s Budva, young documentary filmmakers, and Belarusian economists participating in round tables in European capitals – it happens.

And it must be emphasized that this is not the formation of a so-called «Other Belarus.» No dualism appears here. It is understood that that part of the educated class of Belarus that remains in the country and continues to loyally go to their jobs thinks about what is happening and seeks to answer the question «what happened to us?» in the same descriptive language now freely available abroad. The uprising has been suppressed, but Belarus continues to emerge from a post-Soviet state through thinking, cultural representation, and through the language of description. This is a very important process, and a new set of Belarusians is being formed in it that will further become the fabric of society and the state, on the basis of which a new, non-«post-Soviet» Belarusian existence in the world is possible.

 

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