The time calls for candour and honesty regarding the state of Belarus and those who are reputed to love it. Much of the ‘opposition’ is in a state of disorientation and lacking in a common direction. It contains many who would rather turn on one another – ‘eating their young’ – than confess their true self-interests and failures. Even the great national honour of a Belarusian Noble Peace Prize winner has drawn criticism from some quarters within the ‘opposition,’ criticizing Svetlana Aleksievich’s use of Russian over Belarusian. Neither an expression of pride nor satisfaction, but small and petty criticism intended to bring down anyone who doesn’t belong to their small group of individuals who care less about a nation, and more about their private agendas. This divided ‘opposition’ has been reduced to debate and bickering over who is raising the national flag higher, while focus is lost and Lukashenko’s government remains challenged by only the most brave and courageous. Svetlana Aleksievich’s words are straightforward and to the point:
“Our opposition turned out to be very weak. They fight one another and accuse each other of being a KGB agent… Why don’t they have a single candidate? The West tried to convince the opposition to choose a single candidate, but it seems that the “opposition” doesn’t realize the responsibility that rests on their shoulders. They are more engaged into narcissism.
“This is one of the reasons I can’t support the opposition. Because I recognize to a great extent what is going on and what we need to do. But the opposition thinks in ways I don’t understand. It might be a peasant psychology, when everyone cares only for himself.
“This year it’s the same. That’s why Lukashenko is laughing when he says: ‘We don’t need an opposition like this. On one hand, you exist, on the other hand, you don’t. Formally, the opposition exists and sometimes they find themselves behind bars. But as soon as they are out, they start fighting each other. The opposition has no influence and people see this. Therefore, the opposition is not trusted”.
The time has come to openly say, ‘The emperor has no clothes’ and the emperor is not only Lukashenko, but a fractured opposition. It is well known who Lukashenko is and what he is doing, but who and where is the ‘opposition’ and what are their interests?
Though Belarus doesn’t have the influence of either a rook or knight on the world’s chessboard, it recently has assumed a significantly advanced and important position. While it will not win the game, Lukashenko’s ability to change colour – now black, now white – gives it the potential to influence the course of play in important ways.
One must recall that following Perestroika and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus was identified as one of the most promising countries in the post-Soviet space. Expectations for democratic transformation were high. It was within this context that U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in Minsk in 1993, sharing his hopes, aspirations and beliefs for Belarus’ bright future. Since that time and during the period leading up to the present presidential election, myriad seminars and conferences have been conducted for academic and international professionals. Foreign ministry and diplomatic representatives from numerous Western nations have made dozens of study tours, seeing firsthand the activities in Belarus. It must be asked, to what purpose?
In the preceding years, Western investment has been significant. Official statistics indicate that between 2006 and 2012, approximately 875 million U.S. dollars was spent for assistance to Belarus, most of which was directed in support of the development of civil society. Most recently, financial assistance has continued in support of cooperation with Belarus, though at a much lower level. Again, we ask, to what purpose? What has resulted from this investment and optimism and how effective has been the ‘opposition’ who has received such extraordinary financial and moral support? Sadly, the results have been very disappointing. Civil society remains divided, receiving little organized leadership from the ‘opposition.’ Further, the intellectual life of Belarus has remained notably stagnant, making the contributions of such persons as Aleksievich all the more exceptional. And one can only ask – ‘Where are the voices of Belarusian students and how have their voices been silenced?
It is no small irony for the peoples of Belarus, as well as an embarrassment for the European Bologna Process, that in the very year that Belarus is admitted into the Bologna Process, with its clear requirements for an open, free and unfettered educational environment, Lukashenko’s decision to maintain his personal exile of Belarus’ only democratic university, goes unchallenged. There is even greater irony in the fact that within the so-called ‘opposition,’ there are those who choose to attack one of the only successful democratic projects to emerge from within Belarus in the last 25 years. While they have remained so clearly ineffectual in influencing the course of political events inside the country’s borders, this small educational ‘David’ has stood against Goliath and brought European-style democratic education to thousands of students.
The world should recognize that today was not a day that reflected the hopes and aspirations of the citizens of Belarus. For their sake, one can only hope that the many contradictions that characterize Belarus and its external Western relations will be resolved during this next period in Belarus’ life.
Prof. G. David Pollick is rector of the Vilnius-based European Humanities University