Belarus: Avenue of Independence

Tisdag, 2. Mars 2010     0 kommentti(a)
Arkady Moshes
programdirektör – forskningsprogrammet EU:s östra grannskap och Ryssland

I was on my way to a conference in Minsk. On a plane from Riga there was a group of NHL scouts traveling in search of young hockey talents, and one seasoned member of the team said to his less experienced colleagues: “You’ll see, this is like going back to the Soviet Union”.

Well, in its entirety this metaphor can work only for those who have never been to the USSR, but it does describe the appearance of Belarusian capital. Indeed, Minsk looks grey, clean and secure.

The more striking are the changes for those who knew it before. You assume it’s a dull place - because restaurant prices and opening hours are still controlled – but you come into a center of the gambling industry, which Minsk has become after gambling was limited in neighboring Russia.

You expect to encounter the appraisal of socialist legacy, at least in the official line, and you do not expect to see a replica of the old city hall, erected in 2003, which reminds you that Minsk actually received the city rights back in the Middle Ages and for centuries had been governed by the Magdeburg Law.

And particularly, especially if your knowledge about the country comes through Moscow media, you are not prepared to hear the talk of separateness, distinctiveness from Russia. Experts will point out to the growing number of cases where Minsk refused to bandwagon Moscow, as well as to the international agreements and regimes, of which Belarus is a member while Russia is not, starting with the same Eastern Partnership. Usual people will be eager to know how much Minsk positively differs from the Russian capital.

And this impression is not accidental and should not come as a surprise. We are simply witnessing the process of maturing of one more East European political nation. According to the studies of the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), 65,5% of the population now view Belarus’s independence as being good for the country, while only about one out of five respondents disagree with this. Furthermore, more than 34% (scores 4 and 5 on the scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is “fully disagree” and 5 is “fully agree”) identify “Belorussianness” with – one would probably believe, never conducted – struggle for independence from the USSR; to underline how much it is, the fight against Nazism received 39% on the same scale.

While only 3,4% of the respondents use the Belarusian language as their mother tongue compared with 59,5% using Russian and the rest speaking the mixed version of both, 65% of people believe that both languages must have an official status and another 16% think that Belarusian only should be used in this capacity. Less than 15% would like to allocate this right exclusively to Russian.

Almost 55% of respondents are against unification with Russia, which may imply that they are against any unification, including the one in the form of the Union State that is officially still “under construction”. 35% are still for the vague “unification”, but another poll demonstrates that the number of adherents of this option shrank by 15% in the last five years, whereas the support to the EU membership, on the contrary, increased by a quarter and enjoys the majority backing, in the younger age groups in particular.

No doubt, the picture is still (and will remain) controversial for some time. Simplistic conclusions should be avoided. It would be more than premature to predict an EU future for Belarus. But what is clear is that Belarus is gradually leaving behind its post-Soviet features, and is thus striking a fatal blow to the boundaries of the “vanishing reality” called the post-Soviet space and the dreams of post-Soviet reintegration in any shape.

For a few years already the main street of Minsk has been called the Avenue of Independence. Since this is the major artery linking the city with its international airport and, most importantly, the Moscow highway, renaming of the street was an unmistakable signal to the external world about Belarus’s priority – to be viewed as a truly independent country, definitely friendly towards Russia, but no less definitely separate from it.

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