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Struggle over Identity

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Nelly Bekus

Part IV. Arguments and Paradoxes of Weak Belarusian Identity

Chapter 13. The Russian Factor in Belarusian Self-Perception

Texte intégral

  • 1 Uladzimer Rouda, “Natsional’naia ideia kak faktor stanovleniia grazhdanskogo obshche stva,” Analit (...)
  • 2 Zianon Pazniak, “Nezalezhnasts’ geta iosts’ isnavan’ne natsyi” BPF, http://www.pbpf.org/art.php?ar (...)

1The integration project as a political undertaking and as a factor of mass consciousness is often considered as an evidence of Belarusians’ reluctance to preserve their independence. “Escape into common destiny, which is manifested in the search of a state to be ‘integrated’ with, turns Belarus into an escape from destiny and responsibility, and, in the end, into ‘escape from liberty’,”1 writes Belarusian political scientist Rouda. This is an escape from one’s own independence and, by the same token, from implementation of the main national idea. (“Independence is the very existence of a nation,” says the chief ideologist of the BPF Z. Pazniak.)2

  • 3 Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape,” 110.

2Such an interpretation of the integration project stems from Russia’s image as an “outsider” on Belarusian territory, which the latter is prepared to join, thus losing its independence. In this case one can speak in reality of a pathological dependence of Belarus (and its readiness to depend) on an “outside” and alien political and cultural formation—Russia. “No nation or ethnie is exempt from external influences, and hardly any is immune to them. But what is truly unusual about Belarus is the degree to which external factors control every fiber in its national fabric, every facet of Belarus’s ethno-national setting: the economy, politics and indeed language and identity.”3 This external factor, controlling every fiber of the “Belarusian soul” is Russia.

3The Russian issue in the Belarusian context falls into at least three separate issues. First, it is a nostalgic sentiment of the population that was especially evident in the political choices during the first years of independence. Indeed, in the early and mid-1990s the project of a new integration with Russia in public consciousness was actually a modernized variety of the USSR. And among the post-Soviet populations, the Belarusian citizens were known as the greatest proponents of the old state restoration. In the March 1991 referendum the Belarusian electorate expressed the highest level of loyalty to the Soviet Union compared to the other participating Soviet republics. Almost 83 percent voted in favor of preserving the Soviet Union. (In Russia and Ukraine the rates were 71.3 percent and 70.2 percent, respectively.) However, by the end of the 1990s the idea of “the Union State” was transformed in public consciousness into an entirely new self-contained project. A comparison of the data of the opinion polls conducted by the IISEPS between 1993 and 2006 shows that the number of those in Belarus who support the idea of reviving the USSR declined over time (see Table 1). As a result, in 2006 it was down to 26 percent, which practically coincides with the number of senior citizens in the country.

Table 1. Responses to the Question
“How do you feel about restoration of the USSR?” (%)

Table 1. Responses to the Question“How do you feel about restoration of the USSR?” (%)

Note: National opinion poll conducted by independent sociologists, April 15–29, 2006. 1,594 people were polled, age 18 and older.
Source: Bulleten’ “Novosti IISEPS” no. 2 (40) (2006), http://www.iiseps.org/​bullet06-2.html.

4However, the trend of attitude toward the Union with Russia looks different. The rate of Belarusians’ interest in reunification with Russia remains high, although it shows some decline of the project’s popularity (see Table 2). Notably, the number of those who think that Belarus and Russia should become a single state decreased from 20 percent in 2002 to 12 percent in 2005. At the same time, the number of those who think that Belarus and Russia should form an independent union state connected with close political and economic relations between the two states was still more than 50 percent.

Table 2. Responses to the Question “What version of Belarus and
Russia integration would you personally Prefer?” (%)

Table 2. Responses to the Question “What version of Belarus andRussia integration would you personally Prefer?” (%)

Note: National opinion poll conducted by independent sociologists, April 15–29, 2006; 1,594 people were polled, age 18 and older.
Source: Bulleten’ “Novosti IISEPS” no. 2 (40) (2006), http://www.iiseps.org/​bullet06-2.html.

5In 2006–7 the situation changed. As opinion polls conducted by IISEPS during that time showed, the number of those who in case of a referendum about the unification of Belarus and Russia would vote in its favor declined from 46.4 percent in November 2006 to 35.1 percent in January 2007. For the first time, the number of those who would vote against the Union (39.3%) was higher than those in favor.4

  • 5 “Spasitel’ russkoi tsivilizatsii pridet s zapada,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS (May 2008), http://www. (...)

6Nevertheless, the general orientation of Belarusians’ geopolitical preferences toward Russia remains dominant in case they have to choose between “the West” and ”the East.” When asked to select between the unification with Russia and joining the European Union, the respondents were divided in their preferences: in 2003, 47.5 percent favored Russia, while 36.1 percent favored the European Union; in 2005—51.6 percent and 24.8 percent; in 2006—56.3 percent and 27.5 percent; and in 2007—48.5 percent and 33.6 percent.5

  • 6 Clelia Rontoyanni, “Belarus and the East,” in Postcommunist Belarus, ed. S. White, E. Koros televa (...)
  • 7Belarus’ i Swet” (Minsk: Novak, 2000).

7There is an economic reasoning behind the pro-Russian orientation of Belarusians. It states that the Union with Russia is the main, if not the only, condition for the Belarusian economy’s development. Partially this statement can be accounted for due to the post-Soviet mentality preserved in the public consciousness. The dismemberment of the Soviet Union was followed by an economic decline, though in this respect Belarus was no exception among post-Soviet republics. But as Clelia Rontoyanni wrote, “perhaps more than in any other country in the region, in Belarus the decline was seen as a direct result of the disruption of interrepublican trade and overall disintegration of the Soviet economic space.”6 This decline laid down a nostalgic framework for the new Union as there appeared to be a striving to turn back on the path to former stability and prosperity. (According to a national survey conducted by Novak Institute in early 2000, 68 percent of respondents expected that unification would enable a significant improvement in the economic performance of both countries, reduced unemployment, and higher standards of living.7) The economic strategy chosen by the Belarusian government counted not only on reduced prices in energy supplies, but also in equal measure on the Russian market for Belarusian industrial output. The thesis about the economic need for Belarus to integrate with Russia was constantly promulgated by the official rhetoric until the end of 2006 when the Russian authorities limited their financial support to the Belarusian economy.

  • 8 8 Anastasia Nesvetailova, “Russia and Belarus. The Quest for the Union; or Who Will Pay for Belaru (...)
  • 9 Unpublished survey conducted by the Moscow-based Center for Sociological Research in Russian and B (...)
  • 10 Andrei Vardamatski, “Belarus’ i Swet,” Belaruskaia perspektywa no. 9 (2000): 7, cited in Zaprudnik (...)
  • 11 Valiantsin Akudovich, “My i Rasieia,” in Dialogi z Bogam (Minsk: Izd. I. P. Logvinov, 2006), 31.
  • 12 Zaprudnik, “Belarus: In Search of National Identity,” 112.

8The economic factors of the Russian–Belarusian relations can be considered as secondary, because in reality the “Russian vector in Belarus’s political life is grounded first of all in people’s mentality and socio-cultural factors,”8 as noted by Nesvetailova. According to the survey by the Moscow-based Center for Sociological Research, 77 percent of Belarusian respondents supported integration on the grounds that “Russians and Belarusians are historically one people, they are spiritually close, and have similar languages, cultures, and traditions.”9 During another nationwide representative opinion poll conducted in March 2000 in Belarus respondents were asked to give a cultural definition of Belarusians and say whether they are “a separate self-sustained (samastoinaia) nation” or “a branch of the triune Russian nation,” or “other.” Only 49.8 percent said that Belarusians are a separate nation, while 42.6 percent chose the second answer, with 2.1 percent pointing at Russian roots; 5.5 percent did not know how to answer.10 The main problem for Belarus is that Russia is not perceived as an “outside” subject, but as an “internal” and integral part of Belarusianness. The Belarusian writer Akudovich once noted that “Russia is not to the East of Belarusian lands, Russia is the east of Belarus. It means that Russia by means of its certain contour (just like Europe) is naturally situated inside our own selfness.”11 Hence the problem that “Many Belarusians still cannot think of themselves as a self-sustained nation, […] as an entity apart from Russia.”12

  • 13 Ryszard Radzik, “Formowanie się nowoczesnej polskości i białoruskości w dwóch ostatnich stuleciach (...)

9Thus it can be logically assumed that the implementation of its own national ambitions for the Belarusian people lies in a new framework of their attitude toward Russia. As Ryszard Radzik writes, “Formation of the Belarusian people can currently take place only within an opposition to Russianness.”13 The political agenda of the Belarusian nationalist forces was built on such opposition, and it failed. However, the implementation of the emphasized pro-Russian political strategy by the Belarusian authorities led to unanticipated results. Despite the Belarusian president’s declarations that Belarusians favor the idea of a Soviet-like union, an increasing number of Belarusians would consider unification with Russia only if Belarus preserved its status of an independent state. A mere 12 percent of those who prefer to unite with Russia into a common state, indicates this idea’s unpopularity.

  • 14 Fedor Lukianov, “Belorussia kotoruiu my ne ponimaem,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas no. 47, 2006, http:// (...)
  • 15 Yaroslav Shimov, “Belorussia: Vostochnoevropeiskii paradoks,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas no. 3, 2006, (...)

10Thus, against the background of the rhetoric about unification, and the perception of Russianness as an integral part of Belarusianness, in Belarusians’ consciousness a disengagement of Belarusian state from that of Russia has taken place. In practice, it appeared, as the Russian researcher F. Lukyanov writes, “the decades of history of Union relations was not a period of unification of two ‘brotherly peoples’ but, on the contrary, adaptation of the neighboring country to a truly independent existence, no matter in what extravagant form.”14 According to another Russian author, Ya. Shimov, “despite the ‘imperial image’ of Russia among the Belarusian nationalist elite, it played a positive role in the shaping of Belarusians’ ‘original nature’ (samost), while Russia played the role of ‘the significant Other,’ which served as a kind of a reference point, but from which one alienated in order to preserve one’s own identity and values.”15

Notes

1 Uladzimer Rouda, “Natsional’naia ideia kak faktor stanovleniia grazhdanskogo obshche stva,” Analitika Informatsionno-analiticheskii tsent NGO, 2004, http://iac.unibel.by/anl_na0040.htm.

2 Zianon Pazniak, “Nezalezhnasts’ geta iosts’ isnavan’ne natsyi” BPF, http://www.pbpf.org/art.php?art=34&cat=4&lang=be.

3 Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape,” 110.

4 “Povorotnyi punkt integratsii,” Nowosti IISEPS Bulleten’ no. 1 (2007), http://www.iiseps.org/bullet07-1.html.

5 “Spasitel’ russkoi tsivilizatsii pridet s zapada,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS (May 2008), http://www.iiseps.org/12-05-08.html.

6 Clelia Rontoyanni, “Belarus and the East,” in Postcommunist Belarus, ed. S. White, E. Koros televa, and J. Löwenhardt (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 124.

7Belarus’ i Swet” (Minsk: Novak, 2000).

8 8 Anastasia Nesvetailova, “Russia and Belarus. The Quest for the Union; or Who Will Pay for Belarus’ Path to Recovery?” in Contemporary Belarus, ed. E. Korosteleva, C. Lawson, and R. Marsh (London–New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 153.

9 Unpublished survey conducted by the Moscow-based Center for Sociological Research in Russian and Belarus, April–May 1999. Cited in Rontoyanni, “Belarus and the East,” 134.

10 Andrei Vardamatski, “Belarus’ i Swet,” Belaruskaia perspektywa no. 9 (2000): 7, cited in Zaprudnik, “Belarus: in Search of National Identity,” 115.

11 Valiantsin Akudovich, “My i Rasieia,” in Dialogi z Bogam (Minsk: Izd. I. P. Logvinov, 2006), 31.

12 Zaprudnik, “Belarus: In Search of National Identity,” 112.

13 Ryszard Radzik, “Formowanie się nowoczesnej polskości i białoruskości w dwóch ostatnich stuleciach: podobieństwa i różnice,” Acta Albaruthenica 2. (2001): 187.

14 Fedor Lukianov, “Belorussia kotoruiu my ne ponimaem,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas no. 47, 2006, http://www.nz-online.ru/index.phtml?aid=80011754.

15 Yaroslav Shimov, “Belorussia: Vostochnoevropeiskii paradoks,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas no. 3, 2006, http://magazines.russ.ru/nz/2006/47/sh11.html.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. Responses to the Question“How do you feel about restoration of the USSR?” (%)
Légende Note: National opinion poll conducted by independent sociologists, April 15–29, 2006. 1,594 people were polled, age 18 and older.Source: Bulleten’ “Novosti IISEPS” no. 2 (40) (2006), http://www.iiseps.org/​bullet06-2.html.
URL http://books.openedition.org/ceup/docannexe/image/614/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 87k
Titre Table 2. Responses to the Question “What version of Belarus andRussia integration would you personally Prefer?” (%)
Légende Note: National opinion poll conducted by independent sociologists, April 15–29, 2006; 1,594 people were polled, age 18 and older.Source: Bulleten’ “Novosti IISEPS” no. 2 (40) (2006), http://www.iiseps.org/​bullet06-2.html.
URL http://books.openedition.org/ceup/docannexe/image/614/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 176k

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