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Struggle over Identity

Nelly Bekus

Part V. Struggle over Identity

Chapter 18. Belarusian-Specific Nature of the Public Sphere: “Invisible Wall”

Texte intégral

  • 1 E. Wnuk-Lipiński, Socjologia życia publicznego (Warsaw: Scholar, 2005), 188.
  • 2 Wnuk-Lipiński, Socjologia życia publicznego, 211–12.

1The Polish political scientist E. Wnuk-Lipiński writes about the pluralization of the public sphere, which took place with the disappearance of the rigid control the communist system had over public life. In the conditions of a democratic system “articulation of interests and expression of values are not limited by anything, nor the possibility of institutionalization of social forces focused around different interests and differentiated systems of values is limited. These differentiated interests and values that circulate in public sphere can be interpreted to a certain extent as an institutionalized bunch of claims addressed to other members of public life or state institutions.”1 Pluralization of public sphere is connected with settling such rules of the game in public sphere that, albeit being controlled by the state, are nevertheless established in accordance with democratic procedures. However, as Wnuk-Lipiński writes, “the less democratic a state is, the more narrow is the range of actions permissible in public life and the less is the degree of autonomy of these actions in relations to the state. In cases of a totalitarian state, in public life only such forms of activity are permitted that are initiated by the state and are completely controlled by it.”2

  • 3 Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 49.
  • 4 Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing D (...)
  • 5 Craig Calhoun, “Imagining Solidarity: Cosmopolitanism, Constitutional Patriotism, and the Public S (...)

2At the same time, many authors who analyze public life and the public sphere in those Western societies often referred to as “old democracies” call attention to the fact that the logic of “a public’s” existence is not always easily combined with the idea of pluralism of its subjects. There has been debate over whether, for example, Habermas’s theory implies a unitary public sphere or multiple publics. Michael Warner in his essay “Publics and Counterpublics” writes that the sense of public as such implies the public as a kind of social totality. “Its most common sense is that of the people in general. It might be the people organized as the nation, the commonwealth, the city, the state, or some other community. It might be very general, as in Christendom or humanity. But in each case the public, as a people, is thought to include everyone within the field in question.”3 Nancy Fraser in her article “Rethinking Public Sphere” analyzes the forms of participation in public life by members of different subgroups, “minorities.”As she observed, when public discourse is understood only as a single, overarching public, members of subgroups have no space to express their needs, objectives, and strategies. Fraser writes that such social subgroups as women, workers, people of color, and gays and lesbians are forced to constitute alternative publics.4 These parallel public spheres serve as arenas for members of social subgroups to articulate and manifest their interests and identity. There is a certain paradox in the existence of multiple publics and tendency toward their integration as Craig Calhoun points out. Al though “publics” may be multiple in many senses, but “where public discourse addresses, and/or is occasioned by, a state, there is a pressure for reaching integration at the level of that state. It is necessary for plural publics to sustain relations with one another if they are to facilitate democracy within that state by informing its actions.”5

3The aspiration of the public sphere to an inner integration at the state level inherent in democratic systems, in non-democratic conditions is reduced to a rigid policy of separation and exclusion of those with opposing views. Representation of interests in the public sphere appears subordinate to the logic of confrontation of two disconnected but, in a way, self-sufficient public spheres. One can say that a social subgroup in Belarus is the part of the society that in a radically different way understands its Belarusianness, has different views on the basic contents of the Belarusian national idea. The alternative position refers not only to aspects of individual identification of members of such groups, but also to fundamental issues of life in the state, as well as to understanding of the national essence of this very state. This leads to shaping of two parallel discursive arenas and, in principle, two “public spheres.” Each of them functions based on its own sources of information (state run and non-state run media), its own social organizations (state institutions, educational establishments, on the one hand, and NGOs and different educational centers and institutions, on the other hand), as well as two different cultural spheres.

4The main problem for non-state media and other public institutions representing alternative ideas of Belarus is the ideological environment in which they exist in Belarus. There is a heavy pressure from the media law, which creates “legal obstacles” in providing people with alternative information, numerous administrative techniques that serve to limit the sphere of influence of the political and cultural opposition.

5The Belarusian media law gives the Ministry of Information virtually uncontrolled power over the mass media. Despite the constitutional provisions for freedom of the press, the state has restricted such rights in practice and increasingly asserted control over the press. Restrictions have shut down many independent media outlets, and authorities’ warnings have been directed at numerous non-state media outlets. As a result, Belarus became the most repressive country in Europe. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ),6 an independent, non-profit organization based in New York City, included Belarus in its list of the “10 most censored countries.” These are countries where governments demonstrate zero tolerance for negative coverage, and journalists are not allowed to report the news independently.

6In 1998 the Belarusian parliament passed an amendment to the criminal code, which provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for insulting the president. The amendment also carries fines and jail sentences for carrying anti-presidential slogans. According to the Press Law, the State Committee on the Press is given authority to suspend publication of a newspaper or periodical for up to three months without a court ruling, and prohibit the use of media to publish “information damaging the honor and dignity of government officials.” In short, any criticism of the current situation became punishable. Those who send appeals through the mass media to international organizations or foreign governments, which the authorities believe are “harmful to Belarus’s security interests,” can be punished. “Discrediting the Republic of Belarus” or “presenting false information about political, social, military, or foreign policy in Belarus” is also punishable.

7A series of additional legal measures was introduced by the Belarusian authorities to secure the government’s monopoly to publish, report, and comment on official information. The distribution of legal information (for example, laws and government decrees) by non-state media requires a government-issued license from the Ministry of Justice. The conditions for obtaining such a license are extremely onerous.

8Several years ago, the Glasnost Defence Foundation7 discovered the existence of a document, instructing state authorities not to make official documents available or give any information or comment to independent media. The directive primarily hampered the work of regional correspondents, because the regional authorities are particularly assiduous in rigorously fulfilling the order.

  • 8 Liavon Barshcheuski, “The Recurrences of the Past or the Post-Soviet Media-cracy,” in Media in Pos (...)

9This kind of actions means more than just a creation of unequal conditions for the work of state and non-state press. In a post-Soviet society like Belarus, people’s ideas about the authorities and the power they exercise are heavily influenced by the mental and psychological legacy of totalitarianism. As Liavon Barshcheuski, director of the Belarusian PEN Center, once noted, Belarusian citizens treat any power as an instrument of pressure and violence over a human being. Therefore, press for them is not so much information about casual happenings in social and political life as a source of “practical” information. The main reason for many people to read newspaper is to forecast (according to the primary source) what they could expect from the authorities and how to avoid a potential danger.8 From this perspective, the directive prohibiting state bodies and officials from passing information to independent media makes independent press practically useless. In addition, this law also prohibited state institutions and enterprises from placing advertisements in the non-state press. This is particularly crippling in a country like Belarus where the state controls the majority of large enterprises. Moreover, attracting any foreign financial support for the press is also prohibited by law.

10Thus, it is not surprising that in “Enemies of the Press” announcement, which was released by the Committee to Protect Journalists the Belarusian president was named an enemy of the press. In the report of the International Press Institute (IPI) Belarus was named the worst country in Europe for journalists in 2005.9

11In addition to the restraints reflected in the media law, the Belarusian authorities use various administrative techniques to retain control over broadcast media, printing plants, and newspaper distribution networks using its monopoly to limit public access to information from independent sources. Printing houses, for instance, were ordered not to print private newspapers. The postal service was told not to distribute them. The prevailing majority of pro-opposition and independent newspapers were denied services by Belposhta, a national postal service that distributes newspapers by subscription, and Belsaiuzdruk, a state monopoly operating the nation’s only chain of newsstands and newspaper kiosks. Tight licensing requirements prevent private periodicals from establishing alternative distribution systems. As a result, in the years 2006–2008 only two non-state owned weeklies, Belgazeta and Belarusy i Rynok, were available for purchase at news-stands. The rest were forced underground to look for the alternative ways of distribution. Different practices were explored in order to overcome difficulties created by the authorities: one can buy independent newspapers in certain crowded places in the city from private persons, to get them by mail in envelopes, or, by calling the editorial office and requesting home delivery of the newspaper. All these ways of distribution, though, do enable independent press to survive as an “underground media” phenomenon, but not to influence the general informational landscape in the country. The largest pro-opposition national newspaper in the recent past, Narodnaia Volia, is an instructive example of independent newspapers’ fate in Belarus. It was printed in the Russian city of Smolensk and has had its print run decreased from 30,000 to 11,000 copies after it was banished from the state distribution system at the end of 2005. Conversely, during the same time period the biggest state-owned newspaper, Sovetskaia Belorussiia, saw its daily sales increase to more than 500,000 copies. Government-controlled newspapers enjoy considerable subsidies and financial privileges. In November 2008 the situation changed. After the beginning of the dialogue of the Belarusian authorities with the European Union representatives, the decision was made to allow newspapers Narod naia Volia and Nasha Niva again to be distributed through the state retail system. How ever, this was not an overarching change in the state media policy, but rather an attempt to improve the Belarusian authorities’ image in the West.

12The Belarusian government does not conceal its desire to establish and keep a monopoly on the information. Moreover, as the head of the state said, while commenting on the government policy in the media field, “The mass media […] have always been and will remain not only a tool for disseminating the information, but also a powerful means of ideological influence.” As a result of the declared instrumentality of media the state press was turned into a supplement to the power and propaganda. The state forces the media not only to articulate ideological messages, but also to “help” promote an official vision of Belarusian life. In some regions, schools and local governmental institutions are “advised” to subscribe to state-owned periodicals from a list of “acceptable” newspapers and magazines.

13At the same time, such repressive policies of the Belarusian regime are not a significant factor for many Belarusians in their relations with the state and its institutions. According to the 2005 opinion poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies the majority of the Belarusian people trust the information provided by the staterun media.

Table 8. Responses to the Question, “Do you trust the media?” (%)

Table 8. Responses to the Question, “Do you trust the media?” (%)

Notes: Opinion poll conducted by the IISEPS sociologists in September 2005; 1,504 were polled.10 Source: “Doverie SMI,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS, September 2005,​9-05-12.html.

14As the results of the opinion poll show, non-state media are trusted by 38.5 percent, but a higher percentage (43.2 percent) of respondents does not trust them. At the same time, the situation with the state-run media is the reverse—53.3 percent trust them, and their trust index is positive.

15The question arises, is such solid and confident position of state media (and the regime’s policy in general) is the result of heavy propaganda put into operation by the media? Or, on the contrary, people choose and trust media because the ideas and values they articulate correspond to their own ideas and values. One can say that for many Belarusians the picture of the world proposed by the official media is close and relevant, just as the picture drawn by the independent media appears to be close and appropriate for others.

16State-run press serves to demonstrate and illustrate social stability in the country and to display the undoubted competence of the authorities. Stability is interpreted as an absolute control over all the processes in society. In general Belarus is cheerfully pictured as a peaceful island whose prosperity grows every day. The message that can be roughly decoded on the pages of independent press is the opposite: the authorities are senseless and untalented, they are not able to handle the economic and social problems, and the only possibility to survive in the country is to join the opposition.

  • 11 Valiantsin Akudovich, “Media as a Myth Factory or the Study of One Aesthetic Defeat,” in Media in (...)

17Valiantsin Akudovich, a writer and analyst from the “opposite” camp, believes that both discourses of the state and non-state press serve to create and to explicate “the national myth,” the idea of Belarus real and desired.11 The confrontation between them is indeed a fight for Belarusianness, though unequal and unfair. In 2005 the government deprived independent Belarusian press of their status of “being Belarusian.” According to a new decree, privately owned Belarusian media are not allowed to use the words “national” or “Belarus” in their names. Among the newspapers forced to change their names and reregister were several popular ones: Belorusskaia Delovaia Gazeta, Belorusskaia Gazeta, Belorusskii Ry nok, and Natsionalnaia Ekomicheskaia Gazeta. The decree does not aim to prevent the dissemination of information independent of the state; its main aim is to symbolically deidentify alternative discourses, represented and articulated by non-state press, from “Belarus.”

  • 12 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, (...)

18There appears to be strict division between those who support the Belarusian regime, trust the state controlled media, and find Belarusian authorities’ policy appropriate and those who rely on alternative sources of information, reject the Belarusian regime’s ideology, and support the opposition. These two segments of society constructed with the help of the media seem to be divided by the “invisible wall.” In Understanding Media: The Ex tensions of Man Marshall McLuhan wrote: “’For most of our lifetime civil war has been raging in the world of art and entertainment […] Moving pictures, gramophone records, radio, talking pictures. This is the view of Donald McWhinnie, analyst of the radio medium. Most of this civil war affects us in the depth of our psychic lives, as well, since the war is conducted by forces that are extensions and amplifications of our own being. Indeed, the interplay among media is only another name for this ‘civil war’ that rages in our society and our psyches alike.”12

19This metaphor of a “civil war” in the media space of an open democratic society reflects the basic idea of informational interrelations within a liberal political and social system. According to the “mass media design” of this system, frequent informational attacks on humanity provide at least potential access to the different streams of information. That makes the whole picture of reality potentially “visible.” To be “visible” means to be “real,” no matter whether it is good or bad, true or false. This opportunity to choose provides people with the next option—to agree or disagree, to accept or reject.

20One could say that the real problem lies in the very absence of any such civil war in the Belarusian mass media and Belarusian minds. A large part of the population has generally been cocooned in gentle information about their own lives, as provided by the official media. They have not encountered any other version of the socio-political world or any other versions of their own reality. They cannot hear the voice of the political opposition. Moreover, those inhabiting the space on the other side of the “wall” are also limited by their own political convictions and their own stream of information. As a matter of principle, no one is interested in processes going on in the “opposing camp.”

21The prevalent intention of the non-state mass media is to present an alternative interpretation of news or facts previously portrayed by the state media. Consequently, the structure of the Belarusian media based on the logic of strong binary opposition actually prevents people from gaining access to the full picture of social and political reality. There is no way to create a full picture of the Belarusian reality from inside the Belarusian informational space.

22Though ideological work on both sides of the information wall is extremely intensified, political and information efforts lead to the wall being strengthened, make it higher and more solid. The arguments used by both sides only take into consideration the people on their side of the wall. They are aimed at and capable of convincing people who have already agreed with and accepted them. The Belarusian society resembles two movie theaters divided by a wall, where two different movies about their life are being projected onto either side of the wall. What’s more, each projection is self-sufficient and complete enough to provide a full picture of the world. The other side of the wall can also be seen from one’s own side of the screen, without having to be interested in the real existence of those people, or their opinions, desires, and problems (even if some of them live next door).

23The “wall” is not only a metaphor for the description of the division in Belarusian society. It becomes the hidden factor effecting some essential deformations of public space. New information technology like the Internet usually serves to widen the public’s horizons and make the borders between different public spheres more transparent. In the case of Belarus, however, it in fact results in an opposite effect; that is, a deepening of the rift between the two strata of society, one of which uses the Internet, while the other watches Belarusian TV. (According to various sources, the number of Internet users in Belarus is around 30–50 percent of the population, and 60–70 percent of them live in Minsk.)13

  • 14 Maksim Zhbankou, “The War of Mythologies: the Propagandist Vocabulary of Belarusian Mass Media,” i (...)

24The parallel existence of alternative public sphere in Belarus is not a political problem in itself. The need of alternative discoursive arenas exists also in places where the general principles of the political system are quite democratic and liberal. The real problem is the total polarization of the public sphere in the Belarusian society, which was inherited from the Soviet empire. As M. Zhbankou writes, there is no competitive media environment, in which “informational myths” compete on equal conditions for consumer’s attention, like the one in post-industrial mosaic society. The main feature of the Belarusian media landscape is the strong ideological opposition—“the fight for commanding heights.” “This is a big game, with no one willing to accept ‘a consolatory prize.’ This is the game of survival, and the victory means the end to the competitor. Such media landscape is […] a landscape of extreme conflict. The opposed to each other ideologically biased media […] pursue similar objectives: shaping the attitudes and managing the sentiment. In a certain sense, these are the players for the same league, yet from different clubs.”14

25The situation in the media space reflects the state of the public sphere in Belarusian society. It shows the informational background, against which one can see the struggle between the official and the oppositional discourses. The media provide citizens with the flows of current information and news, as well as their evaluation of it which, on the level of everyday life, set certain guidelines in relation to what is going on in the country. In this manner, they establish certain reference points needed for the perception of the general picture of the world with a definite embedded version of the national Belarusian idea.


1 E. Wnuk-Lipiński, Socjologia życia publicznego (Warsaw: Scholar, 2005), 188.

2 Wnuk-Lipiński, Socjologia życia publicznego, 211–12.

3 Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 49.

4 Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. C. Calhoun (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 122–23.

5 Craig Calhoun, “Imagining Solidarity: Cosmopolitanism, Constitutional Patriotism, and the Public Sphere,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 163.

6 Committee to Protect Journalists,

7 Glasnost Defence Foundation,

8 Liavon Barshcheuski, “The Recurrences of the Past or the Post-Soviet Media-cracy,” in Media in Post-Communist Societies: Objective Information vs. Ideological Bias, ed. A. Antsipenka (St. Petersburg: Azbuka, 2003), 118–19.


10 “Doverie SMI,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS, September 2005,

11 Valiantsin Akudovich, “Media as a Myth Factory or the Study of One Aesthetic Defeat,” in Media in Post-Communist Societies, 110–14.

12 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966), 48.

13 According to Internet World Stats ( project there were 5 477 500 internet users in Belarus in 2007, which is about 56 % of the whole population. Belarusian research group “MASMI BY” ( provided the data according to which 33 % of respondents in Belarus use internet. These data are close to the numbers mentioned in the annual “Report on human development” published by the United Nations Organization in 2006.

14 Maksim Zhbankou, “The War of Mythologies: the Propagandist Vocabulary of Belarusian Mass Media,” in Media in post-Communist Societies: Objective Information vs. Ideological bias, ed. A. Antsipenka (St. Petersburg: Azbuka, 2003), 135–136.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 8. Responses to the Question, “Do you trust the media?” (%)
Légende Notes: Opinion poll conducted by the IISEPS sociologists in September 2005; 1,504 were polled.10 Source: “Doverie SMI,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS, September 2005,​9-05-12.html.
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