Belarus, is Lukashenko Europe's Mugabe?

Written by K. Kascian and H. Vasilevich

Two weeks ago the Guardian journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote an article entitled "Belarus may seem a far away country, but we have to confront Europe's Mugabe". Here there is the analysis of two young Belarus journalists, collaborators of

We do not intend to debate with the author's argumentation on what has happened in Belarus. We do not mean to oppose the author's interpretation of the December 19 events in Minsk neither do we question his explanation of the country's ruling regime motivation to undertake such brutal actions as those described in the initial article.

Mr. Ash attempt to tell the western (and particularly British) audience about the outrageous situation in Belarus, however, leaves us with the fact of absolutely erroneous if not gauche comparisons used by this distinguished author. Someone may say that the comparisons applied in this text could be treated just as approximation but as exactness and might help a reader to better understand the situation in Belarus.

Nevertheless, from the comparisons of Belarus with Burma and Zimbabwe that Mr. Ash's refers in his text to, one can conclude that the situations both in Burma and Zimbabwe is known and understandable to the majority of the readers. However, from the Belarusian perspective it becomes clear, that even though the distinguished author probably perfectly understands problematics of Burma and Zimbabwe and to some extent correctly recites the facts on Belarus, the very essence and nature of the situation in this east European country remain obscure for Mr. Ash.

We shall start with the basics. Belarus remains for the distinguished author a sort of terra incognita, being "a far-away country of which most west Europeans know little." One can agree indeed that Belarus is little-known for the west Europeans, but calling it "a far-away country" seems ridiculous. Belarus is situated next to the EU, directly bordering on three its member-states and having autochthonous Belarusian minorities in each of them.

Moreover, despite serious political controversies, this country remains a part of the EU Eastern Partnership initiative which is seen as one of the dimensions of the European Neighbourhood Policy if not a supplement to it. Hence, Belarus' participation (even though limited) in the European affairs both politically and culturally seems obvious.

However, the comparisons of Belarus with Burma or Zimbabwe in the article of Mr. Ash create an impression that problems of those two countries are more familiar for the reader so that the vision of the "little-known" Belarus is being created through the comparisons with these two countries. Accordingly, it forms an impression that Belarus is located somewhere on the outskirts of the Globe and definitely not in Europe.

Any comparison of Belarus with Burma or Zimbabwe is absolutely ridiculous and insulting. And an attempt to draw the Belarus' image through the prism of the post-colonial studies is equally erroneous. Despite the difficulties in the interpretation of the Soviet period in the country's history, Belarus had obtained a specific place within the USSR system both in economic (donor republic, big country's assembling plant) and political (even though politically limited but own UN membership since 1945) terms. Moreover, Belarus is a nation-state with the title nation of more than 80 per cent of the country's population and the national language with the state and printing traditions of about five centuries long.

Furthermore, any comparison of Belarus' and Zimbabwe's political regimes seems inappropriate. One can agree with a German analyst Alexander Rahr who argues that it is not always proper to freely use the term "Europe's last dictator" describing Lukashenka and his regime which cannot be compared either with African dictators or the North Korean leader. In Rahr's view, Lukashenka is a typical post-soviet autocrat whose nature is similar to those of the Central Asian leaders or resembles the style of the current Russia's prime-minister.

Moreover, as it goes from above, Belarus on the one hand and Burma and Zimbabwe on the other have different mentalities, cultures and traditions. We do not intend to justify the Lukashenka regime's actions but nevertheless the scope of its repressions or brutality is far behind Burma or Zimbabwe.

One more peculiar fact should also be discussed. In the beginning of his text Mr. Ash refers to the so-called "Russosphere" which as to him Belarus also belongs to. If one refer to the Huntington's map of civilisations (from the book, not from the Wikipedia), one can see that the border between the Western and the Orthodox civilisations goes through the territory of Belarus. This implies that Belarus has the features that are typical for both of these civilisations.

In Belarusian case this location "at the border" led to centuries-long historical tradition of intercultural and interethnic dialogue and peaceful coexistence of various Christian denominations with Jewish and Muslim minorities equally belonging to the country. Thus, this historical Belarusian tradition of tolerance is absolutely compatible with the major principles of the common European values (as the EU sees it).

It also seems that the distinguished author's perception of Belarus and its society is limited to the one and only fact: the country's origin from the USSR which for some western scholars was/is equal to Russia (hence, "Russosphere").

Therefore, in the Mr. Ash's interpretation (and consequently in the mind of an ordinary reader) Belarus looks like a remote and not-understandable country located somewhere at the Earth's periphery. Accordingly, Belarus might be perceived by a reader as "a small impoverished country" completely incompatible with the European culture and values.

One can argue that by these types of comparison the accuracy does not matter (and thus Belarus may be compared with Burma, Zimbabwe or any other "problem" state). However, both for British (and other EU nations) and Belarusians the comparison does matter to understand what is going on in the country and how Belarus is being viewed.

Moreover, an improper comparison may negatively affect the understanding of the situation and consequently lead to the improper conclusions which further policies could be based on. In such a case, these policies would fail from the very beginning.

The Belarus-EU relations could hardly be described as successful. This raises a simple question - whether in the western EU countries (in this text we do not discuss the policies of the Lukashenka regime) the proper analysis of the situation in Belarus has been conducted?

Accordingly, one can bring into challenge whether those analyses have provided proper conclusions on what is happening in Belarus and whether those improper conclusions led to the failure of the EU policies toward this east European country.

Finally, the very comparison of Belarus with Africa looks humiliating for the Belarus' population (regardless of their ethnicity). We do realise that Mr. Ash tried to compare the regimes of Mugabe and Lukashenka.

However, an ordinary reader would extrapolate these statements to the entire nation in every aspect comparing Belarusians to Zimbabweans just because of the misfortunate existence of the authoritarian regime in this east European country.

Article written by Kiryl Kascian and Hanna Vasilevich/

(published on January 8, 2011)


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