Belarus, the word evokes different thoughts, many of them quite distressing. Thoughts of autocratic rule, thoughts of a last refuge for the Soviet system in Europe, thoughts of an ossified, anti-democratic dictator able to bend the people’s will to his whims. From a political standpoint, there is not much good to say about Belarus’ history since the Soviet Union disintegrated. Then again there was not much good to say about Belarus during Soviet times either. One is the only number anyone needs to know when it comes to post-Soviet Belarus. That is because Belarus has had just one leader, Alexander Lukashenko, since it became independent. That number is an expression of how far democracy has come in Belarus. And that is not far at all. An opportunity has been lost.
Dueling Identities – History & Mystery
Belarus is an obscure nation, even for someone like me conversant in Eastern European history and travel. It remains a nation of mystery and history, a land of confused and dueling identities. It is not quite Russia, though sometimes it is hard to tell. It is in Europe, but not really of Europe. At least, not the Europe of humanism and progress. This is a Europe that most of us are unfamiliar with, one of totalitarianism and regress. Belarus is an enigma, an Eastern European version of no man’s land covering a crucial region that lies on a geopolitical fault line between Poland and Russia. Paradoxically, this no man’s land is home to nine and a half million people. They live in an insular state. Rather than a bridge between east and west, it is more like an island unto itself. While there is a great deal of Russian influence when it comes to Belarus, Russia has not been able to assimilate it. The two nations are not one and are certainly not the same.
To the rest of Europe and the world, Belarus is a baffling place, a question mark that lies at the heart of Eastern Europe. The questions it poses are still awaiting an affirmative response. How much longer will totalitarianism rule this benighted land. Will Belarus ever be free of interference from big brother Russia? Will it ever become a popular rather than a pariah state? Answers continue to elude Belarusians. At least ones that would include respect for the human dignity and civil rights of all Belarusians. So much of the little that we know about Belarus is intensely negative. Will that ever change? History teaches us that nothing stays the same, but Belarus for the past thirty years has been changed, not for the better, but for the worse. At best, it has stagnated. At worse, it has ossified. Attempts to renew the country have been met with belligerence and brute force, tear gas and truncheons. The future does not look bright, but this is nothing new. Throughout the 20th century, Belarusians had a rough time of it.
All The Wrong Reasons – Looking Down On The World
With Belarus making headline news once again for all the wrong reasons, I have asked myself what do I really know about the nation? Beyond negative news blurbs and a handful of guidebooks, the only other things I know about Belarus comes from a series of disconnected experiences with the people and country. These are anecdotes, either personal or political, that provide a blurred window into a nation that seems to defy logic. I have started scouring my mind for anecdotal evidence of Belarus. After so many trips to Eastern Europe, it is hard for me to believe that Belarus is still such a mystery. A nation that is a gaping hole in the heart of my Eastern European travels, an uncrossed border, a chance not taken because of fear and logistics.
Coming close to Belarus and meeting Belarusians is the experiential evidence I have of the country. This has been the only way I could get beyond the dire drip feed of negative news emanating from the country. I have never visited Belarus and for obvious reasons do not plan too anytime soon. I am rather proud that I came as close I did on two separate occasions. The first was while visiting Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat. Ukraine’s border with Belarus was within a few kilometers of those sites. It is another in that seemingly endless series of tragedies that has befallen Belarus, that much of radiation from Chernobyl ended up on the Belarusian side of the border with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants.
The visit to Chernobyl did afford me a window into a natural world that ignores borders. This tip of Ukraine was heavily forested. It is even more so across the border in Belarus. Later, while flying from Kiev to Riga, my Baltic Air flight traveled over Belarus. I looked down from 20,000 feet at a nation of trees. From the air it was easy to see that forests covered a good deal of the country. Some 40% of Belarus is forest, including a swath of wilderness along the border with Poland that contains some of the last remnants of the primeval forest that once covered Europe. The forest cover makes for good hiding places. This cover allowed the partisan units of Belarus during World War II to wreaked havoc on the German supply lines and occupation forces. From above, the forests in Belarus added another layer of mystery. I could see the forests, but not the trees. This is an apt metaphor for Belarus. A foreigner can see the dictatorship, but not the people who suffer under it.
The View From Vilnius – Democracy & Dictatorship, Freedom & Oppression
The only other time I came close to Belarus was on this same trip. While staying in Vilnius, I became cognizant that Belarus was too close for comfort. Looking at a map made me realize just how close Belarus was to the Lithuanian capital. And the comparatively smaller sized Lithuania looked like it would not stand a chance if Belarus ever descended into geopolitical belligerence. This realization was different from how I felt while close to the Belarusian border in Ukraine. The latter has the size and resources to keep the Belarusians at bay. If anything, Ukraine is seen as a threat by the government in Belarus. Lithuania as an annoyance.
Belarus had a strange effect on my mentality while in Lithuania. It was hard to believe that two nations could be so politically different from one another, despite their proximity. To go from democracy to dictatorship was a thirty minute drive from Vilnius. For most people a thirty minute drive might mean going to another village, town or county. For people in this part of Europe, it was the difference between freedom and oppression. This was a trip that I would not dare to take.
Click here for: An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)