Five months (at least) into the most terrible global pandemic in living memory. Amongst daily portions of terrible news all of a sudden we are struck with a familiar image: An Eastern European country, one that you probably assume is still full of terribly grey decaying blocks of flats, its cities as massive dumps, still controlled by Russia, with a dictator who has been in power for the last 25 years, populated by ”some people who don't speak English, who just like in China are not especially democracy lovers. And actually, where is Belarus, exactly? It's funny you'd say that, because geographically speaking Belarus is exactly in the middle of Europe.
One of these hopelessly bleak concrete cities, and hordes of people rioting against a formation of tanks and the riot police and the army. Revolutions are great, especially since Black Lives Matter – you protested against the police violence in the US last month and maybe you even wore a mask and kept the social distance and were incredibly righteous at the police brutality against black Americans.
Where am I getting at? Why do I get so worked up already, when we barely started this conversation? The Revolution in Belarus is taking place as we speak, since the presidential election on 9th of August and it even gets some coverage in The Guardian and other English language media. To be quite honest with you, I'm positively shocked it gets any coverage at all. I was already really shocked that the July presidential election in Poland has gotten so much attention in the international media, I thought to myself they really care. Is it my internalised auto-racism that leads me to assume nobody cares about Eastern Europe? Call me paranoid, I’m still suspicious. Maybe things have indeed changed since I left the UK at the end of 2015, when I was convinced that despite their greatest efforts my English friends considered Poland a shithole.
And it's funny, because Poland thinks similar about Ukraine, since around a million of Ukrainians went on labour immigration to Poland since 2013. Yes, they had it tough, yes, we support their efforts in regaining democracy, but wait a minute, do they really have to come here, agree to work for less and take away our jobs? No matter they are ruthlessly exploited in the first place. Probably the same way Poles were in the UK (and Germany?). And it's funny also that anyone could assume Belarus had frozen in the USSR era, as Belarusians are the single biggest claimants of the temporary EU visas of all non-EU countries.
"Minsk is too relentlessly, bleakly, and proudly Soviet-looking to be turned into a fashionable trinket."
Once again, perhaps you are seeing some weird images in which people are throwing themselves at the riot police, are beaten with batons, a few of them have already been killed. Some died from grenades thrown by the police on the street, some were tortured in police custody and in detention.
When people discuss so-called Eastern Europe or the former East, they often mean Poland, the Baltic States, Hungary, recently also Ukraine. But the strip of land called Belarus is often forgotten. Until very recently, Belarus has been off the radar from Western tourism. Firstly because of its reputation of still being a communist country under Russia's boot. An empty zone, entirely police and state controlled, with no signs of any youth culture or hipster bar in sight. Until recently some of that was also true. There was no single international music festival until the Unsound festival ventured there in 2017 to stage a small edition of itself, trying to engage local artists and musicians.
Hence it's not accidental that when you scroll through various articles in the Calvert Journal, a more tasteful Eastern European version of Vice’s “Do's & Don'ts”, you almost never see a mention of Belarus. Vice’s Do’s & Don’ts were openly obnoxious, classist and even racist, which is not the case of the refined coverage Calvert-style. Yet if you scratch the surface, the western tourist guides focus on what’s shallowly “cool”, boiling down to exoticisation. Minsk is too relentlessly, bleakly, and proudly Soviet-looking to be turned into a fashionable trinket. It can not be turned into a hipster playground in the same way as, say, the Baltic countries. It was never meant to be or become a “fun place to go to”. Nothing like the 90s Prague or Budapest, where expats were coming to have fun, or Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, or Kyiv in recent years. Even though it was an oddly fascinating place, you wouldn't go to Minsk specifically for dance culture. Also, in terms of Soviet chic aesthetic, it’s too extremely communist looking to be easily swallowed. As authenticity goes, it’s almost “too authentic”.
"Belarus was by no means a backward looking country that anyone uninformed would perceive as such, but rather a technologically progressive country, which limited access to the means of liberal democracy for its people."
The reason for that was that, paradoxically, despite being under the undemocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko for the last 26 years, Belarus had a well-functioning economy, as it was the only country of the former communist states in Europe that didn't simply rush into neoliberalism in the 1990s. Lukashenko's idea was to maintain certain elements of Soviet state-ruled economy, while remaining skeptical or even hostile towards the typical ethno-nationalism almost every single other post-communist country embraced after the end of Soviet rule. The modernisation the country underwent since Soviet collapse was achieved due to its close relationship with Russia, international loans and industrial relations with China. It was an independent economical organism, which defied the usual paths of financial crisis almost every other Eastern European country suffered from in the last 30 years. It had done so by refraining from asset stripping and selling out its state-owned assets the way Poland did for example.
Lukashenko invented a way of empowering workers by referring positively to the Soviet period, while claiming full liberal democracy would simply not be convergent with Belarus' best interests. Belarus might not be a popular tourist destination, but it's a country in which the actual working class, at least until recently, had decent wages, where every financial crisis had been quickly overcome and in where companies are still state owned and the oligarchic class hasn’t taken over the whole of the country's wealth.
The reason there hasn't been a Belarusian Maidan until today was the fact that unlike Ukraine, Belarus has a well-functioning economy and industry. Still, it almost didn't have any democratic opposition. It was (and still is) an authoritarian country. There is no doubt about any attempts at creating an opposition had been stifled.
"An alternative to late capitalism is still to be born and Belarus' case only indicates that in order to find it, we need to look firmly into the future, not the, however successful, past."
Belarus presents that fascinating paradox of what could be an alternative to the perils of late capitalism. It was by no means a backward looking country that anyone uninformed would perceive as such, but rather a technologically progressive country, which limited access to the means of liberal democracy for its people. Yet, because we live in this extremely globalised world, which won't stop until the processes of the Anthropocene and Westernisation of everything will be completed until everything different will be destroyed and everything there will be homogenised. And despite we know what could inevitably follow: Belarus' economy would be “modernised” which means sold out to the Western capital in exchange for becoming a part of the Western World. Still, there are many who will claim that this is the only way out of the status quo.
Still, knowing that or not, Belarusian citizens just couldn't take the dictatorship anymore. Two things were Lukashenko's undoing: the post-Maidan period, when he was so scared his own citizens might want to repeat that the dictator welcomed some ethno-nationalist ideas to please the crowd and stop them from having any ideas of emancipation, while knitting his relationship with Putin closer than ever. The second was the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, when no serious health measurements had been introduced, carrying on with “business as usual”, inspiring a feeling of great neglect in the public. It was perhaps especially the pandemic that was the final straw for Lukashenko’s regime: if he maintained his rule by isolating Belarus, you couldn't further isolate a whole country in the conditions of a spreading disease.
Now that certain processes, similar to 1989 and 1991, had restarted in Belarus, with million-strong marches – the biggest in Belarus' history – they cannot be stopped. An alternative to late capitalism is still to be born and Belarus' case only indicates that in order to find it, we need to look firmly into the future, not the, however successful, past.