Belarus is facing a difficult choice. Gradual changes are needed in all areas for the country to take shape and continue to live on. First of all, the country needs freedom of action in the civilian space to strengthen civic consciousness and the stability of society.
What role does fear play in the current state of affairs in Belarus? What should be done to enable society to overcome fear and to rebuild a country’s sovereignty and agency?
Fear and degradation of the state
On the one hand, fear in a non-democratic state is one of the ways to maintain power and preserve a situation. On the other hand, it serves as the main brake for the development of the state itself. The fewer spaces there are for free initiatives, the less chance of finding successful solutions. Freezing a country’s situation always leads to lag in terms of political, economic and social development. The fear factor brings about the degradation of state and public institutions, elites, political forces and experts.
In such a society, social mobility works more on the principle of a selection based on loyalty, rather than professional qualities.
We note right away that we are not talking about any total (or totalitarian) horror, although in such situations people manage to survive, but about the petty everyday lack of freedom, nasty frights leading to self-restraint, self-censorship, the desire not to protrude and so on. The lack of self-realisation prospects leads to indifference and cynicism and a priority for all things momentary in society.
There is also the fear of the authorities in relation to their own citizens. By all means, authorities try to reduce citizens to being an unreasonable flock that needs guardianship. Fear can also be associated with anxiety for change or the risk of losing control over a situation.
In the absence or weak presence of an internal driver, only some external factor can give impetus to change.
Belarus spent about 20 years in a state of timelessness and with a lack of development. Several cycles of “frosts” gave way to a conditional thaw, but basically nothing changed.
After the Crimea and Donbas
The lethargic dream was interrupted only in 2014 by the Kremlin. First, Russia attacked Ukraine, and then the growing pressure from Russia, which had the goal of turning Belarus into another Russian protectorate with all the ensuing charm of everyday life.
This external pressure, coupled with a slight weakening of internal pressure, was multiplied by the change of generations – the current one has learned to live by avoiding fear – has led to a new process for Belarus. Now we have witnessed the registration of real sovereignty, the registration of Belarus as a country in the heads of its citizens. Sociology confirms these findings.
According to Andrei Vardomatsky (BAW), for 2019, the number of supporters of an alliance with Russia in Belarus has decreased by a third. In December 2019, 40.4 per cent of Belarusians supported a union with the Russian Federation while maintaining independence, whereas in December 2018 it was 63.9 per cent.
At the same time, the number of advocates for an alliance with the EU increased: from 20.2 to 32 per cent. Moreover, from January to August the indicators changed gradually, but then there was a sharp collapse in the number of supporters of the alliance with the Russian Federation in the period from September to December. It was at this time that the active phase of forcing Belarus to integration began.
An absolute majority of 74.6 per cent spoke in favour of the complete independence of the two states while maintaining friendly relations and open borders. Another 6.6 per cent favoured independence and the closure of borders, the introduction of customs inspection and visas. Thus, the number of supporters of independence was 81.2 per cent. Only 3.7 per cent hold that Belarus should become part of the Russian Federation.
A different type of fear
The forces of horror, form what is happening in Russia and what the Kremlin is doing in the occupied territories, has put everyday small fear into the background.
Of two evils, both for Belarusian citizens and the West the “last dictatorship of Europe” is temporarily a lesser evil than the prospect of becoming a part of the Russian world. As a result, society begins to come to live and move, albeit slowly.
Awareness of the reality of this threat to the sovereignty of Belarus has brought about a new dialogue with the West. It potentially opens up new opportunities for the integration of Belarus into the European space, which, in turn, brings benefits both in terms of security and the economy.
And here on the surface lies a new opportunity as well as danger – the temptation to leave everything as it is, passing it off as the “special Belarusian way”. However, this is exactly what Belarus can no longer afford – another imitation of change, a “freezing” of the situation will be fatal for the country.
Belarus has dramatically lagged in terms of state development, not having pursued a path of economic and political transformation. Many state and public institutions remain only partially developed; representative institutions are conditionally advisory in nature – the latest “elections” to the ‘parliament’ are evidence of this.
Overall, the economy is a rudiment of the times of the USSR, with rare interspersed features of the 21st century, such as modern IT parks. Everyday limiting fear is a de facto control manual for the country and has led to a lack of development and the total dependence of the economy on Russian “gifts”. It made Belarus a Jurassic (Soviet) park for nostalgia fans.
Belarus has to create a completely independent state and economic system, rebuild its sovereignty not only in the minds of citizens but also in the government itself, to grow its own skin and organs in order to become a full-fledged organism, to create Belarusian agency.
Civic activism in Belarus – in spite of fear
In a country that has already taken a certain path of development, free media and civil society are the same basis for the functioning of the state as the separation of powers, and this is protected by law. To a large extent, they build the stability of society, perform the functions of the immune system, protecting the country’s body both from internal threats – for example, abuse of power and corruption, and from external threats, such as actions bearing the signs of a hybrid war.
The independent media, civic organisations and initiatives that have arisen and are working in Belarus consist of those who have learned to overcome fear. They help Belarus to grow its own skin since they have rarely looked for the approval of ‘big brother’ in their practice. Rather, these organisations and initiatives introduced modern work principles, based on the experience of countries that have already undergone a democratic transition.
We have written before that only a really strong civil society and free pro-Belarussian media can (and how they can – they do) become a real barrier to toxic information flows coming from the Kremlin.
Cardboard troops cannot defend themselves against a real threat; imitation will not help in any way to solve the problem. However, it is precisely in the Belarusian authorities’ relations with independent media and civil society that the fear factor and the resulting desire for control and censorship is the strongest limitation.
Everything is under control
We see that the official line has increasingly become the assurance that everything in Belarus is under control. There is a guarantee of control and the preservation of independence. The rest are invited to disperse and go about their own business, instead of “strolling along the peaceful streets.” At the time of a national threat, such an approach – “do your own thing, I’ll save the country for you alone” – does not work. For instance, the body of the sole ‘saviour’ is targeted on different parts.
The fear about even of the shadow of “politicisation” in the year of a presidential election is overshadowed by the fact that the ‘street’ is now primarily a signal to the Eastern neighbour. People in Belarus are gradually becoming citizens. Citizens should not be afraid to go outside in their own country in order to protect it.
The attempt to ‘freeze’ the situation with the fear of repression, whether it be detention or fines, also leads to a slowdown in the process of formation of civic consciousness. And this is exactly what the Kremlin is counting on when implementing its plan for Belarus. In the view of the Kremlin strategists, Belarus is not equated to the citizens of the country, but simply a population that needs to be brainwashed, and actively, to be intimidated.
Civic organisations and initiatives are building up from the lowest levels an independent modern society, with a different model of consciousness and relations, devoid of paternalism, and which is ready to take responsibility for what is happening in the country. For all of the involved citizens, a strong and independent Belarus is an unconditional value and a basic need. Suppression of such a society and building an imitation is to shoot yourself in both legs and with a final shot in the head.
Fear, unfree media and information sovereignty
With regard to information sovereignty, the situation is approximately the same.
Recall that one year ago Belarus adopted the Information Security Concept, which was supposed to form new, more effective measures regarding the work with information threats. In fact, it was one of the first answers to the challenges of growing information pressure. However, in practice, many passages seemed almost verbatim copied from Russian models.
The gathering of all the president’s media men for a series of meetings in February showed an awareness of the threat’s reality and the expected increase in pressure, as well as an inability and lack of understanding of what exactly needs to be done. In the year of the presidential election and the continuation of the struggle to preserve sovereignty, it is proposed to fight “information poison” by means of “seizing the initiative in social networks” of the State Mass Media, including in the regions, i.e. to avoid that some blogger writes something.
This is very creative, of course. People do not read local news not because it is not there, but because there is nothing to read due to total censorship. Therefore people go to social networks for news.
In fact, local groups and pages on social networks have replaced the local media, and this is a normal development not only for Belarus – the local press in many countries is in crisis, but mostly for financial reasons. Of course, this situation also presents opportunities for external information impact, through the creation of pseudo-local sites, groups and pages. In other words, through the injection of disinformation into “normal” local communities.
In principle, we understand that now there will be a temptation to get rid of all irritants, both those clearly of external origin and of our own internal critics – or simply independent media activists – in the wake of “seizing the initiative”.
No good news
However, if the president’s wise men think that by suppressing local bloggers, they will defeat the “information poison”, then I have bad news. According to the work of our iSANS monitoring groups, a significant part of this “information poison” is brought from outside Belarus, from accounts that disguise themselves as “local”, but are not.
A possible fight with your own independent media and media activists is a fight with your own immune system, you will kill your useful cells, and leave space for the really ‘bad guys’.
Sputnik.by with its adaptability and considerable Russian money may seem like an alternative for the audience, without special efforts, like a number of other Russian online media, radio and television channels.
Independent media as they survive, periodically experiencing regular “attacks” by the state, and at the same time manage to provide high-quality content, which, in the end, works to protect the sovereignty of the country and support state-building in the heads of citizens. However, in addition to the harsh conditions of existence inside Belarus, they are also forced to compete with well-funded Russian media, which in the vast majority promote the Kremlin’s agenda and talk about the horrors of Belarusian nationalism. According to various studies, about 25 per cent of readers never go to Belarusian online resources.
That is why the leading independent media in Belarus – iSANS promotes and supports this idea in every possible way – speak of the need to ‘localise’ automatic news aggregators of global Internet corporations for Belarus.
This, so that Belarusian news from the Belarusian media appears first in the list – and this will somehow limit the Kremlin’s information flows with home delivery.
Belarus before a choice – fear or sovereignty
The Belarusian leadership is now facing a very difficult choice. Gradual changes are needed in all areas for the country to take shape and continue to live on, and first of all, freedom of action in the civilian space is needed to strengthen this civic consciousness and the stability of society. The desire to imitate, build cardboard mock-ups instead of really working institutions is a reflection of a fear of losing control.
However, right now, the interests of both the leadership and active citizens coincide in a very important one – the preservation of Belarus as an independent state. And this can and should become the basis for building a different type of relationship with one’s own society, based not on fear, but on common interests.