Are Belarusians Europeans?

Article published on Sept. 2, 2009
Article published on Sept. 2, 2009
© Minsk Cafe Babel On July 17th, the Café Babel project in Belarus hosted a discussion on whether Belarusians are Europeans. Aleksei Bratochkin, a historian from the Belarusian National Technical University (BNTU) and Tatyana Vodolazhskaya – a Ph.D in Sociology, representing the Agency for Humanitarian Technologies took part in the discussion.

The discussion topic turned out to be broad, multi-faceted and controversial. It was initially planned to solely refer to the cultural aspects of Belarus-Europe interrelations; however “culture” is tightly related to the many political aspects, which ultimately reveal a number of issues within the subject discussed. The discussion gave birth to informed and competent accentuation of the definite hardships emerging when discussing the subject of Belarus’ belonging to the European space. 

The primary question dealt with a symbolic interconnection between Belarus and Europe. The existence of such interconnection could become a way to respond to the query in an affirmative. A lot has been said about the geographical factor, which, alone, is not a sufficient prerequisite for the kinship with Europe, yet the situation in the region allows for a leeway in geopolitical behaviour. As such interconnections do exist, despite being truly symbolic: the history of conflicts, commonality of processes taking place in Europe and spilling over into our region, subjective positive perception and understanding of the Western culture (literature, etc.), interconnectivity of policies.

Another answer to this is that the notion of “europeanship” necessitates certain attributes and can be appealing or revolting. Such attribute could be the division of the European values, which have institutionally been installed in the European political, economic and legal systems.

The next question receives opposite responds, or, sooner, differing approaches. What does it mean “to be a European”? On the one hand, it could be the notion, which does not possess a universal number of attributes to be conformed to. In my personal view, such stance can be agreed with only partially. The notion of “Europeanship” can be expanded insofar as one enriches it. For instance, the Turks can become European and offer a myriad of features into the notion. Americans are unlikely to become Europeans and one has to define what would be the difference between the Americans and the Europeans.

Другой вариант ответа — что понятие «европейскость» все же предполагает атрибуты, и может быть привлекательно либо непривлекательно. Таким атрибутом может стать разделение европейских ценностей, которые институционально закреплены в европейской политической, экономической и правовой системах.

The attributionality of the Europeanship revealed the issue of the European identity of the Belarusians as problem of the Belarusian identity of the Belarusians. Establishing relations with Europe without clearly understanding the own identity is hard. Belarusians do have a national identity, yet it has not been clearly articulated, which complicates relations with Russia, which strives to substitute our identity with hers. Just like with Russia, in relations with Europe Belarusian identity is important to be able to understand where the difference is and what can be accepted and rejected. Belarus seems to have a problem of the “Belarusian identity” validation, which nevertheless exists and seems to be strong.  

Summing up one can say that with regard to Belarus, the articulated European identity will be constructed. Passing through the stages of de-sovietisation, such identity can be formulated. However, until we start perceive ourselves as Europeans, any speculation on the subject will be an attempt to conform to certain attributes, which are always arguable.

Discussion participants:

Aleksei Bratochkin (A.B.) – a historian, permanent contributor to the Internet Journal “New Europe”, instructure at BNTU

Tatyana Vodolazhskaya (T.V.) – sociologist, employee at the Agency for Humanitarian Technologies

Alena Zuikova ( A.Z.) – Editor-in-Chief, Café Babel.

Audience: O.Degteva, V. Khaitina, D.Galinovsky, V.Zuikov.

Belarus is meant to be in Europe

A.Z. Are there any symbolic links between Belarusians and the Europeans? For example, the dividing factor could be the attitude, 2nd World War discourse in Russia and Belarus and the attitude towards it in the West, where the day is labled as Europe’s Day or Peace Day. Or are there images that could unite Belarusians with the Europeans?

А.Б. This is a complicated question and I wouldn’t say I have a ready answer for that. I, indeed, try to be accurate unfolding the topic because I don’t find much sense in slogans of, for instance, returning Belarus into Europe to pay due respect to history or something. Because Europeans, as they say, as Michel Fouche says in his book “The European Republic”, they say about the development of the European states and employs the term “parallel trajectories”, which does not imply the unity of the forms, methods and results. The very term “European unity” has been introduced quite recently. This way, when I start talking about the history of Belarus in the European context, for me the question is – how trajectories of our development coincided with those processes of modernization in Western Europe. In other words, can these parallel trajectories explain the nowadays zest for finding commonality with the Europeans? Another issue I find important is how the European experience can be applied here. I believe it is better to talk about what positive experience there has been that can be regarded as attractive. It might be possible that some aspects of this experience can be transferred onto our soil, which could possibly deal with the Christian culture, formed during the times of Rzecz Pospolita or the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania, cultural or historical foundations.

The thing is that Europe is somewhat distanced from Belarus and things seem to us too far, which is not the case because certain processes taking place in the social, political or cultural spheres correlate with the European processes, though with a slight delay in time. For instance, modernization or urbanization, industrialism – these processes took place in Europe just as they happened here, though in substantively different way. What is important to understand is what was different that happened here and there and what is transferable.

To my mind, it would be interesting to ask what ordinary Belarusians mean by the phrase “to be European”. Do these people regard themselves as Europeans?. I never think of that. It might pop up as persisting if I was to make a choice. But I know for sure that I exist in the cultural environment, which is European per se. I read Proust, Renaissance ideas, humanism, secularization. In this regard, I do not ask myself whether I am European. Yet, I am curious whether the collective self perceives itself so.

T.V . If you don’t think about it, Alexei, do you really believe others are not concerned about it?

A.B. No, they are not, in fact. Whether I think about it or not, there are links with Europe that emerge, which I do not realize. I just want to say that there are things in the Belarusian society, which are European in substance, but people seem not to attribute any sense to it, while it would be something interesting to actualize. It would be interesting to look at what is happening in the nowadays Belarus that approximates us to Europe and the European Union (EU), what is the vector and the substance of change? Can the aim of becoming Europeans be realized on the political level? Processes that are taking place in Belarus in the political, economic, cultural spheres, their correlation with the processes taking place in Europe is what interests me and how these let avoid isolation.

T.V. Regional comparisons in economic, social issues, which have taken place, they show that in the globalised world, along with internally ordered tendencies, that are broad common tendencies. In this respect isolation is hardly possible for Belarus; being already dragged into the European space Belarus will be hard to resist the afore mentioned common tendencies. We are talking about the tendencies that impact regions. In this regard, explanations with regard to Belarus aim at tackling the common tendencies. Belarus cannot escape neither the introduction of the normal banking system- it will employ it gradually, painfully, nor enhancing customs conditions, nor establishing relations with other states due to the common bordeeers. In this sence, Belarus is meant to establish these relations- not necessarily will Belarus join the EU, but establishing relations with the EU is unavoidable.

A.B. I am saying that the question of the European culture in Belarus requires changes of values. The actualization I already mentioned, therefore, is of enlightening nature. It just seems it is important to start from school for students to be able to image that there is something that unites us with other cultures, which is not connected with the War experience or some other experience, that there are things of a broader level, more peaceful level, civilizing level. All of this can be actualized, but needs to work in favour of changing the mentality of people. Despite the speculative nature of my words, I still believe this should be discussed.

What does it mean “to be European”?

V.Z. I have a thought on Belarus and Turkey. Are Turks Europeans?

O.D. From my personal experience, the question of whether Turks are European or not – is not important for the Europeans themselves. I’ve discussed this matter with the guys from the College of Europe seem to accept the position that once Turkey enters the EU, the EU will become more diverse, Europeans will be able to somehow level out the problems that now exist in the EU. Following from here, once Turkey enters the EU, Turks become European. This is pretty much the way they (Europeans) look at it, not the way we do.

T.V. Strange enough, but we, in Belarus, talking about the Europeanship, start discussing attributes: reckoning history, geography, start proving ourselves or disproving that we, either historically or geographically or territory-wise relate to Europe. Generally speaking, Europeanship is derived from activity. The question put doesn’t seem to be correct. I mean identity should be the starting point for discussion, and not the conclusion.

A.B. Well, then we might need to re-formulate the question. Instead of the question asked initially, let us address the question: why do we want to receive someone else’s experience and transfer some models we find appealing? I see difference in the quality of living here in Belarus and in Europe and I want to know what this difference is based upon? These are very broad questions I am honestly afraid digging into. The question is basically why we choose Europe as a navigator?

V.Z. I still don’t understand. Why do we even out “feeling oneself European” and “European state structures”, political, societal, etc.? Why do I have to be European? My reply to that is that I share the culture. It is easier for me to talk with a European than Chinese.

A.B . On a subject level, the Chinese is the same as, say, you are.

V.Z No, no, I am drawing on my personal experience. When I choose between the two cultures, I opt for the European, I don’t look at the notions of democracy, this I am not interested in.

T.V. You say you opt for the European culture and disregard democracy. Do you believe democratic institutes are not part of the culture?

A.B. There is a certain institutional backing of ideas. The notion of “European” is employed in the VIII century, The “Poitiers struggle” as manifesting some sort of unity. Than we speak of Christian unity. However it was not institutionally organized, there was no European Union, there was nothing. In the pre-war times, the idea of unity gave birth to the creation of the European Union to be able to actualize this perception of unity, create some sort of base.

T.V. This is absolutely true. But perceptions and feelings served as justification, and not the basement of the task. And the task was – to avoid a war in Europe. It was therefore decided to create economic structures to unite the European states to avoid fighting over economic benefits.

Entering Europe without national identity?

A.B.. Further speculating on the stages of our development. Desovietisation, nation building. How likely, would you think, it is that Lukashenko or any other mythological prototype would develop nation building based on globablisation? Is Belarusian nationalism able to communicate with other nationalisms?

T.V. I don’t know what modality you are referring to, but, as far as I understand, relations with Europe can be initiated either individually on each Belarusian’s will, or as a nation. I don’t know what the way to complete nation building in Belarus is. I think this very issue is a challenge for both, Belarus and Europe, since we have to be handled somehow. Belarus is being formed, though without a normal project, without much sense. State project is being oriented towards the present. The current political stage requires planning and those, who adhere to this idea have a chance to substantively fill the vacuum and move further, otherwise we may simply disappear.

A.B. I may change the question. Will our nationalism be anti-European?.

Т.V. It cannot be anti-European. Nationalism is per se a European phenomenon.

А.B.The phenomenon is not an empty signifier, it can be filled.

Т.V. Nationalism is not a mushroom, it is created. Therefore what it will look like depends on who will create it. I feel nationalism stands little chances to be anti-European.

A.B. Durosel, a French historian, spoke of two levels of identity: national and European. To be able to understand whether we are Europeans, we have to understand who are Belarusians. Simple belonging to the Republic of Belarus is not sufficient. The secret is, what is “Belarusianship”? To my mind, the current rhetoric of “Belarusianship” is very descriptive. The post 1991 nation building has been rather painful. Polish Belarusists speak of the peripheral mentality of the Belarusians due to the fact that Belarus was a part of other states in the course of centuries. Marples speaks of us as of a “denationalized nation”. Speculative leeway is therefore rather broad and unclear.

Т.V. Belarusisation should pass and done with in a short term.

А.B. Our strive to be included into Europe is often related to the fact that we cannot answer the question of who we are. It seems to us, the entry would immediately resolve the issue..

Т.V. I want to be a European skipping the previous stage.

А.B. Yes, something like this. We have to find an internal needle, something that would structure our cultural or political aspirations.

Т.V. I totally agree what concerns filling Belarusian identity with substance. Such research was already carried out three years ago. Belarusian identity is largely built upon civil and political identities. Over 70% of respondent say they are “citizens” of Belarus, but when starting to dig deeper into the substance, the substance appears to be poor. It appears as if there is a surfice layer and nothing underneath.

V.Z. Coming back to the question of identity, is it that important for a European or is it more important for us?

D.G. Do you mean ethnic identity or national?

V.Z. National.

A.B. As Europe developed, there took place a unification of cultures. To be Europeans, however, we have to be Belarusians and need to understand what it means for us.

Т.V. When I spoke about the de-sovietisation, belarusisation, I spoke about the stages of nation building, how a country or a society develops. Belarus cannot enter the EU relying solely on the relations established, it needs to form itself as a nation.

V.Z. Why is the “Belarusian nation” necessarily important?

А.B. I can explain. Because there is a subjective collective interest. There are private individual interests and there are collective, which can be articulated through the national ideology.

А.Z. Let’s draw a conclusion. As far as I could understand there are no objective obstacles other than those, who want to become Europeans.

D.G.No, it seemed to me we talked more about the deepening of the Belarus identity. Absence of a fully-fledged, well-articulated identity is the obstacle to become European. А.Z. Since our identity is weak, not filled and not properly registered, we may speak that the idea of “belarusianship” is weak or absent. Thus speaking about the European aspirations is too early or impossible.

А.B. Not that it is impossible to speak about. It’s just before considering ourself a part of Europe, one has to correlate the own identity and interests with the European ones. The conversation is bus basically about whether there is interest and whether it has to be satisfied.