Belarus: East and West and Nothing in Between?

“East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” This chronically misused Kipling phrase seems to catch realities for an increasing number of Belarusians, as recent protests and crises have become a rude awakening from the torpor of the last Soviet “sleeping beauty.” Waking to a wild and hostile world, many people now start asking: “Who cares about Belarus?”

Coverage found in the Western media of the recent developments in Belarus largely follows the general pattern of repression, with a few opposition activists highlighted, but still with little added to the familiar story. It is true that the economic crisis that has recently hit the country and Russia's gradual takeover of Belarus’ economy have added spice to the stew, whilst the ultimate news would be the ousting of President Lukashenko.

Every year on March 25, Belarusian opposition leaders and activists hold public actions to mark Freedom Day, which is not an officially recognised holiday. Image by Ivan Uralsky, copyright Demotix (25/03/2010).

Every year on March 25, Belarusian opposition leaders and activists hold public actions to mark Freedom Day, which is not an officially recognised holiday. Image by Ivan Uralsky, copyright Demotix (25/03/2010).

Until that day, though, Belarus seems deemed to remain in limbo between East and West. Or would Lukashenko or no Lukashenko really make a difference? An increasing number of voices in Belarus say that the limbo will linger on, and Belarus is bound to remain in a grey zone between East and West.

Thus, LiveJournal user by_volunteer complains [ru] that the country's economy is sold out to Russia, whereas Europe has enough problems of her own to trouble to care:

Беларусь пошла с молотка и это очевидный конец. Руководство Беларуси заключило сделку и тихонько распродаёт страну, в расчёте на политическое убежище, все наши ура-патриоты спокойно на это смотрят. Основные предприятия страны переходят в собственность к России, это российские капиталовложения в нашу собственность. Как можно это допустить и как может ЕС так спокойно упускать свои перспективы на будущее в Беларуси?! Это же полный провал европейской политики, тем более в ЕС нарастает огромный финансовый кризис, европейский бизнес девать просто некуда. Это немощный инфантилизм и позор, нельзя допускать завершения сделки с Россией, это огромная ошибка, нужно срочно принимать меры!

Belarus went under [the auctioneer's] hammer and it was a foregone conclusion. The leaders of Belarus made a deal and are quietly selling off the country, counting on political asylum, and all our hooray-patriots calmly look at it. The main enterprises of the country are becoming Russian property. It is a Russian investment in our property. How can this be allowed, and how can the EU so calmly give up on its views on Belarus?! It is simply a total collapse of European policy, especially as an enourmous financial crisis is brewing in the EU, and European business simply has nowhere to turn. It is powerless infantilism and a shame. Оne cannot allow dealing with Russia. It's a big mistake, and urgent action is needed!

But where is Europe, and where is justice? Feelings of abandonment and, for all appearances, being treated unfairly are obviously spreading, adding to a sense of general disappointment and hopelessness in everyday life and in hopes for the future. Writing about a denial of an EU-Schengen visa for her son, a mother laments [ru] over how she feels people from Belarus are regarded:

Нет правды в Беларуси. Десятки лет мы получаем лживую информацию, слышим безответственные обещания, видим потемкинские деревни. Наелись. Все цивилизованные страны единодушны в оценке и называют такое поведение властей издевательством над народом. Но как оценить издевательство над многострадальными гражданами посольств этих цивилизованных стран, когда после заявлений о смягчении визовых режимов для белорусов, отказывают в визе даже тем белорусам, которые по всем критериям очень даже выездные. [—] Мой сын закончил третий курс университета. Хотел съездить во Францию по частному приглашению. Получил отказ. Поскольку ничего плохого за ним никогда не водилось, единственной причиной отказа считаю административный арест 19 декабря на 15 суток. Он проходит по спискам и, скорее всего, поэтому посольство Франции ответило: «У нас нет уверенности, что вы покинете страну по истечению срока визы». Интересно получается. Два списка фигурируют для запрета въезда в Евросоюз: официальный – список чиновников и неофициальный список задержанных. [—] И стало, знаете, очень обидно. И очень одиноко. И за демократию бьют по голове, и демократия бьет по голове. И никому мы не нужны. Ладно бы не нужны – и на порог не пускают. А главное, никакими демократическими процедурами это решение не оспорить. Где справедливость, где права человека, какие гаагские суды рассматривают отказы в выдаче визы? Какие правозащитные организации защищают таких людей? А главное, отличается ли белорусская судья, превентивно выносящая приговор за несовершенное правонарушение, от французского чиновника, отказывающего в визе за несостоявшийся невозврат?

There is no truth in Belarus. For decades, we have been getting a pack of lies, listening to irresponsible promises, seeing the Potemkin villages. We are fed up with it. All civilized countries unite in their judgment and name such conduct of power a mockery with the people. But how is such mockery with the long-suffering citizens valued by embassies of these civilized countries, when – after declarations of a softened visa regime for Belarusians – visas are denied even to those Belarusans who really by all criteria are liable for them. [—] My son finished his third year at university, and wanted to go to France on a private invitation. He got a rejection [to his visa application]. As he has never been up to anything bad, the only reason for rejection, I think, is the administrative [post-election protest-related] arrest on December 19 for 15 days. He is on the lists, and therefore, supposedly, the French Embassy replied: «We don't know if you leave the country after your visa expires». It all becomes interesting. There appears to be two lists for denial of entry to the European Union: An official – the bureaucrats’ list – and an unofficial list of those who had been arrested. [—] And then, you know, it becomes really hurtful. And very lonely. Getting hit on the head for democracy, and then getting hit on the head by democracy. Nobody needs us. It's okay if we are not needed, and not let over the threshold. But the main thing is that there are no democratic procedures by which to appeal this decision. Where is justice, where are human rights, which Hague courts review the denials of visas? What civil rights organizations defend these people? And above all, does a Belarusian judge, who preventively passes verdict for a crime not committed, differ from a French bureaucrat, who denies a visa for a non-return that has not taken place?

Touching on the classical Tolstoian question of the evil inside us all and the need to come to terms with it, LJ user dolka777 asks [ru] how people allowed the Lukashenko regime to develop:

Как мы вскормили диктатора. Это вопрос, который я себе задаю постоянно. Мучительно вспоминаю, как и когда я сама впустила в себя эту диктатуру. Свято верю, что в каждой судьбе должен быть такой момент, когда ты соглашаешься со злом только потому, что твой двоюродный брат работает в КГБ и он – клевый парень, а тебе не хочется его обижать. Или хвастаешься другом, который парится в парилке с личным сантехником Его Величества. Шугаешься коллег или сокурсников, которые связаны с оппозицией. Думаю, что здесь, в бай-политикс собрались те, которые, возможно, ничего такого не делали. Но все же. [—] И теперь вопрос каждому: что ты лично сделал для того, чтобы в Беларуси воцарился диктатор?

How did we nourish a dictator? It's a question I ask myself all the time. It is painful to remember how and when I, myself, let this dictatorship in. I sincerely believe that in every destiny there has to be such a moment when you consent to evil only because your cousin works for the KGB, and he is a cool guy and you don't want to hurt his feelings. Or you boast about a friend who has steamed in the same sauna as His Highness. You vilify those colleagues or classmates who are connected with the opposition. I believe that here, in the .by-politics, those have gathered who perhaps did nothing like this. But still. And now a question to each and everyone: What have you personally done so that a dictator could reign in Belarus?

So, as the shrill voices of Lukashenko loyalists and opposition activists reach crescendo, perhaps there are weaker voices wondering why they cannot simply be allowed to be here, “tuteishi”, and lead a normal life between Russia and Europe.

Kipling's famous poem on East and West has a less-known ending: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

So, even if Russia and Europe, as two strong men, would learn to respect each other, where would that leave Belarus but in a grey zone? Perhaps, for many Belarusians, East is East and West is West, and there is no place for the rest, living in between.

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