Staunton, November 17 – Many in both Moscow and the West assume that Russia and Belarus are “practically a single country” and that their populations are so similar as to make their fusion into a single one inevitable. But, as a survey of Belarusian opinion shows, it is one thing for leaders to proclaim unity and quite another for the two peoples to feel it.
“Russky reporter,” decided to find out just how Belarusians feel about Russia and their connections with it by sending “almost 200 young journalists” to talk to residents of the Belarusian capital in the course of one day. The Moscow journal has now published a selection of their responses (rusrep.ru/article/2013/11/05/minsk24).
While this survey by its very nature cannot claim to be representative of all the residents of Mensk let alone of Belarusians outside of that city, its findings are clear: Many Belarusians do not feel especially close or attached to the Russian Federation and now look westward rather than eastward for their futures.
Asked what connects him with Russia, a lycee student said that nothing really did at a personal level, although he acknowledged that perhaps the supply of gas did link his country with it. “I do not feel attached to Russia: I don’t even have any relatives in that neighboring country.”
And when he was asked how he would be affected if “Russia suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth,” the lycee student said he was sure he would lose “many topics for conversation because the theme of relations between Russian and Belarus is always being discussed iin society. But that would be about it.”
Many of the Belarusians with whom the Russian journalists spoke insisted that there country was Belarus and not Belorussia, as Russians call it. When people use the latter, they are being insulting and referring to a place that “doesn’t exist.” Most said that the union state with Russia “exists only on paper,” and many viewed Russia as being “almost as far away as China.”
The Russian journalists who came to Mensk assumed they were returning to a Soviet place, given that there is “a dictator – father Lukashenka, censorship, political prisoners, the KGB, prohibited rock groups, and other things” which recall the pre-1991 world. But they found other things as well, including hostility to Moscow and Russians.
For many Belarusians, the Russian journalists conclude, there exists “a mark of equivalence between Moscow and the entire country,” with judgments about Russia reflecting Russian television programs about crime and corruption in the Russian capital, features that Belarusians increasingly assume are typical of Russia as a whole.
Belarusians and Russians do share a common language. Indeed, “the percent of people speaking correct Russian” is higher in Belarus or in Ukraine. But, the Russian journalists say, “there is the feeling that for Belarusians, the Russian language is not associated directly with Russia.”
Many Belarusians have lived and worked in Moscow or elsewhere in the Russian Federation in the past, another unifying feeling. But ever fewer have been doing so in recent years given that Russian firms have replaced increasingly expensive Belarusian workers with cheaper ones from Central Asia.
In addition, the two nations are united by “the cult of Victory” in World War II and by classical Russian culture. “But,” the journalists say, “the more new musical groups, directors and writers are born, the more we will be separated from one another. If, of course, we do not begin to build anew a single country, not at the level of presidents but at the level of people.”
The “Russky reporter” article features numerous quotations from Belarusians. How typical any one of them is is impossible to say, but collectively they present a very different picture of Belarusian society than is normally offered by the Moscow media or accepted as true by Russian and Western audiences.
Among some of the most interesting:
***A Belarusian biker said he had taken Russian citizenship to buy property but that that didn’t mean he was connected with Russia. He indicated he much prefers to be part of a small state, not one whose “greatness consists in its possession of nuclear weapons.”
***A post office worker said she didn’t want to see the two countries unite because she was sure that would harm Belarus. “I do not want this,” she added.
***A bank employee said he thought that Russia and Belarus would eventually be united, but he suggested that is because Russia needs Belarus as much as the reverse: “Russia depends on Belarus; we are after all the geographic center of Europe, and Russia needs a place des armes.” He said that when he visits Moscow he doesn’t feel “alien” but he does feel that he is “in an alien country” where “you ar alone and no one will help you.”
***A young worker at a café said that he was “against Russia” because its “policy toward Belarus is dishonest: [the Russians] come and buy up everything.”
***Another worker said “nothing except language connects me with Russia. Or almost nothing: I have a Russian mother and a Russian father ... or is it that he was only born in Russia?”
***A roofer said “it would be better if we intergrated with Europe and not with Russia.” Twice, he said, Russians had “seized everything,” once during the Russian Empire and then in the USSR. He said that because the Soviets called Belarus Belorussia, it was critically important for everyone to call it Belarus now. “What kind of Belorussia are we if we are Belarus?”