Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Belarusian National Identity about Far More than Just Language

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – It has long been an unquestioned article of faith among Russians and unfortunately among many Russian experts in the West that Ukrainians and Belarusians are “really” Russians who just happen to speak different “dialects” and thus do not have a national identity worthy of independent respect.

            In recent years, Ukrainians have demonstrated the absurdity of such views with Russian- speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians living in Ukraine showing that they are committed to their nation and country and even prepared to die for it, something few in Moscow talk about because this pattern undermines their officially prescribed worldview.

            Now, in a development that may prove equally important, Belarusian activists are demonstrating that “Belarusianness” is also not just a question of language but is rooted in a national culture and history that make Belarusians – including not unimportantly Belarusians who speak only Russian – very different from those living in the Moscow-centric state.

            Indeed, while some nationalists in the non-Russian countries oppose any suggestion that promoting their own languages is not a first-order task as of course it is, the emergence of recognized Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Belarusians both undermines Moscow’s claims about “a Russian world” and helps solidify the 1991 settlement.

            In an interview published today, Belarusian photographer Marina Batyukova invites her fellow Belarusians regardless of the language they speak to take part in a project about what “unites” them as a nation and sets them apart from others (lady.tut.by/news/life/527722.html and charter97.org/ru/news/2017/1/17/237926/).

            The photographer says she has involved literary figures, sociologists, directors and artists in her project so far but she wants to hear from ordinary people about what they think their country is and who those who live there in fact are.  Obviously, she continues, there won’t be a single answer but rather a variety that can be woven into a tapestry.

            That tapestry, of course, involves more than things that are Belarusian alone: Belarusians are part of the world and feel what is going on in it beyond their borders as well as inside them. For her, Batryukova says, the word that comes to mind first is “instantaneous,” not surprising she acknowledges because as a photographer she seeks to capture that in her pictures.

            But she continues by saying that she is “connected with many things” in Belarus and that is why she always “wants to return hoe even from unbelievably beautiful places abroad.” The associations she has with it are powerful, although they may not be those that others might expect.

            For her, the photographer says, “Belarus is not Victory Square. It is rather the Belarusian forest,” a place where she can think and recharge. “When we say ‘Paris,’” she continues, “associations immediately arise: the Eiffel Tower, cheese, wine, chestnuts … But with the word Belarus,” the situation is more complicated and requires visual stimuli.

            Batryukova says she is an urban Belarusian from childhood and did not encounter the Belarusian language until 1994 when she joined the artists union. From that time forward, she has been asking questions about her identity and the way it is or isn’t linked to language.

            It is hard not to notice, she says, that “in any other country everyone speaks the language of their country, but in Belarus, everything is different in that regard.” But “if it isn’t the Belarusian language, then what does make us Belarusians? What do people feel who were born here?”

            She says the ancient traditions of the Belarusians are most obvious in the villages, adding that she is pleased that these traditions are being handed down from one generation to the next rather than dying out as many had thought.  These things too are part of what makes Belarusians Belarusians, and her project now on Facebook will identify even more of the sources of this.

80 Percent of 25 Million Guns Now in Private Hands in Russia are Held Illegally, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – A recent rise in armed violence in Russia has called attention to the growing number of guns in private hands in that country, including into the hands of people who are nominally denied the right to own them but who are able to make an end run around restrictions via the black market.

            In today’s “Komsomolskaya Pravda,” journalist Aleksandr Rogoza points to the notorious case of a man who was undergoing psychiatric care and had committed violent crimes but nevertheless not only acquired new weapons but also became an instructor in their use at a private Moscow gun club as part of a larger problem (kp.ru/daily/26630/3649553/).

            Obtaining a license to own a gun in Russia is not difficult but it is slower and more cumbersome than acquiring a gun on the black market. The first takes two or three weeks without a bribe; two or three days with one. The latter can be done almost immediately although prices are still high.

            The Russian National Guard which is now the gatekeeper for registration says that the Russian people now have registered with its officers “more than five million” guns of various kinds; but that is a small fraction of the some 20 million additional guns now illegally held by criminals and others.

            A major reason that many Russians are seeking to acquire guns now is out of fear that they or their family members will be robbed or assaulted by criminals with guns, a fear that is sparking a veritable arms race as criminals arm themselves to deal with others who are armed and the latter do the same.

            Unfortunately, despite widespread beliefs that Russia has tight and effective gun control arrangements, that is not so.  Mikhail Ignatov, a retired militiaman, says that “there is a very great deal of corruption in our present system of getting permission to own a weapon” and that to avoid more bloodshed, the system must be changed.

            A major problem, he says, is that officials of the Russian National Guard don’t examine critically the documents presented to them and thus fail to recognize that many of the medical certificates required can be acquired by applicants on the Internet for ten to fifteen thousand rubles from people who have never examined them.

            But an even larger problem, the “Moskovsky komsomolets” journalist suggests, is that ever more people are simply avoiding the legal registration system altogether and getting the guns they want on the black or gray market, a choice that makes it ever more likely that such weapons will fall into the wrong hands or be misused in other ways.

Putin’s Real Advantage over Trump: The Shift from Politics of Values to Politics of Deals

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – In assessing Vladimir Putin’s influence over Donald Trump, many focus on reports about kompromat sexual or financial or Moscow’s role in last year’s US elections.  But a Moscow newspaper today points to what may be an even greater source of this sway: the shift in bilateral relations from a politics of values to a politics of making deals.

            When values informed the relationship between Moscow and Washington, each side had reasons both to reach agreements and also to walk away from any that didn’t meet those values; but now, first in Russia and now in the US, there are two leaders who approach talks looking for deals in the first instance rather than the promotion of anything but naked interest.

            And in this brave new world, the one who wants or needs an agreement more – and in this case, it is almost certainly the incoming president given his commitment to be seen making deals – is at a disadvantage relative to the one, Vladimir Putin, who also wants deals but who knows that his opposite number wants them more desperately and quickly than he.

            That conclusion is suggested by an editorial in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” entitled “The Politics of Deals in Place of the Politics of Values” in which the paper seeks to explain why Russia is so hopeful that it will get more of what it wants when Trump takes office (ng.ru/editorial/2017-01-17/2_6904_red.html).

                The Russian powers that be, the editors say, “continue to put their hopes in Donald Trump;” and the incoming president has encouraged them to think so with his talk of doing deals with Moscow. “In Russia,” they argue, “this is viewed as a sign that sanctions may be softened or partially eliminated.”

            “’A deal’ is of course a word from the language of business,” and it is one that Trump has made the centerpiece of his worldview from the titles of his books to the way he has talked about doing deals with Russia in his recent interviews in The Times and Bild. And he has surrounded himself with a cabinet full of businessmen as well.

            Of course, this is not the first time that a Western leader has been a businessman or surrounded himself with those like himself; nor is it the first time that Moscow has placed its hopes in such people. After the West imposed sanctions, the Russian leadership hoped that European business interests would limit or even bring them to a rapid end.

            “The Russian leadership and the media which support it,” the paper’s editors say, “consider that the habits both of thought and behavior of businessmen are useful for a politician [because] they make him more moderate, stable and oriented toward mutual profit” whereas others may pursue more ideologically driven agendas.

            “It is noteworthy,” they continue, that in domestic Russian politics, businessmen have a different image.” There, successful entrepreneurs and “even more billionaires” are viewed suspiciously for the kind of actions they have engaged in to gain and keep their wealth and are compelled to expiate their “guilt” by building sports facilities and the like.

            Someone with Trump’s “background,” the editors say, would be “condemned to defeat in Russian politics” because he is very rich, his advisors would remind everyone of the oligarchs, and perhaps especially because Trump’s immediate domestic goal is to dismantle the universal health care system Barack Obama fought for.

            “In Russia, such moves would be interpreted in only one way, as an anti-people policy,” the paper says.

            “The ruling elite in Russia carries out primarily a lef policy with a significant admixture of populism, directed at groups of the population which are dependent on the state. Whatever the relations of the Kremlin and Obama were, the left initiatives of the American Democrats at an ideological and values level were able to elicit in Russia understanding if not support.”

            Russia’s powers that be, however, never viewed things that way. They “talk a lot about values (above all national ones) but in reality [their] policies are not directed at their realization.” Instead, their “leftism is a tactic for preserving their own position” and they are unprepared to see any commonality with the values of an Obama or a Holland.

            In foreign policy, “the only criterion” the rulers of Russia apply to foreign leaders is their desire to “make deals” with Russia and their willingness to work with a country that is now seeking to set on its own the rules of its own behavior, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” says.

            That makes Trump attractive in Moscow at least for now because “he does not put forward in foreign affairs any values at all,” beyond a desire to “do deals” with all and sundry.  Everything else the incoming president has said is dismissed in the Russian capital as mere electioneering of little interest to Kremlin rulers.

            “This doesn’t mean,” the paper concludes, “that the businessman Trump doesn’t have any values. Of course, he does; but for the powers that be of the Russian Federation, these seem values for internal consumption” rather than ones that will guide his relations with Moscow.