Staunton, October 26 – Pictures of several young Belarusian military cadets wearing T-shirts with pictures of the mounted knight, a symbol that many Belarusian nationalists identify with but one that Russians view as fascist or at least Russophobic, went viral on the Russian Internet last week.
And the attention these pictures have received in Russia has only increased now that it has become obvious that the Belarusian authorities have no intention of punishing the cadets – after all, this symbol is not illegal even under Alyaksandr Lukashenka but will only tighten discipline in the military academy involved.
One of the most interesting commentaries has been offered by Alla Bron, who argues that the behavior of the students and even more the response of the authorities show that Russia is losing the youth of Belarus and hence Russia’s future there and will unless something changes radically continue to do so with or without Lukashenka (regnum.ru/news/polit/1998019.html).
What makes Bron’s comments so intriguing is that her diagnosis of what is wrong in Belarus from her perspective – the absence of a vision of the future among that country’s elites -- could be applied with equal force to the Russian Federation itself, a possibility that she even alludes to in the closing passage of her essay.
Bron notes that the cadets really weren’t taking any real risks and that the celebration by some Belarusian nationalists of their actions exaggerates its meaning. But if their actions are not that significant, she suggests, the failure of the authorities not to do anything in response is very much so because it shows how Mensk is trying to position itself at home and abroad.
Imagine, she says, what would have happened if cadets at Moscow’s Suvorov Academy in the 1950s or so had been photographed with T-shirts showing a swastika. The authorities would have moved swiftly against all of them because those in power had “complete confidence in their own correctness and the population understood this.”
But “today, in a completely analogous situation, the Belarusian authorities showed themselves to be worried about their image in the eyes of liberal society” both within the country and especially in Europe. Consequently, they imposed no sanctions, and the cadets involved will continue their studies possibly sometime becoming officers of the Belarusian armed forces.
“As we know from parasitology,” Bron continues, where you can see one spider or insect, there are dozens more which you can’t see. “This is also true of the Belarusian opposition.” There may be only a few who will display such symbols, but there are dozens more who think the same way but are afraid to show their true colors.
Bron asks rhetorically: “Why is Russia losing Belarusian youth?” That may seem hard for Russians who remember the positive aspects of the Soviet past, but it reflects an important reality. Young people in Belarus – and by implication Russia as well – “do not remember this.” Instead, they focus on “the here and now.”
What that means is that in Belarus at least, the situation can be described as “’frozen perestroika,’” Bron argues, a situation in which everything bad about the Soviet past is constantly discussed and in which the West is viewed in an entirely positive light as a model for emulation.
Although perestroika went in a more “sluggish” fashion in Belarus than elsewhere because in Bron’s view, Belarusians are part of the Russian nation, the Belarusian bureaucracy used nationalism to justify having an independent state they could control in much the same way as did nationalists elsewhere.
“Then came Lukashenka who for a certain time considered Belarus only as a jumping off point for the Kremlin and stopped [this kind of] ‘nation building,’” Bron suggests. As a result, “Belarus as it were became ‘stuck in perestroia,’” in a double sense.
On the one hand, many of the worst features of the Soviet past that people everywhere wanted to give up, including bureaucratism, social apathy, and the lack of belief in the future. But on the other, Belarusians continued to consider the West as a model for them even when others in the post-Soviet space gave up on that idea.
“All this in contemporary Belarus was made even worse by the lack of a state ideology, by an image of the future. One can argue for a long time whether Communism was possible or about how many people at the end of the USSR still believed in it, but one must admit that at least the USSR had a model of the future.”
“Belarusian officialdom doesn’t. Not at all,” Bron says.
Mensk constantly talks about the future but it presents it as “only a continuation of a rotting present, which is something strange in the stormily changing world of the beginning of the 21st century, the Regnum commentator says. But “in contrast to the authorities, the pro-Western opposition has an ideology,” one that “synthesizes” Russophobia and more food.
Young Belarusians see the wealth of the West “and want to live the same way. [They] are told that for this they must hate Russians and all that is connected with the USSR? No problem! Lukashenka in their consciousness is also connected with the USSR? Then do away with him as well!”
“As a result,” Bron says, “Lukashenka has finally lost the information war for the minds of young people. But he is a smart man. He knows how to turn to his advantage even what would see a dead end situation.” Exploiting tensions between Russia and the West, he simply begins to sound something like the Russophobes in his own population.
What is at work is the old principle that “if you can’t defeat the mafia, then you must head it,” the commentator says. And in this way, Bron continues, Lukashenka “is becoming for the Russophobes if not a friend then at least a lesser evil in comparison with a hypothetic ‘Russian Vanya on a tank.’ And in this way, nothing threatens the person power of Batka.”
“Unfortunately,” she says, “Russia isn’t doing anything to block these negative tendencies in Belarusian society. Russian patriots simply can’t agree among themselves … and officials work only with the authorities and not with society.” And the results are now clear for all to see.
And they are these: “Regardless of whether Lukashenka holds onto power or not, Russia is losing Belarus” – and if one applies her logic to the Russian Federation as well, Moscow, without a compelling vision of the future beyond keeping Putin in power for life, is losing Russia as well.