People Want New Faces

Young Belarusians will continue to go to Polish or Lithuanian universities. I am not convinced, however, that this will foster democratization, says Piotr Pogorzelski in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: The average Belarusian or Ukrainian is 41 years old, and when the USSR collapsed, they were 11 years old. The vast majority of citizens of these countries barely remember the Soviet times, they were children then. We often quote these figures with hope, but at the same time most Belarusians were also children when Alexander Lukashenko came to power. What is the significance of this?

PIOTR POGORZELSKI: On the one hand, it is true that young Belarusians do not know any other Belarus than the one ruled by Lukashenko and they have adapted to life in a system where power is continuously held by the same man. As for Ukraine, young Ukrainians grew up in a weak state, they are taught that many things can and even should be achieved with a bribe. This is the knowledge their parents passed on to them. At the same time, they don’t have the burden of fear of a state apparatus for which an individual is nothing. And this is a huge plus. It is particularly visible among young Belarusians, where this fear is greater, because Alexander Lukashenko made sure that contemporary Belarus is in some ways a copy of the Soviet Union.

Finally, from yet another perspective, these Ukrainians and Belarusians know what is happening in other countries and know that things may be different. Their first source of information is not – as in the case of older people – television, but the Internet media.

Which television are you talking about?

In the case of Ukraine, it is of lesser importance, as the TV broadcasting does not differ from the Western one, but in the case of Belarus the differences are very big. The older generation, if they watch TV, first of all watch not Belarusian but Russian channels. Thus, Belarusians learn more about how people live under Putin than under Lukashenko. However, many elements of the message are similar in Belarus and Russia, e.g. the paradigm that stability is the most important thing and that changes should be avoided, because they lead to chaos and wars, as in Ukraine. There is also a very elaborate message about the security forces, their great importance in maintaining this stability, and about the everyday violence, even symbolic—e.g. in families where the man is lord and god, and the woman is primarily expected to smell nice, take care of the children and cook dinner for her husband. All this is present in Russian TV series, which are fortunately much less popular in Ukraine, if only because access to Russian channels is blocked on cable TV. 

The young are taking to online media more often, but the question is what kind?

According to 2018 data, Belarusians turned to Google and the Russian equivalent of Facebook, Vkontakte, in that order. Then was Tut.by—a popular news and entertainment website recently shut down by the authorities. It was a watershed when a Belarusian product defeated such runet powers such as Yandex or Mail.ru. Thus, by destroying Tut.by, Lukashenko again throws Belarusians into the hands of Russian propaganda. 

As for Ukraine, despite the fight against Moscow’s influence, Russian popular culture is still hugely popular. You can block TV, but not the Internet anymore. Look at the list of the most popular music on Ukrainian Spotify. Despite the war with Russia, Ukrainians are most likely to listen to Russian musicians—not Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but specifically performers from Russia.

History has taught us that Internet use alone does not lead to a democratized audience. Maybe the migration destinations of Belarusians will tell us something about them?

First of all, they migrate to Russia.

However, the perception of this country has changed. I remember how twenty years ago Belarusians used to refer to Moscow as their capital, they still considered themselves a province of the Empire.

But today young people identify more with their country, they don’t remember another one, although they are part of Russian culture, of the Russian information space. Belarus is also integrated with Russia in many spheres, including the Commonwealth of Independent States, so it is easier for Belarusians to work in Russia than in the European Union.

And when protests began in Belarus last year, did Belarusians who fled the country also decide to go to Russia?

Some did, but they quickly realized that it was a bad idea.

Because?

A person wanted by Minsk is automatically included in the register of those wanted in Russia. So, there were cases when Belarusians were arrested in St. Petersburg or in other Russian cities.

In Poland I also spoke with Belarusian migrants who did not leave for political, but for social reasons—they wanted to emigrate anyway, and the protests and the backlash only accelerated their decision. It was important for them that if they were to go somewhere, it would be to a country where it was much better – so they usually chose Poland or the Baltic countries when going to the West.

Let me repeat, I am not talking about political emigration. Look at the companies from the well-developed Belarusian IT sector. Recently, they have been moving to Ukraine, Lithuania or Poland, because there is too much authoritarianism in Belarus and their interests are threatened. It is just too much for many people to be arrested for a couple of weeks for leaving a TV cardboard box on a balcony because it is in white and red colours [a reference to the white-red-white Belarusian flag, an alternative to the official state flag, perceived as a symbol of opposition—ed.] This is an authentic story. It is very easy to become an enemy of the regime, even against your will.

Can a young Belarusian be apolitical living in his country? Is it possible to say “politics does not interest me, I want to live safely and run my business”.

There is no full economic freedom in Belarus, there are extensive control institutions, large state-owned enterprises dominate, largely relying on subsidies from Russia or from the state budget.

Yes, you can have a carpenter’s workshop or a cafe, but there are not many small initiatives in Belarus anyway—people are simply afraid.

Afraid of what?

If a business starts to flourish, the government will take an interest in it. There will be endless inspections and proposals to hand over the company to particular people. 

I have heard it more than once from Belarusians—we would like to open an ice-cream parlour or a hairdressing salon, but if we are successful, if we open a branch and then another, the government will turn up in the shape of, for example, the tax or sanitary inspectorate and will start to make things difficult. The glass ceiling hangs very low.

This is how it works, the government tries to squeeze as much as it can out of business. That is why Belarusians are stifled and afraid to show initiative. I remember how they behaved in August 2020. I saw how much creativity these people have in themselves, how Minsk and Grodno revived during the demonstrations connected with the elections. It looked like lifting the lid from a boiling pot—clouds of steam shot out.

There are other potential fields of conflict with the authorities. If you have a child and send it to kindergarten or school, there will be a ‘presidential corner’ (portrait of the President, quotes, constitution, etc.), state ideology, May 9 celebrations, etc. Now the regime plans to have a ‘social-military educator’ in every school.

What will he do?

This is supposed to be a man who makes sure that children are loyal to the state ideology, and since it is increasingly militarized, we have this ‘military’ component.

In every major Belarusian company there is an ideology officer who actually keeps an eye on employees to check whether they are conspiring against the state and whether they are obediently celebrating the 1st and 9th of May and, of course, the 8th of March (Women’s Day). In short, it is difficult to escape from politics in Belarus.

Talking about school again, it is also important that electoral commissions are located in schools and are staffed by teachers and headed by principals. So you are sending your child to a school that is headed by a man responsible for election rigging.

And what is the risk for a Belarusian 20-year-old who decides to go to a demonstration against Lukashenko in Grodno or Mogilev?

He risks at least a 15-day arrest or a heavy fine, and possibly torture. And if they find on his phone, for example, a comment ‘stupid’ under a post with a photo of militiamen, he may go to prison for 2 years. A student can be expelled from university for showing up at a demonstration. And if he has children, the authorities can take them away and send them to an orphanage.

And is the Belarusian revolution still going on?

There are no longer as large protests as before, but remember how much Belarusians risk by taking to the streets. Some see Lukashenko as an occupation regime and want to wait him out.

Belarusians are not broken, but they are wondering if they should go out and risk getting fired because of it. And if your boss is a dedicated Lukashist, it’s possible. Not to mention those employed in the government sector. Belarusians continue to oppose the authorities, but the price of taking to the streets is enormous.

Last summer it seemed that the barrier of fear had been broken.

Not quite. An acquaintance from Minsk told me that at work even her friends were afraid to talk openly about politics, to tell what someone did at the weekend and so on. The fear was strong even when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, let alone now, when fear has driven them back home, and the resistance is mostly virtual.

Or maybe the protests only happened because of the generational change and the young fuelled the demonstrations?

Generational change is important, but class reasons were also important. There were many middle-aged, middle-class people among the demonstrators—they are successful, they earn good money. These people can go on vacation all over the world, they eat well, but they would also like to have a President who has not ruled them for almost 30 years and who is not an embarrassment, who does not tell them stupid things like that the coronavirus should be cured with vodka and riding a tractor – which is what Lukashenko said at the beginning of the pandemic. These people made their demands known. The protests escalated because the authorities made a mistake.

What was it?

In the first days, the regime’s response to the demonstrations was too brutal. Shooting people, beating them, catching passers-by who were going to the store—this infuriated Belarusians. It was similar with the Maidan in November 2013—if the students had not been beaten, everything could have gone downhill and perhaps the Revolution of Dignity would not have happened. In both cases, however, the authorities responded brutally, but the protests in Belarus lacked proper organization. The Lukashenko regime is more oppressive than the Yanukovych regime was. Belarusians had no experience with mass protests, they didn’t know how to run them. There were also no NGOs, cultural and educational institutions. 

Are there young Belarusians who are not in opposition, but support Lukashenko?

Of course, and not just a few. Many young people belong to Lukashenko’s youth group, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union. Some of them are careerists, but some of them feel in their element there. They hear at home from their elders that things were better under the USSR and Lukashenko provides us with a substitute for those times. And the young believe in it at the later stages of their lives.

So among young people there are not only oppositionists and apolitical ones, but also people committed to Lukashenko.

Of course, but we can’t be more specific, because we don’t have any reliable sociological studies.

We don’t have them since 2016, when NISEPI, the last independent opinion poll center, had to leave the country.

Exactly, and now we have to rely on either state surveys or online surveys. However, we see the involvement of young people in pro-regime organizations, it is undeniable.

Why are the leading Belarusian journalists protesting against the regime so young? NEXTA’s founder Sciapan Puča is 22 years old, Raman Pratasevich is 26 years old, and Belsat journalists Kaciaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chulcova, imprisoned for over six months, are 28 and 24 years old respectively.

Perhaps the point is that a Belarusian journalist takes a lot of risks in this profession, he or she is quickly confronted with political pressure, and when you are young, you have less to lose and are more ready to take risks. Besides, your head is full of ideas that you want to implement, and you see that the regime doesn’t allow you to do that. An example from recent weeks: the closing down of the  Tut.by website. Was it a political website? It was, but it also published a lot of interesting information: what kind of car to buy, how to fish, what to grow on your dacha, and so on. And now the regime is destroying all that—so even as a journalist, and even more so as a young one, you cannot just write about nice cars or new fishing rods. So you start criticizing the regime and you become a political journalist. After the rigged elections in August, there were a lot of journalists who, for example, dealt with sports and left the state media because they couldn’t stand what the authorities were doing. Hence, these people moved to the Internet and started channels in Telegram where they were free. 

I also have such an intuition. Belarusian journalists hover between activism and journalism. Let’s go back to students. Lukashenko recently announced that Belarus will not recognize the diplomas of some foreign universities. He said: “Someone wants to go abroad to study. Poles, Lithuanians and others are inviting them. There is no problem. Tomorrow we will give them tickets, let them go. If they want to study there, they will be brainwashed there. (…) They will offer us their help as a fifth column. We cannot allow it.” Nevertheless, many Belarusians come to Vilnius, Krakow or Warsaw to study. Could Poland and Lithuania become a Belarusian Piedmont?

In Belarus, you get expelled from university for applauding or singing a song, so it is clear that young people will continue to go to Polish or Lithuanian universities. I am not convinced, however, that this will foster democratization and that you always transfer some experience gained abroad to your country. It is not enough to see what it is like somewhere.

Look at the Kaliningrad region—a huge percentage of Kaliningraders have Schengen visas, they go to Poland, to Germany, and what? Has Kaliningrad become more democratized? No.

Even polls on the perception of the Russian government there do not differ from the Russian average. Besides, the protests in Belarus were not a clash between a pro-Western street and a pro-Russian regime. It looked completely different. Russia is observing what is happening in Belarus with concern, it cannot afford another nation close to Russia, after Ukraine, breaking away from Moscow and demonstrating that it is possible to build a pro-Western democracy far from Russian tutelage.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians and Ukrainians already study in Poland, and hundreds of thousands work here. Doesn’t this pose a brain-drain threat for local societies?

Yes, there is a risk that these people will not come back. On the other hand, if Belarus democratized or Ukraine achieved economic success, some of them would surely come back. Living abroad is not easy, you are generally a second class citizen, especially in such a mono-ethnic country as Poland. There, you will always say that your English or math teacher is nice, but at the same time you will emphasize that she is from Ukraine. It is more difficult for Ukrainians or Belarusians to make a career in Poland; besides, some of their diplomas are not recognized in the European Union.

And how do young Belarusians see Ukraine—is it a symbol of a successful revolution for them?

Ukraine is for them a hope that the revolution in Belarus may be successful but, at the same time, it reminds them that chaos and war may be the price for the uprising, especially since Ukraine has been presented in the Belarusian media as a failed state for years.

At the same time, Lukashenko was very popular among Ukrainians, he was able to sell himself well—as a politician providing stability, regular pension payments and good roads. The Belarusian image was so good that it even happened that Ukrainian products were packaged as Belarusian. Volodymyr Zelensky also built good relations with Lukashenko.

Lukashenko hosts peace talks on the Donbass war, also at the highest level. I think, however, that Belarusian political refugees will think twice before leaving for Ukraine, as they were sometimes caught there by Belarusian-Russian services.

Yes, there have been cases when political enemies of the regime are safer in the European Union. It is more difficult to kidnap someone in Poland and take him to Belarus, because the border is tightly controlled. It is easier to kidnap him from Ukraine or even Lithuania. What we said at the beginning is also important: that the Ukrainian state is weak —despite huge progress in the security sphere, it is still easier for the Belarusian services to operate there than in the West. 

And was the Revolution of Dignity and the war with Russia a formative experience for young Ukrainian men and women?

For many it was, but not only for young people. Sometimes it was a bigger shock for the older ones, who suddenly realized that what they had believed was not true—for example, that Russia was not a brotherly nation. That is, there are people who reformatted themselves as adults. The war also meant consequences in the cultural sphere, for example—a lot of Ukrainian quality products appeared, this considerably changed the environment of growing up.

But let’s remember that there is always a large group of people who are not impacted by the war, who don’t know anyone who died, who was fighting. They watch the casualty figures on TV, but they feel like they are watching the weather forecast for some other region of the country.

Why are Ukrainian politicians so young? In 2019, 42-year-old Zelensky became President and 35-year-old Oleksiy Honcharuk became Prime Minister. Many more examples could be quoted.

This is the basic difference between the Belarusian and Ukrainian elite—in Ukraine, there are many young and middle-aged people in power, because Ukrainians want new faces.

They see that these people can offer new, interesting approaches, that the old ones have already been there and haven’t changed much, they think, “Maybe the young ones will succeed?”. In Belarus, meetings of various committees and commissions look like meetings from the late Brezhnev times. This has an impact on what actions are taken. For a long time, Minsk relied on television as the main medium and missed out on the moment when the Internet gained importance. Their social media activities today are clumsy, coarse propaganda.

Things are different in Ukraine.

The revolution caused a shift in the elites, the older ones left, the younger ones came, and when Zelensky talks about the Internet, he knows what he’s talking about and proposes solutions like the “State in a Smartphone” program. When you look at the Ukrainian government or parliament, you generally see people in their thirties or forties. It’s more like the country’s supervisory board than the central committee. 

And can young Belarusians feel disappointed with the West because the West has never made them any promises, never invited Belarusians to join Western structures?

There are many programs for young Belarusians who want to study in Lithuania or Poland. As of August, Warsaw has been receiving political refugees from Belarus and it is hard to accuse the authorities of doing too little. Poland, as a member of the European Union, also wanted local border traffic with Belarus, but the Belarusian parliament, fully dependent on Alexander Lukashenko, has not ratified the agreement for many years. The regime did not want people to be able to leave the country so easily. The European Union also created the Eastern Partnership program, but while Moldova, Georgia or Ukraine have benefited from it, Belarus is hardly involved in it. What more could the European Union do? Cart all Belarusians away from their country? Or NATOif the Belarusian army is integrated with the Russian army, joint exercises or intelligence cooperation become impossible, because whatever you share with them will immediately be in Moscow. You cannot integrate with a country that does not want integration.

Piotr Pogorzelski

is a journalist for the Polish TV station Belsat, author of the podcast Po Prostu Wschód [Simply East], and a long-term correspondent for the Polish Radio in Kiev.

Zbigniew Rokita

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish reporter. He specializes in the issues of Central and Eastern Europe and Upper Silesia. In 2021, he was awarded the Nike Literary Award for the book Kajś. Tales about Upper Silesia (2020).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.