Prof. Oleg Manaev answering to Arche’s questions*


“Arche”: What is Europe for you?


O.M.: I look at this from both geographic and cultural viewpoint. Geographically, this is the continent where we live and in the center of which Belarus is situated. Its continental peculiarities like landscape, climate, etc. are as well very important. Yet, in the first place Europe is certainly a cultural notion, i.e. the system of values which evolved and developed in the ancient time. This is the system of values on which the western world presently stands.


“Arche”: Is Belarus currently a part of Europe? Perhaps, it is still to become its part? What should be done in this regards in Belarus?


O.M.: From the cultural viewpoint, Belarus is only to a certain extent a part of Europe. Starting from the 12th century (we won’t go deeper into centuries), i.e. from the Principality of Polatsk and later the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, these territories were in a sense – religious, legal, political, economic, etc. – already a part of the European cultural space. At the same time, it belonged to the other world, to Eurasian world. That geopolitical and cultural bifurcation lasted for centuries and became especially distinct in the past three centuries when Belarus was a part of Rzech Pospolita, then a part of the Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union. Today we have it exactly the same: Belarus is a two-component cultural formation. Many people in it share European values. From this viewpoint, it belongs to the European cultural space. There’s yet a different Belarus. The gap between these two is huge in what regards values.

Yet ten years ago the IISEPS published the data showing that the Belarusian society consists of three groups. The first group is pro-European, of course not in the full sense of the word, but it shares many of the values mentioned. This is approximately a third of the population (to remind, we have about 10 million people in Belarus, so a third is around 3 million people.) If these Belarusians are somehow magically taken there, I think they would well fit into the European politics, economics, management and the mode of life…

The second group – as well approximately a third of the population – doesn’t understand and doesn’t accept this system of values. This is the so-called Soviet Belarus. There’s yet another third. In certain respects, for example economically, it is oriented at the European system of values and in some other, for example legally, at the Eurasian system. In this sense, we can say that Belarus remains like it was a two-component cultural formation incorporating different systems of values.

What should be done in this direction? I’m not a political strategist or a politician to give recommendations on how to organize social and political process properly. Everyone should mind his own business. The goal of our team, which is the former IISEPS, and my own is to strengthen the positions of Euro-Belarusians as well as encourage the vacillating to go to these positions and help the Soviet Belarusians live calmly, neither feel aggrieved nor hinder the development of the country. From my experience, I should say this is almost impossible to make them Euro-Belarusians. On the other hand, this is not so important. If Euro-Belarusians become the majority, accession of our country into Europe as a cultural space will be a matter of technique – political, economic, law, informational, etc.


“Arche”: What can Belarus bring into Europe?


O.M.: I have two ideas in this regards. First and foremost, if Europe is regarded as a system of values and the best-developed culture in the contemporary world, this would be returning into the common European family for Belarus as the nation, society and the state. Just imagine that we all are members of a large family, and we have a sister or a brother who left for a long time. Now they are back. Will this give anything good to the family? Sure, it will! Everyone will be happy to be again together. The family will become stronger; it will have more working hands and support… From this viewpoint, return of Belarus into Europe will strengthen not only Belarus but also Europe. This is why Europe is expanding over the past ten years.

The second idea is more pragmatic. It is connected rather with geographic Europe and not cultural. Coming back into Europe would give to Grand Europe the opportunity to carry out more efficient cooperation (economic, political, military, informational, etc.) with Eurasia and would open new prospects. There are many examples of this. For instance, export of energy carriers from Eurasia, not only from Russia but also from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. If Belarus enters Europe more geographically than culturally or politically, this will create some problems for the entire region. There have already been these kinds of collisions. Gas conflict in February of 2004 is one of the examples. In this sense, return of Belarus into Europe would help solve many problems and not only those pertaining to transit. The border of Grand Europe would move from Bug to Smolensk. In a pragmatic sense, this would undoubtedly strengthen Europe.


“Arche”: Should Belarus make any strategic choice? If it should, then what choice: Union State of Belarus and Russia/EU/CIS? Are these alternatives mutually exclusive? What should be done to make them reality?


O.M.: I’m a realist and I try to take a realistic view of any situation. I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t see the social situation in the society and if I didn’t see that we have a basis for the European path. I mean if there would be 3% of Euro-Belarusians and not 30%. It is quite possible that my personal biography would be different: I would either long ago left for the West or would be involved into a different business… So, European prospects for Belarus give certain hopes and basis for activity.

The issue like geopolitical choice of the country (in any situation, no matter whether we are talking about Asian-Pacific region, Latin America, Africa or Europe) is first of all the choice of people, citizens, society, the choice of elites and the government. Our country should make this choice.

I know many people who think that Belarus doesn’t need this choice since we could use advantages of both sides. Even the president said, “An affectionate calf is sucking two cows.” I think such viewpoint improper. It is wrong not in an abstract political or cultural sense but in the direct sense. Dynamics of world development is growing more intense every decade. World globalization is going rapidly and deeply. Its results are evident everywhere – in economics, culture, informational and military fields, etc. When a country, a nation, people, elites and government denounce this choice – on rational grounds so as to get certain cultural, political, economic and other benefits – they lag behind and miss these processes. Life is going forth but the nations, societies and states that give up this choice not only miss the prospects but lose present-day opportunities. The pace of globalization is going up, so the more the choice is delayed no matter on what grounds the more we lose (to note in parenthesis, I speak in general about the choice as country’s geopolitical self-identification, no matter European or Eurasian.) This will be an endless loss. Just take a retrospective look at the history of those states and nations that didn’t make such a choice on time – they either disappeared or became a part of other nations, states and cultures. Belarus will not escape such future if it constantly delays its choice.

What is the choice it needs to take? This is a political question rather than scientific. So the reasoning should be different here. I wish to remind that I’m neither a political scientist nor a politician, but I can imagine how I would discourse on this if I were a politician. I would think proceeding from the reality of the feeling – first of all, from the interests of the Belarusian people (real interest and not like the authorities or the opposition see them), from the interests of Europe and of course from the interests of Russia. In other words, I would act carefully and gradually. In the current geopolitical situation, it is senseless to proclaim that Belarus like that fairy-tale hut should “turn its back to Russia and its front to the EU.” Let’s imagine that some other leader comes to power in Belarus tomorrow. It doesn’t matter Petrov, Ivanov, Sidorov or Milinkevich. How can he make his choice? He can’t go to Brussels, shake hands with Barroso and Solana and sign an agreement with them like in old times when the elite took paramount decisions, when Hitler and Ribbentrop stroke a bargain with Stalin and Molotov and then concealed its details from the people. I think this won’t work today as the leader needs to have public support. Nowadays this is achieved by national referendum in the majority of countries, and Belarus is not an exception. They need to ask people and take their opinions and attitudes into account.

Back to my thought, if the Belarusians are presently asked “If you were to choose between integration with Russia and accession to the European Union, which one would you chose?” the ratio is 56% vs. 30%, or nearly 2:1, in favor of integration with Russia (to mention in parenthesis, this doesn’t point out to willingness of the majority to merge with Russia. Thus, asked a direct question about integration with Russia, 44% would vote “for” and 30% “against,” and asked about referendum on the Union State’s Constitution, only 35% would vote for it. However, if asked a “black or white” question which suggests only two alternatives, the majority of Belarusians will vote for Russia and not for the EU.) Therefore, if a new pro-European leader puts this question on a referendum, he will appear a hostage of its results. What he will do then? He will hardly be able to say: “No, you’re mistaken. It is better to do as I advise.” He will have to either go against the will of people or carry out the politics which runs counter to his own views and to why he fought for power. I assume any prudent political leader with try to avert this.

Thereby, we need to take cautious approach, i.e. carry out appropriate informational, propaganda, educational and organizational work so as to prepare the society. Men are men: you would say an average Frenchman, a Pole or a Belarusian might keep thinking from morning till night about the direction in which the country should go, to the East or to the West… The majority rather thinks about their everyday issues like family, work, vacation, etc. To remind, a series of referenda was held in many countries in spring of 2004 before the “great expansion of Europe.” It is during several years that governments prepared people carrying powerful campaigns – cultural, educational, and informational. This same thing should have been done here: gradually preparing the society and then announcing a referendum.

Are these alternatives mutually exclusive? It looks like they are because despite all kinds of statements and geopolitical conceptions there is a real practice of the Russian Cabinet. Apparently, it is not very much interested in letting Belarus and even the states which eliminated direct Russia’s influence (like Ukraine and Moldova) go into Europe. In such situation, Russia-Belarus Union on the one hand and the EU on the other, there really is a critical contradiction between possible geopolitical choices. However, implementation of the system of actions which I mentioned above (change of power is a necessary condition for this) might help us find I think the solution to this problem. As you remember, during the presidential campaign sole candidate for democratic forces A. Milinkevich many times underlined the priority of partnership relations with Russia and he made his first visit after being elected at the Congress of Democratic Forces to Moscow and not to the EU.


“Arche”: Belarusian identity, does it really exist? If it does, how is it determined? (What it means belonging to the Belarusian? What it means being a Belarusian?)


O.M.: In my opinion, Belarusian identity based on ethnicity (including its basic elements like unity of territory, unity by blood, history and culture) is not inappropriate but rather doesn’t have any clear prospects in the beginning of XXI century. Due to many different reasons this identity hasn’t fully developed. At the same time it is wrong to say that there isn’t the Belarusian identity. I think it does exist but it is different in its nature. For example, I am a man who was born in Russia and I’m a Russian by blood but I identify myself as a Belarusian. From the ethnic viewpoint, I’m not a Belarusian, am I? I assume nowadays Belarusian identity has not ethnic but socio-political and civic nature. Independent state and rights of its citizens are presently the basis of this identity. This means that people living in Belarus can rightfully consider themselves Belarusians. They consider themselves the citizens of not Russia, Poland or Guadalupe but of Belarus. They enjoy certain benefits (not only in utilitarian sense but also some law, political, economic, and cultural benefits), they are citizens of their own country, and they are proud of this and are ready to stand up this status. This exactly means to be a Belarusian. Whether they grew up in a Belarusian village or in paved jungles of the modern city, whether they speak this or that language in everyday communication, and whether they prefer potato fritters or laminaria, this is a question of minor importance. This is not an insignificant issue but this is a question of minor importance. I want to underline that this is not only my personal opinion (which supporters of ethnic identity might habitually disregard) but the opinion of the majority of Belarusians. Thus, according to the nation opinion poll conducted by the IISEPS at the end of 2005, respondents were asked the following question: “How would you answer to the question on how you can identity yourself if asked this question abroad?” Only 43.7% (i.e. twice as little respondents as those who stated themselves ethnic Belarusians during the latest population census) consider themselves Belarusians and 44.3% feel citizens of Belarus. Superiority of supporters of civil identity over ethnic identity turns even more obvious if we analyze answers to the question: “Belarusians make the majority of population in Belarus. There are different opinions about what Belarus should be like. Which one below do you agree with?” The overwhelming majority of the polled (54.2%) agreed that “Belarus is a common home for people of different nationalities. All citizens of Belarus should enjoy equal rights and none of them should be given any advantages.” Only a quarter said that “Belarus is a multinational country, but the Belarusians – the majority – should have larger rights.” By the way, comparative analysis of the polling results shows that adherents of national identity by ethnicity are much more numerous in present-day Russia than in Belarus. Formation of national identity based on ethnicity and consequently formation of nation states in Europe 150-200 years ago went under absolutely different historical conditions. That is already the past and we can’t go back in it! Therefore, if we are concerned in making Belarus a full-fledged modern country, it is necessary not just to strengthen its statehood but first of all to strengthen its civic identity.


“Arche”: Do you recognize the notion of Slavonic community / community of former Soviet nations?


O.M.: Noted Russian political leaders and their followers in Belarus and Ukraine (and they are quite many) love to make accent on Slavonic unity in ethnic and geopolitical sense: we had common history and common state and we together fought against the Tatars, the Teutons, etc. In this same manner, some of our statesmen are trying to strengthen Belarusian identity with “golden time of Great Duchy of Lithuania.” In my opinion, such understanding of Slavonic community and Slavonic unity as well as of Belarusian identity is out-dated as that all simply doesn’t exist anymore.

In the other aspect, cultural, psychological, and partly religious, I think Slavonic community (but not unity!) does exist as the feeling of affinity. Just like, for example, a Chinese tourist who meets a Korean or a Vietnamese somewhere in the jungles of Africa or in Manhattan feels much deeper cultural and psychological affinity with them as compared with the other people around him. In this sense I believe we can speak about cultural and psychological affinity of the Slavs and about closer ties between them than between the Slavs and let’s say the French, the Brazilians, the Japanese, etc.

In regards to the community of the former Soviet nations, this is nothing but bluff. The well-known formula proposed yet under Stalin about the formation of a new historic community called Soviet people was exactly that same bluffing. There were particular cultural and psychological ties between some affiliated nations and nationalities (which were over one hundred in the Soviet Union). For example, they were within Slavic, Baltic, Caucasian and Central Asian peoples. In contrast to this, the so-called ‘unity of the Soviet people’ stood on violence and deceitful propaganda basically. Looking at the average Estonian or Turkman, socio-cultural unity between them was the lowest. Of course, 300 million people living in the Soviet Union and called the Soviet people had some common features. Yet, these features pertained not to nation’s peculiarities but to peculiarities of the Soviet socio-political system. For instance, low initiative and responsibility as compared to an average Western European or Japanese and increased sense of fear and willingness of a freebie, and so on and so forth. As soon as the system broke, these ‘common features’ began to fade out. This is why present-day attempts to restore the unity of the Turkmen and the Estonians, the Georgians and the Yakuts as well as of other peoples of the former USSR have no future.


“Arche”: How would you assess Russia’s policy towards Belarus?


O.M.: Saying in the scientific language, as inappropriate, or inconsistent with the reality. In particular, this inappropriateness is revealed in the following: Especially after the recent color revolutions, Russia is not trying to establish mutually beneficial cooperation with new leaders and elites but does its best to bring back its influence in these countries by giving support to odious leaders and conservative elites. This way Russia’s politics comes into collision with national interests of its neighbors. No matter how they receive these new leaders and elites, it is evident that national interest of any country is fixed on its future and not on its past. Putin publicly stated that it is customary for Russia to have relations with those elites in the neighboring and other countries which stay in power. This is how he explained his support to Akaev, Lukashenko, and Kuchma… This is the inappropriate policy. What does it mean it is customary? If your predecessors did this, and Russia lost more than won from this (USSR collapse is a bright illustration), go ahead and change this policy no matter what it was like previously! Unfortunately, Russia doesn’t do this and the latest presidential election in Belarus is a good example. There were some hopes, debates and arguments based on previous relations of Belarusian counter-elites with Russian partners yet at the end of 2005. Now it is obvious that Russian government decided to keep its influence in Belarus maintaining the political status quo. I do not presume to judge if this complies with Russia’s national interests (I think not) but this doesn’t comply with our national interests for sure. I don’t know how long this will last. There are certain signs of incremental changes (like the latest gas collision) going on. So does this mean that Russia’s policy towards Belarus is getting more appropriate? If we knew that these steps were taken to make the policy of the Belarusian authorities more democratic, giving more respect to the rights of citizens, more open to the outer world, etc., we would then claim that Russia’s policy is becoming more appropriate. Yet, we can see that these moves pursue absolutely different ends.


“Arche”: How would you assess the policies of other neighboring states, except Russia, towards Belarus?


O.M.: Putting it short and simple, their policies unlike Russia’s are more appropriate. This especially pertains to the Baltic States – Latvia and Lithuania. This appropriateness is shown in the following. On the one hand, leaders of elites of these countries didn’t break up or frozen their relations with the government of Belarus which is indicated in the growth of sales, transboundary cooperation, etc.

On the other hand, they actively communicate with Belarusian counter-elites which are democratic forces, civic society, national and religious communities, etc. This is what I call an appropriate policy.


“Arche”: How would you assess the policy of the EU towards Belarus?


O.M.: Comparing EU policy with the US policy towards Belarus, I believe US policy is by far more appropriate. However, EU policy has become much more appropriate over lately even though it is still very far from the level many Euro-Belarusians and I would like to see. Many EU bodies are still very cautious or even pendulate towards both the current political regime in Belarus and the civic society. I mean the whole system of particular actions. Let’s take formal political level, i.e. the standpoint of the EU Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission. They have passed a lot of good and fair resolutions and statements condemning violation of democracy and human rights in Belarus over recently. However, this support is much weaker on the other, practical level. What particular projects are being developed, what particular actions are promoted (I mean not only financial but also political, technological and informational aspects)? Every resolution and every political statement should be supported by practical decisions, specific projects and actions.

Attitude to Russia is a good example. As of now, putting of the Belarusian issue on the agenda of EU-Russia cooperation is, in the opinion of democratic forces, one of crucial moments in EU strategy towards Belarus. Putting of the Belarusian issue doesn’t mean general discussion and suggestion but specific recommendations for Russia pertaining to its relations with Belarusian government. They generally agree with this in the EU but when it comes to practical actions, nothing is done. Over the past year, the situation is changing to the better. How far? We’ll see what will be the results of putting, even though not on the top, the Belarusian issue on the G8 agenda in St. Petersburg.

In the past year the European Union launched several informational projects for Belarus. These are Belarusian Chronics on Deutsche Welle, a special weekly program on Israeli-American channel RTVI, closer attention to Belarus on the Russian service of EuroNews. We already have the results of the polling conducted in late April of 2006: “What TV channels do you watch?” Russian service of EuroNews received 20% to 25% and RTVI’s weekly program – 10% to 15%. Of course, some would say “So what? Do you think they watched these programs and became supporters of democracy?” Here is the next question: “If you watched EuroNews, did you see the reel about the sole democratic leader A. Milinkevich?” The answer is: several times – 39%, at least once – 31%. This means 70% of those who watch this channel saw the reel. What’s more, as it goes from answers to the other question, the majority of viewers started thinking better about Milinkevich after the reel. So these projects are working. Radio stations broadcasting from Europe to Belarus are listened by about 15% of voters, i.e. about a million of people. Then these people discuss the programs with their friends, colleagues, neighbors and people gradually get filled with appropriate knowledge, values and views. Some representatives of democratic forces in Belarus as well as skeptics in Europe challenge this influence, yet the Belarusian authorities respond appropriately and take the most severe measure to stop it.

So the process is going on. The European Union is taking more and more active part in it. This gives us hope.

* By some reasons “Arche” did not published this interview