Belarus: A renaissance generation on the run

The well-educated are among the first to leave a repressive dictatorship. In countries like Belarus or Eritrea, the escalating oppression cuts holes in the very fabric of society. How are these to be mended? The writer and dissident Pavel Marazou has a suggestion.

October 24 2013 Text: Pavel Marozau

More and more often, in the most unexpected places of Europe, I meet people I knew back when I was living in Belarus. We are happy to see each other, we talk and smile, they tell me of their lives and I tell them about mine. Some of them have come to Europe to work for a while, some are studying, some have obtained, just like me, political refugee status and can’t go back home. Some have simply moved their businesses to a more predictable environment.

All of them are the new Belarusian diaspora, or the “un-diaspora,” as many of us like to call ourselves, because even though we have been working and living outside the country for quite a while, we still associate our future with it, our dear motherland.

The term “the new Belarusian diaspora” first appeared in 2004-2008, when many young, active, and capable people had to move abroad, due to difficulties caused by the political regime in the country. They were different in terms of their values and behavior from the previous waves of migrants because they were representatives of Belarus’s urban culture (active, multicultural, and liberal) as opposed to the rural culture, as it had usually been before (passive, closed, and conservative). Later, some dispersed into their recipient societies, failing to find a place within the “old” diaspora. There was a phenomenon of denying belonging to the Belarusian diaspora at all because of an unwillingness to be associated with the old diaspora and its behavioral characteristics (hence the term “un-diaspora”).

Today, we witness a similar situation when the most educated and most economically, politically, and socially active Belarusian citizens escape from the current regime in order to realize their potential in other countries. Some leave voluntarily, some are being “helped” (mildly speaking) to do that (with force).

One can understand the people who had to leave. Before they made that decision, they wanted to change the situation in Belarus for the better, by working with the system or against it. But in today’s Belarus, anyone who hasn’t been morally bent down and still possesses dignity and principles has to face enormous psychological pressure from his or her environment and also, after October 2011, from a package of amendments to Belarusian legislation that gives the secret service the right to repress, jail, or even kill anybody who dissents. People who are put in jail for their convictions are placed by Belarusian authorities in the category of those whom they—the authorities—aim to sideline by any means necessary. Some of people succumb to the severe pressure and quit the struggle. Some continue the struggle no matter what, while some switch to the imitation of it. But there are also those who leave the country. Leave to remember.

Others simply leave with dreams of a better life outside their country. Some people might say, “How can you leave your country when it’s in trouble instead of using your potential and knowledge to help it?” That’s fine if it’s possible to realize one’s potential within one’s own country. However, those who grew up and were socialized in the cities, with European mentality, and were generally ready to compete at the global level, can’t be satisfied with an opportunity to assemble yet another tractor instead of creating a new Facebook or an iPhone.

What can their home country offer them today? Some food and booze (and even that not in very big quantities), accompanied by intimidation and limitations on everything that is dear to them. Despite the fact that at the moment Belarus if falling into an abyss, the ruling clique will not take its foot off the accelerator … For more than 17 years, the thinking minority in Belarus has been systematically oppressed by the majority; this majority has become pretty imaginary, but it is still embodied by Lukashenko, with all his vast power. At the same time, there is a world of opportunities out there for a young person with energy, good work ethics, and ideas.  

That’s why it’s essential to leave—to save oneself, to help one’s relatives, to get more knowledge about the world, to self-actualize oneself somewhere where it is not a crime to do so. Ironically and however paradoxical it may sound, this is beneficial to the future of the country.

Let us look at some examples. Some of those who left Belarus have created successful local communities for self-organization: the European Humanitarian University (Lithuania), Valgevene Uus Tee (Estonia), the Belarusian Museum and BelMov (United States), and the Congress of New Belarusian Diaspora of Europe and the United States, a network structure for communicating and realizing one’s potential with the help of Belarusian colleagues.

These projects and initiatives have been realized in less than five years. More details about them are:

  • The BelMov program, established 2007-2011, supports Belarusian websites (USA, Belarusian Youth Movement of the United States)
  • The Belarusian Museum in New York, established 2007-2013 (USA, Belarusian Youth Movement of the United States)
  • ARU TV internet television (Estonia, Valgevene Uus Tee—The Third Way), established 2009-2013
  • Belarusian reformists, liberal platform (Estonia, Valgevene Uus Tee–The Third Way–Belarusian liberals), established 2009-2011
  • Art vs. Dictatorship, an international exhibition in Estonia, Norway, the US (Estonia, Valgevene Uus Tee–USA, Belarusian Youth Movement of the United States), implemented 2008-2009
  • Open Europe–Open Belarus, European cultural campaign (Estonia, Valgevene Uus Tee, and cultural NGOs from Belarus, Lithuania, Germany, Sweden, Portugal), implemented 2010-2012
  • Memorial plaques in Tallinn and Vilnius (an initiative by individuals members of the Congress of New Belarusian Diaspora from Estonia, Lithuania, the US, and the UK), implemented 2008-2010  
  • Belarusian clubs in Estonia, meetings with experts and ethnic Belarusians who have achieved success abroad and in Belarus for the Belarusian diaspora in Estonia, in 2009 and 2011 (Akudovich, Orlov, Shenderovich, Martsev, Drakakhrust, Rusya)
  • RUBYCON–analytical platform for analyzing events in Belarus by experts from the EU, Russia, Belarus, and the U.S., in 2011, 2012, and 2013

Today, very few informed people doubt that Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus will come to an end; it is merely a matter of time. This will mean a profound transformation of Belarus for the better. When it happens, we will need thousands, if not tens of thousands, bright young minds and hands to change Belarus, help it stop bowing to both East and West (which Lukashenko has forced the country to do), and bring back a feeling of dignity, pride in one’s country, and security to the people. But we need to start right now: the world is global so it’s not a problem. It is necessary to combine the resources of our professionals, both those who by some miracle have stayed in Belarus and those who left before the inevitable collapse of the Lukashenko regime. We need a big community without borders, uniting those Belarusians who, temporarily or permanently, live outside Belarus and those intellectuals, businesspeople, civic and cultural activists, and just good and capable young people who are still in Belarus but outside its Lukashenkian context. We need the unification of the new Belarusian diaspora: people who were born in Belarus and lived there before the Lukashenko period (before 1994), who possess an urban and multicultural identity, use Belarusian and Russian equally for communication, are able to speak at least one other foreign language, predominantly have or are in the process of getting a university degree, left Belarus or chose inner emigration for political and/or economic reasons or to better realize their potential [there is also a broader interpretation: those who are potentially ready to do that in the near future but who at the moment live in Belarus], are socially or politically active, and have a median age of 25 to 35. Those who see a future for themselves in Belarus if positive changes take place there soon. Those who are ready to actively contribute their efforts and skills to bring about these changes.

Upon coming back to Belarus, these people will be able to offer their country:

  • themselves as world-class professionals in politics, education, culture, business and economics, and the public sphere
  • support for the strategy of country-rebranding during the process of transformation and an ability to help the country clean its image of everything negative created by Lukashenko, especially in the eyes of Western countries
  • contacts with ruling and business circles in the EU, the US and Russia, with public and cultural figures, support for the realization of the country’s national interests, and effective lobbying
  • faster normalization of relations with the countries where the diaspora is based (Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Russia Ukraine, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the US, Canada, and Kazakhstan, etc.)

If we assume that the approximate number (there has been no specific research on the matter) of Belarusians outside their country is about 100,000 people, then we have a force strong enough to bring another regime to the country. In my view, one of the first steps that should be made by a new government in Belarus is to create a special institution—we could call it the Belarusian Repatriation Agency—that would encourage the best young Belarusians to come back to the country, by providing them with the right incentives, of course. Using similar programs in Israel and some East European countries as examples, we could create a state institution that was crucial to the future of Belarus.  

I think that the mission of the new Belarusian diaspora is to become our country’s Renaissance generation, to foster its transformation from a post-Soviet, closed, authoritarian society with a pseudo- market economy into a democratic state with openness and market economy. To achieve this, we need to discover ourselves, view ourselves as a single nation, and join to come up with effective measures for supporting transformation processes in Belarus.