A Professor on why Belarusians are flooding the streets
30 August 2020 | Natalia Benitsevich / Photo: Olga Shukailo / TUT.BY
Political scientists are trying to explain what is happening in Belarus now, but what’s interesting are not only political processes. What is our society going through right now? What led to the events that are taking place in our country? In an interview with TUT.BY, Tatiana Shchyttsova, philosopher and Professor of the European Humanities University discusses the situation.
“‘Trust deficit’ is already too weak of a phrase to describe what is happening”
„In your opinion, what is currently happening in Belarusian society?”
“This question can be viewed from different angles. First of all, I would note three major points. The first is a political crisis. The system of state power has discredited itself. That is, ‘trust deficit’ is already too weak of a phrase to describe what is happening. We are experiencing the radical political polarization of society: on one side, there is a vertical of government power with an apparatus of violence, on the other, there is an unprecedented civil mobilization against this power. After the formation of the Coordination Council, many analysts even began to use the term “dual governance”. In our context, it means that we are talking about a real political antagonism, that is, a conflict where each side categorically refuses to recognize the other. But this term is not entirely accurate, because it does not take into account that power is different in each case.
The power of Alexander Lukashenko rests on the apparatus of violence and on the loyalty of the state nomenclature. In Marxist political theory, this type of power is called ‘domination without hegemony.’ Hegemony here means the leading ideological position in society, when the majority of citizens are willing to follow the ruling figure or party. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is that kind of leader now. The power she possesses is, on the contrary, ‘hegemony without domination,’ meaning ideological leadership unsupported by the apparatus of political power.
The second point concerns the protest mobilization in civil society. Recently, I spoke with two students from Belarusian State University (BSU), and they, it seems to me, expressed one feeling that is very characteristic of the current moment. On one hand, they say that they are ready to remain steadfast and go to protests until the victorious end. On the other hand, they note that in the wake of such mass protests, they constantly expect some kind of convincing progress. However, this expectation consistently stalls without the backing of any real political success. This is, of course, a very dangerous condition.
Constant frustration can cause protests to fade. I think that sharp emotional swings from incredible enthusiasm to complete frustration are associated with our lack of experience of regular civil involvement in politically significant processes. In fact, we are now becoming a civil society in the full sense of the word, that is, a community of citizens who are willing and ready to independently determine the principles of our life together.
And the last thing I would like to note is the process of fundamental moral transformation that has been launched in our society. This also applies to those who have not yet joined the protests. They still live here, go to work with those who protest, see what is happening on the streets. For a very long time, the authoritarian regime held on to the so-called social contract, which meant that the state provided the minimum necessary level of socio-economic stability, and the citizens did not present any political demands in return, meaning they were completely passive. It must be said that the very concept of a ‘social contract’ is a kind of hyperbole, because, of course, there is no talk of any agreements (in the usual sense of the word). The citizens of Belarus did not specifically agree on anything with the authorities – we just silently adapted to it on mutually beneficial terms.
An advantageous condition for the authorities was that, by default, the citizens delegated the solution of all issues related to the administration of the country. So civil society lost its political subjectivity for many years. Social apathy became a characteristic feature of this time. Moral transformation is now associated with an abrupt and very traumatic exit from this apathetic state. We were all shocked by the events of 9-11 August. After that, a return to the ‘social contract’ is no longer possible.”
„Why did everything happen in this way?”
“Of course, there were certain prerequisites for the ripening of civil protest. I will name just a few of them. First, the relatively recent protests against the ‘parasitism’ decree. These were substantively large-scale actions, and then, as we recall, the authorities took a step back.
But a more important factor is what happened in connection with the spread of the coronavirus in our country. The outrageous behavior of the authorities, on one hand, and amazing civic solidarity and mobilization, on the other, altogether gave the effect of a good moral and political shake-up. People have found out that they can trust each other, can work on projects together successfully: raise funds, make masks. It was incredibly convincing and inspiring.
And then the pre-election campaign began, and the contrast between societal demands and the existing political regime began to appear more drastic and dramatic.
And one more important sociological factor why such a large-scale protest became possible is that a new generation of young people has grown up, for whom our vertical of power is a kind of political ‘cabinet of curiosities.’”
„A catastrophe occurs, and the country explodes – patience is finally running out”
„But where does it all come from? Young people grew up in the same country, where did they get these attitudes?”
“These are the positive aspects of cultural, informational and economic globalization. Young people are included in completely different symbolic contexts, discourses, cultural and professional trends than the world that BT [editor’s note: state TV channel] shows.
And then the elections took place. What followed after that, I define for myself as a legal and humanitarian disaster.”
„It feels like people had no idea what kind of country they live in. Others has been detained and beaten in the past”.
“You can know about something for a long time – yes, there is opposition, yes, you can read that someone has been arrested – without relating it to yourself in any way, stay at a distance, that is, not be personally affected by it. Involvement in the socio-political agenda does not occur until the exact moment when what the authorities do becomes a collective shock.
First, we hear about 80% in favor of Lukashenko, and against this background, on the morning of 10 August, we learn that people had been beaten and taken away, and then the full scope of information on beatings, tortures, and victims falls on us. It’s like shell shock: society was traumatized and deafened. You can get used to a loud sound, but if the volume is turned up, there comes a point that bursts the eardrums. Same with the psyche and with our moral self-awareness. You can function in a social contract mode, go to work, get your living wage, earn extra money somewhere and survive. The country lived in the mindset of stable survival, but a catastrophe occurs and the country explodes – patience finally reaches its limit.
Such an unprecedented explosion of popular indignation is due to the fact that a legal and humanitarian catastrophe took place at the same time, meaning these two instances overlapped. On one hand, a complete collapse of the rule of law in the country. On the other hand, the violation of basic humanistic values: respect for human life, human dignity, human freedom. The people united on the basis of their shared outrage against the violation of law and against cruelty. That is, the protest is based on a sense of justice and compassion towards people. Therefore, our opposition to the regime has not only a political, but also a clearly defined moral and ethical character.
The political system enshrined in the Constitution has broken. People have been and continue to be subjected to violence due to the fact that they have declared their right to vote – a right that is enshrined in the Constitution. According to the Constitution, our country has a representative democracy. This means the government must represent the interests of the people and receive its powers only on condition that it is supported by the majority of citizens. Otherwise, we are dealing with a usurpation of power.
There is one more important political point that makes it possible to understand how such a mass civil mobilization and such unity became possible. The answer lies in the platform of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The essence of this platform is to hold new elections and, thereby, reset the entire political system. Running on this platform, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya did not come into conflict with any other political parties or groups in our country. And she herself did not represent any particular party, any particular political movement, or any particular ideology. What did that do? Representatives of all political associations and views were able to unite and go out into the streets because everyone agrees that it is necessary to restart the political system: to restore the rule of law and to restore the work of representative democracy. It was a moment that could not have been planned in advance, there is no one directing it from behind the scenes. Which directors could put Babaryka and Tsikhanousky in prison? Who prevented the elections from being held with all the candidates who received the required number of votes to enter this process? It was not a premeditated strategy. This is a completely unique structural moment that worked and made such a large-scale political consolidation and solidarity possible in our society.”
„What is civil society protesting for? For a different Belarus”
„There is a lot of talk that the Belarusian nation is currently being formed. Is there any truth to this?”
“This is a very important question. First of all, I would not use the phrase ‚nation building,’ because the Belarusian nation has already been formed. One way or another, albeit with many disadvantages, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the formation of the Republic of Belarus as a sovereign state, we can say that the Belarusian nation has been formed.
I would not talk about the formation of a nation, but about the fact that the nation is being re-asserted on new grounds – on the grounds shared by the majority which is dissatisfied with the government.
Re-asserting the nation is also unique in its own way. The peculiarity of our political situation is that the national agenda came to the foreground in a completely different form in which it had been promoted by the old opposition for many years, starting from the time of Zenon Poznyak. What is typical for representatives of our traditional nationalist-oriented forces? They have always promoted what is called ethnic nationalism (as opposed to civic nationalism). As we well know, this strategy did not work in Belarus and did not justify itself, it could not unite people. For those who want to really understand this issue, I highly recommend reading the book by Valiantsin Akhudovich Code of Absence (Kod Adsutnastsi).
Today, the national agenda is based on a common civic desire to establish the rules of living together in our country, so that the people can establish themselves as sovereign, as it is declared in our Constitution. In this endeavor, it follows a certain ethos – that is, a collective idea of how we should build our life, how we would like to live. Ethos is not a construction invented as a passing fad. It is formed historically and ultimately through its manifestations becomes an entity labeled a ‘national habitus’ in scientific literature. Today, our sense of national identity is strengthened precisely because the majority of our citizens reveal their unity in understanding how they would like to build their lives. From here, from this national unity, is born the determination to go to the end.
And one more very important and also absolutely amazing note. We all see that now the white-red-white flag has come to the foreground. For so many years, representatives of the old opposition rallied under it on various actions, at first they gathered a lot of people, then fewer and fewer, so as a result, this flag as a symbol of opposition began to represent a completely marginalized group, which in recent years had minimal support in the community. Now, almost everyone goes out under this flag. How did this happen? I think that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s political platform played a key role here.
Look, on one side, we have a regime that usurps power, on the other side, a protest that wants to restart the political system. Figuratively speaking, what does the protesting civil society stand for? For a different Belarus. We need a different country. We want to replace the existing political order with a radically different one. In this context, when everyone agrees that a different Belarus is needed, just look what happens next. Initially, at election rallies in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, there were red-green and sometimes white-red-white flags. But the more radical and acute the political antagonism became, the stronger the request for the different Belarus was, the greater the request became for other, non-dominant symbols.
Symbols play a colossal role in political struggle. Therefore, now, Russian political technologists brought in by the authorities are frantically creating new symbols — this is important. So in this antagonistic context, the request for non-dominant political symbols naturally led to a shift in attention to the white-red-white flag. Why do I say ‘natural?’ Because we didn’t have to invent another flag, we already had it as an important part of our national history. That is, the former national symbols (and we are talking not only about this flag, but people singing „Pahonia” and other Belarusian songs everywhere) have gained new relevance.
I would like to emphasize that for all the well-deserved criticism of the old opposition, their struggle for national revival played an important role, because it was largely their accomplishment that our historical symbolism had been preserved.
We have yet to comprehend this completely new format for reaffirming the nation. But one thing I can say for sure: to understand our situation, one cannot rely on the national /post-national dichotomy that exists in modern scientific literature.
And I would like to add one more important point concerning the civil request for a different Belarus. Another important symbol that reinforces this request is, in fact, the opposite sex of Lukashenko’s main political rival in the elections. Therefore, we can talk not only about the re-affirmation of the nation, but also about the re-affirmation of women as political subjects in our society. In the middle of the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir wrote the famous book The Second Sex, which raised the question of the possibility of female political subjectivity. Our current events are a good reason to write a new book with this title. This time, the ‘second sex,’ on the contrary, worked as a significant political code symbolizing a different Belarus. From a sociological point of view, it is important in this regard that the three women leaders who entered the political arena – Maryia Kalesnikava, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala – represented different social groups. This means that the new political positioning of women in our society had a broad social resonance.”
„One of the most important questions today is how the rank-and-file nomenclature and middle-tier executives will behave”
„Now everyone is discussing the divide in society. Can you see it?”
“It is extremely important now to monitor words and rhetoric, because each word can imprint the consciousness with some kind of incorrect designation that will disorient or manipulate us. Now it is important to start the conversation not with the statement of the divide, but with the fact that the divide is purposefully created. The authorities are now doing everything possible to artificially create a civil divide, provoke a civil war. One of the rhetorical tricks of the authorities is to call the protesters the opposition. However, the essence of the current political crisis lies in the fact that we no longer have opposition, just as there is no legitimate authority. There is a majority that requires the restoration of legality, and there is a vertical of government power that, with the help of an apparatus of violence, prevents it.
One of the most important questions today is how the rank-and-file nomenclature and middle-tier executives will behave. What will happen next largely depends on this. Today it makes no sense to make any predictions. Analytics are undoubtedly necessary. And forecasts are meaningless. Because forecasts are justified and work only when they are based on a certain logic of social and political processes. We are now in a phase of maximal uncertainty. A lot now depends not on some systemic mechanisms, but on how specific people will behave, on their moral choice and determination to protest.”