In Kyiv, thousands of Ukrainians came to St. Michaels Church to pay their last respects to a Euromaidan hero, 25-year old Mikhail Zhyzneuski, who was killed during the crackdown on January 22, 2014. A week later, in a small Belarusian village, family, friends and activists gathered for his burial late at night, in the winter cold and dark, because his coffin had been held for eight hours at the Belarusian border. Zhyzneuski, among the first victims of Ukraine’s struggle for a European future, was Belarusian.
Mikhail had emigrated to escape political persecution. He died in a foreign land, defending those who’ve built a small part of Europe in downtown Kyiv. Sadly, his own country seems frozen in an authoritarian stupor. But in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, the Ukrainian events have become the focus of public debate in our own small maidans – independent media, social networks and private homes. Ukraine has been a source of inspiration for us since the Orange Revolution.
The outbreak of demonstrations in Kyiv had a bombshell effect here. Activists quickly headed south to show their solidarity and sip the intoxicating cocktail of freedom and hope. Belarusian flags – the banned white-red-white of the pro-European opposition – joined with Ukrainian blue-and-yellow banners, making the Maidan even more colorful. My journalist colleagues traveled there to witness and report on a historical turning point for the entire post-Soviet space. The leitmotiv of discussions dominating our social networks became ‘If the Ukrainians succeed, we might also have a chance!’
But for many Belarusians, the unrest embodies chaos, a disturbing contrast to the ‘stability’ enforced by the regime. They view the Euromaidan through the prism of state propaganda and Russian TV, which portray the protesters as fascist bandits and spotlight the violent street clashes while ignoring demonstrators’ calls that the government respect their human dignity, civic rights and European choice, values inspiring and uniting millions across the country. For me, the rebirth of civic consciousness is the most fascinating turn of the Ukrainian drama. Perhaps unexpected to an outsider, it is part of our common history. Both Ukraine and Belarus were once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which became a European state in the fourteenth century and established the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795). This republic was an unusual state for its time, with a proto-European form of government, including an elected king with limited powers, a strong parliament, civic rights for citizens, rule of law, and a constitution.
The last months show that many Ukrainians remember their western roots and seek a return to Europe. Ironically, it was president Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an EU Association Agreement in Vilnius, the capital of today’s Lithuania, which sparked the pro-European protests. Belarusians are more confused about where they belong, but despite some twohundred years of Russian/Soviet occupation and propaganda about ‘Slavic brotherhood’, a majority believes that their roots lie in a European past. About 45 percent of Belarusians consider the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to be their historical precursor, while only eighteen percent cite the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
A majority in both countries supports a European rather than a Eurasian choice. In a 2013 poll, 45 percent of Ukrainians were for integration with Europe, while only fifteen percent wanted closer ties with Russia. The numbers aren’t so different for Belarusians. A 2013 survey found that 45 percent favor closer relations to the EU, while 37 percent prefer integration with Russia. Isolated from Europe because of their country’s poor human rights record, 45 percent of Belarusians want a rapprochement with Brussels.
There is close accord among both countries’ cultural elites, who almost invariably support a European path. In Ukraine, the leading novelist, Andrey Kurkov, regularly visits the Maidan. A host of celebrities from the world of Ukrainian showbiz and entertainment also back the protests. Perhaps the best-known is Ruslana, who won the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest. The singer has been a leader of the Maidan, sleeping on the barricades and performing to keep up protesters’ spirits.
The most respected figures in Belarusian culture are also pro-European. The difference is that censorship still exists in Belarus. Many pro-European personalities, such as artist Ales Marachkin, singer Liavon Volski, and director Nicolai Khalezin, are on a government blacklist, which prevents them from presenting or performing. But this cultural repression hasn’t stopped them from supporting their Ukrainian colleagues. Banned in Belarus, the popular band Lyapis Trubetskoi rocked the Maidan in December.
While public opinion might be similar, the state of civil society in the two post-Soviet states is strikingly different. Ukrainians have awoken and are struggling for a European future. In Belarus, even upcoming local and presidential elections can’t seem to rouse an isolated and divided opposition, let alone an apathetic public. Ukraine has captured the attention of the international community, while Belarus stagnates on Europe’s periphery.
Although it is clear that many are against dictatorship and for Europe, few Belarusians appear willing to join the struggle and possibly pay the price that Mikhail Zhyzneuski did. Yet I believe the spark that ignited the Ukrainian nation might one day light the hearts of Belarusians and inspire them to cast away their passivity and fear. There will come a time in Belarus when the promise of Europe will outweigh its price.
[Voor Europa Door Cultuur](culturalfoundation.eu/library/manifesto-vooreuropadoorcultuur)
Bij grote Europese vraagstukken moeten kunst en cultuur een belangrijkere rol gaan spelen. Het initiatief Voor Europa Door Cultuur roept in aanloop naar 22 mei 2014 Europarlementariërs op talentontwikkeling, creatief ondernemerschap en een open democratie te agenderen.
Katherine Watson, directrice van de European Cultural Foundation: ‘There is justified concern that the European elections in barely four months time will see an even lower turn-out of voters than the previous election. Through our actions and partnerships ECF aligns with others to show that there are alternatives and that culture is a driver in moving us to a stronger European future.’
Voor Europa Door Cultuur is een initiatief van de European Cultural Foundation (ECF) in samenwerking met Kunsten ’92, Federatie Cultuur, Federatie Dutch Creative Industries, Buma Stemra, Buma Cultuur en European Alternatives.
Iryna Vidanava is a leading independent journalist, civic activist and historian from Belarus. She is the founder and director of City Dog (citydog.by), an online magazine focusing on Minsk, Belarus’ capital. She’s also a contributor to the Narratives for Europe project of the European Cultural Foundation. www.narratives.eu