GENERATION CHANGE, OR BELARUSIAN DIFERENCES IN GOALS, VALUES, AND STRATEGY? Why I am in politics and my classmates keep away from it, or myths and stereotypes about Belarusian volunteers… By Olga Karatch Why I am in politics and my classmates keep away from it, or myths and stereotypes about Belarusian volunteers… - Look, dear, - a farmer says to his wife, - our white hen is looking a bit sadder than usual, isn’t it? Maybe we should cook the poor thing? - Do you really think it will make the hen more cheerful? -
The pharmacies of the city of Vitebsk are getting really high profit, or
rather, turnover. The best-selling product is not Viagra, not even flue pills. The
hit is small bottles with alcohol-based hawthorn tincture, which people affectionately call ‘funfiriks’. Very often the pharmacies have to order them twice a day, one daily supply is not enough for the crowds of eager and thirsty. The local alcoholics reckoned it very well that it is cheaper than traditional vodka. Besides, there a popular belief that ‘funfiriks’ are good for your heart, as
hawthorn is used to cure some heart disfunctions. The drunkards hardly actually care about their heart functions, they just need a pretext, mainly for themselves, to solicit some petty cash and exchange it for a ‘funfirik’. A booze in the morning—no problems remaining for the whole day. No problems, no cares…
Why do Belarusian choose ‘funfiriks’ in the morning, why not such a noble
case to fight for as the future of Belarus, democratic and prosperous? Why is the number of those involved in politics going down, not up?
The question is rhetorical. What can political activities bring an average
13 years ago Aleksandr Lukashenko got to power, and the power
structures gradually evolved into Belarusian governmental system. This unique
situation produced a number of myths and stereotypes about Belarusians, the myths which many Belarusians believe and which greatly hinder any political activities.
Myth #1. I am the cleverest, all the others are stupid.
In current Belarus a notorious tradition formed to regard all the others
There is a popular belief that somewhere in Belarus a whole crowd of
some strange people is lurking around. They are called ‘volunteers’, and they are
just dreaming of taking part in some political action, of getting hit with a police club, of getting a huge fine and their possessions confiscated. They cannot live without getting 25 day prison term now and then. Actually a criminal case with prospects to be put away for three years or so is much better for them. They are eager to endure all this, just for the opportunity to hear your speculations about the destiny of Belarus and the Belarusian people.
Why are there only a few thousand involved in politics, for the 10-million
population? Why do my classmates keep away from politics? The answer is simple. Can any political activity at least ensure their basic living after the authorities would not renew the employment contract? Can it help raise the children? Can it make their lives better? Well, in a very general sense it can and
it will, but only in a very general sense. But what about down-to-earth level of everyday life? On this basic level any political activity means a constant threat of abominable fines, starving, prison terms, and repressions. And the person has to
deal with all this all alone, without any help from aside, not even moral solidarity. Taking into account Myth #1, the absence of solidarity is quite explainable. Why to support the person who plans to become the next President of Belarus, when I plan to become the next President of Belarus myself?
Sooner or later every novice in politics asks themselves this question:
what for? And the answer is always personal. If no answer is produced, the person quits political activity…
Myth #2. Only I know the correct strategy, but nobody wants to listen to me and that is why democracy in Belarus is failing again and again.
There are two very well-fixed stereotypes in Belarus. The first is that
anyone can be a teacher. The second is that anyone can be a politician. Those are not real businesses, they do not require real brains. I am personally twice unlucky, because I am a teacher and a politician in one. I am aware of the
consequences of these stereotypes only too well. As soon as people around learn you are a novice in such a special sphere as politics, they immediately start instructing you what to do (while they themselves do not follow those instructions of their own). You are listening to those instructions and keep wondering why the instructor is not the President yet, it looks like he knows all the answers for all the questions and all the ways to reach universal happiness.
With only one little reservation: it all remains pure theory… This person has organized nothing, taken part in no real action, and is not going to. But he has all the answers ready-made. One politician once complained to me ‘It is really hard to live in the country of 10 million presidents’. That is probably the worst which Lukashenko did (unwillingly, of course)—his victory looks so easy to
achieve, that for the last 13 years several generations of political leaders strive to repeat it, and none of them agrees to the position lower than the President’s. They think ‘Look, even Lukashenko could do it, why not me? Am I not better?’ They take it lightly, and this greatly interferes with normal organizational work. They forget to ask themselves ‘What ideas do I want to realize?’
A politician is to create and realize ideas. It is not just a high position and
exquisite ceremonies. It is hard working for results, and the results are often delayed, they may come in a decade or more. This work cannot be based on speculations on ‘the universal happiness’ and ‘equal division of resources available’. By the way, that is the very reason I do not like my extended family events. I am going there to relax among my relatives, but those relatives are
eager to launch political debates with you. Just like in a joke about woodcutters—in the forest they talk about women, with women they talk about timber…
This is a serious problem, a kind of vicious circle. Every novice in politics
immediately positions themselves as a future President, no less. Nobody wants
to consider the most evident, that such candidates are plenty, but until now none of them managed to replace Aleksandr Lukashenko. It is not so simple as it may seem…
That is why we have to analyze our mistakes, study all our experiences,
both positive and negative, we have to devise strategies to correct our mistakes.
Until we do it, we will not attract new members to our organizations. Or they may come, but they will leave us soon, because they won’t be horses in the circus show, they won’t gallop the same way with us again and again. Myth #3. They must allow me and they must accept me.
Belarusians really like self-limitations and self-censoring. They are sure
they must receive special permissions for every step of theirs, be it gathering signatures, public meetings, civic campaigns. Belarusian general public and
political analysts often accuse our politicians of acting from one election campaign to another. But again the answer is simple—Belarusian politicians are part and parcel of the Belarusian society, they limit themselves just like other Belarusians. The most common limitation is election campaigns, as they think that in order to work with the general public besides those campaigns, they have
to obtain special permissions from somebody. For example, there is a politician in Vitebsk who is sure that as far as he is an oppositional activist, the authorities have the right to issue permissions for him to lay flowers to war monuments on the Victory Day. He makes enquiries for such permissions, naturally the authorities won’t allow him, so the politician is constantly complaining about it.
All this reminds me of a popular joke in Belarus, when a farmer came to the priest and asked if he could eat meat during the Great Lent. ‘Of course not’, answered the priest. ‘But, Holy Father, why are you eating meat during the Great Lent?’, protested the farmer. ‘Because, my son, I ask nobody about it’, was the answer…
If you want to take power, you do not ask for permissions. That is an
axiom. But the urge to obtain permissions is implanted deep in our heads and blocks all our initiatives.
But if a person still seeks for ‘permissions’, who is able to issue them?
Maybe some prominent figure? But now Belarusians do not have any prominent figures. There cannot be any living ones, because no one in Belarusian politics
can allow somebody else to be higher. Then maybe a prominent foreigner, at least theoretically? Well, a foreigner can issue a ‘permission’, but this will always be conditioned by his or her cultural background and personal experience, which of little use for Belarusian politics, as a rule. This is exactly the reason why there are so many snobs among Belarusian politicians who are fond of boasting whom
they have met, who told them what, and how high the summit level was. Those politicians measure their political weight this way. But in real political life those ‘high-level summits’ are not so important, they are just part of routine work in politics, very often a kind of a ritual. Two people shake hands and exchange some beautiful phrases about democracy and human rights. I know such meetings very well. The best possible outcome of such a meeting is one more
international resolution or declaration on Belarus, with no practical results whatsoever. The worst outcome is that in a week or so neither me nor the other politician remembers about it. But some Belarusian politicians pay a lot of attention to such events, just because they think such events legitimize their ‘leadership’.
Everybody forgets that Belarusian politics is being formulated not even in
the private kitchens during long discussions. No, it is being done in the entrance halls of apartment blocks so numerous in Belarus. The halls are dim and dirty and stinky, the walls are ragged, the staircases are stained. But that is the very scene where the destinies of every political campaign are being decided. The
politician who will be able to conquer the entrance halls will be able to conquer the whole country. Modern conference rooms, veneered furniture, business suits haut couture—all this is nothing but only curtains for the scene or a nice poster on the wall. The poster can cover a stain or a hole, but it cannot fix the wall.
Myth #4. I am the most brilliant politician of all times and nations.
If a person has reached a certain level in some other sphere, it is very
hard for him or her to go into politics, because the high social status obtained
does not allow the person to get hands-on political experience and discard everyday stereotypes on politics. Besides, the public notices every mistake of such a person and does not forgive them, just because of the high social status obtained.
Why is Lukashenko’s regime so long-lasting? Why are other politicians so
unsuccessful so far? Because they enter the political life having already some achievements in other spheres and try to apply their previously gained skills there, but it does not work. Politics is a very specific turf, somewhat like the Wonderland for Alice—looks familiar, but this familiarity is an illusion, because here different laws are to be applied, the rabbits and Queens are different, and
habitual actions produce unexpected outcomes. It is somewhat like to get from real business into governmental administration—the decision-making models differ, the pace differs, everything is not like before. And the higher the person was in the previous hierarchy, the more difficult it is for him or her to adapt. It is even more difficult to decide to start all over again, from scratch. Not that the person is stupid, not at all. But he or she gets more public attention and less
time to analyze the mistakes. From the high level of some other sphere the person gets directly to the high-level politics, to the international level competitions where he or she is supposed to break records in running, while the person can hardly walk on the political arena. The experience in team-building is poor, the strategic thinking is just beginning to develop, the person can hardly
formulate the goals and objectives. The person is making mistakes, and ill-wishers are plenty and watching. Shallow talkers are difficult to tell from those who can really act and manage people, and the papers with colorful diagrams and flowcharts look very impressive and persuasive. That is why the usual chain of events is this: everybody runs to the newly found leader, clutches to the new
white gown, the leader goes down or even plummets with the heavy load of commonly made mistakes, and then the followers express their sincere grief: ‘Again not the one we were waiting for!’
If, for example, the chief executive of a big plant goes into politics, it is
next to impossible for him or her to begin from level zero. The executive will not distribute leaflets, gather signatures, make telephone calls, do any other routine
political work. High executives are not supposed to come to people, on the contrary, people are supposed to come to executives. To go from door to door, to persuade people who are now not your subordinates—no, an executive is not able to do it. This requires breaking all the habits and stereotypes he or she holds dear. But without this grass-root work and personal experience in it you
cannot really plan your own political campaigns and you cannot even evaluate somebody else’s planning. Hence the typical development of events: a newly born politician without any lower-level political experience declares that he is a new king on this chess-board who will save the nation from the evil tyrant. Very soon the new king gets check-mated and leaves the political arena, blaming his
former companions that they are ‘not suitable’ and ‘outdated’. Then he sniffs at another king, calling him ‘crazy’, and makes hints that now he would do it much better had he given another chance. But his train has left forever, and the society is rushing to another ‘king’.
We have to wait until our new leaders develop from the grass-root level,
all by themselves, without any artificial assistance, until they will go through all
the steps of the political ladder. Only after that people will go into politics. Volunteers and leaders view the things differently. The ability to accommodate different points of view is a very rare talent, hence in most of the cases it has to be backed by the leader’ personal hands-on volunteering experience. Myth #5. The situation would have changed, if only everybody had come out on the street to protest.
For the first glance Aleksandr Lukashenko’s victory in 1994 looks very
easy. This leads to the conclusion that to change the government in Belarus is
very easy, and every year somebody makes an attempt to quickly realize it. Now just imaging how difficult a politician’s life is in the country where there are attempts of revolutions every year! A person comes to politics, meets somebody who ardently persuades everybody that ‘it is now or never’… The person begins working, gets into some troubles, has to deal with them alone because nobody
wants and can help him or her. How can they help? A new revolution is coming, there is just not enough time! And this repeats every year. No time to stop and think, to analyze, to review. The concept of permanent revolution in action… NGOs and parties cannot even regain breath, they cannot develop, work out their strategies, because revolutions are not about strategies, they are about passionate speeches, strong barricades, revolutionary songs and heroes who
throw themselves on tanks. A revolution is about today, and you do not have to think about tomorrow, and you do not have to do routine work for tomorrow. As a result, sooner or later a regular person begins experiencing a kind of déjà vu, a strong feeling that it was already happening and I was a part of it. But still, every year a new group of people appears is Belarus with an idea to overthrow
Lukashenko in one day. They forget that most of Belarusians have already participated in such actions and got painful problems during that participation. Those Belarusians look at the political novices with pity. Often new politicians boast about how regular people, especially elderly women, feel sorry about them, saying ‘Oh, poor you, why did you get there! You will have a lot of
troubles!’ The political novices really like those feeling, but they forget that normal people always feel sorry for village idiots…
Besides, the Belarusian politicians have another very strange belief. They
think that the main thing is to draw the people out on the streets, and then… What will happen ‘then’, nobody really knows. However, Belarusians were on the streets, marching and standing, in 1996, in 1999, in 2001, as well as in 2006.
But it did not change much. During the public holidays huge crowds of people come out, but no revolution happens. The number of people at the manifestation is of second importance, the most important is something else…
That is why my classmates won’t get involved into politics until they see
not another vain attempt of naïve idealists, but a political organization serious
enough and having long-term goals. Myth #6. Young people, especially students, can change the situation in Belarus.
The contemporary youth are brought up by the post-war generation with
the slogans like ‘Whatever if only not war’. In the conditions of Belarusian regime the young people are very susceptible to any revolutionary ideas, they like political games and ‘playing politicians’. They take the play seriously, they give it all their energy, but it is still a play. Unfortunately, young people and students in particular cannot be at the head of democratic movement and cannot be democratic leaders. It is not because they are stupid, but because they have
no political experience, neither positive nor negative. They need time to gather this experience, to devise strategies, to analyze outcomes. In order to understand time, they have to live some time. Very few of those who are 20 plan their lives 20 years ahead. Ever 3-year plans are very rare. When you are 20, three years look such a distance… But a politician needs time to learn not to
repeat old mistakes, there are no absolute geniuses with absolute knowledge. For quite a few people even the age does not mean good political experience, because most of the contemporary politicians came into politics approximately at the same time, some people being older, some younger…
Only all the citizens of Belarus can change the situation, not a separate
social group, but different groups which want changes. But the desire for changes has to be backed with material factors, Belarusian citizens must know what changes this or that political group brings, they must be sure that the changes will not make their lives worse. If a political group manages to persuade the people, this group will come to power…
That is why when people come into politics, they must be prepared for the following:
1. There will appear a lot of advisers giving ‘very valuable’ consultations for free. However, it is namely you personally who is responsible for your actions,
your ideas and their realization. It is not uncommon that your ‘adviser’ blames you if something goes wrong. Your best adviser is your logic and common sense. 2. Most of Belarusians are dreamers. They are not ready to everyday routine work. Even more, they often like living in that imaginative world and believe the illusions they created themselves, hating anyone who breaks those illusions,
especially political illusions. You must be prepared for such negative feelings, even hatred. 3. Your mental health and stability will be tested. You should not neglect the fact that an average person is unprepared for communicating with huge
numbers of people, and every political campaign is exactly this—talking with multitudes of people every day, persuading them that your strategy is right. Even part-time volunteers meet and talk with the number of people their great-grandparents used to meet for one year. This massive load of human communication falls upon the newcomer, and not everybody is able to withstand it. It is extremely hard to do, as well as it is very hard to estimate or foresee,
and only those who experienced it can be psychologically prepared. It is even difficult to explain, just like to explain the concept of redness to a blind. You do not know it until you live it through. 4. Belarusian politicians have to develop their own infrastructures.
Another special feature of Belarus making it very different from other European countries is the absence of infrastructures, both material and social. This leads to another phenomenon, when a person got a highly positioned job, worked at it, did a lot, and then he or she cannot go further, neither the person can give anything to the job nor the job can contribute to the person’s development. It
would seem logical to change the sphere of activity, thus giving opportunities to new people, but the person clings to the job, because it is impossible to start a new activity from scratch, to develop the infrastructure again.
If someone in Europe wants to become a movie star, there are agencies to
go and producers to address. However, if someone from Belarus wants to become a movie star, there are a lot of technical difficulties he or she is facing.
Again—this person has to develop the necessary infrastructure, like to find a good scriptwriter or even to turn into a good scriptwriter. Then the person has to raise money for the production. Then it is necessary to find other actors, make-up artists, composers, stunts, secretaries, or… to do their jobs. After the production the person has to arrange shows in movie theaters. Isn’t it too much
for one person, who in fact just wanted to act? Besides, if this person fails at least one function, nobody will recognize her or him as a good actor. For politics it is even worse. People have very vague ideas about what politicians are supposed to be and to do. In public opinion a good politician must know the ideology sphere very well, must be an excellent manager, a good public speaker,
a qualified psychologist, an experienced financial officer and accountant, a philosopher, a make-up artist, a writer, a lawyer, a journalist, a translator, a business analyst, an advertising agent, a historian, a secretary, a designer, a sociologist, a programmer, and a whole lot more. Moreover, the society expects by default that this politician does it all flawlessly and for free. So what we have
here is an altruistic person capable of juggling a dozen of businesses simultaneously. Isn’t it a surprise that after trying all this, that poor Belarusian politician looks a bit insane?
5. The above means that in fact if a politician wants to step up in the
political structure, she or he has to build that step first, and only then get to
it. But politics is a team play, so the politician has to prepare building materials enough to build steps for every team member, has to care for their developments and their future spheres of activities. Otherwise they all get crowded on one small step, interfere with each other, conflicting and pushing each other out …
6. In public opinion a politician is like a Terminator. There are very
few politicians now in Belarus, so regular Belarusians have practically no political experience. They think that a politician must be somewhat like an ideal Lonely Knight in Shining Armors, who fights the absolute evil. Naturally, this Knight
does not need any associates or even comrades-in-arms. Naturally he must fight in majestic solitude. That is why my classmates are sitting at homes waiting for the Lonely Knight in Shining Armors, or the Noble Hero, or the Prince on the White Stud, or the God, or the E.T. (circle what is necessary) to come and change the situation and save everybody.
7. People in Belarus demand all or nothing. They refuse to give a
politician the right to make mistakes. A politician can be either excellent or a complete failure. The excellent (the Knight etc) does not need any help. If he does, he is not the true Knight and does not deserve any help from aside. The complete failure is not even worth talking about. This is a very convenient
theory, because it justifies any passiveness and apathy.
8. Obsession with scales. Any Belarusian has some previous experience
in political activities in this or that form. And all of them failed in something. The most probable reason is that they wanted too much and wanted it now. Either a
million dollars or nothing. People in politics are not used to everyday work, step-by-step developments for reaching the desired result. Just like some girls who are dreaming about an ideal husband and won’t put up with a slightest drawback, but are not going to improve themselves in any way. Those girls assume by default that they are already the best and deserve to be saved nobody but a Prince Charming, who would throw the whole kingdom to her feet.
The person comes into politics with nothing to offer yet, but having great self-appraisal and lack of ability to critically analyze his or her own actions. Hence we get a lot of people who could not stay on in politics and got disappointed. This stereotype will block the development of many worthy people preventing them to become experienced politicians…
But if the situation is so sad, why am I still part of politics in Belarus? 1. The need to have power, to influence people, to be in control of at least my own life.
I really hate when someone is trying to decide my life for me. I dislike
when someone imposes a vision of universal happiness. I am in politics because I want to prevent any ‘models of universal happiness’ from being implemented without my opinion. At the same time I like seeing my ideas becoming reality, seeing life around me changed to the better as a result of my actions. And I will
stand for everybody’s right to decide what to do with their own lives.
2. Today we lay the basis of our country’s future.
However, I do not like Lukashenko’s model of the future of Belarus. I
cannot say I am delighted by some democrats’ models as either. I will not let them decide for me, without my opinions and my actions, because I am sure I
will not like the outcome. Their outcome will not take into account my interests, just because they want me to be passively waiting for it.
3. Somebody has to be the first, just to show that it is possible to do, that it can look different. The right to be different is a very important right too often
neglected in our post-Soviet society, and we have to fight for this right. Even if citizens choos ‘funfiriks’ instead of my political platform, I feel obliged to fight for providing them with this right to choose …
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