Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Belarus: East and West and Nothing in Between?

For Global Voices Online: "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." This chronically misused Kipling phrase seems to catch realities for an increasing number of Belarusians, as recent protests and crises have become a rude awakening from the torpor of the last Soviet "sleeping beauty." Waking to a wild and hostile world, many people now start asking: "Who cares about Belarus?"

Coverage found in the Western media of the recent developments in Belarus largely follows the general pattern of repression, with a few opposition activists highlighted, but still with little added to the familiar story. It is true that the economic crisis that has recently hit the country and Russia's gradual takeover of Belarus' economy have added spice to the stew, whilst the ultimate news would be the ousting of President Lukashenko.

Until that day, though, Belarus seems deemed to remain in limbo between East and West. Or would Lukashenko or no Lukashenko really make a difference? An increasing number of voices in Belarus say that the limbo will linger on, and Belarus is bound to remain in a grey zone between East and West.

Thus, LiveJournal user by_volunteer complains [ru] that the country's economy is sold out to Russia, whereas Europe has enough problems of her own to trouble to care:
Беларусь пошла с молотка и это очевидный конец. Руководство Беларуси заключило сделку и тихонько распродаёт страну, в расчёте на политическое убежище, все наши ура-патриоты спокойно на это смотрят. Основные предприятия страны переходят в собственность к России, это российские капиталовложения в нашу собственность. Как можно это допустить и как может ЕС так спокойно упускать свои перспективы на будущее в Беларуси?! Это же полный провал европейской политики, тем более в ЕС нарастает огромный финансовый кризис, европейский бизнес девать просто некуда. Это немощный инфантилизм и позор, нельзя допускать завершения сделки с Россией, это огромная ошибка, нужно срочно принимать меры!
Belarus went under [the auctioneer's] hammer and it was a foregone conclusion. The leaders of Belarus made a deal and are quietly selling off the country, counting on political asylum, and all our hooray-patriots calmly look at it. The main enterprises of the country are becoming Russian property. It is a Russian investment in our property. How can this be allowed, and how can the EU so calmly give up on its views on Belarus?! It is simply a total collapse of European policy, especially as an enourmous financial crisis is brewing in the EU, and European business simply has nowhere to turn. It is powerless infantilism and a shame. Оne cannot allow dealing with Russia. It's a big mistake, and urgent action is needed!
But where is Europe, and where is justice? Feelings of abandonment and, for all appearances, being treated unfairly are obviously spreading, adding to a sense of general disappointment and hopelessness in everyday life and in hopes for the future. Writing about a denial of an EU-Schengen visa for her son, a mother laments [ru] over how she feels people from Belarus are regarded:
Нет правды в Беларуси. Десятки лет мы получаем лживую информацию, слышим безответственные обещания, видим потемкинские деревни. Наелись. Все цивилизованные страны единодушны в оценке и называют такое поведение властей издевательством над народом. Но как оценить издевательство над многострадальными гражданами посольств этих цивилизованных стран, когда после заявлений о смягчении визовых режимов для белорусов, отказывают в визе даже тем белорусам, которые по всем критериям очень даже выездные. [---] Мой сын закончил третий курс университета. Хотел съездить во Францию по частному приглашению. Получил отказ. Поскольку ничего плохого за ним никогда не водилось, единственной причиной отказа считаю административный арест 19 декабря на 15 суток. Он проходит по спискам и, скорее всего, поэтому посольство Франции ответило: «У нас нет уверенности, что вы покинете страну по истечению срока визы». Интересно получается. Два списка фигурируют для запрета въезда в Евросоюз: официальный - список чиновников и неофициальный список задержанных. [---] И стало, знаете, очень обидно. И очень одиноко. И за демократию бьют по голове, и демократия бьет по голове. И никому мы не нужны. Ладно бы не нужны – и на порог не пускают. А главное, никакими демократическими процедурами это решение не оспорить. Где справедливость, где права человека, какие гаагские суды рассматривают отказы в выдаче визы? Какие правозащитные организации защищают таких людей? А главное, отличается ли белорусская судья, превентивно выносящая приговор за несовершенное правонарушение, от французского чиновника, отказывающего в визе за несостоявшийся невозврат?
There is no truth in Belarus. For decades, we have been getting a pack of lies, listening to irresponsible promises, seeing the Potemkin villages. We are fed up with it. All civilized countries unite in their judgment and name such conduct of power a mockery with the people. But how is such mockery with the long-suffering citizens valued by embassies of these civilized countries, when - after declarations of a softened visa regime for Belarusians - visas are denied even to those Belarusans who really by all criteria are liable for them. [---] My son finished his third year at university, and wanted to go to France on a private invitation. He got a rejection [to his visa application]. As he has never been up to anything bad, the only reason for rejection, I think, is the administrative [post-election protest-related] arrest on December 19 for 15 days. He is on the lists, and therefore, supposedly, the French Embassy replied: «We don't know if you leave the country after your visa expires». It all becomes interesting. There appears to be two lists for denial of entry to the European Union: An official - the bureaucrats' list - and an unofficial list of those who had been arrested. [---] And then, you know, it becomes really hurtful. And very lonely. Getting hit on the head for democracy, and then getting hit on the head by democracy. Nobody needs us. It's okay if we are not needed, and not let over the threshold. But the main thing is that there are no democratic procedures by which to appeal this decision. Where is justice, where are human rights, which Hague courts review the denials of visas? What civil rights organizations defend these people? And above all, does a Belarusian judge, who preventively passes verdict for a crime not committed, differ from a French bureaucrat, who denies a visa for a non-return that has not taken place?
Touching on the classical Tolstoian question of the evil inside us all and the need to come to terms with it, LJ user dolka777 asks [ru] how people allowed the Lukashenko regime to develop:
Как мы вскормили диктатора. Это вопрос, который я себе задаю постоянно. Мучительно вспоминаю, как и когда я сама впустила в себя эту диктатуру. Свято верю, что в каждой судьбе должен быть такой момент, когда ты соглашаешься со злом только потому, что твой двоюродный брат работает в КГБ и он – клевый парень, а тебе не хочется его обижать. Или хвастаешься другом, который парится в парилке с личным сантехником Его Величества. Шугаешься коллег или сокурсников, которые связаны с оппозицией. Думаю, что здесь, в бай-политикс собрались те, которые, возможно, ничего такого не делали. Но все же. [---] И теперь вопрос каждому: что ты лично сделал для того, чтобы в Беларуси воцарился диктатор?
How did we nourish a dictator? It's a question I ask myself all the time. It is painful to remember how and when I, myself, let this dictatorship in. I sincerely believe that in every destiny there has to be such a moment when you consent to evil only because your cousin works for the KGB, and he is a cool guy and you don't want to hurt his feelings. Or you boast about a friend who has steamed in the same sauna as His Highness. You vilify those colleagues or classmates who are connected with the opposition. I believe that here, in the .by-politics, those have gathered who perhaps did nothing like this. But still. And now a question to each and everyone: What have you personally done so that a dictator could reign in Belarus?
So, as the shrill voices of Lukashenko loyalists and opposition activists reach crescendo, perhaps there are weaker voices wondering why they cannot simply be allowed to be here, "tuteishi", and lead a normal life between Russia and Europe.

Kipling's famous poem on East and West has a less-known ending: "But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!"

So, even if Russia and Europe, as two strong men, would learn to respect each other, where would that leave Belarus but in a grey zone? Perhaps, for many Belarusians, East is East and West is West, and there is no place for the rest, living in between.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Russia: Cruiser Catastrophe Causes Questions

For Global Voice Online: As casualty numbers rise from Sundays' ferry catastrophe on the river Volga, Russians have come to the bitter realization of yet another tragedy, with a death-toll of well over a hundred people. As usual, news of deplorable conditions are brought to public attention, causing popular anger and indignation, but this time these feelings almost seem to outdo those of sympathy with the victims and their relatives, as the Russian blogosphere reacts to the tragedy.

On Sunday afternoon, July 10, 2011, the "Bulgariya" cruise-ship capsized on the Kuibyshev dam of the Volga river. According to official figures [ru], 129 passengers are still missing and have supposedly perished in the waves.

How people react to disaster and catastrophe is often quite telling of the times and circumstances they live in, and what they expect from the future. In disaster-ridden Russia, such tragic events are often an opportunity to display national unity in commemoration of the victims, which people usually show great respect and reverence to. Thus, President Dmitry Medvedev declared [ru] 12 July, 2011, a national day of mourning.

Still, reading Russia's blogosphere, the sense of national foreboding seems to overshadow that of mourning, as - for many bloggers - the sunk vessel comes to symbolize the future fate of Russia.

At first though, the deplorable state of the ship was a subject of intense discussion, both in mainstream media and on blogs. Whereas information is diverse and varies, the overall impression is that of a floating coffin. The relatively moderate - and changing - data on the Bulgariya on Russian Wikipedia [ru] is quite telling: Built in 1955, no waterproof bulkheads, no major overhauls, name-change last year, low lateral stability, leaving port with a 5 percent starboard list, left engine out of order, 208 people on board instead of the assigned 140 maximum; all in all led it to sink in merely three minutes.

One does not have to be a sailor to see that "Bulgariya" was not seaworthy, and one can only imagine the number of hurdles the people running it must have jumped to get it past naval safety inspection and other controls.

Feelings of anger and wrath are also raging among bloggers. Voices from Russia expresses the many demands for vengeance, but also exploits the tragedy in calling for a more authoritarian Russia:
Suffice it to say, heads are gonna roll as a result of this. The responsible parties are gonna get learned, kiddies… they’re going to absorb the full meaning and implications of каторга (katorga: forced labour) in Correctional Colony 1313 in the Sakha Republic… or, they’ll have the pleasure of the multifarious joys of Correctional Colony 3131 on Cape Anadyr. They fought the law and the law won! It ain’t nice to fool around with Papa VVP… things tend to happen (like bustin’ rocks under the Arctic sun). It’s not like the Republican Wonderland of Texas… where Kenneth Lay of Enron fame (pal of GWB and loudmouthed Born-again “Christian”) didn’t serve a day in prison. You can have an attitude like Russia’s, where miscreant businessmen go to jail… or, you can have an attitude like Texas, where buccaneer businessmen are coddled. In 2012, you can choose… choose well… for you’ll not get a “second chance”.
Contrary to this, a great number of bloggers show distrust towards government authority, pointing to its recorded pattern of bad information management even when confronted by obvious crises and disasters. Thus, initial official information of the Bulgariya catastrophe spoke of an accident but no casualties.

An early comment, by LJ user 999allan999 responds to this simply by presenting [ru] a number of assorted news items on the accident with the suggestive title:
Как обычно. Сначала официально-бодрое «жертв нет»…
As usual. At first the officially cheerful «no victims»...
LiveJournal user shri_boomer - a naval officer himself - relates [ru] to this, but also voices his loathing of the people on passing ships who filmed the Bulgaria's drowning passengers:
Во время этой трагедии, поразила не только неспособность государства, дать какую-то вразумительную информацию обществу, но и то, что мимо тонущего судна спокойно проходили другие теплоходы, а люди стоявшие на палубе снимали трагедию на видеокамеры и телефоны. Эта дикость, от которой мурашки бегут по коже, свидетельствует только об одном: люди настолько зачерствели, что перестали быть людьми.
During this tragedy, I was struck not only by the state's incapacity of providing society with some sort of intelligible information, but also that other ships silently passed by the sinking ship, and people stood on deck filming the tragedy with video cameras and [mobile] phones. This is a savagery that makes one feel like ants are running across one's skin, and only testifies to one thing: People have become so petrified, that they have ceased to be human.
Recollecting merely the most recent disasters, shri_boomer goes on [ru] criticizing the government's tendency to write off everything that does not work and increase control of that which still seems to work, although nobody will obey:
Налицо все признаки того, что питерская ОПГ, теряет контроль в управлении страной [---]. Каждый день государственная власть поражает нас новшествами по усилению безопасности граждан и обустройству России.
Взорвалась бомба в Домодедово – досмотр пассажиров ужесточить, Домодедово отобрать. [---]
Списать самолеты «Ан», списать вертолеты Ми-8, списать речной флот. Да, что там, списать устаревшего девяносто процентов трамвайно-тролейбусного парка страны, десятки тысяч автобусов, миллионы километров водопроводных труб и линий передач, сотни ТЭЦ и ГЭС. Все это нужно списать, а досмотр пользователей ужесточить. [---]
После всего этого можно будет списать население. И тогда наступит настоящий День Траура. Жаль только, что соблюдать его будет некому, ибо придет Время Троглодитов.
There is every evidence of the St. Petersburg gang losing control of managment over the country [---]. Each day state power introduces new measures to strengthen the security of its citizens and to upgrade Russia.
A bomb exploded at Domodedovo [airport] - stricter passenger control, and closing Domodedovo.
Writing off «An» aircraft, writing off Mi-8 helicopters, writing off the river fleet. Yes, and in addition, to write off the obsolete 90 per cent of the tram and trolley-bus fleet of the country, tens of thousands of buses, millions of kilometres of water pipes and transmission lines, hundreds of power stations and hydro-electric plants. All this needs to be written off, and control of users tightened. [---]
After all this, one might as well write off the population. And then we will have a real Day of Mourning. It's a pity only, that no-one will observe this, or [if they will] then comes the time of the Troglodytes.
Drawing on similar sentiments, LiveJournal user dr_lunikoff compares [ru] the era of the Soviet demise with today's situation:
В связи с этим вспомнился стишок 1989 года, который ходил тогда у нас по рукам и из-за которого нас чуть из школы не выгнали. Стишок был выучен наизусть (чтоб не быть пойманным с крамолой на руках), потому и запомнился. Он описывал самые заметные ужасы катастройки (в частности, гибель теплохода "Адмирал Нахимов" в 1986 году) и до ужаса был похож на сегодняшние реалии:

Утопили пароход,
Пропустили самолет,
Наркоманов развели,
СПИД в Россию завезли
И какая-то пи..да
С рельсов валит поезда...
Relating to this, I came to think of a small poem from 1989, which then passed from hand to hand and almost got us thrown out of school. The poem was learnt by heart (so that they could not catch us with sedition on our palms), and therefore I remember it. It described the most notable horrors of katastroika [combined catastrophy and perestroika], (especially the loss of the ship "Admiral Nakhimov" in 1986) and is terrifyingly similar to today's realities. 
A ship sank,
A plane was lost,
Addicts spread,
AIDS was brought to Russia,
And whatever f...ing else
And the trains are sliding off the rails...
Finally, Viktor Perfilov of Kazanskie vedomosti sums up [ru] the feelings:
Я невольно вспоминаю ту известную фразу Путина о АПЛ "Курск", хотя в то время мне и 10 лет не было
- Что случилось с Вашей лодкой?
- Она утонула

А Медведев пока не нашел, что сказать на сей счёт. Системный кризис [---] проявляется всё больше, а положение лучше не становится. И лучше при нынешней ситуации вряд ли станет...
I cannot help recalling Putin's famous phrase about the submarine "Kursk", even if I wasn't even ten at the time:
- What happened with your boat?
- It sank.
And Mededev has still not found out what to say about this. The systemic crisis is increasingly evident, and the situation is not getting any better. And under current circumstances, it is not likely to.