Thursday, February 12, 2004


I have some links that are connected to todays writings, but I was unable to attach them today due to internet problems. I will try to rectify this by tomorrow.

I mentioned yesterday that something happened that had me thinking politically for a bit. It turns out that it was a mistake, but it did get me to thinking about how I feel about things.

What had happened was that Tatyana was reading the Belarus Segodnia newspaper and saw my name mentioned in the text of an article about Leonid Levin, the head man for the Belarusian Organization for Jewish People. Levin, in one of the last paragraphs that his organization wanted “to distance themselves from the antics of Goodman” mentioning specifically that his organization maintained good relationships with Poland. So, she got a little excited.

This Gutman, as the name was spelled, was however not me. Levin was referring to Mr. Jacob Gutman, an outspoken advocate against anti-Semitism (and a Marxist, I believe) and the head of the WORLD ASSOCIATION OF BELARUSIAN JEWS.
Anyway, as I said it got me thinking of exactly what exactly is my stance in regards to local politics.
Well, it is hard to discuss anything about Belarus without making reference to either money, or to uits president, Mr. Aleksandr Rygorovitsj Lukasjenko.

I thought I might offer an opinion that may not be the party line in regards to either. But first I think I need to try and explain my view of the situation as a whole.

During the time of the former Soviet Union, one of the fundamental principals of “living together well”, the ideology of communism insofar as how it relates to everyday life, was the askance of people to dismiss personal wealth and property as an important qualification for status. And of course everybody (pretty much) received the same money every month, so this was physically manifested as well. Consequently, doing things “for the money” was seen as a low and eventually anti-social activity, practiced only by bandits and prostitutes. Much better would be to do things that were helpful or useful (Polazee in Russian)- and to act in this fashion in how one would carry oneself. This idea was at the center of soviet culture.

The change from this idealistic norm to the current and more normal for westerners “take the money and run” mentality was a long time in coming and especially so for those without sufficient status of position to practice extortion and corruption. I wrote in Being Had that as late as 1997, though not having received money from the state in six years, Belarus was still very much clinging to the principals of the old system. It would also be good to note here again, that Belarus was a model for such style of living for the whole of the Soviet Union; they were the “best” people and were marketed as such. This way of living was deeply ingrained, studied, practiced and appreciated. It was seen very much to be a “right” way of living. And, without trying to sound too Marxist myself, there is something to be said for a society that lives cleanly, respects each other to an extreme, is gentle on recourses.

So, in 1994, Belarus had absolutely no desire to allow for the sorts of western intervention that they saw in Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics and all of the rest of the border countries of the former USSR. By this I refer to the situation where the siphoning of profits from foreign run businesses would flow out of Belarus and back to the European banks which had invested there. The feeling was that foreign ownership would create the same sorts of situations that exist in the US (and Europe) in which enormous national firms (Walmart, K-mart, etc) force the closing of small, private businesses and send the profits from the business out of the local areas. This of course reduces eventually both the local economy and the percentage of people with a vested interest in their hometowns and creates a situation of perpetual economic enslavement to outsiders. And this is exactly what Belarus did not want.

A hard liner for agriculture, self sufficiency and a potential re-attachment to Russia, Mr. Lukasjenko was an extremely popular choice as the first president of Belarus. He was a very strong personality, absolutely Belarusian (a hockey player from the village) and someone who absolutely promised to defend the “old way” of life as much as he possibly could. The way he did this was for the most part to defer (deter?) privatization as much as possible and to have the state continue to be the main supplier of goods and services. He also was an outspoken advocate for a continuation of Belarus’ attachment to Russia. Outwardly, this very much allowed for the old system to both culturally and in a similar way economically, continue though obviously except for those receiving a state wage or pension, there was very little money and an extremely small group of choices as to how to find it. Such was the situation in Belarus: You were damned to be a low person if you went western, and you were damned to a life of poverty if you stuck to your ideals. And what did they do? They stuck to their guns.

Lukasjenko’s position however, did not make him popular with Europe, who immediately labeled him an evil dictator, demanded that his election and support was not real and that he had come to power by nefarious means. This bad press had the effect of turning Belarus’ popular oppositionist rejection of Europe publicly into a situation where the people of Belarus were not to blame (though labeled as, hold your nose, communists!), but were overwhelmingly controlled by the Svengali-esque hold of the mad dictator Lukasjenko. Eventually this became the popular view and reason for the dismissal of Belarus in the west as being unworthy of attention. And so, rather than agreeing to make less unidirectional business deals, Europe agreed to let Belarus starve.

At the time, the salvation for this situation was seen in the form of a Lukasjenko’s union with Russia. From first hand experience, I remember quite clearly that Belarus was fully committed to this “Soyuse” in 1997. It was all anyone was talking about. People were so into it, that even the Belarusian language was seen as being politically incorrect. This plan was supported by probably 80% of Belarus.

My friend Uladsimir Valichkin of the Viasna human rights organization speaks of this time as the moment he realized that Belarus will “tell you what you want to hear”. It is hard to blame people for being powerless and frightened of starvation. Even idealists. But regardless of sincerity of intent, the planned union did not happen. Why? Popularly explained as the result of corruption and theft (though more probably as a result of instigation from the west), there was a massive economic disaster in 1998. The reason for this was a swift and frighteningly overpowering rise in inflation that eventually caused the collapse of the Russian ruble for the second time in seven years. This second collapse wiped out a huge percentage of individual savings. Everything went to hell all over again. And, with having to rebuild a second time, sentiments finally began to shift towards the west as the salvation for the endless lack of money. At any cost. People began to leave the country in larger numbers, either as immigrants or as low wageworkers for Poland, Germany, Ireland and Italy. This again of course is very much like the situation between the United States and Mexico, where there is a great supply of low wage (under wage) workers who flock from a poor place to a rich one in the hope of a better life. Prostitution and banditry, once reviled as something practiced only by low and stupid people was soon seen, very much as with non-whites in the states, as being the only possible economic chance for survival. And of course, where once Belarus took pride in its “being the best people”, now they were forced to not only surrender their principals, but to do so knowingly and endlessly and without even a promise that it would mean anything.

Lukasjenko was re-elected for a second term, though without the overwhelming support of his first election. The cause of this was not his performance in his duties, but rather the shifting of support away from a primarily state run living situation. He was still supported by the state workers and the pensioners and the farmers, but was loudly rejected by the non-affiliated working class and the young who overwhelmingly feel that there is absolutely no future here. This last statement again from personal experience.

I myself refuse to say that Mr. Lukasjenko is the monster that the west likes to call him. I see and here him on television almost every day. I hear opinions about him from almost everybody. And in my opinion, all arguments and allegations of his behind the scenes activities aside, he is simply not the cause of Belarus’ problems. It is my view that he very, very much did exactly what Belarus asked him to do. And in this regard, was very much as was Gorbachev, a man also caught in a time of transition from one culture to another.

But Belarus is right now (though I would attest this declaration as being gained under extreme duress), in full rejection of its communist past. This can be seen in the everyday activities, and the new found hardness of attitude. They are very much European right now and one can see that even with a lack of recourses, they are making some progress. The state as provider system is still the norm but people are doing what they can to get by and they are learning. This “growing but still protected” situation is seen as sort of a stay in decompression chamber, a chance to practice before the game is played for real. I believe that people like this “halfway house” situation believe in it as a necessary and appreciated step.

Such is life here.

I have an opinion though regarding what I have just written, and I will talk about that tomorrow.