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18 Dec

Iryna Vidanava (Belarus)
The Dwarfing of Europe book series, May 23, 2013


On the Edge of Europe

If the European experiment is indeed in decline, then there is little evidence of this in Ashmiany, a Belarusian town on the border with Lithuania. Every day, the central square of this sleepy place with a population less than 15,000 is invaded by buses full of Belarusians coming to and from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and the EU capital closest to the Belarus capital of Minsk. Once deeply interwoven into the Western narrative, Belarusians are now struggling to understand and renew their ties with Europe. If doubts about a common Europe are growing in the eurozone, the opposite is true in my country. Pro-European sentiment is on the rise in this post-Soviet place. The interesting thing about the Belarus case is that the desire to be closer to the EU is not only related to hopes for economic gain; Belarusians also associate a common Europe with the values of freedom, democracy, opportunity and an open society. At a time when Europe’s values are obscured or even threatened by financial issues like debt and default, they are becoming more highly valued further east. 

The history of Ashmiany and its bus stop illustrates Belarus’ complicated relationship with Europe. A little more than two decades ago, both Belarus and Lithuania were part of the Soviet Union. But today the two countries couldn’t be more different. Lithuania is a prosperous European democracy that has seen peaceful changes of government since regaining independence in 1991. It has recently held the presidency of the Community of Democracies and chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). To crown its successful transition, Lithuania will hold the EU Presidency during the second half of this year.

Lithuania’s eastern neighbour has, however, taken a different path. Belarus is best known as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, the country’s stagnating economy is regularly in crisis, and Minsk currently heads up the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the successor entity to the old Soviet Union. With Alexander Lukashenka in power for 19 years, a state-run economy, the KGB and its Socialist Realist architecture, Belarus is often seen as a Soviet museum. It is also the post-Soviet republic most closely tied to Russia and a founding member of Vladimir Putin’s rival project to the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union. Belarus is the worst performing of the Eastern Partnership states and the one whose European integration has progressed the least. Once the Soviet Union’s western outpost and today Russia’s western buffer with the EU and NATO, Belarus has yet to leave the East behind.

This contrast isn’t lost on most Belarusians, especially not on those who stop in Ashmiany. Despite the Lukashenka regime’s anti-Western propaganda, busloads of tourists, students, democratic activists and local traders are still drawn to the European dream, which lies just a few kilometers from this border town. Since 2004, Ashmiany has been the last bus stop before the EU for countless Belarusians heading west. But this role is actually nothing new for the town, whose name comes from the Lithuanian word for ‘edge’. Founded in the 11th century, Ashmiany has been on the edge of Europe and Eurasia for a millennium. It is not hard to see both sides in the town’s historical centre, where the buses stop. Baroque houses stand alongside Soviet administrative buildings, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches face each other, and a statue of Lenin watches over the town square. 

While Belarus’ authoritarian government has cast its lot in the East, the country’s citizens are less certain. Roughly half of Belarus’ citizens, especially young people who share no nostalgia for Soviet times, believe the country should join the European Union. And these numbers have grown over the last several years, despite the crisis in the EU. Approximately 400,000 Belarusians will visit Lithuania this year. But half the country also thinks that Belarus should more closely integrate with Russia. Like Ashmiany, the country is stuck between East and West. Belarusians have always been a borderland nation, on the crossroads of Europe and Eurasia, and part of its society is struggling for a Belarus that would cast off its autocratic tendencies and embrace European values. Europe still means a lot for many Belarusians.

Belarus is no stranger to Europe; it has experienced European influences since the Middle Ages. The lands of today’s Belarus (and Ukraine) were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which joined Europe after accepting Christianity in 1386. Later, the Grand Duchy became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an unusual state that had more in common with today’s EU than the states of early modern Europe. The Commonwealth (1569-1795) was governed by an elected king and a parliament of nobles, both of whose powers were limited by law. The Commonwealth’s political system was overseen by a diverse noble estate, which totalled 8 to 12 percent of the population, an unusually large political nation for those times. Unlike Russia to the east and most European states to the west, which were autocratic, the Commonwealth was a republic modelled on those of Athens and Venice. In 1791, the Commonwealth produced Europe’s first Constitution. 

As part of the Grand Duchy and Commonwealth, Belarus experienced the European Renaissance and Reformation. By the 16th century, Ashmiany and 60 other cities and towns on the territory of present-day Belarus had been granted self-governing rights under Magdeburg Law. Like many Belarusian towns, Ashmiany was a place of ethnic and religious diversity. Protestant and Catholic Poles and Lithuanians lived side by side with Uniate and Orthodox Belarusians, Jews and Muslims. In the 16th century, for example, Ashmiany was one of the most important centres of Calvinism in the Commonwealth. From the end of the 16th to the mid 19th century, the Belarusian lands were part of a constitutional, rule of law state, a system codified in the Lithuanian Statutes, one of Europe’s most comprehensive legal codes at the time. 

However, living on the edge of Europe also had its downside. Ashmiany often found itself in the path of armies heading east or west. The town and its residents have suffered the ravages of the Teutonic Knights, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg and Stalin’s Red Army. Over the course of its history, Ashmiany was repeatedly occupied by those from the West and the East. The town’s first act in Europe came to an end in 1795, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was invaded and partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria. The lands of today’s Belarus became part of the Russian empire and were subjected to a harsh policy of Russification. The Russian Orthodox Church in Ashmiany’s town square dates from this period. 

Though their lands were occupied, Belarusians did not forget about their European heritage. Ashmiany was a centre of national uprisings in 1794, 1830 and 1863, in which the nations of the old Commonwealth attempted to throw off Russian absolutism. Following another struggle between West and East – the 1920 Polish-Bolshevik War – Ashmiany became part of Poland between the two World Wars. The rest of Belarus was not so lucky: those who found themselves in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) suffered greatly from the imposition of Leninism and Stalinism. World War II marked the end of a multiethnic Ashmiany as its Jews were annihilated in the Holocaust; only the Jewish houses remain. Most of the town’s non-Belarusian residents were forcibly repatriated to other countries. The war’s outcome also ended Ashmiany’s second, and much shorter, sojourn in the West. The Yalta and Potsdam Accords extended the USSR’s – and the BSSR’s – borders westward. Ashmiany again became ‘the edge’.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus gained its independence in 1991 and had an opportunity to reunite with the European family. However, unlike its neighbours and former compatriots in the Commonwealth – Poland and Lithuania – which embraced democracy and joined the European Union, the post-Soviet government of Belarus took a different path, tying itself economically and politically to Russia and its autocratic Eastern values. An Iron Curtain was replaced by a Schengen Wall.

While Belarus didn’t return to Europe at the governmental level – it is the only European country not in the Council of Europe – Europe did come to Belarus. It first entered the homes of ordinary Belarusian dwellings in the form of an electric plug. The old-fashioned Soviet sockets with narrow ports weren’t suitable for the plugs of electric appliances made by Western companies, which became available on the Belarusian market. Western television sets, irons, hotplates, microwaves and hairdryers required more substantial ‘Euro-plugs’. Those Belarusians who could afford it began ‘Euro-renovating’ their whole apartments. Light colours replaced flowered wallpaper, wooden or laminated floors covered linoleum, Scandinavian designs replaced bulky furniture, and shower cabinets replaced narrow Soviet bathtubs. Soon the trend went mainstream. While seemingly materialistic, this ‘Europeanisation’ was the only one Belarusians could experience at the time, as few could travel and see the real Europe. ‘Euro-remont’ became their idea of what European homes looked like, based on images from the movies and glossy magazines.

Today, Europe is closer, despite the borders, visas and the self-isolation policy of the Belarusian government. Per capita, more Belarusians are issued with Schengen visas than any other nation. Belarusians make up almost 20 percent of all foreigners visiting Lithuania and 87 percent of all Belarusian tourists head to Vilnius. The geographical proximity of Lithuania’s capital has made it a daytrip or weekend mecca for thousands of Belarusians. About three hours from Minsk, a round trip costs only €20. Just a few minutes from the Ashmiany bus stop, Vilnius offers shopping with prices and product assortments better than those provided by Belarus’ state-run economy. The city’s atmospheric Old Town, with its Gothic, Baroque and Classicist architecture, offers a taste of Europe. The Vilnius and Kaunas airports, and their budget airlines, offer easy access to the rest of Europe. 

Those passing through Ashmiany are not just heading to European shops and tourist sites; Vilnius is also an important source of European ideas and values. The 2009 European Capital of Culture is the home of a sizeable Belarusian diaspora, including democrats forced to seek asylum there. A number of Belarusian, Lithuanian and international NGOs working to foster democracy inside Belarus are located in the city, such as the Belarusian Human Rights House in exile. These groups organise independent political, civil society and cultural events that cannot be held inside Belarus. Vilnius is also home to the European Humanities University (EHU), a Belarusian higher education institution forced into exile by Lukashenka. EHU offers thousands of Belarusian students a European education without the Soviet-style ‘state ideology’ and government control that is omnipresent in Belarusian schools. It is also the burial place of many important Belarusian political and cultural figures, including Kastus Kalinouski, a leader of the 1863 uprising against Russia, as well as some founders of the short-lived Belarusian National Republic, the first democratic Belarusian state, which existed from 1918 to 1919.

Inside Belarus, the country’s European history is an important element in the struggle against the regime’s authoritarianism and Russification. Belarusian democrats see themselves as Europeans and look to the country’s European past, while the authorities propagate a version of history in which Belarusians and Russians share the same heritage. Since the 1980s, civil society activists have researched, preserved and cultivated Belarus’ European past. For example, in summer 2012 one of only 60 surviving copies of the 1588 version of the Lithuanian Statutes went on sale in Moscow. A Belarusian student read about it on the internet and a campaign was launched to bring this precious document to Belarus. Through the joint efforts of a local history museum, media, business and citizens, the necessary amount was raised to acquire a copy of one of the earliest pieces of legislation, which linked Belarus to Europe back through the centuries.  

Until recently, the democrats’ efforts were marginalised. With limited or zero access to state cultural and educational institutions and operating in a difficult environment dominated by Russian culture, they struggled to reach ordinary citizens. A limited ‘thaw’ between Minsk and Brussels from 2008 to 2010 helped foster a greater interest in Belarus’ place in Europe. But above all it is the internet that has allowed activists to disseminate information about the country’s European heritage. In the 1830s, the historical centre of the city of Brest, like Ashmiany also in western Belarus, was destroyed by the Russians to build a fortress that later became famous during Soviet times. To remind citizens about the country’s European past, civic activists are currently creating a three-dimensional online model of Brest’s Old Town. Belarusian activists are trying to reconstruct the country’s European essence.

At the official level, Belarus remains bound to the East. Minsk is materially dependent on Moscow for energy, defence and economic support. But the main source of spiritual and cultural inspiration, at least for civil society, is Europe – crisis or no crisis. For the rest of the country the change in mentality still has some way to go. This week, a court in Ashmiany, located on the same Soviet Street as the bus station, ruled that a book of independent press photos seized by the KGB at the border contained ‘extremist materials’. Printed in Lithuania, 41 confiscated copies will be destroyed. One of my professors once said that Europe ends where the statues of Lenin start. As the buses return to Minsk through Ashmiany on the edge of Europe they follow the direction in which Lenin is pointing – to the East. 

Iryna Vidanava is an independent journalist, new media activist and historian based in Minsk, Belarus.

Article originally published:  http://www.culturalfoundation.eu/sites/www.culturalfoundation.eu/files/the_dwarfing_of_europe.pdf