An invisible wall
The hidden factor of Belarusian reality
When visiting a Belarusian bookstore, one is immediately struck by a specific detail of its “spatial organisation”. In addition to traditional sections covering the various disciplines and spheres of interest in the “sea” of publications, Belarusian bookstores usually have a special shelf given over to books and magazines in Belarusian language (whereas the rest of the space is taken up by Russian-language titles).
In a bookstore, all books, translations, monographs, magazines, and bestsellers are separated by language, and everything Belarusian is formatted into a separate section. The relatively small amount of the Belarusian cultural output presented there1, as well as its symbolic detachment into a kind of cultural ghetto, is indicative of the status of Belarusian culture on its own territory. This phenomenon is an effect of complex historical processes and political reasons. What is more, probably for the same reasons, Belarus itself is also cut off and placed onto a separate shelf in the space of Europe and the world.
An obvious parallel can be drawn between the state of affairs in Belarusian bookstores and that of the Belarusian state in the international arena. Belarus can be seen as one of the examples of “keeping away” from the process that leads towards a new cultural and economic unity, a process which has been common in former socialist Central and Eastern European countries.
As a result of this Belarusian “detachment”, “market socialism” is prevailing in the Belarusian economy, which means the absolute dominance of state ownership. There is a noticeable lack of any private initiatives in business, absence of foreign investments, high level of inflation, etc. Belarus has real economic difficulties even in its union with Russia due to its economical backwardness in comparison with Russia. The country became the “museum of the Soviet Union” created on a state-scale.
The current Belarusian situation has emerged due to its political orientation, coupled with a neo-socialist ideology and undemocratic activities of the current authorities. The strangest things in Belarus, however, are currently taking place on the margins, where the state’s political and ideological discourse has surpassed the boundaries of politics itself, becoming a day-to-day social reality for millions of people. To an outside observer it may seem incomprehensible why and how the majority of these ten million people are still ruled by a communist illusion. In 2001, when the presidential elections again left the same dictator in power, the Belarusian people’s choice was once more a reason for surprise in the rest of world.
Continuity of time, or the special feature of Belarusian temporality
What is really conspicuous in the recent history of Belarus is the lack of any “break” with the past in terms of state ideology. There has simply never been a decisive historical turning point at which a new life began in Belarus as it did in Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, or Lithuania. As Davis Marples wrote in Belarus: a denationalized nation: “[t]he political situation after the declaration of independence did not change significantly over the next two years. The Republic of Belarus remained under the control of ex-Communists and reformed Communists”.2 However, at that historical moment – at the late 80s and beginning of the 90s, just a few years before the first presidential elections – political and social changes were due to start, or even seemed to have begun. At that point, new political movements and parties, new newspapers, and new ideas appeared. “Belarus avoided the multiplication of political parties that occured in Ukraine, where according to observers over seventy registered parties in the summer of 1993 were registered. Nevertheless, there were still more than eleven registered parties in Belarus”3, and new newspapers appeared on the media market. Certainly there was a time when a new train of thought was implemented in Belarusian minds, and there were real chances for the beginning of a total social transformation. These chances were to be realised after the presidential elections in 1994 – or so it was thought.
First choice: one step forward, two steps back
The result of the first presidental elections that led Lukashenko to power revealed a particularity in the “Belarusian choice”. All political movements, parties and politicians that emerged on the Belarusian political scene at the beginning of the 90s suddenly found themselves in “a deep opposition” to the authorities after the election. In this way, ideas of pro-western liberal democracy, jointly with radical nationalistic movements, pro-Russian communist parties (there are two of them in Belarus), and representatives of the former communist nomenclature – were pushed altogether out to the periphery of public and political life. One can assume then that the choice Belarusians made in 1994 was not so much an ideological one about a certain model for the future, as about the “construction of social reality”4 produced by the Soviet system and internalized successfully by the Belarusian people: the idea of a “social construction” created within a socialist ideology and based on principles of state monopoly, class homogeneity etc. This was not destroyed automatically after the fall of an objective social order. As a matter of fact, this president was not elected by the majority of the people, but through the genre of “monologue” – a discursive form of articulation of power he was associated with.
The neo-socialist ideology which dominates Belarusian political and economic strategy at present can be considered not so much as the cause of the Belarusian crisis, but rather as one of the outcomes stemming from a specific relationship between “socio-cultural history” and “the present” of Belarus. As Jan Zaprudnik, historian and author of several monogaphs devoted to Belarus, noted, “after the collapse of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe more and more analysts had arrived at the conclusion that the greatest damage done by the Old Order was to human nature.”5 The idea of only one possible way of thinking about reality, the exclusive right to the definition of truth in social existence and homogenous social landscapes can be found on the list of such damages caused by the socialist ideology. At a time when some attributes of a democratic society started to appear in Belarus, the social construction of reality “from inside” of “Belarusian minds” made impossible their appropriate functioning. The given situation is reflected in the particularities of the Belarusian “information space”, where all historical and modern social problems are represented and where new independent mass media confront old-fashioned constructions of social reality. This mass media space can be considered as a forum where the state’s political and ideological discourse on the one hand, and the voices of opposition on the other encounter reality, to become the essence of social practices and the content of ordinary life.
After the 1994 elections, the country set off on its own course, “not going down the usual path that everyone else had followed before”. What is essential about this moment of change that did not unfold is that these “new shoots” of changing mentality were not simply nipped in the bud, nor did they disappear completely, but instead stopped growing altogether. Those people who managed to experience this new quality of life in society (and achieved another degree of freedom) later became the participants and supporters of the opposition. They now form a separate social stratum, united by acquired “knowledge” and understanding. Contact is maintained with the ideological opposition, at least mentally, by reading independent newspapers, and never watching Belarusian state-TV or buying state newspapers. These people would rather know nothing about state politics and live in a world created by this opposing “stream” of information that provides them with a truly comprehensive picture of social reality.
But as mentioned above, the transformation period in Belarus was too short, and the changes too “soft” and slow to appear, that it was not enough to “budge” Belarusian minds in general. Actually, the majority of Belarusians did not experience any social changes whatsoever in their own lives. For them, Belarus today is the same Belarus of the socialist past, which is not yet over in their eyes. This category of people is very numerous and heterogeneous and is hypnotised by the official rhetoric’s daily promises of “nice presents” and “a better tomorrow”. These people provide the “votes” for the existing regime, watch the Belarusian state-TV channels, listen to state radio, and read official publications.
An opinion poll conducted in December 2002 indicated that 64.1 per cent of the respondents receive their information about the world from the Belarusian state-TV channels, 25 per cent from the Belarusian state radio, 22 per cent from Belarusian state newspapers, and only 12.9 per cent of people read non-state newspapers.6
These two information streams, which convey radically different ideas about society, values, intentions, and various everyday practices, are in fact separated by a real, invisible, impenetrable “wall”. There are different pictures of Belarus – both equally real and plausible for the present and future. Two main public discourses seem to exist in the Belarusian public sphere which consequently create opposite constructions of social reality in accordance to their political and ideological background. It is enough to compare the content of newspapers dealing with the same subjects and to speak to people who read them, in order to see how strongly this absolutely impenetrable information wall is present in the Belarusian mass media and Belarusian minds.
Practically all the most important subjects essential to the matter of Belarusian public life are being interpreted in two opposite ways. Thus, the difference between state and non-state media is apparent already in their ways of “naming” and speaking of the “Union with Russia”. State newspapers always operate by the term of the “Union State”, whereas the non-state media use phrases such as “planned alliance of Belarus and Russia” instead.
“Janka Kupala7 Monument in Moscow is financed with money of Union State budget”
“Building of the Union State has ambitious plans”
“Foundations for Union State to be finalised next year”
“Romantic period of Union is over”
“The box tournament of Union state”
“Neither Idea of Union nor Union can disappear”
“Union agreement -Guarantee of Belarusian independence” 8
The main implication of these titles is to speak about the Union with Russia in terms of an already existing state. Non-state media, on the contrary, present the Union as something open to discussion and doubt. In addition, while for parts of society, the new Union with Russia is the “new stage of Belarusian independence”, other parts see it as the current authorities’ biggest mistake, which will lead to the loss of the Belarusian statehood.
The state of the Belarusian economy is another issue for double representation. Official discourse operates by the expression “Belarusian economic miracle”, “Belarusian economic model”. Thus, titles in state newspapers inform their readers that
“Salaries keep bar”
“Statistics indicates significant economical growth”
“Belarus holds stable position on a world market”
“We have taken our own way”
“Belarus has dynamic trade market with Europe etc.9
Simultaneously, those who get information from independent newspapers are reading that
“Stagnation and Intimidation Undermine Belarus”10
“Belarusians can not afford basics”
“No sign of big money” (concerning foreign investments)
“The International Monetary Fund has expressed concerns over unrealistic budgetary targets” 11
The independent media meanwhile raise the alarm on human right violations and lack of freedom in Belarus.12 Full freedom is only possible in “lunatic asylum” – said a famous journalist working for a state-TV channel, expressing the general opinion of the Belarusian Authorities.
The most illustrative example of the confrontation between two public discourses is their interpretations of the notions “Belarus” or “Belarusian people”. Authorities mark the territory of their legitimation in terms of unitary, so called one-piece “notions” – “Belarusian people”, Belarusians, Belarus.
“President was chosen by Belarusian nation”
“Every Belarusian made a true decision” (about the result of election)
In doing so, the whole political opposition and its supporters are symbolically pushed out of the space of “the integral wholeness” of the Belarusian nation. They confront the problem of the identification within the field of rethoric and symbolic “entirety” of the Belarusian community, created by the official discourse. In order not to feel as foreigners in their own country the opposition constructs its legitimation by speaking “on behalf of the whole Belarus”.
“President has taken civic liberties from Belarusian people”
“Belarus needs new president”
“Belarusians want to join Europe”
“Belarusians do not want to live in Russia 13
An article about the assembly of Belarusian intelligentsia held on March 16 2003 and organised by the opposition in Minsk was titled “Belarusian intelligentsia says ‘no’ to ruling regime” and starts with the notion “The all-Belarusian intelligentsia assembly was held…”14
In both cases the Belarusian “motherland” appears as an “indivisible” ideological entirety. In February 2003 authorities forbade opposition to the organization of street action under the slogan: “I love Belarus”. One can imagine that the planned street action was “deciphered” by the authorities as an attempt of symbolical “appropriation” of the “Belarusian motherland”, which has been usurped already by the official discourse.
Through the generalization of notions such as “Belarus” and “Belarusians” each public discourse tries to accomplish a kind of “privatization” of the Belarusian motherland and in doing so, exclude each other. The Belarusian opposition considers the current president as illegal since the election results were fabricated. The representatives of international organizations (parliaments assembly, OSCE, Helsinki committee) try to foster communication between the Belarusian political forces and the supporting political opposition. This fact becomes the main argument for officials when trying to prove the “non- Belarusian”, or “foreign” character of their ideology and political demands. Such indications of the foreign sources of finance is one of the favourite methods of the ideological annihilation of opposition in public used by the authorities. The opposition is portrayed not as the author of its own political programs but only the creature or protégé “made and paid by the West”. Consequently, the final de-identification of opposition and its supporters with the Belarusian people is completed and “Belarus” itself stays undivided and ideologically homogeneous.
As these examples show, while ideological work on both sides of the wall is extremely intensified, all political and information efforts just lead to the wall being strengthened, making it “higher” and “more solid”. The arguments used in both of these monologues only took into consideration the people on both sides of the wall. They were aimed at and only capable of convincing people who already agreed with them and accepted them before. As a result, nothing really changes in the end, and every participant of such social “actions” remains in the same place as before.
Consequently, Belarusian society resembles two cinemas divided by the same wall, where two different “films about their life” are projected onto either side. What’s more, each projection is self-sufficient and complete enough to provide a full picture of the world. The other side of the wall can also be seen from one’s own side of the “screen”, without having to be interested in the real existence of those people, or their opinions, desires and problems (even if some of them live right next door).
The “wall” is not the only a descriptive metaphor for the division of the Belarusian society. It becomes a invisible and hidden but very real factor effecting some essential deformations of public space.
New information technology like the Internet usually serves to widen the public’s horizons and make the borders between different public spheres more transparent. In the case of Belarus, however, it in fact results in the opposite effect, i.e. a deepening of the rift between the two strata of society, one of which uses the Internet, while the other watches Belarusian TV. (Nowadays, according to different sources, the number of Internet users in Belarus is around 150.000 – 200.000 and 60-70 per cent of them live in Minsk15).
This phenomenon of an opaque, impenetrable wall of information, which is still built day after day into the Belarusian consciousness, allows for the particular role of the media at the root of the Belarusian socio-political crisis to be revealed.
Certainly the Belarusian society was divided during the course of the historical processes of the post-Soviet period, which touched Belarus at least slightly. The mass media however serve as the main instrument for preservation: they function as a wall between groups of Belarusian people with different kinds of social values based on opposing ideas about the present and future of their country.
Why there is no “civil war” in Belarusian minds
In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan wrote:
For most of our lifetime civil war has being raging in the world of art and entertainment… Moving pictures, gramophone records, radio, talking pictures… Most of this civil war affects us in the depth of our psychic lives, as well, since the war is conducted by forces that are extensions and amplifications of our own being. Indeed, the interplay among media is only another name for this “civil war” that rages in our society and our psyches alike.
This metaphor of a “civil war” in the media space of an open democratic society reflects the basic idea of informational interrelations within a liberal political and social system. According to the “mass media design” of this system, frequent informational attacks on humanity provide at least potential access to the different streams of information. This makes the whole picture of reality potentially “visible”. To be “visible” means to be “real”, no matter whether it be good or bad, true or false. This “simple” opportunity to choose provides people with the next “ordinary” option to agree or disagree, to accept or reject.
One could say that the real problem of the Belarusian society lies in the absence of any such “civil war” in the Belarusian mass media and Belarusian minds. The majority of people enveloped in the influence of state discourse have generally been cocooned into a steady, gentle trickle of information about their lives, as provided by the official media. Never really encountering any other picture of the socio-political world, or any other versions of their own reality they are closeted by the reliable wall and can never hear the voice of the political opposition. Moreover, those inhabiting the space on the other side of the wall are also limited by their own political convictions and own stream of information. As a matter of principle, no-one there is interested in processes going on in the “opposing camp”.
The prevalent intention of the non-state mass media is to present an alternative interpretation of “news” or “facts” portrayed previously by the state media. Such interplay between the mass media resembles the negative processes in black-and-white photography. Hence the structure of this media space based on the logic of strong binary opposition actually prevents people from gaining access to the full picture of social and political reality. There is no way to create a full picture of Belarusian reality from inside the Belarusian informational space. Some kind of external position is required in order to embrace reality. Simply reading the Belarusian newspapers, even both state and independent, listening to Belarusian radio, and watching state-TV channels makes it impossible to avoid the Belarusian black-and-white picture of reality.
Instead of a “civil war” people rather found themselves in the midst of their principal invisibility. One of the effects of this peculiar configuration of the informational space is that the wall makes part of the Belarusian reality completely invisible and unreal in some senses (i.e. the part which remains on the other side of the informational border). Information about those who live on the opposite side of the wall is either completely non-existent, or heavily distorted. Consequently, since total misrepresentation prevails in the Belarusian public space, every citizen finds himself trapped inside the vicious circle of their own political commitments.
In such a situation, it is worth noting that the Belarusian example clearly shows that mere media presence can no longer be considered as one of the most important or easiest ways to appear in the public space. As a result, the sheer existence of opposing political forces and independent mass media as such may still be insufficient to influence the political situation in the country, and might not rescind the totalitarian nature of the ruling regime. The amount of varied mass media and opposing political stances in the public arena is simply inadequate: rather, the media should also be involved in the system of public representation, since the organisation of this system would be one of the most important instruments for democracy in the country. The Belarusian president proudly proclaims that Belarus (to his mind) is a democracy, because it has independent newspapers which are regularly on sale alongside state newspapers and magazines in the news-stands. In saying so, he simply stresses the fact that two different sources of information exist, and neglects the lack of a public representation system in which the media could start to operate normally. In other words, the fact that these newspapers exist is only a veneer concealing the fact that Belarusian people’s lives lack any real information.
The screen of Belarusian public reality is displaying the mass media’s power not only to show things, but also to conceal them; not only to disseminate information, but also to make them inaccessible.
Even a casual glance at the general logic of interaction between the two sources of information shows their opposite views on any subject presented on both sides of the wall. In most cases, they relate to each other like negative and positive images in black-and-white photography.
In his essay “On Television”, Pierre Bourdieu describes the field of print journalism as consisting of “newspapers that give news – stories and events – and newspapers that give views – opinion and analysis”. However, the ideological experience of totalitarianism in contemporary Belarus shows how this “design” of a media-space (based on antithetical interpretations) completely prevents access to the stratum of events or real stories. From the very beginning, everything that appears in the Belarusian mass media is represented two times over, implying that any fact simultaneously receives two opposite marks, and thus automatically acquires the status of “post-interpretation” in most people’s opinions. Nothing can claim to be pure story or pure fact.
Certainly, this phenomenon of double exposure of any subject in the Belarusian mass media exerts its influence on the conveyance of information as such, and imposes certain restrictions on the topics which can be presented in this way.
One effect of such a limitation is the incredible scarcity of news from abroad in the Belarusian informational arena. The absence of foreign news columns in Belarusian newspapers is a unique characteristic of the informational environment. Moreover, such a radical lack of interest in the state of affairs outside Belarus is a feature common to state and independent media alike.
Everything deemed worthy of discussion on the pages of Belarusian newspapers seems to be concentrated within Belarusian borders. From time to time of course the newspapers carry short items about wars, natural disasters, and other special events happening abroad, but they usually appear to emphasize the “calm normality” of Belarusian “everydayness” (as far as state printed media are concerned). As a result, there is still no regular interaction between the global information universe and the Belarusian public space.
The phenomenon of the informational space being closed to news from abroad seems understandable from the perspective of the specific logicthat is governing the Belarusian media environment. Most events happening outside Belarus cannot be assessed according to the strict “black-and-white” evaluations of the Belarusian media. It appears that the microclimate of the Belarusian informational space has turned out to be unsuitable and disastrous for international current affairs.
It is worth noting that television is the only media language capable of articulating the external reality in Belarus today. Every evening, Belarusian state-TV channels devote 15 minutes of their Panorama news program to international events. Belarusian broadcasting on international issues follows a certain pattern of making extremely negative evaluations of facts or events from abroad, then contrasting them with the therapeutically soothing, “good” picture of the Belarusian reality. The notion of “them” being against “us” is the most popular concept used to describe the ideological disposition of the world. “They” are constantly trying to destroy the Belarusian paradise that has been created in this “island country” in the geographic centre of Europe.
Last summer, the turning point in Belarusian-Russian relations were brought about by Vladimir Putin’s proposed strategies for implementing the idea of a Belarusian-Russian union. (His concrete proposals were based on either a rapid transition towards a real single state, or a true confederation). This also became the starting point for a radical reinterpretation of the notion of “they” in the Belarusian authorities’ rhetoric. For a long time, Russia was on “our” side, together with “us” against the rest of the world. Suddenly it was shifted over to “them” presenting a new threat to Belarusian independence. Consequently, this has also led to radical changes in the complex system of differentiation between the “external” and the “internal”, as explored by the Belarusian ideological machine. Furthermore, news from Russia is starting to be interpreted as a negative example of state development.
The strategy of aggressively contrasting the external world against the internal reality is characteristic for television. Meanwhile, the “verbal” state media (newspapers, magazines and radio) concentrate on local Belarusian events. As a result, some essential differences are emerging between the languages of the various mass media. The ideological-rhetorical methods of Belarusian television would not work on paper since the scripts of television appearances could never become reading material. On the TV news for example the now traditional declarations about the strong opposition, “them and us”, and various images of “political enemies” (which are gradually increasing in numbers, country by country) are usually supported by abstract speculation and relevant visual images. Strictly speaking, if it were extracted from the context of TV narration, the actual text of this televised discourse on international issues would immediately be exposed as being a pure product of state ideology. This never happens however as “it is just made for television” (Pierre Bourdieu – “On Television”). TV reasoning is creating one such “product” after another, thus filling up the Belarusian public space with numerous ideological simulacra.
The same differences between the languages of mass media play a significant role in maintaining the Belarusian president’s public image. How the mass media represent this political figure is yet another example of significant diversity: It is common knowledge that the Belarusian president has made himself popular with “ordinary people”, particularly the “lower social strata” of Belarusian society. He enjoys widespread popularity thanks to the television screens. Television narration has turned out to be the language that corresponds best to the president’s style of speech and rule. Images created by TV, where the “text” comes together with pictures, visual context, gestures, vocal intonation, emphatic expression, etc. constitute the most persuasive way to present the Belarusian dictator to the public. As if aware of this fact, he appears on Belarusian TV screens many times per day. There is a whole series of “events” (meetings, presentations, etc.) which fill up Belarusian political life, seemingly arranged specially for TV screening to provide a symbolic representation of authority. None of these speeches could be published in the newspapers, however, nor could they be presented as a “text” for reading. The kind of rhetoric explored by the Belarusian president belongs entirely to the language of television.
The brief, showy effects of his statements, which are combined with a stream of additional “non-informative information” on the TV screen, (e.g. a convincing tone of voice, supportive gestures and emotional intonation) seem to be sufficient for the Belarusian majority. Even his grammatical mistakes and obvious contradictions of common sense can be ignored as part of the stream of television broadcasting.
Certainly, there is nothing in these appearances and speeches that is worth turning into reading material. Sometimes the independent newspapers use this technique (an illegal gesture on Belarusian public territory) and publish uncorrected excerpts from transcripts of the Belarusian president’s speeches. As it appears, a simple crossing of the discursive borders of TV language is enough to explain the absence of anything rational in the president’s appearances. This simple action provides persuasive evidence of the ideological masks being used to cover up the lack of rationale behind the authorities’ political stance.
It cannot be said that television allows one to show more or hide less, or vice versa. The problem is rather that the interplay between the visible (presented) and the invisible is carried out differently in every mass media discourse. Above all, each of these languages explores their own ways of differentiating and correlating between the sense of the content, and the sense of its expression. This dividing line is a substantial element of the message itself. That is why the transference of content from one mass media context to another can deprive the message of its sense and public value. The problem however is that the aforementioned wall as a psycho-social phenomenon of Belarusian social reality and a key element in the Belarusian public space prevents this kind of transference.
From this perspective, the way out of the political and social crisis in Belarus no longer lies in fighting by means of piling up arguments against the opposite political camp, but in creating an integrated cultural and informational space so as to demolish the informational wall. This does not mean obliterating all differences in society, nor attaining social harmony and universal accord. Instead, the existing wall must be made transparent for opposing opinions, and a common information space must be created which would be available to everyone equally. However, this would also imply radical changes in “social public relations strategy”.
The first step would be simply to see the people on the other side of the wall as real individuals.
- In 2002, 752 books were published in Belarusian, totaling around 10 per cent of the countries entire printing output of around 7753 books. Source: Belarus today, 24.02.03
- David Marples; Belarus, A denationalized nation. Harwood Academic Publishers, p.60.
- D. Marples, p.60
- There is a close association between the term of "social construction of reality" with the constructivist approach in sociology. (P. L. Berger Thomas Luckman; The Social Construction of Reality, 1967, V. Burr; An Introduction to Social Constructionism, 1995). The main contradiction as far as society itself is concerned is that of the mirror structure of determinations: certain ideas or visions of social reality itself turn out to be predetermined by the society. Being aware of this theoretical complexity, we will speak here about "the vision of social edifice" produced by socialist ideology and defining the main elements of social structure and their interrelations.
- Jan Zaprudnik; Belarus: At a Crossroads in History. Westviewpress, Oxford.
- Data received by Independent Institute for socio-economical and political studies (IISEPS) in December 2002. (1.478 respondents)
- Prominent Belarusian Poet (1882-1943).
- Titles taken from Zwiazda 2002-2003.
- State newspaper Soviet Belarus (Sovetskaja Bearussia) 2002.
- Financial Times; 26.09.2002, and on www.charter97.org (Independent news from Belarus)
- Charter'97, www.charter97.org
- Monthly reports on human right violations are being published on www.charter97.org
- Charter'97 Press Center
- Charter'97 Press Center 17.03.2003
- Newspaper Komputernye vesti, Charter'97; 04.12.2002