Stefan Eriksson, who served as Ambassador of Sweden in Belarus from 2005 to 2012, and David Marples, Distinguished University Professor at the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta (Canada), discussed Belarusian identity, society, and politics with an auditorium full of EHU students.
Introducing the topic in fluent Belarusian, the Swedish Ambassador said his knowledge of the Belarusian language has enabled him to establish relationships with leading personalities in Belarus. According to him, if more foreigners spoke the language, Belarusians themselves would be more interested in their own language, as well.
Eriksson added that he thinks the experience of traveling outside Belarus makes Belarusians more aware of their own national identity.
“When Belarusians come to other countries and people start asking them questions, a process starts and people start identifying themselves more with the Belarusian language and culture once they’ve been abroad," observed the Ambassador. "It is difficult to explain why you are form Belarus and you don’t speak the language.”
When presenting his theses on Belarus, Marples noted that Belarusians do not perceive Russia as foreign and alien. Rather, they perceive their own Belarusian language and culture as something foreign. Marples suggested that Belarus’s leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime needs Russia's support, but is not in favor of total integration, whereas Russia is inclined to try to recreate the former Soviet Union.
“The current situation is quite dangerous for Belarus. [Putin] would like to re-integrate former Soviet States," said Marples. "All schemes are aimed at recreating that power block, and Belarus is automatically included as a part.”
Marples also claimed that the President of Belarus uses the collective memory of the Second World War to enhance the regime's legitimacy. The regime presents Belarus as a victim of the war while ignoring the wrong-doings. And it is also rewriting history to encourage national pride.
Following a discussion with the students and faculty, Marples and Eriksson agreed that the best way to promote change in Belarus is to make it easier for Belarusians to travel and to do more to encourage the flow of ideas into Belarus.
“One of the differences today is the way to get information. Social networks have the power to change things. No regime can really control the flow of information anymore,” said Marples.
The discussion “Belarus in Europe: Identity, Society and Politics” was organized jointly by EHU and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.