Hienadz Korshunau. Photo by Nasha Niva.

A prominent Belarusian sociologist talks about political turmoil and the degradation of state institutions in Belarus. From Nasha Niva.

Hienadz Korshunau was the director of a large Belarusian sociology institute as recently as last year. On the first anniversary of Belarus’s presidential election that triggered unprecedented protests against its official results, he talked to Nasha Niva about why Belarus has revolted and what may lie ahead for the country in the future.

Nasha Niva: In 2020, you were still the director of the Sociology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences and had access to classified social research data. Did you see any grounds for a socio-political outburst?

Hienadz Korshunau: There were no visible grounds at the beginning of 2020. Naturally, society was evolving in many directions. Attitudes to state institutions and private business were changing, along with self-attitudes. But this leading to an outburst? … I didn’t see anything like that at the beginning of the year. I’m confident that neither politicians, nor analysts, nor researchers expected this.

NN: What was the reason then?

HK: The coronavirus. Also, a gradual rise in political and civic engagement. This trend emerged and intensified thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. A systemic crisis erupted, bringing to the surface and intensifying all contradictions that had existed earlier.

The COVID-19 spread coincided with the election campaign. I believe nothing would have happened but for COVID-19 and the election campaign. The two things together made the difference.

People were shocked by the government’s insulting rhetoric during the pandemic. People didn’t have grievances against medics who were fighting COVID-19, but they did have them over the rhetoric, ministries, and mortality statistics.

Disappointed with the government, people understood that they themselves should handle the crisis. The solidarity we admire began during the pandemic to confront the government. 

NN: What was the role of [jailed] presidential candidates [former banker] Viktar Babaryka and [popular blogger] Syarhei Tsikhanouski?

HK: If a solution is oversaturated with salt, it is enough to throw in a grain of sand to start a crystallization process. These people were the grains starting socio-political crystallization around them. You can’t say that it absolutely didn’t matter who it was, but I think such crystallization would have taken place around any significant figure. These people were just in the right place at the right time.

NN: What’s happening with society today?

HK: The nation is undergoing recoding. I call it the formation of a horizontal or digital nation.

For instance, in Latin American countries or France, a classic example, the nations were created on a project basis amid the development of industrial society. They were created as part of projects pursued by groups of intellectuals who shaped the nation’s image.

This process here was restarted with the help of digital infrastructure, taking its own path. That’s why we are in the spotlight of the entire world.

A nation is a mental construct that people believe in. This construct, which was about passivity earlier, has transformed and become painfully meaningful for a majority.

People have developed a new perception of what “we are the Belarusians” means. A majority of people who have revolted are involved in building this construct in Belarus, doing this as they feel, through joint effort. Digitization makes this process instantaneous and a naturally common cause.

NN: You say that the values of the Belarusians have changed. But why hasn’t this trend extended to those who were on election commissions, passed sentences, beat people, and lied? 

HK: Even when a war is waged, people react differently. There can never be 100% agreement when it comes to views about life. Some integrate well into a system and have gains, some are afraid of changes, and some can’t keep up with the evolution of society …

Another thing is important – all of Belarus revolted. This was crucial. It was not only Minsk geographically. People of all ages and social layers stood up. There was no geographical, ethnic, or religious divide that could tear the country apart. As for everybody doing the same thing together, it just can’t be this way.

NN:  But it was not just a disagreement with what a majority desired. We see that other Belarusians have been torturing and killing their fellow country people for quite some time, if not with pleasure. What is it?

HK: It’s a shame but there’s nothing strange about this. Hannah Arendt [the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a study of the motivations behind Nazi crimes] wrote about this in her analysis of Nazism. People differ greatly. The Belarusians, too. We have yet to comprehend it, though many thought that the people involved were not Belarusians. And we have yet to understand that Belarusians are also capable of doing this. There’s an animal living inside every person. Truth be told, an animal won’t torture another. We are yet to figure out why the worst of human nature took that form.

NN: Can you say that there’s a war in society? Without heavy ammunition, but still a war?

HK: [Historian and cultural scholar Alexander] Etkind has coined the term “internal colonization” for Russia’s state institutions. Regarding the Belarusian situation, I’ve heard another term, “internal occupation.” It happens when the authorities want to take their territory under control through force after losing the sovereign right to it. We have something similar. I don’t know whether you can call it a war.

I would look at it through the lens of a revolution: a social revolution has happened, giving rise to new social entities. They started seeking a redistribution of powers through legal means. A political revolution should have been the next step. The authorities were against it, so now we have a counterrevolution. Dissent is being stifled.

Historically, revolutionary processes come in waves, meaning that we should expect the next revolutionary upsurge after this counterrevolution. It’s evident, and the authorities are making it come.

The year 2020 was tough for the regime, which has rolled back to a primitive form. It is no longer complex after degenerating into very simple and aggressive models. This is a degradation.

NN: How long will it last?

HK: A classical divide between political elites is impossible here, because we don’t have elites. The system is very rigid and monolithic. It is degrading both institutionally and functionally. We are already seeing the results of this catastrophic degradation: the nuclear power plant isn’t working and the Interior Ministry’s databases have been stolen, while routine issues at the Olympic Games are turning into an international scandal. More is coming, and more smart people will be leaving the system and companies. Or there will be a crackdown on this dissent.

NN: Disappointed with the government, some people in the 1990s turned to crime in an attempt to sort out problems and make their own “justice.” What will happen with our institutions?

HK: Indeed, there are prerequisites for the appearance of shadow structures, but the authorities are so much oriented toward the monopolization of violence that such groups are unlikely to appear right now. What can appear? We see horizontal structures emerge.

An analysis of what happened leads, among other things, to an understanding that vertical structures have been replaced in an evolutionary way by horizontal self-organized ones. The essence of long-prevailing vertical societies is about subordination and hierarchy. However, this mentality – the foundation for the Belarusian state – is no longer winning or relevant. Meanwhile, the Belarusians are building something new and promising: horizontal platforms.

Looking into the future, I think horizontal practices (foundations and other organizations) will give rise to new institutions that will change our understanding of social institutions.

NN: Is violent resistance possible in Belarus?

HK: Surely, we can’t rule out the possibility. But I think it’s quite unlikely. And this is perhaps good. When you allow yourself to turn to violence, it’s very difficult to stop. I wouldn’t want our future built on violence.  

NN: In your opinion, what failed in 2020?

HK: On the path chosen by the Belarusians, they did everything they could. The thing is, society wasn’t ready in organizational terms: there were no structures, while the authorities had put behind bars all those who could organize people. I don’t know whether it was possible to do more than was done under those circumstances. A legal path to a peaceful regime change is strategically a big moral victory. Tactically, if a violent path had been chosen, there could have been more blood, and nobody knows how Russia would have responded.

NN: The authorities now act in a hope to get everything back as it was. Is it realistic?

HK: This is impossible. What we saw in 2020 was the result of 10 or 20 years of evolution of the nation; a succession of the generations; a shift to new platforms of social functioning; a change in how the Belarusians perceive themselves as a nation; and the devaluation of the Soviet legacy that Belarus lived by in the first 20 years of its independence.

It’s impossible to get back to square one, unless perhaps half of the Belarusians or the internet vanishes … No, really, I can’t think of what can turn this page over.

NN: Do you agree that [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka is leading Belarus into an abyss, forcing active people out of society and the economy and killing businesses?

HK: I am not an economic expert to make assumptions. But I clearly understand that as a system of social institutions, the state is collapsing. These institutions have turned into transmitters of violence, losing people’s trust. Looking ahead, the discrediting of every social institution, from law enforcement to education, is a catastrophe. 

Belarus has great human capital, and the Belarusians know how to work. That’s why I am not worried about the future of the economy – we’ll restore it. But restoring state institutions is a tougher challenge.

NN: Thousands of people are fleeing repression in Belarus. In your opinion, are they lost to the country?

HK: Needless to say, some refugees will be busy surviving and integrating into a new environment. But those who are economically and politically active will remain Belarusians and given the times we live in, they will play a significant role in processes in Belarus. They are not as White Russian emigres were in Paris.

I did a small-scale survey and found that Belarusians abroad don’t perceive themselves as part of local communities. They say that they are Belarusians living abroad. It’s a huge difference. Their minds and hearts are with Belarus and the focus of their activities is also there. Their departure now is giving the regime slight relief, but it won’t last long.

The Belarusians also have support from the West, with the Belarusian crisis now seen by the West as an illustrative example of what can be done by a populist regime, a hot topic in their countries, too. Our experience, which is clearly black and white, makes them choose, which is the easy part, and act, which is less easy. But we see developments.

NN: What will come next?

HK: The Belarusian regime has no prospects. It’s only a question of time how long it will last. 

NN: What can you tell Belarusians?

HK: Believe. Seize opportunities and win. Long smell thyme! [based on a phrase by Belarusian poet Piatrus Brouka, this is a cheeky wordplay used now in place of the outlawed protest slogan “Long live Belarus!”]

This article originally appeared in Nasha Niva, a leading independent news outlet in Belarus. Earlier this month, the Belarusian authorities blocked its website and detained several of its journalists. Translated in partnership with Free Press for Eastern Europe. Reprinted with permission.