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Published on 23 Nov 2010 - filed under Articles.

Divide and Be Conquered

Autocracy survives in Belarus in part because its citizens cannot agree on who they really are.

by Viktar Martinovich

Struggle Over Identity: The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness,” by Nelly Bekus. Central European University Press, 2010.

It happened at an official reception at the embassy of an Old European country. It was the usual moderately boring affair, with guests making small talk, careful not to let their spoons clink on the plate edges. Suddenly, the ambassador broke the silence. “Do you think your country will exist for another 10 years? We’ve been allocated money for embassy renovations, but we’re not sure we should spend it because you’re likely to merge with Russia, and the embassy won’t be needed in your country.”

He asked the question in Minsk, Belarus, a country that can be considered one of the strangest and most interesting in Europe. It was 2005. Three years later Russia hiked its gas price for Belarus and imposed an export duty on oil, triggering a nasty spat between Minsk and Moscow. But the ambassador’s question was not about geopolitics. When a diplomat asks you straight whether your country exists (the question can be interpreted this way) at a reception where guests take pains to avoid touching their plates with a spoon, the situation becomes an anthropological joke. Obviously, in the eyes the ambassador, this country had never really existed.

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