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Belarusian-American relations: Overcoming inertia and anachronisms

Июн 04, 2017
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Let’s begin by getting the bad news out of the way. In early March, the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued its annual country reports on human rights practices for 2016. The report on Belarus is couched in language all too familiar from previous editions of this document. Arbitrary arrests, physical and psychological abuse of suspects, poor conditions in prisons and detention centers, imprisonments on political grounds, and so on.
Some cases publicized by the Belarusian media, like the detention of the blogger Eduard Palchys and the case of the journalist Paval Dabravolsky mistreated by police, are meticulously described in the document. These descriptions reflect the tireless activity of those hired to monitor every departure from the American standard of justice in Minsk and of their Washington supervisors.
To solidify the ominous impression, the final paragraph of the narrative informs the reader that the Belarus labor ministry reported “63 persons killed at workplaces between January and June of 2015. The ministry reported that the majority of workplace accidents occurred in the heavy machinery production industry and were caused by carelessness, poor conditions, malfunctioning equipment, and poor training and instruction. The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.” So, not only do hazardous occupations exist in an orderly but not particularly wealthy country, but if you are hired to do the job, you are actually expected to do it. Yes, accidents do occur as does carelessness – in Belarus and beyond.
To be sure, there are hardly any factual distortions in the State Department’s narrative. Belarus indeed has problems in the human rights area and so does the United States; suffice it to watch American television news coverage of indiscriminate shootings of and by American police officers. What is increasingly odd about these human rights reports is that one country is professing to be a cross between Mother Theresa and a global policeman, while other countries including Belarus are expected to react to criticism like naughty children and justify themselves if given the opportunity.
I am trying to figure out whether this practice is more humiliating rather than bizarre, or vice versa. Because the reports in question are not taken at face value within the targeted countries but as instruments of political pressure and expressions of conceit, it occurs to me that “bizarre” is the better fitting term.
First, all countries are measured against the same Western yardstick, and Samuel Huntington would be turning in his grave. According to this great American political scientist, adviser and academic, “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous. Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism.”
Second, in November 2016, Americans voted for a refreshing change of guard in Washington; and the change occurred, in part, under the slogan of abandoning America’s attempt to spread universal values that not everyone shares.
So what’s the point, and isn’t the retinue playing the king? Apparently, it is, but because of inertia, it seems to be playing the former one. Or perhaps it is difficult to replace all the staff quickly or develop a new strategy at odds with the previous guidelines that were a sacred cow for so long. According to Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs, an army of clerks is still doing what it has always done. Just as those dogs were conditioned to salivate, the associates of the Bureau of Democracy are conditioned to impose American values on countries that live in a different historical time. Apparently, it will take much of Trump’s first term in office, if not all of it, to shake up the entire staff and bring it up to task.
As one Russian restaurateur with a knack for philosophizing has pointed out, “most people that I know dwell in an existential jetlag. For example, they live in today’s Russia and yet demand some illtimed things, be they independent courts or worshiping Joseph Stalin. And there is no mechanism, like in a mobile phone, that could automatically update the time [for them]. They live in 2017 Russia, but their inner calendar seems to reflect 1920s Britain or the 1930s in the USSR, or even the 22nd century.”
An existential jetlag may also be an accurate description of America’s policy toward Belarus (perhaps not only toward Belarus). Among other things, it helps explain why Russia keeps on winning the geopolitical games across the post-Soviet space and further afield. After all, Moscow lives in much the same historical time as many of its neighbors and entertains no illusions about that.
Those who, like this author, grew up in the Soviet Union, as well as some inquisitive others who grew up elsewhere, may remember Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” A paraphrase of this thesis nicely describes an interventionist foreign policy: Philosophers have hitherto failed to interpret the world; the point is to change it so it would match their interpretations. In other words, we see things not as they are but as we are. Moreover, it is not important to learn anything about Belarus or any other place. If we just hire some local vigilantes, they would write their neat reports that describe Belarus’s ostensible deviations from us. We will then edit their broken English and chastise Belarus for being different.
Fortunately, not everything is this bad. For example, representatives of Belarus’ Ministry of Defense and the United States Department of Defense met in Washington in October 2016 to discuss bilateral military cooperation. The parties talked over the promising areas of the Belarusian-US cooperation in the military sector. The meeting ended with the signing of a joint statement on cooperation between the Defense Ministry of Belarus and the United States Department of Defense, as well as the bilateral military cooperation plan for 2017.
In another show of diplomatic accord, the staffs of the embassies – Belarusian in Washington DC and United States in Minsk – have been increased to nine members, up from only five in March 2008, after both ambassadors were recalled and diplomatic staffs were cut – in the case of the United States Embassy in Minsk, from 35 to 5 positions. After the Belarusian parliamentary elections of 2016, the US extended sanctions relief partially because two opposition-minded candidates won seats in the Belarusian Parliament. This was a positive development, even though it fits the aforementioned model of school-principal-to-pupil relations whereby America condescendingly issues rewards for Belarus’s good or not-so-bad performance and behavior.
On March 16, 2017, President Alexander Lukashenko met with the chief of the International Monetary Fund’s mission to Belarus, reigniting hope that the IMF would eventually open its credit line for Belarus. The voice of the USA is always critical to decision-making within the IMF.
Above all, however, the human rights report notwithstanding, the atmosphere of the Belarusian-American relations has dramatically changed for the better. This improvement may be seen as a side effect of crises in the neighboring country of Ukraine and of Belarus’s initiative in hosting truce talks and in facilitating important Minsk agreements.
Growth in mutual trust did not transpire spontaneously, however. Rather, it resulted from creative work by Belarusian diplomats in Washington DC, notably of Oleg Kravchenko and Pavel Shidlovsky. For seven years, Kravchenko headed the Belarusian diplomatic mission to Washington DC in the rank of chargé d’affaires; for his successful work, he received a promotion to deputy minister of foreign affairs. Pavel Shidlovsky succeeded Kravchenko. Both have been exceptionally articulate in presenting Belarus’s position on various global issues and navigated corridors of power in Washington with dignity, excellent English, and a good sense of the potential and limitations related to bilateral relations. In their conversations and public speaking engagements, they have never tried to embellish Belarus. Rather, they patiently explained to their American visà-vis that the country they represent has precious little experience with statehood. Given its inadequate experience, Soviet legacy, indistinctive identity, Russia’s hot breath, local political tradition, and modest development, Belarus is actually doing a good deal better than it might, and definitely better than most states of the former Soviet Union.
A carefully worded statement by the Spokesman for the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dmitry Mironchik, coincident with the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Belarus and the USA, exposes the same combination of clarity, patience, and dignity. “The relations between Belarus and the United States will continue developing without artificial acceleration and in the spirit of critical dialogue…. What distinguishes our relations today from the situation two or three years ago is that we started to talk about the issues that divide us,” he said. “We are now calling a spade a spade and searching gradually, step by step, for some solutions.” The tenor of this pronouncement favorably contrasts with that of American human rights disciplinarians.
I remain hopeful that the Belarusian-American relations will continue to improve. Not in the spirit of nepotism but rather under the assumption that diplomacy is the job of devoted and thoughtful human beings. I pin hope on Jarred Kushner’s ties to Belarus that may push the improvement of mutual relations sooner and further than it would be the case without his involvement. When something is on the path towards improvement anyway, every individual contribution matters. And besides, “champions keep playing until they get it right.” This maxim of Billie Jean King fits both Kushner and his father-in-law. Moreover, it fits Alexander Lukashenko too. And thus, hope is justified.

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