28 January 2008

The Nearest Outpost of Tyranny

I watched Ploshcha (The Square) before dawn today -- Yury Khashchavatski's film about the mass protests in Minsk in March 2006. Ploshcha just won First Prize for Best Documentary at the Trieste Film Festival, and can be downloaded for free -- with English subtitles -- in .avi or .wmv format. It's a wrenching movie, and watching it is a good way to mark Ceauşescu's birthday and Suharto's death. The still above is from the film (the blur is a blizzard the protesters braved -- the video [at least in .avi] is of excellent quality).

Though Belarus is a mere 33 km from where I live, I haven't been there since 1992 -- though I do meet Belarusians now and then (Daugavpils and Vitebsk cooperate closely in the arts). Years ago I had the pleasure to get to know Uladzimir Katkouski online, at a time when many Belarusian intellectuals were looking to Latvia for support, especially for their endangered language. Because many of the English-language Belarus-oriented sites on the 'Net are discontinuous -- like Uladzimir's splendid Pravapis -- I didn't realize that Uladzimir had passed away after a tragic accident. Vieglas smiltis, as we say in Latvian -- "may the sand be light."

Uladzimir published fine articles like Alexandra Goujon's "Language, nationalism and populism in Belarus"; just as politics and language issues in Ukraine ought to be of interest to Balts, so the dire situation in neighboring Belarus should be -- in fact, a group of Belrusians concerned about their language published an open letter in Diena some years ago, asking that Latvians help during Lukashenka's dictatorship. Latvia and Belarus have longstanding ties; Latgallia was long part of Vitebsk guberniya, for example, and part of the belated Latgallian Awakening was centered in that city. I live a few blocks from what was the first Belarusian school in Latvia, now no longer functioning. The plaque on the building preserves the Pahonia and is written in Belarusian, whilst the large Consulate in 18 November Street delighted the homines sovietici of Dźvinsk in 1995, when Lukashenka's Belarus restored its Soviet symbolism, pulling down the "fascist" flag of the Republic (nearly an inverse of the Latvian flag, though the proportions and hues are different). The notices outside the Consulate are in Russian, not Belarusian.

A map of "Ruthénie blanche" from 1918 included Daugavpils (Dünaburg, Дзьвінск), not to mention Vilnius, in the fledgling Belarusian Republic -- or the Republic that never got off the ground. Daugavpils was actually claimed by Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia as well -- so it goes at the crossroads. Then as now, identity in these parts was weak, mutable, and mixed, partly religious rather than ethnic (e.g., Orthodox Latvians were often counted as "Russians" by the Tsarist police). These lands were in flux linguistically also -- some of the Belarusian schools that Rainis worked to establish later used Russian as the language of instruction, even before the occupation. Most of the Belarusians in Latvia today are almost entirely russified.

And now? Marko Hoare in Greater Surbiton, a blog I only recently discovered (via Roland Dodds' But, I am a Liberal!) wrote a superb piece last Thursday called "Are there any fascists left?" Like Timothy Garton Ash's "Bitter lemons: Six questions to the critics of Ukraine's orange revolution", an article I linked to in my musings on Latvia's pro-Americanism, Hoare's insights tickle my spleen. Just as one is constantly subjected to descriptions of the Baltics as "American puppets" by (indecent) "leftists" mixing near-total ignorance of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with full frontal ahistoricism, so one has to endure bubbling sympathetic bromides for Lukashenka's régime, often from these same folk -- after all, if Condi calls Belarus an "outpost of tyranny," it must be paradise (on par with Fidel's Cuba, perhaps). Lukashenka himself has used images of "the ravages of capitalism" in Latvia, from which he "protects" "his people," in his "campaign" ads. Khashchavatski speaks of dispelling myths: "For instance, that the majority of the Belarusians support Lukashenka. We know that it is a myth, and we know absolutely different figures. After all, we hear people in the streets. But a myth created by the Belarusian dictator around his name and supported by many mass media, in fact changes the situation, it makes many people have no faith in future victory. That is why the aim of the elites of our countries, the aim of the intellectuals is to dispel these myths, actually, to say the truth.”

Not that the forms capitalism took in the Wild East haven't been ravaging -- they have been, and part of the reason for that in Latvia is the oiliness of stark juxtaposition. I once called Lattelekom to complain about a thousand-dollar dial-up bill and got called a communist by the gentleman in the service center; since Lattelekom is forced by socialists to grant discounts to pensioners for their basic telephone service, they had to soak their richer clients and the Internet was therefore more expensive than America's. The fact that many telephone companies in America (which are not monopolies, as Lattelekom was at that time) also give discounts for basic service disturbed him -- the fact that there's no sales tax on food or medicine in many a state, or that there can be a reduced sales tax, would be even more disturbing, I'm sure. The trouble is that laissez-faire, flat taxes and free markets are like unto infantile religions for many here.

The thing is, though, that Latvia is free and Belarus isn't. Does maintaining a safety net require totalitarianism? Does admiration for aspects of Cuban health care require one to ignore human rights abuses in Cuba? Is freedom as Antyx describes it?

I've a cornucopia of questions, but the one question that doesn't puzzle me is whether the children of free societies have the right to blithely avert their eyes from tyranny in the name of... of? Are there any leftists left?

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Blogger Giustino said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

29 January, 2008 12:36  
Blogger Roland Dodds said...

“…if Condi calls Belarus an "outpost of tyranny," it must be paradise (on par with Fidel's Cuba, perhaps).”

Right up there with the beautiful and luxurious North Korea, that stands as a shinning light to all anti-capitalists.

I have always wondered why those who defend totalitarian regimes like Cuba claim they do so because they have “universal health care”. Health care is fine and dandy, but why sell off every democratic principle in the name of medicine? Does our liberty and freedom mean so little that poorly supported health care stands above all else?

04 February, 2008 16:15  
Blogger Giustino said...

Castro, like Chavez today, taps into sentiments that are quite common in Latin America.

These are nations where there is and has been a huge wealth gap. The ideals of Marxism, the romantic notion of storming the estate and redistributing the wealth is visceral.

The US' problem is that it doesn't accept/understand this. It toes the policy of the Wall Street Journal editorial board which advocates that the only good leader in a foreign country is the one that supports all of their pet policies -- flat tax, denationalization, free trade agreements, et cetera.

The only problem is the local politicians that would support these policies are of the class in Latin American countries that the people are the least likely to sympathize with.

So, in terms of Cuba, the best policy would not be to attack communism, would not be to attack universal health coverage, but would be to attack dictatorship. Unfortunately, the US spends a lot of its resources still attacking left wing policies, instead of te system of government. Cuba is a bad country not because it's had the same ruler since 1958, but because it is "communist."

This policy, from my perspective, is a failure. Leftist populists will always be appealing to Latin Americans. Cherry picked Milton Friedman-loving politicians will be appealing to Washington, but not to La Paz or Caracas.

The policy should be to work with democrats (with a small 'd'), not right wing democrats. I think we are beginning to learn this lesson in Chile and Brazil.

08 February, 2008 14:11  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for your comments, Roland and Giustino.

13 February, 2008 06:23  

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