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A Commentary on Anti-Semitism in Belarus

Filed under: Eastern Europe

This article is by Adam Goodman of The BEING HAD Times blog, which covers news and commentary on Belarus. I visited him in Pinsk last year and consider his observations very poignant when most commentary about the country is ill-informed and hysterical. Check out what he has to say about Lukashenka's remarks and see his blog as well.


The first thing I would like to say is that despite being named as such, I am not a Lukashenka apologist. My position is and has always been that Belarus has the right to self governance, that their methods of democracy are extremely normal and natural to them (Russian politics follow exactly the same model) and that constant antagonism from the west is generally unwanted as is seen as disturbing the peace. This last not only by the regime, but also by the general population- Well, certainly by the bureaucracy. This attitude is not just a holdover from the times of the USSR; the European press has been extremely negative towards all things Belarus and there has also been constant pressure in the form of restrictions and trade sanctions placed on the country by the west. Because of this, though the current attitude is that Europe is welcome to invest money, Belarus has taken an antagonistic stance against European and American political intervention. Or in other words, Belarus may wish to wear European clothes but they are not Europe.

This having been said, the first question that needs to be asked is: How inherently anti-Semitic was Lukashenka's remark about Bobrusk and Jews?

The first answer is that it was incredibly anti-Semitic. It singled out Jews, described them as dirty, irresponsible people and implied that Belarus has been better off or at least more capable without them. From the Jewish perspective these are not only repetitions of ancient themes and negative stereotypes which have followed them from times of the blood libel, but to hear it from a modern, 21st century international figure is both shocking and remarkably inappropriate. And more so, hearing this at a time when Russia has been supplying uranium to Iran, the remark comes close to sounding like a declaration of war. Most probably Israel's recalling of its ambassador would have been therefore a reasonable and appropriate answer.

But before we become hysterical, we should ask some more questions. Firstly, did Lukashenka know what he was doing by singling out the Jews, or was it simply an irresponsible slip of the tongue?

First let's assume that the remark was intentional but that it was not intended as an insult to Jews. Taking the statement literally, we see that it is actually a call for wealthy Jews to come back and enter into an economic competition for Belarusian ownership. Currently Belarus has strong economic ties to two inherently anti-Semitic "friends": Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Mohamed Ahmadinejad in Iran. Chavez according to a speech last year wholly buys into the "Jewish circle of power" conspiracy theory and of course Ahmadinejad based his elections platform on the promise of wiping Israel off the map.

(As an aside, one local rabbi once told me that he likes reading about Jewish conspiracy theories on the net:

''I go on the internet because I am bored and tired and I hate that I have no money and can't do very much. When I go to these sights I can read how I am really rich and powerful and have control over the whole world. This makes me feel much better.")

Looking at it this way, the president's remarks could have meant that if the Jewish community is not careful, the country could go completely against Israel politically. In this situation, the president would only be inviting increased investment on the Jewish side for the purposes of equalizing the playing field and stopping these two "evil" countries from completely taking over their native homeland. If this is so, we are not speaking of anti-Semitism, but rather the creation of a situation where Lukashenka is simply playing one side against the other; Belarus coming out the benefactor in either case. This I guess would also be a standard sales methodology for the arms trade; in the gun business, friction always equals profits.

A second avenue is to consider is whether the president was simply using plain talk?

Though the actual percentage of genuine ethnic Belarusians is only about 25% (the death toll in the war, Stalin's re-seeding' the territory after and outward immigration primarily responsible), there is still such a thing as a Belarusian mind set. People here do have a habit of referring to others by a physical trait such as the color of their hair, or of course by their ethnicity. In the much more multi-ethnic west, this is called profiling but here it is thought of as "plain talking". When using this way of identifying each other though, there is also an additional sub question which asks if the group in question is real or strong. This particular cultural facet is shown brilliantly in the late Serei Bodrov's mafia masterpiece "Brat II". In a conversation with a Russian prostitute in Chicago, Bodrov asks why it is so wrong in America to use the word "Nigger":

"You can't call him a nigger."

"And who is he then?"

"He's an American."

"And what's the difference?"

"Nigger, for people outside of their own kind is a bad word to use"

"But we learned this in school a long time ago: From China comes Chinese. From Germany, Germans. From Israel, Jews. So here is a nigger."

"To me it seems as though their strength lies in their circle. They live like animals, but they have something we long ago lost and therefore they are strong. And they can feel that this (word) makes you afraid."

To be sure, you hear talk like this all the time here and not only about Jews but also about Ukrainians, Americans, Russians and Polaks. I have been constantly "named" here from the beginning and that name is always at the basis of how people speak to me i.e, I am the American so therefore we should talk about your cousin who lives in Arkansas, or I am a Jew so therefore I need to be asked questions about Jewish history or practice. Using this as an axiomatic cultural truth, Lukashenka's "Jewish" remark might not have specifically been anti-Semitic but rather it could simply have been a statement about the way things are: If we are speaking of Bobrusk, we are speaking of a "Jewish Town". The town was dirty before, therefore the Jews were to blame. The town is now clean which means Belarus is a good place to invest in and as long as we are talking about Bobrusk, why not ask the Jews to invest here? See how easy it is?

But what if it was wasn't anti-Semitism, plain talk or business?

In the opinion of one high ranking member of the local Jewish community, who insisted on only be referred to as a businessman, despite referencing Jews specifically, the president in this case was simply crowing about how beautiful the new Bobrusk was. And in fact, he thought the president was absolutely right in general with all of his comments: Belarus these days is much cleaner than Israel and Bobrusk, before getting a facelift courtesy of the state, had been a slum. The main point to him was absolutely that the president had the right to crow over the rebuilding accomplishment and that by inviting Jews who had previously run away to return to Belarus, the president was demonstrating his openness towards the Jewish nation and religion. Bobrusk by the way still has one of the larger Jewish populations in the state; there are two synagogues and at least several hundred Jews still in residence.

He also pointed out that the country has elected several Jewish mayors which means that, right along with the natural tendency toward profiling, there would also seem to be a belief that hiring a Jew to do the job might not be such a bad idea. This is actually the case in Pinsk as Konevski, the number 2 man in the government happens to be Jewish. Konevski is proud of his heritage and once made a rather famous speech saying that though the Jewish community has only 1.5% of the population, in terms of accomplishment, it seems much, much bigger. When we first actually met in fact, his remark to me, in typical Jewish fashion, was that he was surprised that Pinsk had not heard more from me. I guess he doesn't read the English language internet.

As for myself on this subject, well, I don't really like speaking in such general terms but frankly, the students at the new Pinsk Yeshiva have been notorious for leaving the synagogue littered with clothes, empty bottles, packages, overfull ashtrays and cigarette buts. Though supposedly a holy place, they obviously had a general disinterest except for Shabbos and holidays in the condition and cleanliness of the room. This was especially true of a room above the synagogue which in theory had been set aside for special guests. Once the students found out there was a computer with an internet connection there, that area became a veritable pigsty.

Of course acting like pigs is not restricted locally only to the Jews; Pinsk as a whole seems to completely misunderstand that garbage needs to find its way to a proper receptacle. Almost anywhere you look you see discarded wrappers or broken glass, even where children would play or along the beaches. Even keeping people from urinating or throwing their garbage into our garden requires constant vigilance.

So what is the answer?

It is just as possible that the remark was much more crowing about the state's rebuilding efforts than it was about hatred or even exploitation of Jews. Bobrusk, like all of Belarus has been undergoing a facelift over the last few years and the president's presence there was in fact to commemorate this accomplishment. It is also possible that the president simply dropped into the vernacular and said something that would be taken by locals as a completely normal or even a clever business idea. However, despite "understanding" potentially where the remark was coming from I really wish he had not said what he did. The remark was crass. Of this there is no doubt. Almost all the civic centers in Belarus from the time of the Pale of Settlement until the holocaust were Jewish centers but now are not specifically because of the times before, during and after the Pale of Settlement and the holocaust. Unfortunately, no matter how much you want to believe that there is no difference between calling a Ukrainian a Banderovtsi a or a Polak a Pisheky, I think there really is a difference when speaking of Jews and the former Soviet Union. I would also seriously prefer not to believe that we are revisiting Berlin in 1932.

I am also not sure, if it was just "business", that I personally would be willing to respond to such a challenge with my wallet. To me it sounds like a con. Maybe a Russian or a Polak could be bated into such a deal, but I personally wouldn't. To me, though I understand that Belarus is now open to "all kinds" of potential investors, I would much rather bet on a transparent and honest business plan, one that had a potential for mutual gain and had some real assurances against theft, abuse and corruption. Personally I would much rather invest in a trustworthy situation than in a circus. And quite frankly, remarks like this make me very, very, very nervous.

So I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens next. Israel is very, very angry but it is not clear whether or not Belarus wishes to do something about that. For the sake of my own, rational fears about any sorts of steps taken towards World War III, I certainly hope they do. But regardless of actual intention or whether or not we get an apology, like it or not, the man who said what he did is the president of the beautiful and interesting Republic of Belarus and he gets to run things as he likes. This, for sure we all know is the case.

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When "People Power" Fails

Filed under: Asia

In the past two weeks, the free world has simultaneously cheered on and mourned for the some 100,000 brave Burmese civilians who, spiritually guided by the country’s revered Buddhist monks, took to the streets in an unprecedented show of public protest unseen in nearly two decades. It has been compared to the great 1986 People Power revolution in the Philippines that overthrew the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. Some have even drawn a comparison to the 1998 uprising in Indonesia that saw the toppling of General Suharto.

More recently, the past few years have seen a flurry of non-violent “colored revolutions” topple autocratic regimes in the post-Soviet space, from Serbia to Georgia to Ukraine. People power has since become something of a media phenomenon, as pictures and videos from the scene, shot by everyday citizens, flood the airwaves and the internet and capture the imagination of the world. “Democracy is on the march,” I remember, was a common motto of sorts back then. We believed anything was possible – that any authoritarian regime could be wiped off the face of the planet simply by showing up.

The same hopes were expressed for Burma. What began as a simple protest against economic conditions and prices turned into a massive outpour for democracy and end to military rule. They marched hand-in-hand, creating a line miles long at times, being a constant body barrier for the monks who passed through them.

Yet nearing the end of last week, the bullets started flying. Images continued to come out of Burma at lightspeed, but rather than people rallying in the streets, corpses and blood were everywhere. These same brave people were being beaten into submission – if not, then shot – and the supposedly untouchable spiritual core of society, the monks, have been rounded up by the thousands and sent to far away prison camps while their monasteries are destroyed. International outcry has been enormous, but no matter. Everything soon went black, and news has been a slow trickle since.

What we often forget is that while people power and colored revolutions have swept the globe, thrusting old political elites from their thrones, their more tyrannical counterparts have somehow managed to maintain their power for all of these years.

In the 2005 election (a word used loosely here), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe not only retained power but embarked on a campaign to crush the urban opposition by flattening the homes of an estimated 64,677 families. And who can forget the famous Andijon uprising in Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov tightened his iron fist by murdering hundreds of people? Lastly, in Belarus, strongman Alexander Lukashenko not only gave himself an astounding 82.6% of the vote, but crushed pro-democracy protests with riot batons and the threat of repercussions for anyone caught participating. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Burma all make this list as well, employing some of the most brutal tactics known in modern human history to keep power.

The romantic notion of the people versus their oppressors is hard to overcome, but the world is never so kind with such simplicities. If this were actually the case most of the time, the people, faced with a solid and united regime, which generally has a monopoly on the use of massive force, would almost inevitably lose. This is what has been the case in nearly all the tyrannical governments listed above. Comparisons between the people power we saw in Burma and the people power we’ve seen elsewhere in Asia and the rest of the world are inherently wrongheaded in the sense that the conditions that allowed these other revolutions to succeed are completely different from those that caused Burma’s to fail.

The first factor one must look at is the internal unity of the regime itself. In the Philippines, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, we saw major splits within the political and economic elites of these countries, thus creating rival centers of power to compete with the current powers that be. The big money, clout, ideas, and leadership of these alternative powers, backed by an overwhelming amount of people giving them street legitimacy, is what deposed these governments.

In Burma, the situation is completely different. After decades of socialist planning and race baiting, the new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) – established in a 1988 military coup – pursued an aggressive form of crony capitalism. It is a powerful military autocracy, fitted with the latest weapons exported from China, mired in a symbiotic relationship with the ethnic Chinese residents of the country.

Comprising just 5% of the population, the ethnic Chinese control all major commerce and industry, from street vending to stores to hotels to gem mines and to opium fields. All major businesses are co-owned between Chinese billionaire businessmen and the military government. Teak, minerals, and drugs cross the border into China daily, while SLORC officials are paid off every step of the way. It has gotten to the point that the two – the military and the Chinese business community – cannot exist without one another. Their relationship is as solid as steel, which is why it is very unlikely to see the kind of split we saw in these other countries.

The second point I have identified is the willingness and motives of this regime to use force against the people that it represses. Are the powers that be truly inhumane enough to unleash a large, unthinkable massacre in the face of resistance? Yes, most definitely. These ruling elite have billions and billions of dollars to protect; they’re also thinking about their own lives. What started off as a protest against economic conditions must inherently have an anti-Chinese edge to it. Many in the Chinese community fear that all these years of plundering Burma will lead to a massive anti-Chinese backlash much greater than that which occurred in the 1998 revolution in Indonesia, where thousands of charred Chinese bodies laid in the street. Burma models Suharto’s Indonesia in many ways, especially with regards to Chinese cronyism, but to a much worse degree than was ever replicated there. The regime believes that should the opposition come to power, whether right or wrong, every Chinese person and military official will be sent down the river much like they have done to others. Because of this they will continue to shed blood.

The exceptional notion of people power is romanticized in the fact that these people were able to overthrow their oppressors without a shot being fired; but really, what is truly exceptional are the more pacifist actions taken by the governments rather than the people.

The people power and colored revolutions all featured more developed (though obviously still developing) countries where conditions were much different than in Burma or other tyrannies. In terms of a monopoly on force, the aforementioned elite splits gave soldiers a choice to switch sides, and this turned out to be that of the non-violent demonstrators. Furthermore, the crimes of these regimes were not so horrendous as to warrant a near-genocidal backlash or confiscations. They did not, as a general policy, threaten a soldier’s family with death and withhold food if he didn’t shoot at a crowd of people. They had a lot of room to move even without political power. Many of the elites in these regimes simply realized that they could relinquish power and still maintain their massive wealth and influence. They were both logical and, one would hope, at least a little right-headed in not wanting to shoot the demonstrators.

As we witnessed this week, there was very little hesitation on the part of the Burmese military junta to kill as many people as it took to put down the uprising. Whether life or wealth, they simply have too much at stake to give up power that easily.

Outside of the internal dynamics that have been discussed, the third most important thing to consider is the international dynamic. Short of an invasion, Western democracies have little to no influence over the Burmese government, while China practically owns the place. It has repeatedly vetoed resolution in the Security Council aimed at investigating and censuring human rights abuses in the country. Furthermore, the vast shipments of arms that goes to the junta is itself tacit support and a green light to remain in power. China is hungry for the natural resources crossing its borders at bargain basement prices. It wants these all to itself, while repressing the Burmese economy so that it can’t develop a powerful rival manufacturing center of its own. A free, democratic, prosperous Burma is nowhere on China’s agenda, and there is very little that Western democracies can do about it. On the other hand, the people power and colored revolutions all had significant Western and international support that was at least tangible politically and economically.

Unfortunately for the people of Burma, the comparisons between their demonstration and other people power movements just don’t hold. While both featured large amounts of people taking to the streets, the internal dynamics of Burma are completely different from these other, less tyrannical countries where the people prevailed. Rather than winning their freedom this time, another generation, like that of 1988, is being slaughtered like animals. There is simply no indication that this slaughter will end soon or that the Burmese people have the ability to overcome it at this time.

What is heartening, though, is that they were in fact able to muster the courage to demonstrate in such large numbers. Having seen each others’ faces in full view, knowing that they support each other even as their comrades fall due to the actions of an oppressive government they all hate, there is a public solidarity that can now only grow. If the brutality of their conditions makes them stronger, the fervor of their spirituality guides them, and the desire for freedom stays with them than I’m sure that there is at least a glimpse of a possibility that the democracy movement can overcome their obstacles.

I only hope that one day they can, so that I can one day eat my own words.

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