Thursday, December 3, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Fewer than Two Belarusians in 100 Think Belarusians are Russians, Poll Finds

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 3 – Slightly more than half of all Belarusians in Belarus say that their nation is “a separate people,” nearly 10 percent more than those who consider themselves part of “a triune Slavic nation and vastly more than the 1.5 percent who say that Belarusians are in fact ethnic Russians, according to a new poll.
Those findings, announced yesterday by the Budz’ma Company on the basis of research conducted by Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies in Lithuania (BISS) and the Novak polling agency, suggest that Belarusians increasingly view themselves as separate and distinct from other Slavic groups like the Russians (
That challenges the assumption widespread not only in Moscow but elsewhere as well that Belarusian national identity is extremely weak and that the Belarusians, which in this view are “a byproduct” of Russian national identity, will in the future return to the fold rather than seek to promote their distinctive national identity and statehood.
In presenting the findings of the poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 people, BISS director Vitaly Silitsky provided some intriguing additional details. He noted that “however strange it might seem, “people with a secondary special education identify themselves as Belarusians.” Among such people, 56.7 percent do so, he said.
Among students in technical schools, the percentage doing so is 53.7 percent, Silitsky said. But among those Belarusians with a higher education, he noted, 49.5 percent identify as Belarusians. According to Silitsky, this shows that “small steps” are in fact being taken with regard to “the political self-identification of Belarusians.”
In the course of his briefing, Silitsky also discussed regional variations. In the eastern portions of the country, for example in Homel oblast, a higher percentage of people – 48.8 percent – of the sample identified themselves as members of “the triune nation” of Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians.
“But,” he said, “no one expected that in Mohilev oblast, the sense of being Belarusian as a separate nation would reach 60.2 percent,” a figure quite comparable to the 62.9 percent of the sample in Grodno oblast who now identify as members of a separate and distinct Belarusian nation.
Meanwhile, in another development that reflects the increasing divisions among the three East Slavic nations, two Ukrainian experts yesterday pointed out that Moscow continues to drag its feet in demarcating the border of the Russian Federation with Ukraine, clearly with the hope that that line will become less rather than more important (
At a Kyiv press conference, Viktor Chumak, a security analyst at the International Center of Perspective Research, and Galina Yavorskaya, an inspector at the Ukrainian government’s National Institute of Problems of International Security, described the problems Kyiv has had in getting Moscow to talk seriously about this issue.
This subject, they pointed out, is a particularly sensitive one after Russian border guards shot and killed a Ukrainian citizen on the border November 25, something that led Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to call on Moscow to create a demarcation commission and to schedule a meeting of deputy interior ministers from the two countries.
Yavorskaya pointed out that the question of demarcating the border “arose not today but in 1992” and that it became more sensitive after1994 when then Russian SVR chief Yevgeny Primakov said that “the borders of the countries of the Commonwealth [of Independent States] do not fall under the terms of the Helsinki Final Act about the inviolability of borders.”
That led Kyiv to seek an agreement on the subject, something that was formally achieved only in 2003 and ratified by both countries a year later. Unfortunately, Chumak added, while Ukraine established the Ukrainian commission that accord called for, the Russians did not until this year.
He suggested that Moscow was not interested in doing so because demarcating the border from its point of view could lead to the creation of “an additional barrier between ‘fraternal peoples’” and limit “cross-border cooperation.” However, from Ukraine’s perspective, “the border is the final attribute of statehood.”
“It is very difficult,” Yavorskaya said, “to conduct negotiations with a partner who in fact does not recognize the right of our state to an independent existence.” And it is especially unfortunate when the Russian border guards use real bullets to guard a border Moscow won’t demarcate, while Ukrainian guards use rubber bullets to protect one they want to establish.
Because Moscow has dragged its feet on this issue, Ukraine has faced difficulties in its talks with the European Union, she said, because “approximately 80 percent of the illegal immigrants” arriving in the European Union come “across the Ukrainian-Russian border … and Ukraine does not have any mechanism to stop this.”
Now that Russia has named a commission and agreed to meetings, some progress may occur, but Chumak concluded, it is likely to be very slow. “Questions of borders, the gas transport routes, and the basing of the [Russian] fleet will remain on the order of the day of Ukrainian-Russian relations yet another 20 years.”

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