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Belarusian Review

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Role of a Government in Exile

This article, originally a part of a presentation by the author, explores conditions that have affected Belarusian self-government since the early 20th century. The stresses of the Soviet period forced a new Government into exile and its operations beyond the borders of Belarus. In order to understand the present plight of this European nation, there is a need to consider the recent experiential history of Belarus and Belarusians.

At the time that the people of Belarus proclaimed the independence of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika or BNR) on March 25, 1918,  148 years had passed since the first of the partitions of the Commonwealth of the Two Peoples that was created centuries earlier, which western historians have myopically called -- Partitions of Poland.  The occupation was completed in 1795, when all of Belarus became a province of Russia. Tsarist rule made the 19th century one of the darkest periods of the history of Belarus. Its people barely survived as a nation.  Its culture, its language, its religion, its sense of identity, its dignity had been subjected to a continuous persecution. A most significant response and impetus for change came in 1918, when the people of Belarus proclaimed their independence.

The proclamation of the independence of the Belarusian Democratic Republic has been the most important event in the history of modern Belarus.  Without it, Moscow would not have been obliged to create the BSSR - the Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic -- in 1919 , and without the existence of the BSSR, its Head of State Stanislau Shushkevich would not have been one of the signatories of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century. Thus, it is thanks to BNR that the independent Republic of Belarus -- however imperfect it may be -- exists today.

When the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic was forced into exile by the invading Bolshevik troops,  it  was  welcomed in the Czech Republic, where its two first presidents in Exile, Piotr Krecheuski and his successor Vasil Zakharka, resided until the death of Zakharka in 1943.  Under the conditions of Nazi occupation, Zacharka  in his last will requested that Mikola Abramchyk, who was later associated with the French Resistance, take over the struggle until a new Session of the Rada  could be convened. At that Session, held in post-war West Germany in 1947, Abramchyk was elected the new President of the Rada. He remained  in that positon, resident in Paris, until his death in 1970. His successor was  Vincent  Zhuk-Hryshkevich, a Canadian Belarusian academic. The fifth President of the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic  Republic in Exile was a resident of the United States, a medical doctor, Joseph  Sazhych. I am the sixth President of the Rada in Exile. I was elected at the Session of the Rada  held in New York in August  1997 and then re-elected for another six year term in 2003. Currently the Rada represents the major Belarusian communities worldwide.

The first goal of the Rada, the renewed independence of Belarus, was achieved in 1991. The question most asked since then has been – why did the Rada keep its mandate when all the other Governments in Exile of the Republics of the USSR and of the Soviet satellite states relinquished theirs upon the demise of the Soviet Union? I will try here to answer that question and express my understanding of the key reasons why the role of the Rada remains essential today.

Why are we Europe’s only Government in Exile?
The immense wave of hope experienced at the break-up of the Soviet Union made the oppressed nations believe that the end of that successive Russian empire would be followed by a general renaissance of the old states harboring the values which had been preserved for many decades by their exiled governments. It did. Belarus was one of the exceptions. Firstly, because the governmental structures in place had not yet been established through free elections, and the country, although now independent, could not be considered a democracy (even though this term can imply many kinds of concreteness).

The country’s geographical location and human factor have not played a lesser role. Because of its geopolitical interest to Russia, and its proximity to Moscow, the Belarusian territory had been more than any other Soviet Republic made the homeland of the often evoked humanoid -- which we know under the name of HOMO SOVIETICUS. Intended to be the ideal citizen of a new Soviet order, his main characteristics were a total ignorance of his pre-Soviet historical past, the acceptance of the “big brother” status of Russia, the replacement of his mother tongue by the Russian language, and of his ancestral culture and values by copies of Russian cultural and historical values. A sense of non-Russian national identity was condemned as “bourgeous nationalism” in all non-Russian republics. Granted, that the Belarusian people were not militantly resisting Moscow’s russification policies. Having experienced two world wars on their territory and years of Soviet terror, deprived of freedom since the partitions, and bereft of historical memory, Belarusians had developed incredible survival skills and had adapted to the Soviet ways of life. They were ready to accept anything “as long as there was no war”.

Their work habits and skills made them one of the wealthier republics of the Soviet Union. So much so, that it was literally invaded by two million non-Belarusian Soviet citizens. This is not a xenophobic statement, but it rather emphasizes that this influx significantly changed the nature of the electorate in a country of ten million.

A non-democratically elected Parliament, a ”denationalized nation” (as described by University of Alberta professor David Marples), a strong foreign element in the population were not factors we could ignore, when considering the future of the Rada. Although there are some Russian settlers in Belarus who now consider themselves Belarusian, there is still a considerable number of those who retain their Soviet Russian identity and the vestiges of Russia-oriented views. Their influence, as well that of the russified former Soviet nomenklatura that remained in power, helped to make today’s Republic of Belarus the authoritarian state it is.

However, some key events did energize the nascent democratic opposition. The discovery of the killing grounds of Kurapaty, and the Chernobyl disaster whose consequences in Belarus were hidden for three years by the Soviet authorities, had for a short time given rise to a mild mutiny even within the Communist structures of the new republic. The small but strong democratic opposition led by the Popular Front’s leader Zianon Pazniak succeeded well beyond its numbers, for a time. Had it received some significant sign of support from the West, it might have ended the general population’s well developed survival instincts to remain compliant and thus relatively safe. However, the West saw no interest in this small state, which they had erroneously considered at the time as a Soviet creation. “We have to draw the line somewhere” said the then Canadian Deputy Prime Minister, Sheila Copps, when our community tried to plead for help for Belarus. Among the ordinary Belarusians, hope gave way to nostalgia for the familiar and comfortable, while Russia was already exerting strong pressure on the Legislature of Belarus - which had been elected before independence, and still dominated by the resurgent former Communists.

Aware of the situation, the exile Rada decided to wait and see. Before relinquishing our mandate, we wanted to be sure that the independence was irreversible and Belarus would not need us any longer. We considered that the BNR Rada – a legitimate Parliament in Exile, was a tremendous asset in our hands, and we were not going to part with it without serious assurances. The decision was unanimous. And soon after, we were proven right. The new President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, elected in 1994, showed less than one year after his election his pro-Russian Soviet upbringing and loyalties. In May 1995, he held his first rigged referendum by which he reintroduced the Soviet style symbols and Russian as an official language of Belarus. In 1996, Russia’s top leadership in persons of its Prime Minister, the heads of both houses of its legislature, together with key generals descended on the capital, and rewarded Lukashenka by preventing his impending impeachment.

Ever since, our goal has been to protect the statehood of Belarus -- constantly threatened by our increasingly aggressive Eastern neighbor -- while helping the democratic opposition to fight the growingly authoritarian illegitimate government of Alexander Lukashenka and to create a modern European Republic of Belarus.

Rada’s present role
In December 2001, Edward Lucas, in the Economist, quoted an Estonian exiled politician who stressed that by its very existence, a government in Exile does its job.

The Rada or the Belarusian Government in Exile could have chosen to be simply the symbol of a free Belarus. Such a symbol was still badly needed n Belarus. We held this role in the early nineties, when we felt we had done all we could to put Belarus on the map of the world, and that it was the Belarusian people’s turn to fight for a better Belarus. That was until the election of Mr. Lukashenka and the 1995 referendum, the first of all next fraudulent elections and referenda.

The Diaspora supporting the Rada has done a lot to bring the outside world’s attention to Belarus after the Chernobyl disaster. In Canada we created the Canadian Relief Fund for Chernobyl Victims in Belarus and brought thousands of children for a respite to Canada. The Diaspora in other countries helped by sending medicines to Belarus. We understood how badly Belarus needed friends in the free world. I have been personally convinced that our defeat in Versailles in 1918 was due to a lack of politically placed friends while many of our neighbours who proclaimed and preserved their independence between the wars had had friends in strategic capitals…We made it a goal to find friends for Belarus. We realized what a powerful political instrument culture can be. In order to make Belarus a member of the community of European peoples, and not just a disaster zone and “the last dictatorship in Europe,” we made it a goal to call attention to Belarusian culture wherever and however we can.

But our most important political contribution to the renaissance of Belarusian democracy, to the preservation of Belarusian culture and the protection of Belarusian statehood has been made through direct communication with friendly governments. Those who have lived through similar situations, such as the Czechs, those who have made it their goal to defend democracy in the world, such as the United States of America, those who declare that they are not ready to see human rights violated anywhere in the world -- such as Canada. Each of our successes has needed conviction and convincing, perseverence and presence, and communication and information dissemination on our part. To achieve them, we have worked through our established communities in the countries whose help we were seeking, often in concert with the democratic Opposition in Belarus. A good example of this activity was the recent Appeal to the European Union, which I signed before the EU’s Prague Summit together with the first Head of State of the Republic of Belarus, Stanislau Shushkevich, and two previous democratic candidates for President, Zianon Pazniak, and Alexander Kazulin. Together with another Presidential candidate of 2006, Alexander Milinkievich, we met with the key leaders of the Czech Republic. We thanked the European Union for accepting Belarus into the Eastern Partnership Program while expressing our fears that Europe’s outstretched hand may be misused to legitimize the regime instead of serving the people of Belarus. We have asked EU to include Belarusian civil society into the agreement. And, since the Eastern Partnership’s economic assistance may prolong Lukashenka’s stay in power, we have asked EU to take steps to help protect the endangered Belarusian culture and values. This joint appeal was heard by the Czech hosts of the Summit, who will pass it on to Sweden, the next presiding State of the European Union.

The example I have provided was an event held in the Czech Repubic, a long time friend of the BNR Rada. I have been received there several times at the highest levels. The countries who have been in a similar situation to ours understand well the significance of a Government in Exile. But in most cases, dealing with a Government in Exile presents diplomatic difficulties, especially where commerce or a given political interest is involved. Such as the issue of the Arctic population in the case of Canada and Russia relations. We do understand that. And, at the same time, we are concerned that a rapprochement between the United States and Russia, for example, could theoretically happen at the expense of Russia’s neighbors. I only hope at this specific moment in time that President Obama’s administration is well aware of Russia’s imperialistic instincts.

Last but not least, I would like to address the issue of the relations of the BNR Rada with Belarus. According to many, we have been the ray of hope, which has led our freedom fighters in Belarus to our commun goal – the real and continued independence of our land. Outside of Belarus, we have preserved our language, our historical memory, our sense of national identity while they were being damaged in Belarus. During the period of renewal at the beginning of the nineties, the then President of the BNR Rada, Dr. Sazhych was welcomed in Belarus as an honored guest. However, as soon as Lukashenka became President, we became “the enemies of the people” -- together with the Belarusian democratic Opposition. The national white-red-white flag, the historical coat of Arms, the very mention of the Rada are no-nos in Belarus, except when the intent is their denigration by the propaganda machine. No lie is too enormous to fight us. The brain washing is successful among the ordinary Belarusians who have no access to unbiased information.

Our relationship with most parties of the Opposition is good. When we attend together international events, whatever our difference of thinking, we all know our commun goal is to preserve the Statehood of Belarus and to make it a free, European democracy. As for the future of the Rada, we can’t wait to be able to give back our mandate to a democratically elected BELARUSIAN government. It will be up to the people of Belarus to decide what kind of democracy they will have. As informal Ambassadors, we will continue to look for friends for our people, whom they so tragically lacked in the past centuries.

There is no doubt that a government in Exile is an exotic idea for many. Such a government exists out of necessity and operates under many challenges, dilemmas and varying acknowledgments of its empowerment. My experience in this organism has been at times frustrating, at times satisfying. I have been privy to the variety of perceptions of Belarus and the correlations between global buy-in and the willingness to understand the conditions of existence of such a government. But whether the Rada is universally accepted is less important than our constancy of presence. We function on the idea that we are part of a process toward democracy, and that by our existence we can mediate the political nuances that must be understood in order to change the conditions in Belarus.

This article was originally presented by I.J.Survilla, President of the Rada of the Belariusian Democratic Republic in Exile, under the title GOVERNMENT IN EXILE: EXPLORATIONS OF THE BELARUS ENIGMA, at the Canadian Association of Slavists’ CONFERENCE 2009, on May 24, 2009. Panel Title: Technology, Nation, Government and Material Culture: four Perspectives on Belarusian Cultural and Political Experiences

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 21, No. 2
Copyright 2009 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.

Ivonka Survilla

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