Emptiness

Out of the frying pan and into the fire: travelling between post-Soviet crises

Ukraine and Belarus are polar extremes of the post-Soviet transformation (assuming for a moment the EU membership exempts the Baltic state from this category). One is a troubled oligarchic façade democracy, and the other is a stable populist authoritarianism that recently converged in a severe crisis. Migration flows between these two countries have been largely neglected by scholars, although they highlight the twin demise of legitimacy of both post-Soviet development models. This series of blog entries will follow my research on the political-economic trajectories of Ukraine and Belarus as refracted in migration flows from and to their differentially governed spaces of emptiness.

As I follow the ongoing protests in Belarus (Artiukh 2020b, Artiukh 2021), I recall my first days in this country six years ago. In late 2014 I went to Belarus to study its unique system of labour control that combined bureaucratic work precarisation and labour immobilisation. I was fascinated by how the Soviet-inherited state ownership of over half of the economy and the officially proclaimed ‘socially-oriented market economy’ coexisted with a neoliberal-inspired system of fixed-term contracts covering over 90% of employees in the country. This contradiction would overdetermine an unprecedented labour mobilisation during the early months of the ongoing protests. Naturally, I was also interested in the conditions of one of the most precarious groups: labour migrants. At the time, in my home country of Ukraine, the conflict in Donbass had turned into a full-fledged war and unleashed a huge wave of outmigration from the region. Two years into the conflict, over a million Donbass residents had fled into Russia, one-and-a-half million became internally displaced in Ukraine, and a significant number – from tens of thousands to over a hundred thousand depending on the estimates – chose Belarus as their destination. What caused them to leave their country (Ukraine) in 2014 and 2015 was the consequences of a systemic crisis of legitimacy of a post-Soviet oligarchic model of governance; they – we – did not know back then that the welcoming country was about to enter a similar crisis of a different model. In today’s contribution, I look at this migration flow as a refraction of the downward trajectory of the Belarusian model.

A wood/coal fuelled water boiler installed en masse in Ukraine in 2015-2016 after an increase in gas prices. Central Ukraine, summer 2015 © Volodymyr Artiukh

Ukrainian migrants arrived in Belarus at the lowest point of its stagnating economic development. A country proud of a record-breaking growth rate in the 2000s, Belarus had seen a sluggish growth since the 2009 financial crisis and in 2015 experienced its first recession in two decades. The government that used to rely on a paternalist ‘social contract’ resorted to partial austerity measures and had to adjust its populist discourse accordingly. The discourse of depopulation was emerging as a justification for a sui generis adoption of neoliberal policies. Government officials and experts sounded the alarm about falling birth rates that cost Belarus half a million inhabitants (from over 10 million in 1991 to 9.5 million in 2015) and increased pressure on the pension fund. Less salient in the media but often mentioned by my informants was the topic of dying and empty villages – a painful issue for the authorities who relied on political support in the countryside. Despite centralized efforts to develop agriculture and promote rural tourism, villagers were leaving for better-paid jobs in Belarusian and Russian cities. In the context of the economic downturn, the Belarusian government decided that if there is less ‘human capital’, it should be deployed more intensely: i.e., everyone should work – unemployment and outmigration should be discouraged – and work longer, and pension age had to be increased. It was not an easy task to reconcile these policies with a ‘socially oriented’ populist discourse, and migration played an unexpected role in this.

Exactly at that time many of my colleagues in Budapest at the Central European University were grappling with another populist regime, that of Viktor Orbán, who used the so-called migration crisis to introduce neoliberal measures in an increasingly regionally popular ‘social Darwinism’: justified through the desire for ‘natural’ and ‘meritocratic’ hierarchies (Kalb 2019: 213). The Belarusian populist government faced with similar choices found a drastically different arrangement. Since 2015 the discourse of depopulation introduced a curious biopolitical twist on its local brand of ‘social Darwinism’, although drastically different from the ‘existential sovereignty’ concerned with the survival of the cultural nation which might be found in Ukraine or Latvia (Dzenovska 2021). The rhetoric of the ‘demographic crisis’ was instead used to justify a range of piecemeal austerity measures and to complement the dominant populist discourse with a category of ‘surplus populations’ (Rajaram 2018): outcasts from the body of ‘the people’ who are to blame for the economic hardships. Both the measures themselves and their ideological justification would nurture resentment and lead to a series of protests that culminated in the ongoing wave of anti-governmental mobilizations we have been witnessing since August 2020.

In the case of Belarus, however, these ‘surplus populations’ were the locals rather than the migrants. Ukrainian migrants, although initially met with a minor moral panic, were depicted by the official media as hardworking and docile subjects. They were embraced with paternalist care and geopolitically-driven compassion and, in line with the government’s ‘poly-vector’ foreign policy, were offered a favourable special status in between refugees and casual visitors. The post-Maidan wave of migration to Belarus contained an unusually high share of skilled professionals who were quickly absorbed by the burgeoning IT and service sectors in Minsk and other major cities. The official media, however, highlighted less-skilled migrants who were assigned to the heartland of the Belarusian model; namely, the agricultural sector. Briefly, Ukrainians were displayed as model subjects of the paternalist populist state, a model for emulating the virtues of hard work and gratitude as opposed to certain lazy and ungrateful locals. This rhetoric re-appeared during the labour protests in Aug-Oct 2020 as the Belarusian president threatened to bring in Ukrainian strike breakers.

Given my own nationality and the overwhelming presence of the Donbass war in the news, my initial chats with Belarusian workers revolved less around their work and more around Ukraine. We discussed the new edition of the Minsk agreements that shifted the war in Donbass from open to low-grade hostilities and the wave of migration from the devastated region. My Belarusian interlocutors were not xenophobic, but somewhat condescendingly hospitable. My landlord greeted me with the remark that we were not in Donbass and I could feel safe in that neighbourhood. Over a glass of beer, some of my interlocutors boasted how they could feel like oligarchs when visiting Ukraine because their salaries afforded them more in Kyiv than in Minsk. Alternatively, some slight resentment was perceptible. One of my informants said he wanted to move to Poland but to work a decent job ‘not like these Ukrainians’. I heard complaints about Ukrainian construction workers dumping wages in the sector and seeing advertisements for services of ‘better quality’ than what Ukrainians could offer.

Beneath this discourse in the media and on the streets, astonishment and disbelief were emerging at Lukashenka’s proposals to introduce a fine for the long-term unemployed. Faced with an unprecedented demographic crisis, as per the official explanation, the state had to fight ‘social parasitism’ and make people contribute to economic growth. This new ‘surplus population’ was carved out from the depth of what is supposed to be the central category of any populism, i.e., ‘the people’ themselves: anyone without an official employment could turn into a moral and economic outcast. The lamentation about the able-bodied population decline went hand in hand with the invention of ‘the parasites’ or ‘the loafers’ (tunieyadtsy), a new category in the official ‘dramaturgy of populism’ that was meant to differentiate between deserving and undeserving citizens. Thus, paradoxically, at the height of the migrant influx from Ukraine, it was the locals in Belarus who became targeted as the surplus population.

A wall dedicated to a perestroika-era rock star Viktor Tsoi, Minsk, summer 2017. Tsoi’s song ‘Changes’ would become an anthem of the 2020 protests © Volodymyr Artiukh

For most of my fieldwork in Belarus, the shock of the Donbass war muted the brewing discontent in the country. Both loyalists and detractors of the Belarusian president rallied around him as the guarantor of peace and sovereignty. During my last year there, however, the pressure valve blew up. In February 2017 an unprecedented wave of mass social protests shook the country. Nominally protesting the law on social parasitism, Belarusians deplored the austerity measures and refused to accept that the Belarusian people were divided into deserving citizens and undeserving parasites (Artiukh 2020a). The protests were tamed by a mix of repressions and concessions, but the creeping austerity measures, inadequate COVID alleviation policy, and the ‘social Darwinist’ twist in the official populist rhetoric guaranteed a return of popular discontent. People’s refusal to identify as ‘the little people’ (narodishko), as the president once quipped, inaugurated last year’s protests as an anti-establishment populist uprising although framed in formally electoral language (Artiukh 2020b).

History has come full circle for me as a researcher of Belarus, as well as for Ukrainians in Belarus who watch Belarusian TV portraying Maidan as a cautionary tale against ‘coloured revolutions’ and showcasing happily settled Ukrainians in the emptying Belarusian countryside. While Ukrainians are nudged by the media to relive the Maidan trauma in the mirror of the Belarusian protests, many Belarusian activists flee their country and try to settle in Europe or in Ukraine, which is not offering much in terms of either administrative assistance or economic prospects. As such, they approach the status of internally displaced persons from Donbass who have become second-class citizens in Ukraine facing bureaucratic discrimination from the state and suspicion from civil society. I doubt Ukraine is the future of Belarus either as an ‘European democracy’ or as a ‘failed state’, but as ‘the old is dying’ in both countries, ‘the new’ is not discernible in the unheated and semi-abandoned Donbass settlements or in the Belarusian monotowns and agrogorodki (agro-towns) whose dwellers anxiously await restructuring and optimization.

References

Artiukh, Volodymyr. 2020a. “The People against State Populism: Belarusian Protests against the ‘Social Parasite Law’”. Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde, 116(1): 101-16.

Artiukh, Volodymyr. 2020b. “Partisans or Workers? Figures of Belarusian Protest and Their Prospects” in Left East, 15 August.

Artiukh, Volodymyr. 2021. “The Anatomy of Impatience: Exploring Factors behind 2020 Labour Unrest in Belarus”. Slavic Review (Spring, forthcoming).

Dzenovska, Dace. 2021. “Existential Sovereignty: Latvian People, Their State, and the Problem of Mobility”. In Reeves, Madeleine and Rebecca Bryant (eds). The Everyday Lives of Sovereignty: Enacting State Agency. Cornell University Press.

Kalb, Don. 2019. “Post-Socialist Contradictions: The Social Question in Central and Eastern Europe and the Making of the Illiberal Right”. In Breman, J. et al (eds), The Social Question in the Twenty-First Century. California: University of California Press.

Rajaram, Prem Kumar. 2018. “Refugees as Surplus Population: Race, Migration and Capitalist Value Regimes”. New Political Economy 23(5): 627-39.

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