Receive Updates from Mind of Menyhert via Email!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lukashenka the Tightrope Walker: Belarus and the Ukraine Conflict

In 1991, fifteen countries emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Of those in Europe, most have at least tried to move towards the European Union. An important exception exists, however-the Republic of Belarus.

The Republic of Belarus is sometimes called "Europe's Last Dictatorship" by those in the West. Since 1994, Belarus has been under the control of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who continues many Soviet-era policies. Belarus's economy is still centrally planned, and the country has been closely allied with Russia since independence. President Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin have enjoyed a friendly relationship for most of their respective stays in power. Even Belarus's official national symbols are extremely similar to that of the old Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The flag has barely changed and the present national anthem uses the tune that was used when Belarus was a republic of the USSR with modified lyrics. Though Belarus has two official languages, Russian is used much more frequently than Belarusian.

Left: Flag of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic
Right: Flag of the Republic of Belarus 

As 2014 winds down, Belarus finds itself in a rut. The crisis in Ukraine has left Belarus to tread a tightrope between Russia and Ukraine and in a considerable economic quandary. The Belarusian economy, a quasi-socialist, collectivist setup, is heavily dependent on Russia, and sanctions have stung Belarus as well as Russia. The Belarusian rouble, already one of the least valuable currencies in the world, is depreciating along with its Russian counterpart and the Ukrainian hryvnia. 1 American dollar will buy you nearly 11,000 Belarusian roubles as of 28 December 2014, compared to less than 3000 in 2010. Inflation is through the roof.

Belarus has similar political divisions to Ukraine, but these divisions are not as pronounced in the former. Like in Ukraine, there are pro-Western and pro-Russian sects, but the pro-Russian camp is much stronger as it has the government's backing. Those who are opposed to President Lukashenka generally support closer ties to Europe, economic reform, and greater personal and press freedom. Those who are supportive of Lukashenka cite the general stability of his regime, the lack of oligarchic corruption as seen in Russia and Ukraine, and the lack of economic chaos that plagued Russia and Ukraine after the fall of communism. President Lukashenka recently reshuffled his cabinet and replaced Prime Minister  in an attempt to stabilize his country's faltering economy, but whether that will jolt the economy back to life is still yet to be seen. 

Up until recently, Belarus has been relatively effectively playing both sides of the Ukraine conflict. Lukashenka's government has said in the past that they support a "United Ukraine"and has offered support to Kiev, while staying mostly friendly with Moscow. The Belarusian capital, Minsk, has been the site of peace talks despite a lack of closure to the conflict so far. Relations have become strained, though, between Minsk and Moscow, and whether Belarus can continue its current economic setup has been called into question. Belarusians, though not all that supportive of the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, have been slowly distancing themselves from the Kremlin and this new independence has been endorsed by the Lukashenka government.

The quicker the conflict in Ukraine is resolved, the better for Belarus's stability. If the Kremlin digs in against Kiev, the EU, and US, it'll get more and more difficult for the Belarusian economy to keep its stability.

An opposition to Lukashenka exists, and they may find a place in the spotlight in the new year, because Lukashenka is up for re-election in 2015. The presidential election in December 2010, which Lukashenka claims he won handily, saw protests in Minsk, though it wasn't long until Lukashenka's government decided to outlaw demonstrations in response.

During a Euro 2016 qualifier football match between Ukraine and Belarus in Minsk, nearly 100 fans were arrested when the whole stadium broke into a vulgar anti-Putin song.

At that same match, Belarusian fans chanted Ukrainian patriotic slogans like "Слава Україні, Героям слава!" ("Glory to Ukraine! And to her heroes, glory!") The Ukrainian fans responded by chanting "Жыве Беларусь!" (Long live Belarus!) Euromaidan demonstrations across Ukraine often saw the white-red-white banner of Belarusian opposition alongside Ukraine's blue and gold banner.

Photo credit to Wikipedia. 

However, uprising in Belarus may be more difficult than it was in Ukraine or Yugoslavia. Belarus is a stable and functioning country, and Lukashenka's regime, while authoritarian, has been much more stable than that of what Russia endured in the 1990s and Ukraine has endured for most of its time as an independent state. Lukashenka's approval rating, while not nearly as strong as Putin's, saw modest increases during the conflict in Ukraine, as Belarusians trust his legacy of stability over the turbulence Ukraine has endured. A majority of Belarusians consume Russian media through television and believe many narratives that it's pushed-namely, that the new Ukrainian government is fascist. Pro-European media, abundant in Ukraine even before Euromaidan, is extremely limited in Belarus.

Ukraine's conflict has aroused stronger feelings of independence from Russia in Minsk. President Lukashenka gave his Victory Day address in Belarusian for the first time, whereas in the past he always used Russian. If the conflict in Ukraine is resolved quickly, the status quo is likely to keep its hold on power.

Lukashenka's grip on power will remain strong unless two things happen. If the economy continues to hurt from Russian economic woes, popular discontent could hurt the government's support. Belarusian opposition is fractured, but this is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. In Yugoslavia, strictly nonpartisan Serbian opposition groups like Otpor! (Resistance!)  united political opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic and supported a coaltion of parties behind Vojislav Kostunica. Belarus does not have Yugoslavia's political party structure, but if Belarusian opposition is to influence ordinary Belarusians, it needs broad support like Kostunica had in Serbia.

Belarus is not a particularly rich nation, but it is considerably richer than Ukraine, and has a much smaller population (9 million Belarusians vs. 44 million Ukrainians). This would, in theory, make a transition to closer relations with the European Union easier than in Ukraine, but Belarusians would likely be wary of serious economic overhaul as they've seen the chaos that's plagued both Ukraine and Russia first-hand.

The regime currently in power in Belarus is repressive and authoritarian, but until a credible opposition that is able to smoothly transition between Belarus's planned economy to a modern, capitalist economic scenario, it will likely stay in power. A smooth transition is not impossible (Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia are examples of successful transitions) but it will not be easy. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Kremlin's Next Step: Oil, the Rouble, and Ukraine

As Father Winter descends on the northern hemisphere, there are winds of change and uncertainty swirling around the proud steeples guarding the Kremlin. 

Russia’s economy is in trouble. Oil, the cornerstone of the Russian economy, has seen its prices free-fall in recent weeks. Sanctions bite at the economy because of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis, which the Kremlin continues to deny. Russia’s currency, the rouble, is rapidly losing value. Before the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s rouble was stable, fluctuating modestly roughly between 28 and 35 per U.S. Dollar. Today, it takes more than 60 to receive a dollar in return. That number could continue to grow in the future. The stability that has gained President Putin so much popularity in the past may be starting to crack. 

Russia is under pressure from the United States and European Union to end its involvement in the crisis that has put Ukraine into a bind. An uneasy ceasefire seems to be holding, but a sliver of land in Ukraine’s Donets basin (often called the Donbass or Donbas) remains in pro-Russian separatist hands. 

The decisions the Kremlin decides to undertake in the next few months could have lasting ramifications for Russia’s future. If the Kremlin plays its cards right, it may be able to escape severe economic problems that could plague Russia in 2015 and beyond. 

Let’s examine some possibilities of choices the Kremlin can undertake in an attempt to restore stability. 

Scenario #1: Cooperate with the United States and European Union to end the crisis in Ukraine in exchange for a perceived return to economic stability

This is, understandably, the path that would sit the best with the west. Russia can agree to negotiations with Kiev, Brussels, and Washington to bring lasting peace to Eastern Ukraine. In a joint agreement, Russia, the European Union, and the United States can send resources to rebuild the Donbas from the damage it’s suffered in the war if it agrees to return to Ukrainian rule. In return, Russia’s economy would jolt back to life from the sanctions relief. The rouble would, in theory, regains some of its value and stability, and foreign investors may return to Russia. 

What about Crimea? 

Crimea is already integrated into Russia and it’s hard to dispute that many Crimeans are happy that Russia retook the peninsula earlier this year. Its economic situation, unfortunately, is not as rosy. Since Russia’s takeover, the transition from Ukraine to Russia has been rocky. Supermarkets and department stores have seen shortages, banks were woefully unprepared for the currency transition from hryvnia to rouble, and the tourism industry of the region has nosedived. 

A return to Kiev is not the fix-all solution to these problems. Ukraine is not exactly a golden example of economic development at the moment-the hryvnia is performing almost as bad as the rouble right now and the Ukrainian economy is in dire straits, perhaps even worse than Russia's. Ukraine may be able to convince Crimeans to consider returning if western powers promise economic investment, pension increase and stability, the assurance of broad autonomy and self-government for the mostly-Russian peninsula. That is indeed a daunting task for President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, but Ukraine can't be counted out yet. Like Russia, Ukraine and its people have endured far, far worse than a sinking economy. 

What would this mean for the Kremlin? 

Vladimir Putin’s popularity has been constant among Russians, barring a considerable lull between 2011 and 2013 when fraudulent legislative elections drove liberal opposition politicians into the streets of many Russian cities. The Kremlin’s response to the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine has seen President Putin’s popularity skyrocket, and despite fears over the economy, Putin’s approval rating is still over 80%. 

Despite the possible economic benefits that could come with concession, that avenue many not sit well with many Russians who were swept up in the patriotic fervor of Russia’s retaking Crimea and the possibility of the establishment of Novorossiya. Concession to the west could result in a large loss of popularity for President Putin and his government. This could energize liberal Russians (liberal in this case means “anti-Putin”) to start calling for further reforms and even Putin’s resignation. Russian nationalists could be angered by concession, feeling betrayed and angry after the promise of patriotic expansion. 

How long these feelings of dissatisfaction would linger would largely depend on the economic performance after concession. If the economy was to start growing again, frustration with the Kremlin could subside after some time, and Putin may yet weather the storm. 

Scenario #2: The Kremlin digs in its heels

On the other hand, the Kremlin could dig in its heels and try to weather the storm of sanctions and an unstable currency while saving its pride.  

The risks could be much more grave in this case. The United States just approved a broader sanctions bill, and it looks like the European Union is going to continue its own sanctions. If oil prices continue to fall, the rouble will further destabilize, and the Central Bank of Russia cannot realistically keep propping it up artificially. 

If the rouble continues to fall from its already low position, Russians will lose faith in their currency-as will foreign investors, further damaging Russia's already faltering economy. 

This could no doubt remind Russians of the chaotic 1990s, when a completely worthless rouble and a frozen economy forced Russians to barter for goods. 

The turbulence of the 1990s is commonly associated what some perceive as Russia's failed experiment with western-style democracy, and is a source for disdain towards both democracy and the west. Russians in general do not distrust democracy, but its initial experiment was one failure after another, and Putin's "sovereign democracy" did not come out of nowhere. 

If this is the conclusion Russians make, there are two roads to go, one liberal, one nationalist. 

If Russia's problems get severe enough, they could  turn against the Kremlin's recent policies in Ukraine and elsewhere, demanding reforms and a move towards the west. Or, if the negative perception of the west holds up, Russians may start to see Putin as a leader who caved under pressure and did not do enough to make Russia strong in the face of its adversaries. Both of these avenues are treacherous, but they may become inevitable if the Kremlin decides to stay the course. 

President Putin derives broad support for a few primary reasons-the economic stability under his time in politics, his patriotic method of governing, and his reigning in of the oligarch networks that ran rampant under Yeltsin. Now, his role in these three different things is up for debate. Some argue that Russia's economic upturn in the 2000s was more a result of oil prices than Kremlin, and that oligarchs still control more than they should in Russia. But if today's problems continue, then one of Putin's primary sources of popularity-economic stability-may severely diminish. 

It's true Russians have been through much, much worse than Vladimir Putin's government. Russians of nearly every generation have been to hell and back and lived to tell the tale, and there is merit in saying that Putin's regime is the most stable and open Russia has been for centuries. 

Is this the beginning of the end for Putin’s stay in power? It’s much too early to say, but it is clear that there will be consequences for the Kremlin's actions. And it's not entirely true that Russians are afraid to speak against Mr. Putin-they did, in massive numbers, between 2011 and 2012, and these problems may be the spark to ignite new protests against the Kremlin's course. Whether a credible leadership will rise to guide it is an entirely different story that only time can tell. In the meantime, Russia has some serious problems to address. 

Feature Guest Article: When Prison and Mind Meet and Mesh

By Rodericka "Ro" Applewhaite

Over the course of the last few months, news stories regarding race have reached a new height of salience as families across America grapple with its prevalence in society and impact on the future. From mass incarceration, to affirmative action, to a community’s response to the perception of racially motivated assault, the events of 2014 have covered it all. This is not to suggest that the tension that arose through these happenings is a bridge not crossed by society before or disregarded by the academic community. In fact, so much has occurred to contribute to this ongoing national conversation that we can revisit past theories to both chart where race relations are headed, uncover which mechanisms of inequity have been made obsolete, and further the theories within to better understand the world around us. Loïc Wacquant’s “Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh” has particular potential for the latter, as his analysis of the carceral institution’s race-making capabilities can be applied to anecdote of one family and the experiences of countless others. Lawrence Otis Graham’s account of the precautions his family takes to navigate through white society details the evolution of Wacquant’s theory from the prison being the physical ground zero of the color line to an idea that perpetually looms over the heads of Black Americans and dictates the way they must interact with their white counterparts.
Before delving deeper into the connection Wacquant has to Graham’s story, a deeper understanding of the father’s narrative must be achieved. The essay “I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would prevent them from discrimination. I was wrong.” details his son’s experience with being called a racial slur while attending a predominately white boarding school. Graham uses this instance to explain that though he and his wife grew up in a much more racially hostile time in American history, the cynicism his son developed towards social interaction as a result of the taunt undercut any progress that has been made. Furthermore, it justified the precautions made in Graham’s parenting skills crafted to remove the negative pretense of blackness in his kids as they navigate through the upper class. But most importantly, the incident exposed a reality that America’s minorities know all too well: the fact that race is not a harmless superficial characteristic, but the unwavering means by which society projects the potential, norms, and expectations of an individual.
“Deadly symbiosis” spends most of its time charting the timeline of institutional black suppression at the macro level, but the logical progression of Wacquant’s claims towards the ‘racial division of everything’ in the individual is clear. It is no longer (and has arguably never been) the case that someone must directly engage with the ghetto or the prison in order to experience the “civic death” associated with it. It is a practice of social exclusion so expertly perpetuated by the carceral system and the ‘peculiar institutions’ before it that the cycle is now self-maintaining. The presumption of its omnipresence regardless of socioeconomic and geographic standing, as evidenced by the racist remark casually directed at Graham’s son, is a clear establishment of the prison’s “contribut[ion] to the ongoing reconstruction…between praiseworthy ‘working families’…and the despicable ‘underclass’ of criminals, by definition dark-skinned and undeserving” (Wacquant, 120). Simply put, Wacquant’s and Graham’s pieces blend together so seamlessly because the former’s profound statement that “the massive over-incarceration of blacks has supplied a powerful common-sense warrant for using color as a proxy for dangerousness” is not directly reiterated in Graham’s article but the understood foundation for the 9 rules
 he’s driven into his children (Wacquant, 117). This is a burden that uniquely belongs to the black community, as Graham points out that instilling such principles aren’t a thought in the white community, regardless of status. Despite the number of ways blacks are seen as society’s proverbial ‘other,’ injustices are regarded as “a ‘one-off’ that demand no follow-up” and are quickly forgotten (Graham, 2014). It is the reason why Graham’s family feels the need to rally around the few blacks that have achieved the elite class to exchange suggestions “on how to minimize the likelihood of the adolescents being profiled…simply because their race makes them suspect,” a search for thicker insulation than flawless diction and polite behavior (2014).
The white privilege that Graham references is a two-tiered harm. It is a social mechanism that papers over the present-day remnants of slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto by using the institutions’ obsolete status on a whole to embolden the ‘get over it’ counterargument presented when blacks claim disenfranchisement. Simultaneously, this privilege draws on the legitimacy of the prison and legal system to back minorities into a logical bind where expressing contempt of hyperincarceration would “validate the very conflation of blackness and crime in public perception that fuels this crisis” (Wacquant, 118). On a smaller yet more astonishing scale, Graham’s young son is already aware of this. He initially did not want to report the incident to school officials and had to be coerced into doing so by his father as he prioritized “not wanting the white students and administrators to think of him as being ‘racial’…and thinking about race every time they see [him]” (Graham, 2014). Observing this sentiment through the lens of “Deadly symbiosis” exposes the argumentative extension inherent within. Not only has the prison contributed to the “solidification of the centuries-old association of blackness with criminality and devious violence,” it has also created a reality where self-reported harms to blackness has become synonymous with ‘playing the race card’ and looking into the color line with too much sensitivity (Wacquant, 118). A black person’s capacity for their account of injustice to be received by their white counterparts as objective analysis rather than emotional exaggeration is inextricably linked to their success in “forcefully communicat[ing]…that they have ‘absolutely no sympathy and no known connections with any black man who has committed a crime’” (Wacquant, 118). Black America can expect for the color line to be just as bold if this trend continues. 
The biggest indicator that the impacts of the prison now loom over the heads of all blacks, including those that have never interacted with the ghetto, is clear in the long-lasting effects of the racial slur on Graham’s son. This includes the fact that he no longer makes eye contact with pedestrians or drivers (the slur came from two men in a car), visits his local library after sundown, and is suspicious of cars that pass by him slowly (Graham, 2014). The author laments: 
“He asks us to bear with him because, as he explains, he knows that the experience is unlikely to happen again, but he doesn’t like the uncertainty. He says he now feels 
both vulnerable and resentful whenever he is required to walk unaccompanied” (Graham, 2014).
This negative feeling towards society in general was furthered by the fact that the school administrators that were notified “act[ed] with the same indifference that so many black parents have come to expect” (Graham, 2014). The uncertainty created proves a shift in the overarching argument posed by Wacquant, the idea that “to be a man of color of a certain economic class and milieu is equivalent in the public eye to being a criminal” (118). The economic class has been deemed irrelevant by white society. Simply looking like those that dominate the penal system is now “tantamount to being made [the inescapable negative connotation of] black” (Wacquant, 118). As Graham concedes, he made an error in assuming that the privilege he and his wife worked hard to secure for their children would in turn make them immune to discrimination.
In viewing Wacquant and Graham’s works side by side, a better understanding of how race is made, maintained, and received by all members of society is achieved. Wacquant’s argument was already upheld through the extensive amount of statistical data within it, but Graham’s story revitalized those claims into modernity. Conversely, the experiences of Graham’s son demanded the extension of Wacquant’s logic. It justified the importance of thinking about the relationship between the privileged and the suppressed, and the injustice that has stemmed from it as a result, as a timeline rather than random occurrences not founded in anything. Overall, the fact that neither author presented a means by which rampant inequality can be abated proves that America still has a long way to go.

Appendix: Graham’s Rules for Reference
1. Never run while in the view of a police officer or security person unless it is apparent that you are jogging for exercise, because a cynical observer might think you are fleeing a crime or about to assault someone.
2. Carry a small tape recorder in the car, and when you are the driver or passenger (even in the back seat) and the vehicle has been stopped by the police, keep your hands high where they can be seen, and maintain a friendly and non-questioning demeanor.
3. Always zip your backpack firmly closed or leave it in the car or with the cashier so that you will not be suspected of shoplifting.
4. Never leave a shop without a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, so that you can’t be accused unfairly of theft.
5. If going separate ways after a get-together with friends and you are using taxis, ask your white friend to hail your cab first, so that you will not be left stranded without transportation.
6. When unsure about the proper attire for a play date or party, err on the side of being more formal in your clothing selection.
7. Do not go for pleasure walks in any residential neighborhood after sundown, and never carry any dark-colored or metallic object that could be mistaken as a weapon, even a non-illuminated flashlight.
8. If you must wear a T-shirt to an outdoor play event or on a public street, it should have the name of a respected and recognizable school emblazoned on its front.
9. When entering a small store of any type, immediately make friendly eye contact with the shopkeeper or cashier, smile, and say “good morning” or “good afternoon.”

Works Cited
Graham, L. O. (2014, November 6). I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would 
protect them from discrimination. I was wrong. In The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Wacquant, L. Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh. Punishment and Society, 3(1), 95-134.