HOW TO RELOCATE AND NOT LOSE YOUR SENSE OF THE ZEITGEIST

October 04, 2021 17:54

The authorities hope to replace independent analysts with more reliable voices, but this will be difficult. Intellectual freedom and creativity are needed, which eliminates most pro-state experts.

On July 23, 2021, weekly Belarus in Focus analytical monitoring in partnership with the Press Club, the "Our Opinion" Belarusian expert community website and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held online meeting repression against the expert community.

The main speakers remaining at liberty were:

  • Andrei Kazakevich, PhD, Director of the Political Sphere Institute, Executive Director of the Belarusian Association of Research Centers;
  • Natallia Rabava, Director of SYMPA/BIPART;
  • Ryhor Astapenia, PhD, Belarus Initiative Director, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House; Director of Research at the Center for New Ideas;
  • Kateryna Bornukova, PhD in Economics, Academic Director of BEROC.

The meeting was also attended by representatives of international organizations, the diplomatic corps, analysts, and journalists, including: Valer Karbalevich, Artyom Shraibman, Andrei Yahorau, Daniel Krutzinna and others.

The discussion was moderated by Vadim Mojeiko (BISS) and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus/Press Club Belarus).

KEY ISSUES RAISED

  • "A legal entity is not prone to showing remorse " (Natallia Rabava)
  • "We managed to liquidate ourselves before they managed to liquidate us" (Kateryna Bornukova)
  • "Is it possible to contact the Ministry of Internal Affairs regarding the rights of prisoners?" (Andrei Kazakevich)
  • "You can't go back, it's useless to try" (Ryhor Astapenia)
  • "It is better to work from Kyiv than from a pre-trial detention centre" (Artyom Shraibman).

Reaction of analytical centers: relocation, re-registration, removal

After Valeria Kostyubova ("Our Opinion") and Tatsiana Kuzina (SYMPA) were detained, and the newspaper of the presidential administration called the expert community "impossible weeds that we have to find and uproot", many analysts were forced to leave Belarus.

However, Andrei Kazakevich points out that many analytical centres were never registered in Belarus and utilised infrastructure from outside the country. The greatest damage was done to those who maintained an in country presence and tried to play by the rules. Andrei believes that it was impossible to fully prepare for this, especially if a lot of energy was invested in infrastructure inside Belarus.

In the near future, he expects the community to reorganise around new mixed models of work: partial presence inside Belarus, but with public representation abroad. Relocation will take time and resources, but the experience of working remotely during the pandemic will help. Natallia Rabava agrees. Analysts have been working remotely for some time. She notes that she has no concern regarding losing the legal entity status, but functioning without a local presence remains a challenge.

Ryhor Astapenia was expecting lighter charges against Kostyugova and Kuzina than Znak and Kalesnikava - because it is obvious that their roles were different. However: "The time for being surprised has long passed." Ryhor agrees that the state can liquidate an organization in a day, while it takes much more time to create one. However, some act pre-emptively "We liquidated ourselves before anyone else had a chance," Kateryna Bornukova notes, although she and her colleagues were still unprepared for the detention of analysts and the overall scale of repression. The challenge is not only relocation, but also creating new patterns of work with government agencies - they can no longer be addressed via publication on TUT.BY, for example.

An attempt to replace independent experts with loyal ones?

There is the further question of to what extent the expert community is being specifically targeted, and for what purpose. Ryhor Astapenia believes that this is part of the general trend of political struggle, the fight against civil society, and the fight against the West, rather than a specific campaign against the expert community. Andrei Kazakevich disagrees. Pressure is exerted on expert centres because they have become influencers, and provide competent, independent analysis about developments in Belarus. Since the autumn of 2020, pro-government media have been saying that "bad" analysts need to be removed, because they pose an ideological threat.

Valer Karbalevich draws attention to the fact that well known propagandists like Mukovozchik are systematically challenged by experts: "But how much does the KGB read Sovetskaya Belorussiya?". He does not see a unifying logic in the selectivity of repression and considers specific cases to be individual decisions.

Andrei Kazakevich believes that the authorities hope to replace the independent expert community with more reliable nominees, although this will be difficult to implement. High-quality analytical work requires not only formal statuses and media platforms, where talking heads try to predict what the authorities want to hear, but also the intellectual potential, freedom, and space for creativity, which pro-state experts do not have. Kateryna Bornukova agrees with this: the state cannot even compete with the independent media, and certainly will not be able to compete with analytical centres. "BEROC has always had a problem finding high quality analysts, but we have collected them over time. [the pro-regime think tank] BISR will not do this in six months."

How think tanks can interact with the state

Andrei Kazakevich is not convinced about adopting a moral framework and draws attention to the fact that state bodies participate in repressions in different ways. In addition, specific questions remain: "Can you contact the Ministry of Internal Affairs regarding the rights of prisoners?". However, in general it would be preferable not to interact with the most odious individuals. Kateryna Bornukova points out that until August 2020, BEROC worked closely with the Ministry of Economy and the National Bank, and after the events of August they considered direct interaction to be inappropriate. As repression intensified, the distance between analysts and officials grew, contacts decreased to the level of news about searches and liquidations, which for officials and representatives of the academic community became a signal that BEROC is now perceived as an opposition organization. This has become a risk for all activities, including the graduate school that BEROC had previously been running with BSU.

Natallia Rabava notes that SYMPA no longer has any dialogue with civil servants. They are not inclined to share information, which inhibits analysis of the public administration system. However, the mission of the analytical centre is to deliver information to society via open access research, regardless of their political position. Ryhor Astapenia draws attention to the fact that it is necessary to accommodate this new reality: "We cannot go back; it is useless to try."

How think tanks can interact with independent political actors

For Andrei Kazakevich, everything depends on how the organization views its mission. It is important for analysts to preserve a neutral position, act autonomously, and maintain distance. It is not appropriate for everyone to assume a political position and become part of political coalitions – this just leads to a loss of legitimacy. Kateryna Bornukova agrees: BEROC is ready to provide its expertise to everyone just as before but is not currently ready for closer cooperation. However: "It is a tough task to prove that you’re working independent of the political headquarters based in Vilnius or Warsaw if you relocate to these cities."

Bornukova believes that the active participation of part of her team in the Centre for New Ideas, associated with the headquarters of Babaryka and the "Together" party, undermines confidence. Ryhor Astapenia notes that the CNI as an organization does not occupy a position here. He believes that the question is not whether analysts should be political or not, but: "What can we do to make the situation in the country improve as quickly as possible?" He does not see much benefit from institutional politicization. It is another thing to talk about common values such as democracy, free market and justice.

How to avoid radicalization and loss of context?

Andrei Kazakevich notes that "The Political Sphere" has had an international character for 10 years. This is not in itself an obstacle: science has long been international, "qualified personnel can produce knowledge anywhere", and if you read Belarusian sources abroad, nothing is particularly lost, and researchers do not break away from the context. It's just that in the new conditions, some will privately collect information inside Belarus, while others, relocated to safe places, analyse it and represent it to the public (which becomes dangerous within the country). In Ryhor Astapenia’s experience loss of context depends more on the person than on the location: it is important to understand the semantics of information and strive to cooperate with experts within the country. However, for organizational work, operating at a distance is harmful: the possibility of networking, organizing summer schools and other events in regional cities disappears.

Natallia Rabava still believes that it is better to reside where you study: "There are intangible factors such as the prevailing public mood." Kateryna Bornukova does not yet see a risk to the quality of analytics, and there is a benefit from excluding the influence of the zeitgeist: you can be more objective if you look at hard facts. However, the problem with facts and figures is that there is fewer of them: The National Statistics Committee begins to conceal statistics (from demography to petroleum products).

Recent emigrants have shared their experiences. Valer Karbalevich believes that in the era of the Internet, abroad has little effect on the quality of humanitarian research, but moving creates psychological problems due to the need to adapt to new conditions. Artyom Shraibman agrees that it is easier for "analysts to relocate than for photographers," but also notes two collective distortions that affect all. First, those who have left always tend to overestimate the politicization of society: they left at a high point and extrapolate: "Your perspective gets confused when you do not communicate with people and do not walk the streets." Secondly, wishful thinking sets in. You want to return, and this desire can affect the analysis of facts. However, living in fear in Belarus is even worse: "It is better to do analytics from Kyiv than from the pre-trial detention centre."

What can the international community do?

To this question from Daniel Krutzinna, the participants proposed the following options:

  • A program of analyst relocation, which will streamline the process and avoid personnel losses
  • Creation of hubs and coworking spaces where experts have already relocated. Assistance in solving issues with documents
  • Interaction with international and local organizations, strengthening contacts with universities and other stakeholders. This time should be used to strengthen ties with the international research community
  • Development of an institutional support program so that think tanks have a fall back when adverse circumstances arise.

Author: Vadim Mojeiko

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Short title: 
HOW TO RELOCATE AND NOT LOSE YOUR SENSE OF THE ZEITGEIST