After I wrote my recent piece about past Russian liberals’ admiration of General Pinochet, Mark Galleotti published a short comment saying that I shouldn’t have written what I did – not because it’s false (which it isn’t), but because it makes Russian liberals look bad and so undermines their struggle against the evil Putin regime (or words to that effect).
A very similar logic has been on display this week following the arrest of Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich, after the Belarusian authorities diverted his flight to the Belarusian capital Minsk. It didn’t take long for some researchers to discover that Protasevich had some dubious connections with far-right groups, including some time spent with the Azov Regiment in Ukraine. This news, however, raised the ire of many people, who complained that it is wrong to drag up this dirt about Protasevich’s past because it diverts attention from the crimes of the Belarusian state and thereby helps excuse its repressive actions.
In both instances, what we see is an argument that unpleasant truths must be suppressed if they are politically inconvenient. Academic research must be subordinated to political objectives. In my latest article for RT, I discuss this matter. I note that the facts about Protasevich’s fascist links are not directly relevant to the rights and wrongs of his arrest, nor to the rights and wrongs of the diversion of the aircraft. It also true that they may be used to deflect attention from the alleged misbehaviour of the Belarusian state. But I also argue that that’s not a reason to cover up those links. The public deserves to be fully informed. Beyond that, you ignore such links at your peril. In 2014, many chose to ignore the presence of the far-right in the Maidan revolution in Ukraine. The cost has been high.
To illustrate the point, I cite an article in Politico by Leonid Ragozin, in which he argues that European states should support opposition activists in Belarus and Russia, particularly those like Protasevich who make use of social media to promote their cause. He writes:
The EU has a unique opportunity to play a key role in nurturing the new generation of Russian and Belarusian political and cultural leaders who will inevitably replace the corrupt authoritarians in power today. By embracing the healthy part of society in both countries and working together with people like Protasevich and Navalny to build a common European future, the EU will do more to bring about the end of dictatorships than any number of sanctions can ever offer.
This is where the story of Protasevich’s fascist connections suddenly becomes important, for can one really call such people “the healthy part of society”? I think most people would say not. And that is why politically inconvenient facts shouldn’t be ignored.
Ragozin has written some good stuff in the past, but this isn’t one of his best pieces, in my opinion. As well as discussing social media activists, he also makes reference to educational institutions ‘like the predominantly Belarusian European University of Humanities in Vilnius … the newly created Free Russian University, based in Riga, …. [and] The Moscow School of Political Studies [that] has been also forced to relocate to Latvia’. The argument appears to be that European states should be doing all they can to support such institutions, so as to nurture a new generation of liberal, democratic youth who will then return to their home countries (Belarus and Russia) and liberate them from oppression.
It sounds nice, but let’s think about it for a minute. What will be the net result of these educational programs? The answer, I think, is a group of cosmopolitan, Westernized young people who are completely out of touch with the domestic realities of their own countries as well as with the interests and values of their compatriots. If they go back home, it’s most unlikely that they will be able to persuade large numbers of people to follow them, precisely because they will be so alien.
Change when it comes, is often the product of shifting patterns of thought among the ruling elite. In a place like Belarus, that means changes in beliefs (or at least perceptions of interest) among bureaucrats, policemen, secret servicemen, factory managers, and the like. But, Ragozin’s Western-educated youths aren’t ever going to get that type of job. Given that, in Ragozin’s scheme, the declared purpose of their Western education will be to subvert the state, they will be marked down from the start as dangerous elements, not to be trusted with employment in the state system. Perhaps they’ll get jobs in tech start ups, or somewhere in the ‘creative classes’, but those aren’t the people who change the system.
If you want to get the elite to shift, you have to persuade them that it’s safe to do so. That means, as a first step, reducing international tensions. It also means that associating liberal youth with a strategy to subvert the state is likely to be counterproductive.
So, what should be done? To be honest, my own instincts tell me that we should leave well alone. Rather than trying to improve others, we should focus on improving ourselves, and then let the power of attraction do its work. I’ve yet to see good evidence that doing otherwise brings positive results.