The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, heralding a new era of peace after the decades of violence that characterised the Troubles. But who benefitted the most from the signing of the Agreement, and is the answer different today than it was twenty years ago?
For unionists, represented most prominently by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Good Friday Agreement ultimately symbolised the enshrining of the status quo in law: Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK. In addition, the Republic of Ireland renounced articles two and three of its Constitution, which laid claim to the entire island of Ireland. It may seem, then, that unionism was the victor in 1998, but elements of the Good Friday Agreement have been responsible for tectonic shifts in the period since, arguably exposing it, ultimately, as a victory for nationalism.
While Irish republicans in the form of the Provisional IRA were required to put down their weapons and suspend the violent struggle for a united Ireland, there is a compelling argument that the Good Friday Agreement laid the platform for the growth of the movement and perhaps even the fulfilment of the goal of Irish unity. For one, it mandated power-sharing between the two sides of the Northern Irish divide: both unionists and nationalists must share the leadership of government. Since 1998, this has acted to legitimise the nationalist cause, rooting it as a political movement rather than an armed struggle. Sinn Féin, the leading nationalist party in the North, have moved from the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness to new, younger leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. Irish unity propaganda now emphasises the economic sense of a united Ireland, the need to counter the worst effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland and a sensible debate about the constitutional nature of a new country, rather than the adversarial anti-unionist simplicity of the Troubles. Here, nationalism did gain significantly from the Good Friday Agreement because it allowed this transition from the Armalite to the ballot box in return for legitimacy as a movement.
Most prominently for nationalists, however, is the fact that the Good Friday Agreement spells out the route to a united Ireland, explicitly stating that a ‘majority’ in a referendum would mandate Northern Ireland’s exit from the UK. While unclear on whether majorities would be required both in the Republic and Northern Ireland, as was sought for the Agreement itself in 1998, as well as what criteria would have to be met in order to hold a vote, this gives Irish nationalism a legal and binding route to its ultimate goal of Irish unity, arguably the most prominent victory of the peace process.
Since 1998, Northern Ireland has seen a huge amount of political tension, governmental gridlock and occasional outbreaks of violence, most recently witnessed in the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019. However, the Good Friday Agreement has served crucially to preserve peace on a scale unimaginable in the most intense years of the Troubles. If Irish nationalism achieves its goal of uniting the island, it will come about through a democratic referendum, not through violence. The very existence of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly its survival for over 20 years, is testament to the deep will for peace across the communities of Northern Ireland, forged in decades of conflict; it is this desire being fulfilled, even as the parties squabble in Stormont and the political status of Northern Ireland remains in the balance, that continues to make the biggest difference in the daily lives of both unionists and nationalists.
Portraits of sovereigns were always conceived with a political function in mind. Monarchs used their official portraits to cultivate an image of majesty, prestige, and royal authority, a key component in the broader construction of an inherently politicised royal public image. Whilst there is a discourse within the existing art-historical scholarship that seeks to depoliticise royal portraiture and downgrade the importance of symbolism, it is fruitless to extricate the paintings of early modern sovereigns from their clear political intentions. Close inspection of contemporary art indicates a distinct propensity for allegory, which served as a central way in which an image of Renaissance princely magnificence was promoted.
The famous portrait of Elizabeth I, The Rainbow Portrait,has received significant attention due to its religious significance; however, little emphasis has been placed on its impact as a highly politicised piece of art. The most potent political thread of this painting is the portrayal of Elizabeth as ageless, when by 1600 she was nearly seventy years old. At the turn of the seventeenth century, England’s monarch was nearing the end of her life without a legitimate heir to succeed her. Through this lens, the depiction of Elizabeth as wearing the ‘Mask of Youth’ appears undeniably political. Contributing to the fiction of an eternal present, this portrait was a product of the period which attributed the physical likeness of the monarch to the health of the state, and served to alleviate the political anxieties surrounding the succession and a potential return to a turmoil akin to the Wars of the Roses. However, if we look closely at this painting, there is a distinct sense of political iconography. Some scholars have considered this painting as an exemplification of Elizabeth’s sexual power, a credible concept which recognises the inextricable connection in the early modern period between a female monarch’s sexuality and her political authority. The transparent rainbow she grasps in her hand, whilst iconographically establishing a connection with the divine and implicitly presenting Elizabeth’s legitimacy as a deific leader, also reflects her sexual power. The phallic symbolism applied to the rainbow consolidates her supremacy over the masculine, establishing a dominance that was essential for a female ruler in the early modern period. Through this specific painting, it is evident that royal portraiture was undeniably politicised as a visual representation of strength and control.
However, although the symbolic content of royal portraiture was the central means of constructing a political image, it is also significant to consider the role that portraits served as a princely currency and an integral component of political discourse in the diplomatic relations within the European princely community. Portraits were exchanged to ameliorate political relationships, as well as to serve as symbols of recognition of other rulers within the royal fraternity. Whilst this role was undoubtedly significant, its longevity is eclipsed by the allegory and symbolic weight which timelessly pervades the paintings of sovereigns, such as the famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I.
Maximus McCabe-Abel, History in Politics Vice President
Thatcher’s lasting impact on twenty-first century feminism is widely debated. Whilst her actions have inspired future generations of ambitious young women in all professions, Thatcher was undoubtedly not a feminist. In fact, she actively disliked and directly discouraged feminist movements. Thus, Margaret Thatcher works as an apt example that a successful woman does not always mean a direct step forward for the women’s equality movement. Instead, whilst Thatcher was our first British female Prime Minister, it never occurred to her that she was a woman prime minister; she was, quite simply, a woman that was skilled and successful enough to work her way to the top.
Throughout Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership, she only promoted one woman to her cabinet; she felt men were best for the role. When questioned about this, Thatcher remarked that no other women were experienced or capable enough to rise through the ranks in the same way that she had. Similarly, whilst Thatcher demonstrated that women were now able to get to the top of the UK Government, she certainly did not attempt to make things easier for women to follow; she pulled the ladder straight up after herself. Thatcher claimed that she ‘did not owe anything to women’s liberation.’ Reflected in her policy provisions, she ignored almost all fundamental women’s issues. Despite hopeful attempts to raise female concerns to her, childcare provision, positive action and equal pay were not addressed during her years as Prime Minister. One can therefore diagnose that Thatcher’s loyalty was almost exclusively to the Conservative Party and her vision focused on saving the country, not women.
Thatcher resented being defined by her gender, but she worked naturally as a role model and continues to do so (despite her policies) on the basis that she was simply, a female. She was made unique by feminists (and women generally) in the media simply for being a woman. In this way, examples matter; this is in the same way that Obama’s presidency matters for young generations of the BAME community. Perhaps Thatcher’s disacknowledgement of the glass ceiling is precisely what allowed her to smash it so fearlessly. If she couldn’t see it, no one could point it out to her! Amber Rudd has claimed that she is a direct beneficiary of Thatcher’s valiance, as her work debunked the idea that only men could survive, let alone prosper, in political life. Men were undoubtedly perturbed by Thatcher’s female presence and conviction; John Snow has gone as far as describing interviewing her as ‘unnerving.’ These predispositions, held by both men and women, were fundamentally and forcefully shifted by Thatcher.
Yet, is symbolism alone enough to praise Thatcher as a feminism icon? It is of course clear, that being a role model symbolically is incomparable to those who have actively and tirelessly campaigned to seek change for women. The influence she had on the feminist movement was not a result of her own actions or policies. Rather, her influence is a result of her being the first woman who made the exceptional progress, as a total outsider, to not only become our Prime Minister, but go on to win two successive elections convincingly.
In 1849 the world met its first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. Years later in 1903, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie, did so for her outstanding contributions to Physics. How, with many more remarkable achievements behind women, does society continue to hold limited expectations of them? Why does the concept of a female terrorist seem so improbable to the vast majority of the Western world?
While this perhaps appears a perverse logic; almost rendering terrorism a positive milestone for women, that is certainly not the intention. Instead, I hope to enlighten the reader to the gendered dimensions of terrorism, and to highlight the escalating need to perceive women as potentially equal vessels of terror.
The BBC series Bodyguard focuses on Police Sergeant David Budd’s protection of Home Secretary Julie Montague in a fast-paced drama. The plot twist in the season finale centres on a Muslim women, who is revealed as the architect and bomb-maker behind the attack. Although some have found this portrayal as troublesome, displaying Islamophobic overtones, Anijli Mohindra, the actress, explains that the role was actually “empowering”. Regardless of these perceptions, it is clear that the ‘surprise’ element manifests itself in the female gender. This sentiment presides outside of the media too, highlighting the potential threat posed by gender limitations.
There is an undeniable, and widespread assumption that terrorists are always male. While this assumption could be ascribed to the smaller numbers of women involved in terrorism, it is more likely attributable to embedded gender stereotypes.Such stereotypes perceiving women as maternal and nurturing, but also helpless and passive, are irreconcilable with that of an individual committing acts which knowingly cause death and disruption. In 2015 when women such as Shemima Begum and Kadiza Sultana left East London for the Islamic State, they were depicted as archetypal ‘jihadi bride[s]’ in the media: meek, manipulated and denied of any agency in their decision. Yet, an accurate representation of women in terrorism needs to transcendthe constraints of traditional gender constructs. Although we may be aware of female stereotypes, why do they continue to permeate our understanding of women in terrorism, when we claim to be an equal society.
The reality of women in terror is quite the contrary of the aforementioned stereotype. In January 2002, Wafa Idris became the first female suicide bomber. Since this date, women have represented over 50% of successful suicide bombings in the conflicts of Turkey, Sri Lanka and Chechnya. In more recent years, the Global Extremism Monitor recorded 100 distinct suicide attacks conducted by female militants in 2017, constituting 11% of the total incidents occurring that year. Moreover, Boko Haram’s female members have been so effective in their role as suicide bombers, that women now comprise close to two-thirds of the group’s suicide-attackers.
It is perhaps the dominant nature of presiding stereotypes regarding women, which enables them to be so successful in their attacks – presenting terrorist organisations with a strategic advantage. This is illustrated by the astonishing figures proving female suicide attacks more lethal on average than those conducted by their male counterparts. According to one study, attacks carried out by women had an average of 8.4 victims, compared to 5.3 for those attacks carried out by men. Weaponizing the female body is proving successful as society continues to assume women lack credibility as terrorist actors. Needless to say, remaining shackled to entrenched gender preconceptions will undoubtedly continue to place society at risk of unanticipated terror attacks from women.
When we think of feminism, we think of women holding strongly coloured flags of green, white and gold or green, white and purple in historical photos. We think of women and girls who spoke on the news demanding equal opportunities, more provision of pregnancy and abortion advice and the liberation of females in third world countries. We think of Malala speaking at international conferences, Jessica Chastain acting in Zero Dark Thirty and FaceBook executive Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of Time Magazine. They are all strong women in their declaration as being a feminist and are frequently and publicly involved in feminist organizations and activities.
Yet, we often forget to include some women as feminists, either due to the fact they do not carry those clear ‘feminist features’ as mentioned or simply that they do not consider, or even refuse to consider themselves as feminists. They are the Celia Foote character (interestingly also played by Jessica Chastain) in The Help, who were not feminists in a conventional way like the Skeeter character (played by Emma Stone), and even often doubted themselves, but went against the mainstream in terms of thoughts and actions, and are undoubtedly feminists who proved to be great thinkers and writers of all times.
Hildegard of Bingen
Unknown to many, feminism was rooted in religious contexts in which women found themselves with the opportunity to express their thoughts as freely as male. Since ancient history, especially in Europe, families sent their ‘unmarriable’ daughters away to convents. Some women found the time and quietness a great opportunity to think, read and write. One of them is our first ‘non-feminist’ feminists, Hildegard of Bingen.
Hildegard was born in the 11th century and became a nun when she was a teenager (the exact age of her enclosure is subject to debate). She later became the abbess of a small Rhineland convent. People normally do not consider her as a feminist as she lacked most essential elements contemporarily associated with feminism, yet she was certainly a pioneer of proving that women can do exactly what male can do with her actions. Hildegard was considered by many in Europe to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. She is also one of the few known chant composers to have written both the music and the words. Hildegard also produced two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures and three great volumes of visionary theology, which were all well celebrated and led to her recognition as a Doctor of the Church, one of the highest titles given by the Catholic Church to saints recognized as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing.
Not only was she deeply involved in what conventionally thought as works of male – music, academics, medicine and religious theories – she also frequently wrote letters to popes, emperors, abbots and abbesses expressing her critical views and thoughts on a wide range of topics. These significant political, social, economic people often approached her for advice. She even invented a language called the Lingua ignota (“unknown language”).
Despite her apparent feminist approach of doing things, another thing that often dissociates her with feminism is her frequent self-doubt. Often doubtful towards her ‘unfeminine’ activities, she was always insecure of being an uneducated woman and was not confident of her ability to write. She once wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the leading churchmen of the time, asking whether she should continue with her wiring and composing, even though at that time she was already widely known and honoured for being an incredible writer and musician.
But still, Hildegard was one of the few women in medieval history that wrote so freely and critically on everything and was viewed as an impressive writer, musician and religious leader, based on her achievements instead of based on her gender. That made her a feminist.
Margaret Cavendish was born in the 17th century into a family of well-established, Royalist landowners, and later married the Duke of Newcastle. She was one of the few fortunate women of her time who had her husband encouraging her to pursue her literacy ambition.
At first, she started writing on topics mostly associated with women’s internal struggle, ranging from their worries regarding their family to their common fear and sorrow about their children’s sickness and death, though she did not experience what she wrote. Well-reserved by women, her writings were found to be very moving and unexpectedly understanding of the harsh realities faced by many women at that time.
At later times Cavendish started writing philosophical verse. Though her work was widely recognised, same as Hildegard, Cavendish often had self-doubt about her capacity and duty as a woman when she was writing. A modern biographer once remarked that Cavendish felt torn between ‘the (feminine and Christian) virtue of modesty’ and her ambitions. On the one hand, she was very serious and confident about her work; on the other hand, she often depreciated her work and justified them with defensive and apologetic justifications.
From Cavendish’s degradation of her work, it seems that she lacked the confidence and guts of feminists to denounce the conventional status of women and to loudly declare that her work should be equally recognised. But she wrote like a feminist in a sense that she brought womanly issues, which was thought to be a topic not worthy of writing and of no political, social or any importance, to public attention. She brought the dark side, the internal perspective of women’s struggles in the household into the open light. She also spoke out against the hostility towards any women regarded as outspoken or ambitious, which at her time was deemed as madness and dangerous. Her writings also encouraged later women to write and urged them to unite together instead of always being jealousy critical of other women’s achievements. That made her a feminist.
Same as Cavendish, Dorothy Osborne was born in the 17th century into a family of Royalists. She is comparatively less well-known than our other four ‘non-feminist’ feminists as she did not produce writings or theories as significant as those produced by Cavendish or Hildegard. She could even be seen as an anti-feminist by some people as she was one of those critics who heavily denounced the work of Cavendish, a more obvious feminist, as ‘extravagant’ and ‘ridiculous’.
Funnily enough, what made her on the list is her criticism of other people’s work (including Cavendish’s) in letters exchanged between her husband and her. She read widely, often had heavy criticisms of other people’s work and exchanged her thoughts with her fiance, then husband, Sir William Temple in letters. These ‘witty, progressive and socially illuminating’ letters were later published and became large volumes of evidence that Dorothy was a ‘lively, observant, articulate woman’. Even Virginia Woolf later remarked that Dorothy, with her great literacy fashion, would have been a novelist in another time.
An additional point that made her a true feminist was her actions against an arranged marriage and conventional family mindsets. During the 17th century, marriages were usually business arrangements, especially for a rich family like Dorothy’s. Being in love with Sir William Temple, who was refused by her family due to financial reasons, she protested by remaining single and refused multiple proposers put forth by her family. At last, her struggle was rewarded with her finally marrying Temple. But her feminist acts did not stop there. Later references showed that she was actively involved in her husband’s diplomatic career and matters of the state, quite contrary to what an ordinary wife would behave in the 17th century.
Dorothy had not ever said that she was a feminist, or intended to act like a feminist. But her thoughts, words and actions clearly showed that she lived a feminist life by becoming a free-willed, critical woman. That made her a feminist.
Mary Shelley, who famously wrote Frankenstein, is the woman who wrote several of the greatest Gothic novels of all times and was considered to be the pioneer of writing science fiction.
Mary Shelley was born in 1797. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin and her mother was none other than one of the first public feminist activist in British history, Mary Wollstonecraft. Under the influence of two great parents, Mary Shelley was encouraged to read, learn and write, and her father gave her an informal, nonetheless rich, education.
She later fell in love with one of his father’s followers, a romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married. After the death of Percy’s first wife, Mary and Percy got married. They were certainly two talented, happy people married. But Mary’s luck then seemed to run out. Three of her four children died prematurely and Percy later drowned when sailing. In the last decade of her life, she was constantly sick.
Despite her miserable life, she was able to produce great novels such as Valperga, The Last Man, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, etc. Perhaps due to her own sad stories, her novels were strikingly dark, in a sense that it created no hope for the characters. Mary’s novels, especially her most famous one, Frankenstein, did not have any strong female characters; ironically most female characters died. In a conventional perspective, her work is not feminist at all. But what she explored was the struggles of women in an age which society was driven by reason, science and patriarchy. One commentator once said that ‘[t]he death of female characters in the novel is alone to raise enough feminist eyebrows to question how science and development is essentially a masculine enterprise and subjugates women.’ She was radical in thought and critical of society’s norm. Alongside writing, she devoted herself to raising and educating her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, who later famously supported amateur performers and charity performances.
What made Mary Shelley a legendary woman, in addition to her great writings, was her strength in turning misery into energy and striving as an author and a mother despite her miserable life. That made her a feminist.
The construction of historical narratives and the pedagogic authority they hold has been vital in cultivating a sense of legitimacy with those engaged in violent practices in a geo-political conflict. In fact, these narratives are part of violence itself. Although media and education systems usually hold a significant grip on the dissemination of the teaching and learning of history, displaced and diasporic families have offered important resistance to otherwise dominant versions of history. History becomes the defining factor of national consciousness and therefore legitimacy for that nation state to dominate, kill, plunder and extract.
I believe it important to note that both the dominant imperialist and colonialist nations dominated the education systems where they ruled. The significance of this cannot be understated. Imperialists and colonisers quite clearly wanted more than land and natural resources; they want hegemony. In Ireland, the Irish language was almost completely eradicated by mandatory English-speaking schools. The attempt to integrate colonised peoples into a British identity was not only about dominance but control. In fact, jailed Irish republicans used Irish to communicate covertly. Knowledge of one’s own national history and culture has long been a weapon of the oppressed.
Similarly, history is weaponised in the study of archaeology in Palestine. The discipline has been used as a tool to legitimate colonisation through a history explicitly based on ethnonationalism. The enmeshing of religious history from thousands of years ago with a modern-day nation state’s claim to land is a perfect example of Benedict Anderson’s argument that nationalism is an “imitation of simultaneity across homogenous, empty time”. This claim, however, is overshadowed by the history of the Palestinians who have been dispossessed of their land and of which they have emotional and practical ties to within living memory. These personal histories will be passed down orally through families and will be the spark for resistance to the colonisation process for generations to come.
History can seem like a dry academic investigation of a static past; however, the stage is set for the morality play of history in the mainstream media often. Britain seems to be obsessed with an overly simplistic version its history. When representations are narrow and limited to mostly excavations of world war two, a rare occasion in which Britain made a positive impact through contributing to the defeat of German fascism, it is easy to see how the identity of ‘Britons’ on the world stage can appear as a trans historic moral force to some. This is important to understand how people in the army understand their role as a historical agent and can believe they are doing their duty to a higher moral power, their civic religion: nationalism. It is for this reason that people can participate in imperialist wars such as the invasion of Iraq and keep a personal sense of morality and justice.
Although a new generation is questioning the authority of these narratives. This nationalism is outdated for a country that is home to people from previous colonies of Britain. Eric Williams argues that “the British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery for the satisfaction of abolishing it”. In fact, the cultural homogeneity that supports history as national morality play is swiftly broken by the curiosity, doubt and challenge of a new generation. The petition to teach the empirical truth of colonialism has garnered massive support and shows that a new generation will attempt at establishing their own history. The question that lingers is: will this be based on a new kind nationalism?
Durham’s coal mines closed throughout the 1980s, despite dissent from local communities and mining unions. This was not an anomaly – under Conservative rule, mines were shut throughout the nation, yet these were largely concentrated in the North. As a result, a significant regional divide in unemployment, poverty, and general desolation was created. And yet, although the mines are most certainly shut, the culture and the identity of the miners, and of a mining region lives on. In Durham, mining is deeply tied up in local identity, and a celebration of this shared history occurs every year through the Miners’ Gala. This consists of a loud and proud parade through the city, in which each mining village sends a colliery band, and banners. Upon finishing the city parade, all the mining lodges meet on the cricket field for a large party for all ages. Despite the closure of the mines, the economic hardship and proud history continues to be entwined with present day understandings and contemporary identity; a common phrase heard at the gala is ‘You can get rid of the mines, but you can’t get rid of the miners’.
The first Durham Miners’ Gala was organised by the Durham Miners’ Association in 1871 and was held on the outskirts of the city in Wharton Park. Despite the demise of the mining industry, the gala has survived, and continues to be integral to local identity. The gala is no longer an example of political mass assembly, but as Jack Lawson, a Durham miner, later Labour MP and minister in the Atlee government, said of the gala, it was less political demonstration, and more “the spontaneous expression of their [the miners’] communal life”. The gala is an example of intangible cultural heritage, and an identity which occurs in a specific place. Some have dubbed occasions like the gala as simply reminiscence – journalist James Bloodworth, who visited in 2016, saw the Durham Miners’ Gala as a “carnival of nostalgia”, and “something like a historical re-enactment society”. However, it is much, much more. It is a living history, a continued solidarity with the working class and the loss of jobs caused by a deep deindustrialisation which continues today in the loss, if not disappearance, of heavy manufacturing industries such as ship building.
Labour’s Green New Deal appears to draw upon this history and empathise with the loss of industry and employment in the North. The deal sets out to rebuild industry, jobs, and pride in the towns, with more “rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills”, and “whole new industries to revive parts of our country that have been neglected for too long”. As the Industrial Revolution brought jobs and pride to the North, the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, hopes to provide funding to restore this. Furthermore, the Labour Party recognises that for some ‘industrial transition’ has become a “byword for devastation”, and blames successive Conservative governments for this continued ignorance of whole industries and communities. The Green Industrial Revolution manifesto states that, “Tories wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters”, echoing the sentiment of many speakers at the Durham Miners’ Gala. For example, in 2017, one speaker exclaimed that they should draw upon the lesson of the 1984-5 strikes today: that if “on the verge of achieving real change to working class people, the establishment will try to crush you”. Labour’s plans for a Green New Deal show not only the impact of economics on identity, but also, highlights the scars of neglect at the hands of a Tory government.
James Bloodworth also exclaimed in his somewhat scathing review of the Durham Miners’ Gala, that “when the past becomes an obsession, it can act as a dead weight on meaningful action in the present”. Is Labour’s Green New Deal an example of being too preoccupied with the past? Or should we be looking to it? Is an eye to the past not necessarily a bad thing, as Bloodworth states, but instead a chance to rectify past mistakes?
This article will use Russian spellings of Belarusian names for the sake of consistency.
When comparing the situation in Belarus today to the revolutions of 1989, we have to note that each country experienced a different revolution. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in the Baltics were trying to reverse the fifty-year long annexation of their nations since the Nazi Soviet Pact of 1939. The Baltic protest movement also saw an emphasis on salvaging national cultures – particularly language. Poland’s revolution was the result of a more long-term protest movement that began in the shipyards of Gdansk in the early 1980s under the helm of Lech Walesa. Romania saw the violent overthrow of the maverick megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
What we are seeing in Belarus is a combination of all three. The protest movement is fundamentally against a long-serving authoritarian dictator whose foreign policy modus operandi is to play east off west, like Ceausescu. As in Poland, the Belarusian protest movement is spearheaded by striking workers. Finally, there is an element of the movement that campaigns for the revival of Belarusian national customs in favour of the more ‘Russified’ and ‘Sovietised’ ones pushed by the incumbent system. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya seems to suggest a blend of these three aspects in her interview with the independent Russian news site Meduza.
It must be said that Tikhanovskaya is not Lech Walesa, Lukashenko is not Ceausescu and Belarus is not the Baltic States. Nonetheless, we still see aspects of 1989 permeate the Belarusian protest movement.
The one aspect that is very different to 1989 is Moscow’s willingness to intervene in Belarus. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev rescinded the Brezhnev Doctrine – the idea that if a country in the Warsaw Pact tried to break away the USSR, other Warsaw Pact nations would intervene to quell the political dissent. In an interview with Russian state television on the 27th August, Vladimir Putin essentially came up with his own version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. He said that Russian police forces would come into Belarus in the event that “extremist elements, using political slogans as cover, overstep a certain boundary.” The fact that Putin publicly admits that Russian forces could be used in Belarus is a reassertion of the Brezhnev Doctrine in a more subtle form – in contrast to Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine where the Russian government denies that its military is present. Putin’s initiative is very bold and risky but if that is what it takes, in the view of the Russian leadership, to keep NATO out of Belarus, then so be it.
Russian support is the best chance Alexander Lukashenko has got if he is to survive. Beyond the security services and the highest echelons of the Belarusian leadership, Lukashenko has little or no support in wider Belarusian society. The price that Lukashenko will pay for keeping himself in power, thereby protecting his own security and finances, is by outsourcing more of his nation’s sovereignty to Russia.
Belarus’ protest movement does have some similarities with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe if we look at some of its aims and the demographics of the opposition. However, Russia is more willing to intervene in the post-Soviet sphere than it was in 1989. Therefore, it is highly likely that instead of moving away from Moscow’s sphere of influence, Belarus may end up much nearer to it.
13,000 fatalities. 3,300 dead civilians. These are the casualty numbers of a European war that seems like it could have taken place in the nineteenth century; nevertheless, it is de facto a war of the twenty-first century, and the numbers date from 2019. The war in Eastern Ukraine, sparked in 2014, continues to this day. Yet, it has been largely forgotten by West European media coverage, particularly in this year of social and political upheaval caused by the global health crisis.
The last time this conflict received major international attention was when the passenger plane MH17 was accidentally shot down over Ukrainian territory in 2014 through the military activities there. Yet after this tragedy, the fight between the Ukrainian army and volunteer forces, and the separatists who aim for the autonomy of the two oblasts, Donezk and Luhansk, remains at the obscure margins of political news. The continuation of this war, however, should again receive more attention from the rest of Europe. Not merely because it is a war that takes place right on Europe’s borders – which in itself should be a strong incitement for international action – but, more importantly, because it is a disquieting sign of post-Soviet nationalisms that foster a conflictive political climate in Eastern Europe and particularly in the countries along the Russian borders.
To expand on this thesis, it is vital to examine Ukraine’s Soviet and pre-Soviet past more closely in order to shed light on present-day tensions between the new countries that emerged from the Russian-dominated Union. National movements that demanded Ukrainian independence were present during the final decades of the Tsarist Empire, which broke apart after the February Revolution of 1917; in 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was founded – the first independent Ukrainian state in history. Yet its existence was as brief as it was revolutionary: between tensions with Poland and the newly-founded Russian Soviet Republic, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. With the regime change under Josef Stalin, the Ukrainian territory began to be exploited for its agricultural riches; the infamous collectivization of agricultural produce, a Soviet concept, led to what is now known as Holodomor, a famine that took the lives of several millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. Historians nowadays consider this event as man-made and potentially even as a Stalinist way of intentionally weakening nationalist independence movements in Ukraine.
In 1991, Ukrainians voted for their independence from the shattered Soviet Union. At the time, the country was struggling with its re-orientation as an independent nation between the East and West, and this post-Soviet burden cumulated into tensions which were released in the 2013 Revolution. The chaos of the Maidan, and the years of corruption and destabilization of the state under President Viktor Yanukovych, provided the Russian-backed separatist movements in eastern Ukraine with a convenient opportunity when the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia and the fighting for independence from Ukraine ensued. Although Russia itself continues to deny its military involvement, it is difficult to interpret the annexation of Crimea in any other way than Russian interest in territorial expansion hidden behind nationalist narratives – Ukrainian territory is sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of the “true” Russian nation – and widening of Russian influence under Putin. And while it would be too speculative to argue that Russia is actively intending to recreate some of the former greatness of both the USSR and the Tsarist Empire, it cannot be denied that having politically weakened neighbours seems to be in its interest, and potentially even leads to cases such as the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Neo-nationalisms on both sides, however, aggravate the problem, and the concrete issue of the ongoing military conflict will thus hardly find a swift conclusion. After all, it not only depends on Ukraine’s decision on which way to go in its position between East and West, but also if, and how, Russia manifests its – at times provocative – foreign policy.
Few pictures hang on the walls of President Putin’s office, but the portrait of the third Prime Minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin is more prominent than the rest. Putin has publicly praised Stolypin on multiple occasions and he has become commonly known as the President’s idol.
Following recent constitutional reform to keep Putin in power until 2036, and growing crises caused by COVID-19 and mass protests, the historical example of Stolypin may offer a way to understand Putin’s current conception of power and corresponding strategies of control for the near future.
2012 marked the 150th Anniversary of Pyotr Stolypin’s birth. The same year, Putin ordered his own cabinet ministers to donate a month’s wages to build a statue of his historic mentor. In following speeches, Putin referred to Stolypin as ‘a real patriot and a wise politician’ who ‘displayed personal courage and a willingness to load himself with the entire burden of responsibility for the state and country’. Further expressed was that the guidance of Stolypin had put ‘Russia on a healthy path’, with his assassination in 1911 marking a first step to Revolution and chaos.
Stolypin’s zenith certainly alludes to why Putin upholds his legacy. Both leaders’ political climates and foundations of power appear similar. Following Revolution in 1905, Stolypin fundamentally quashed dissent and partially ignored democratic process to will reform in whichever direction he saw fit. Throughout the Third Duma, Article 87 was introduced to constitutionally change fundamental laws, and bypass the Duma itself. Subsequently, Stolypin could personally control mass agrarian reform whilst commanding immense power to suppress opposition. At the pinnacle of the Stolypin years, the hangman’s noose became colloquially known as ‘Stolypin’s Necktie’.
As readers may already be noticing, Stolypin’s doctrine of reform and repression bears similarities with the political climate of the past decade in Putin’s Russia. Much like his idol, Putin has faced what his government deems as liberal dissent. The base of Putin’s power rests upon the centralised image of a man who can reform Russia to bring it back to an assertion of glory. To secure that position Putin has personally driven overhauls in economic, political, and foreign policy. But as much as he follows Stolypin’s approach of individually guided change, Putin understands the necessity of repression to maintain his position. Harassment of journalists, a secret police, and state sponsored assassinations are just as much a part of Putin’s Russia as they were Stolypin’s.
Due to recent events, we are likely to see the guidance of Stolypin once again rear its head in Putin’s mind. The President is now facing a climate of crisis unparalleled in his political career so far. Failures in navigating the COVID-19 crisis are currently undermining his personal image. Unprecedented mass protests in Khabarovsk in the Far East mark a new era of anti-Kremlin dissidence, with tens of thousands on the streets and no great response from Putin. Upon this, regional dislike for the Kremlin is growing and local government increasingly becoming favoured.
Already, Stolypin-esque responses can be seen in the aforementioned constitutional change that was pushed through in July. Through the extension of his term, Putin is already bolstering his personal power and looks set to take a hand in new conservative reforms to channel loyalty. Respectively, it is not far fetched to suppose that once he has gained a grip on the pandemic, Putin’s gaze shall turn to suppressing growing anti-government fervour.
Much like his icon, Putin believes in his personal ability to guide Russia upon ‘a healthy path’. To do so he follows Stolypin’s appreciation of the need to repress and reform in order to captain the Russian behemoth, through the storm posed by the unpredictable political climate that varies abruptly across each region of the nation. Putin faces growing damage to his reputation. The guidance and example of his historical mentor may be key to understanding Putin’s next step to recuperate his popularity and reputation.