Iryna Videnava on Next Generation Please!

What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like?

Perhaps it’s the historian in me speaking, but I don’t think the ideal society has ever existed. To me it’s a question of proximity: how far from or how close to the ideal is a society. It’s also related to openness: the more closed and unfree a society is, the more it pretends to be ideal; in a really open society there is always room for and plenty of self-criticism. No wonder that many Belarusians still believe that they live on “an island of stability” (despite the shaking under their feet), while Europe talks endlessly about collapse. In reality, the latter is much more solid than the former. Today, the society in which I live – “Europe’s last dictatorship” – is almost the opposite of my ideal, but I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who try very hard, often at the risk of their personal freedom and well-being, to change it for the better.   

I’ve always been inspired by the idea of a democratic community. My historical studies introduced me to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a pro-democracy that existed from 1569 to 1795. In this republic, of which Belarus was a part, citizens elected the king, served in parliament, created constitutions, judged their peers, practiced religious toleration, and built a state founded on the rule of law. While the Commonwealth had many shortcomings, it was the democratic exception in a region of subjects ruled by autocrats, divine right, state religions, and military force. For many of us in Belarus’ democratic movement, the ideals of the Commonwealth are not just part of the pages of books -- we are inspired by and struggle for them today.  A number of scholars and activists have rightly pointed out how many of the ideals of the old Commonwealth are embodied in today’s EU.       

I would like to live in a community where people are not punished for thinking differently and therefore are not afraid to voice their opinions. I imagine a community where thinking, questioning and taking initiative is encouraged. I would like my compatriots to be aware of the diversity of their own past and present, as well as that of the world around them. Under the current government, we live in a black-and-white world that is broadcast 24/7 on colorful TV screens, but this Soviet-style world view is boring and out of date. My ideal community consists of creative individuals, confident with who they are and comfortable with others. It is open-minded, curious, dynamic and optimistic about the future. I believe that my small personal community will become the community of all Belarusians. I live in a society that is changing for the better, becoming closer to Europe. It may have gotten lost after 1994, but it is rediscovering itself. I know that this transformation will be long and difficult, but it is amazing to witness and inspiring to be part of this reawakening.         

Has integration in Europa failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?

For someone like me, who lives on the other side of the EU border, to say that European integration has failed means to dash the hopes of millions of Belarusians who see their future in Europe, rather than in Russia and Eurasia. Despite our European past, this desire to be part of a future Europe, whole and free, is quite intuitive and irrational, as the majority of Belarusians have never been to an EU country. Most people here know very little about EU politics, economics, culture or neighborhood programs. Moreover, state propaganda tries its best to show that the collapse of the EU is a question of months, if not weeks. Yet, despite the Euro crisis, pro-European moods are growing in Belarus. As bad as things are at our west, there is no more attractive eastern alternative. With all its warts, the promise of EU integration continues to promote reforms in such far-flung places as Moldova, Albania, Kosovo and Ukraine.

It took centuries for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to come together and 176 years for the United States to expand from the original 13 to current 50 states. From a historical perspective, the European Union is still an adolescent, as only 19 years have passed since the Maastricht Treaty. Coming of age is often an awkward and painful process. I don’t think that the problems facing the EU today will be solved on their own, but I do believe that there are thousands of determined, bright leaders and professionals who are trying to find the right solutions for the current challenges. Moreover, I believe that there is popular will to save the Union. This is easily seen in the New Member States from the former communist bloc. For them, joining the EU was a dream that inspired internal democratic and free market transformations. I believe that the ambition of these new members will help “Old Europe” to overcome the current crisis. The EU model may have many flaws, but it also has great potential. It continues to inspire with the ideas of a common market, open borders and multiculturalism. In comparison to Putin’s Eurasia Union, it grows because it’s attractive, not because of energy blackmail or other threats. I look forward to the day when Belarus will stand at the altar of this union and hold from that day forth, “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” to join the European family of nations.