A priest blesses cakes and painted eggs for Orthodox Easter in the village of Semurovtsy, Belarus, 19 April. Photo: Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images
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Belarus is now at risk of losing its independence to Russia

Most Belarusians have a somewhat weaker sense of identity than Ukrainians but they feel Belarusian rather than Russian.

Returning to Belarus, a flat land of nearly ten million people, after an interval of five years, I found that very little had changed: Alexander Lukashenko remains president (as he has been since 1994), the opposition is weak, the NGOs are lively but struggle to survive, the state employs about 70 per cent of the workforce, unemployment is negligible, street crime is low and corruption is less of a problem than in the neighbouring Russia or Ukraine. Belarus is still not in the Council of Europe (largely because it executes people) or the World Trade Organisation, the capital is dominated by Soviet architecture and the state security agency is called the KGB.

What may be changing, however, is that Belarus is now at risk of losing its independence. Some government officials and opposition leaders worry that the crisis in Ukraine, combined with serious economic problems, makes that prospect more likely.

As a number of opposition figures are prepared to concede, Lukashenko has just about succeeded in maintaining his country’s independence. Several times, he has extracted financial aid from Russia in return for making promises that he has then reneged on. He has flirted periodically with the west as a counter to Russian influence. This has infuriated Russian leaders but they have grudgingly tolerated it.

Most Belarusians have a somewhat weaker sense of identity than Ukrainians – their country has shallower historical roots – but they feel Belarusian rather than Russian. Although everyone speaks Russian, about a fifth of the population speak Belarusian at home and all schoolchildren learn it. The regional differences are much less pronounced than in Ukraine but in the western city of Hrodna – once Polish, with fine baroque architecture – I encountered more nationalist feeling than in the capital, Minsk.

Lukashenko seems to have profited from the crisis in Ukraine, at least in the short term. According to opinion pollsters, in recent years, support for the EU and democracy has grown, encompassing about a third of the population. But they think that trend is now reversing, as people start to fear the chaos that has afflicted Ukraine.

Yet Russia’s annexation of Crimea worries Belarusians. When officials discuss the “Putin doctrine” – the assertion of Russia’s right to intervene in its neighbourhood to protect Russian speakers or Russians – they smile nervously (about 8 per cent of people in Belarus are Russian).

The country’s ability to stand up to Russia is undermined by its economy, which has almost stopped growing – partly because of close economic ties to the slow-growing Russia.

Belarusians could not have maintained their standard of living – per capita GDP is about 50 per cent higher than in Ukraine – without Russian subsidies, mainly in the form of cheap oil and gas. But this system is no longer stable. The current account deficit grew from 3 per cent of GDP in 2012 to 10 per cent last year (roughly $7bn) and is likely to be worse this year. The deficit cannot be plugged without vast borrowing and Russia may be the only country willing to lend. Moscow has made it clear that strings would be attached: the privatisation of Belarus’s chief industrial assets so that Russians would be free to buy them; moves towards a stronger “Eurasian Economic Community”; and support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

After the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Belarus refused to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenko took a similar stance at the start of the Crimean crisis but as pressure from Moscow has grown, the line has evolved. The president recently said Crimea was now part of Russia and if forced to choose Belarus would be with Russia. Yet he added that the annexation sets “a bad precedent”.

The government, worried about this tightening bear hug, has sent signals to Brussels that it could be ready for closer ties. The EU is wary; the last rapprochement in 2009 led to the release of political prisoners in return for the suspension of sanctions on Belarus but ended with a crackdown on the opposition. Still, the EU recently agreed to negotiate softer visa rules for Belarusians and several EU countries want to go further. European leaders know that Lukashenko won’t dismantle his dictatorship but some of them think that engagement would help the country to maintain its independence.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge