Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

(Dis)engaging Youth in Contemporary Belarus through a Pro-Presidential Youth League

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

(Dis)engaging Youth in Contemporary Belarus through a Pro-Presidential Youth League

Article excerpt

In a survey conducted by the independent polling agency Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) in March 2011, 91.5% of 18-to-29-year-old Belarusians reported that they knew of an organization called Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU). (1) The same study found that 25.6% of young people surveyed expressed a positive attitude toward the organization, with 21.9% indicating a negative attitude and 47.2% stating that they were indifferent toward the BRYU. (2) Only 13.5% of the young respondents expressed a desire to participate in the activities of the youth league, (3) even though according to official statistics, 20-25% of Belarusian 14-to-31-year-olds are fee-paying members of the organization. (4) The aim of this article is to drill down into these numbers, asking what motivates young Belarusians to join the pro-presidential youth league and what functions are carried out by different sub-groups inside its structure.

For scholars of non-government organizations who have little knowledge of contemporary Belarus, the statistics given above might seem surprising. However, to those familiar with the current state of society in Lukashenka's Belarus, the numbers are not at all unexpected: citizens are expected to join "public organizations" set up by the government in order to demonstrate their loyalty, but active participation is not required. Yet the figures also suggest that Belarus is no North Korea, as people openly state their ambivalent or even negative views of the pro-presidential youth organization to which they belong. Bearing these figures in mind, how can we make sense of young people's engagement with the BRYU? What motivates them to join the youth league, participate in its everyday activities, and opt to build a career inside the BRYU? (5)

While scholars have provided valuable insight into the mechanisms that contribute to the stability of authoritarian rule in contemporary Belarus, (6) there appear to be no qualitative studies of how citizens engage with--and disengage from--organizations constructed and managed by the state. (7) While this article does not seek to challenge the widespread assumption that these organizations are props of Lukashenka's "dummy civil society," (8) I argue that grassroots study of these structures is important to understanding the complexities of social interaction in contemporary Belarus in particular and in an authoritarian state more generally. The aim of this article is therefore to analyze the everyday practices of the BRYU from the perspective of its members, examining what motivates young Belarusians to either participate or avoid participating in the youth league's activities. The empirical and triangulated data presented in the article was gathered by me in 2016-2017 and consists of 15 interviews with BRYU activists at different levels and organization outsiders, as well as field notes written on the basis of participant observation. In 2016 and 2017, I made three field trips to Belarus: (9) for four weeks in spring 2016, for three-and-a-half months in spring 2017, and for two weeks in autumn 2017. During these periods, I was able to observe and participate in the everyday activities of the BRYU primary cells operating at the state universities in Minsk, Hrodna, and Mahilyow. Given the study's aims and objectives, I found the interviews I conducted somewhat limited in their utility, as the respondents sought to give what they thought were the "right answers" for them to be offering as the organization's representatives. During participant observation, in contrast, I was free to watch how young people interacted with each other and (dis)engaged with the official program. This, I thought, yielded more valuable information about the motivations behind their participation.

I did not specifically interview passive members for this study because my aim was to focus first and foremost on organization activists' motivations and the everyday practices of the BRYU. …

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