Ukraine and Belarus are two nations that frequently are on the minds of political and media establishments, but often suffer from a lack of context and overt simplification, according to two dissidents in an open lecture at the European Union House in Tallinn on Monday.
Artem Dudchenko, from the Ukraine, and Serge Kharytonau, a native of Belarus, tried to illuminate in their addresses what the West gets wrong in its coverage and understanding of the dynamics of the two countries. The two dissidents, who are now attending the Estonian School of Diplomacy, said that in particular, media coverage missed important subtext to the main issues being highlighted in the public sphere.
In the case of Ukraine, Dudchenko said the true triggering factor for the Euromaidan rebellion in the last few months has been missed by western media. While the rejection of the partnership agreement with the European Union has gotten the focus of the press, the key fundamental is economic.
"The details in the mass media are not explaining what is happening in the Ukraine right now," Kharytonau said. "There is a large economic crisis in the country, and that's more of a factor than anything else."
Dudchenko said 78 percent of the population is at or below the poverty line, and the average salary is only 301 Euros a month. Estonia's 2012 GNP per capita was almost three times as large as Ukraine's, and the economy has shown barely detectable growth in the last few years.
Because of the economic malaise of the country under the current regime support for an EU partnership has rapidly grow. Recent polling has shown that 37 percent of the populace support a quick path to an affiliation with the EU, which is a 11 percent rise over previous polls. The number of people that do not support a EU partnership program stands at 24 percent, a five-percent drop. He rejected the common narrative that Ukrainian speakers and the young support Euromaidan, while Russian-speakers and the old support the regime.
"Euromaidan is not just about supporting Euro integration for the country," he said, referring to the economic spiral the country finds itself in at present. "Most are against the policies of President (Viktor) Yanukovych and his Party of Regions."
Serge Kharytonau said that his home country of Belarus, which he left in 2007, also suffers from fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the country and its authoritarian regime under Alexander Lukashenko.
For example, despite a popular belief that Belarus' economy has always been intricately tied to Russia, 45 percent of Belarusian exports went to the European Union as late as 2010, while only 30 percent went to Russia.
"The trade component has definitely been underestimated," said Kharytonau, and provides an opportunity to open Belarusians to a Western perspective. Only 46 percent of the citizens have ever visited another European country, although it shares borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, besides Russia.
Kharytonau advocated a policy of openness and engagement, despite the numerous human rights violations of the country. For example, a number of workers in state factories cannot quit their jobs, a fact that makes those positions tantamount to slavery, and laws that make even a hint of dissent a jailable offense. Belarus' state police, he said, is larger now than it ever was in Stasi-surveilled East Germany.
He also saw some parallels with the Baltic drive towards independence, especially in terms of struggling with a cultural and national identity. Although many outsiders write off Belarusian nationalism as an extinct concept, it is more appropriate to call it dormant. Belarus had connections to many other cultures in its neighbourhood over a 500 year-period, not only Slavonic.
"Many people see the current conditions as normal," said Kharytonau, although historically it is anything but.
"Dictatorships happen when a nation is poor," he said. "The more wealthy they become, the more free they will get."
The two had different perspectives on what the Western response should be with the two regimes. Although both agreed sanctions against anti-democratic regimes have historically proven to be ineffective, Dudchenko said targeted sanctions against the businessmen that enable the Yanukovych government could be an effective strategy by the West.
"Implement sanctions against the oligarchs, their (Western) bank accounts, their property and their businesses. Make the sanctions personal," he said, noting that he personally saw a total economic default by Ukraine as a possible endgame for the regime.
In the case of Belarus, Kharytonau pointed out sanctions were already tried against Lukashenko after December 2010, when more than 1,000 protesters were arrested after disputing the results of a presidential election. It led to a withdrawal of contacts and influence on Belarus by the West, which he said, was a mistake.
He suggested instead that West Germany's policy toward East Germany during the Cold War, a systematic 20-year program of rapprochement, was an approach which made sense in Belarus' case.
"The diplomacy is generally been weak," he said. " Belarusian politicians should be approached. We need more interdependence at a logistical and commercial level. Show Belarusian businessmen, for example, there is another series of values."