By DON SOUTHWICK and TRAVIS ZIRKER, UPP Contributors-
OREM - On June 8, students at Utah Valley University (UVU) hosted a foreign dignitary, the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations, His Excellency Andrei Dapkiunas. UVU is a very unique university in the Rocky Mountains because through the office of International Affairs and Diplomacy it focuses on hosting envoys from the United Nations, when most educational institutions usually only invite Ambassadors to the United States.
Permanent Representative of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations, His Excellency Andrei Dapkiunas.
The VIP guest titled his presentation, "The Belarus you wish you knew." In his opening remarks the Ambassador spoke about stereotypes and more specifically about the stereotypes that people have of his country. When the audience was asked what their first thoughts were when they heard the name Belarus, the responses included gymnastics, the Soviet Union and grain fields. Begin a conversation about Belarus with any of your neighbors and you'll probably receive the same response.
Some people realize that Belarus, officially The Republic of Belarus, is a country that is about the size of Utah with a population three times its size. It is located on the western border of Russia and is also bordered by Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the Northwest. Others may know something about Belarus and World War II, or if they really watch the news, something about the President Lukashenko of Belarus who is famous for his outspokenness in dealing with the outside world and harsh treatment of the opposition in his country.
Ambassador Dapkiunas openly acknowledged the existence of such stereotypes of Belarus, stating that some may see it as the black hole of Europe and the last dictatorship on the continent. While stereotypes of Belarus tend to be bleak, bland and dark, Mr. Dapkiunas reminded the students that when we approach something as vivid and vibrant it may not become any easier to understand. However, it may become more interesting and it will change the way we look at other things.
During his visit with the students, Mr. Dapkiunas highlighted some of the national attitudes that have developed in Belarus as a result of its history and geographical position as a crossroads between Europe and Russia. The people of Belarus have suffered the affects of many wars in their country and they received 70% of the radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986. Some estimates say that during World War II Belarus lost up to a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources. These events have created a national sense of sorrow.
The repeated wars and political upheaval in Belarus often left the exact borders of the country uncertain and the people in conflict about their national identity. To cope with the ever changing situation, Belarusians have developed a sense of "localism." This localism was manifested in a strong connection to family roots, a non-contentious and apolitical attitude and social, political and national indifference. Out of this localism a national sense of moderation also grew. The people of Belarus very seldom go to extremes and may even lean towards fatalism. They were the first nation to renounce having nuclear weapons on their territory and the national mood has often been expressed as "let there be anything but war".
After speaking to the students at UVU, Mr. Dapkiunas spent time in Salt Lake City meeting with business, government and religious leaders as well taking a tour of the Utah Olympic Park and Sundance resort. After a long day of meetings and events in Utah, the Ambassador still took time to meet with two of us, representing UVU students for follow-up questions at his hotel. He praised the students at UVU, saying that the audience seemed, "unusually bright and interested," more so than some groups he had spoken to. He also praised the people of Utah saying that he was impressed with the quality of the people he met and that he was drawn to Utah because of shared family values and the universal roots that unite us. Mr. Dapkiunas also noted that he often attends meetings as an ambassador which are purely formal meetings that bring no real value to understanding the world. He felt that the meetings in Utah were different and hoped that they would lead people and policy makers to examine his country more carefully.
When asked how he would like people to see his country, the Ambassador replied with one word, "honestly." He would like Belarus to be seen for what it is as well as for what it is not. He stated that instead of dealing in stereotypes, "a truthful image that includes the good and the bad will help us better understand each other."
Belarus, is a former Soviet republic, after gaining its independence in 1991, it established bilateral cooperation with the United States. It was selected as a partner for Utah National Guard in building relations in military areas. Unfortunately, those plans for cooperation were not sustained when relations of Belarus with the United States went to their lowest level after the election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenko in 1994. During his time as president, he faced criticism from the west for using referendums to change election laws, extend presidential term limits and intolerance to opposition. Due to this Belarus was named the last dictatorship in Europe.
Currently, the regime in Minsk experiences significant pressure from Moscow and as a result tries to moderate policies and provides some openings in dealing with the west. If such policies would work, it would definitely be beneficial for Utah, because members of the Utah National Guard may be open to renew its partnership with colleagues in Belarus. Students and faculty of UVU could also contribute to the building of friendly and cordial ties with partners and the people of Belarus.
Don Southwick, a Junior at UVU studying Political Science with emphasis on American government, is a member of the United States Army Reserve; Travis Zirker is a Senior at UVU studying Political Science with an emphasis in International Relations.