Uladzimir Matskevich: Destruction of IISEPS is the last stage of destruction of Belarusan sociology

Aliaksei Yurych, EuroBelarus Information Service

Belarus is rapidly turning into a third world country: the destruction of its intellectual resources makes us a society that is incapable of self-organization — such in Cuba or in North Korea.

The destruction of sociology, an analytical center or an expert team brings a lot more damage to democracy, the country's national interests than the street opposition of militia and several dozen activists. If Belarus loses the remnants of intellectual resources, the country will at the same time lose independence and intellectual freedom.

On August 9 IISEPS founder Oleg Manaev announced that the institute will stop its research activities in Belarus. The leaders of the last independent social research institute have decided to stop its researches after the screening of the movie about the IISEPS on Belarus 1 TV channel. As the authors explained, the film is based on the documents provided by an anonymous woman and features receipts and the names of coordinators of the polling network in Belarus.

The causes and consequences of the IISEPS elimination EuroBelarus Information Service discussed with philosopher and methodologist Uladzimir Matskevich.

— Belarusan authorities are very patient: they can postpone the punishment of undesirable people or organizations forever. Destruction of IISEPS is the last stage of destruction of the Belarusan sociology, which has been lasting for the past 15 years. The destruction of sociology is not our current problem, but the completion of a longer process: the Belarusan regime doesn’t need independent sociological service, independent polls, which can give reliable information.

If the regime does need reliable information, the regime collects it either through the KGB, or by using the materials of the Institute of Sociology. The latter is able to conduct polls, but is unable to set its own tasks and interpret the results it gets and that can be used by the KGB, but are often made classified.

— Why have the leaders of NISEPI decided to stop their researches in Belarus? After all, they could change the network inside the country or switch to telephone surveys — as, for example, the Axiometrical Research Laboratory NOVAK.

— You see, the underground sociology is nonsense.

You know, it's not only the Belarusan authorities, who presented claims to the sociologists. Very often independent researchers have expressed their concerns that social polls are impossible in the situation of the authoritarian regime as people don’t respond the way they think but give answers that are correct from the point of view of the authorities. Therefore, even at this stage distorted information can appear.

A sociologist should introduce him- or herself; while the Belarusan TV branded IISEPS.

There are not many people in Belarus who can be sociologists: it’s not a mass profession; it requires an appropriate level of education. It is impossible to engage in public activities secretly. The decision of IISEPS and Manaev to stop their work is understandable and might be the only reasonable decision under the circumstances.

— IISEPS researches were the only barometer, which more or less objectively reflected the state of the Belarusan society. Barometer doesn’t exist anymore — how should we measure the pulse of public life?

— Sometimes you cannot replace some things. IISEPS has been conducting opinion polls for over twenty years; it has accumulated a database — a new team would neither have the experience nor the data for the analysis.

Secondly, it’s extremely hard to create a new independent structure today. You can imagine the amount of work that needs to be done: training, selecting people for the job, finding customers. Sociology is worth money, which is measured in tens of thousands of dollars; a new team won’t have the needed reputation, clientele, for which the customers could pay. I cannot imagine what structure can replace IISEPS any time soon.

— Why did the authorities destroy IISEPS, but haven’t done the same about the opposition parties?

— It is assumed that it is the political parties that are fighting against the regime and that struggle results in mass protests. But scarce, unimpressive protests that are possible today, do not pose a serious threat to the regime. Whereas truthful information, scientific analysis, assessments, and monitorings do. Thus, the regime allows marginalized, insignificant parties to exist; however, the regime cannot afford itself the existence of independent expert centers or sociological centers.

It’s high time for the society to change its opinion of what is really in opposition to the Belarusan regime. When some oppositionist is detained for 15 days, human rights activists and mass media are screaming about it out loud. But dozens of professors, PhDs, who are dismissed from academic institutions for their critical thinking, and hundreds of associate professors, candidates of science, and lecturers who have been banned from their profession and cannot find work in educational institutions and government offices is much more valuable for the resistance to the regime than repressions against several political figures.

We don’t understand that the destruction of sociology, an analytical center or an expert team does a lot more damage to democracy, national interests than a street confrontation between a few dozen activists and the police. The damage inflicted on the Belarusan society is simply catastrophic; we can lose all intellectual and spiritual grounds for resistance and turn into a society that is incapable of self-organization — such in Cuba or in North Korea.

In this situation pseudo-opposition parties and quasi-parties can be active. Until we understand where the secure boundary between the Belarusan society of European type lies, we will be letting the regime destroy the remnants of all the best, intelligent, educated, and smart that we still have in Belarus.

What do we still have? We have few groups of intellectuals; but if we lose them, then we would have to invite experts from other countries if it happens that Belarus is destined to undergo a transformation. We are rapidly turning into a third-world country, incapable of independent movement into the future.