The Role of State Identity in Pandemic Response: The Case of Belarus and Georgia

-Jahnavi Mukul

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the newly independent republics of Belarus and Georgia began the task of building their nation-state. The political trajectories that both these countries undertook are vastly different from one another. Belarus has had an authoritarian government under President Alexander Lukashenko, it’s only president to date, whereas Georgia is a parliamentary democracy that has experienced a largely democratic shift of power between various leaders. The current head of state is President Salome Zourabichvili who was democratically elected in 2018. The stark contrast between the two countries has recently been amplified by the Coronavirus pandemic. While Georgia has performed extremely well in terms of its response to the virus, Belarus has been lagging far behind. This article argues that the difference in response to the virus between the two former Soviet republics can be attributed to the polarity between their idea of state identity.

Belarus has been termed as the most Russianised of the former Soviet republics. It became independent after two centuries of being under the rule of different groups. Historians describe Belarus’s independence as something that fell upon it since there was no national movement. Over the years, the Belarussian identity got submerged into a Soviet-Belarussian one. The culture of patriotism was heavily reliant on the Soviet Union. 

After coming into power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko preached for national consolidation through two methods: increasing state capacity as well as the role of the President as its guarantor. He adopted slightly amended Soviet national symbols, made Russian the national language, and returned the economy as a Soviet-era state-controlled one. Lukashenko even held a referendum to amend the constitution and increase the power of the president. As an authoritarian leader, Lukashenko has placed himself at the centre of the Belarussian identity. The government preaches patriarchal rule by the bat’ka (father), which justifies building the state around Lukashenko. The opposition in the country, which wants a traditional sense of identity and opposes close ties to Russia, is perceived to be anti-patriotic by the masses. This is because the idea of Belarus is tied to Lukashenko and any opposition to that is viewed as alien.

Lukashenko’s centrality in the Belarussian state identity has allowed him to take all decision making in his hand as the father of the country. Belarus has an extremely high rate of coronavirus infection and yet, Lukashenko has done nothing except undermine the severity of the disease. He has gone so far as to call it a psychosis and continued to attend mass even at the peak of the disease in the country. As of 16th June, the number of cases stands at 55,369 with 318 deaths.

Georgia’s case is vastly different. There has been no rallying figure at the centre of the Georgian identity. The government has seen democratic shifts in power between various leaders and political parties. Although President Mikheil Saakashvili’s tenure was quite tumultuous, with several anti-government protests at various points, the governments succeeding him have had relatively peaceful tenures. Over the course of its political trajectory, the country has faced various difficulties. Georgia has been marred by various conflicts; the independence from Soviet Union in 1991, a civil war in Tbilisi in 1993, two internal wars in South Ossetia in 1991-92, and Abkhazia in 1992-93, the Rose Revolution in 2003, and the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. 

Over time the idea of what it means to be Georgian has gotten strengthened due to these conflicts. Since independence, Georgia has tried to integrate itself in the European ecosystem and believes that this is an important part of its identity. The words of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, “I am Georgian, therefore I am European,” clearly showcases the extent to which Europe plays a role in Georgian politics. After the Russo-Georgian war, the idea of being a liberal democracy became stronger at the centre of Georgian politics. Russia is seen as an “other” by Georgians on the grounds of different social order and values. Georgians view the conflict with Russia as a clash that could be softened if Russia were to become a democracy. Georgia has tried to break away from the Soviet and the Russian hold of influence and this is particularly related to its perception of itself as a European country working as a democracy.

Georgia’s quick response to the coronavirus has received international praise. The government reacted promptly by employing temperature checks at airports in late January and restrictions on international travel, helped mitigate the situation in the country early on. Educational institutions were closed and lockdowns were put in place when the country had only three cases. As of 16th June, the number of cases in the country stands at 879 cases out of which there are 14 deaths. 

The glaring difference between Belarus and Georgia lies in the leadership style of both governments. Lukashenko has single-handedly taken the decisions in Belarus, in any way he wishes and kept the fledgling economy open at the cost of human lives. The country’s scientific community has been silenced. The Belarussian ministry of health has issued social distancing notices but the President has openly flouted those. 

Fig 1: Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko, center, with his son Nikolai, right, talks with worshipers during the Orthodox Easter service at a church in a village outside Minsk. Source: Isabelle Khurshudyan, Washington Post.

On the other hand, Georgia has deferred the decision making to the country’s best public health experts. The doctors have become national heroes as they have tirelessly been providing hourly reports on the patients’ health as well as the number of infections, the sources of infection as well as the best course of action as the situation progresses. 

Fig 2: Tengiz Tsertsvadze, director of the Center for Infectious Pathologies, AIDS and Clinical Immunology, with Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Source: Giorgi Lomsadze, Eurasianet.

While the difference in the pandemic response can simply be attributed to Belarus’ authoritarian government and Georgia’s democratic one, there is an underlying cause behind these developments. Belarus has stuck to its closeness of Russia and has continued to remain in its economic and political shadow. Georgia has moved away from its northern neighbor and established its own governmental structures. For Belarus, Lukashenko is the center of all the decisions made and any opposition to that is difficult for the public to understand. The public is not open to taking difficult steps unless their leader says so. Contrarily, in Georgia, the public is open to difficult measures being taken for the larger good. The Georgian ambassador to the United States, David Bakradze said to the Washington Post that the country has weathered many difficult days and citizens were willing to make sacrifices such as the travel ban and a range of societal measures. “We are used to pulling together in tough times.” 

Looking at these differences, it can be deduced that response to the pandemic specifically and national crises at large can be understood by examining the way a country views itself. In Belarus, the country sees itself as an extension of Russia and places Alexander Lukashenko as the overarching figure in its national identity. Georgia sees itself as completely different from its Soviet past and has been able to work towards asserting a separate identity. Thus, it can be seen that the role of state identity is foundational in the polity of a country and has become explicitly visible in the current context of the Coronavirus. Two countries born out of the same republic have had vastly different trajectories due to the role of state identity in crisis response.

This piece was originally written for and published in the Yale Review of International Studies.