Haiti’s sprawling capital, Port-au-Prince. Image source: Short Term Memory: Tandem in the Foreign Service

Haiti is a country in the Caribbean, one of the parts of the world most beloved by tourists and outsiders in general. It has glorious palm-fringed beaches, coral reefs, lush tropical forests, lots of rum, a colorful history, cultures that blend influences from Europe and Africa, great music and dancing, and a lifestyle that ranges from easygoing to partying hard — lubricated by all that rum. Haiti has all of these and more, but it also has a dire reputation as the most problem-plagued part of the Americas. Foreigners are far more likely to visit as aid workers than to relax.

This reputation is mostly deserved, and Haiti does face enormous obstacles before it can reach the levels of its Caribbean neighbors. This blog post will shed some light on arguably the Americas’ most maligned nation and provide some perspective on how it came to this.

Originally, Hispaniola (the island Haiti is on) was inhabited by the Arawaks, who lived in villages of varying size governed by chiefs and subsisting on horticulture of root vegetables, fishing, and barbecue (which they invented). Then Cristobal Colón came by in 1493, and everything changed. It is obvious how much Spanish colonization changed the Americas — probably nowhere else in the world has gone through such a drastic change — but Hispaniola got the first, most intense dose of it. Eager to exploit its gold, the Spanish enslaved the natives and worked them to death in mines. Revolts were put down ferociously. To top it off, the Spanish introduced diseases the Arawaks had no resistance to. By the 1540s, the Arawaks were pretty much extinct, making this episode probably history’s most successful genocide. Today only faint traces of Arawak culture, like canoes and cigars, survive, although the Spanish predilection for rape at least ensured the survival of some Arawak genes.

But for the most part, Haitian history has been shaped by a different group of outsiders: Africans. To replace the native population they had wiped out, Spain imported African slaves instead, turning the Caribbean into an interesting outpost of African culture in the long run. The western part of Hispaniola was less-developed than the east, making it easy prey for the French when they got around to sailing in the Caribbean; they seized it in 1697 and named it Saint-Domingue (the Spanish colony being called Santo Domingo).

Thanks to intensive sugar cultivation on plantations, St-Domingue became France’s most profitable colony, and the island developed a class of rich, conservative French planters. It also had free blacks and mulattoes, or mixed-race people. But over 80% of St-Domingue’s people were slaves, and they worked under horrible conditions and were subjected to constant brutality. A steady flow of slaves from Africa ensured that slaves’ lives were cheap. Revolts were common — machetes are awfully sharp — but they never caused the French too much trouble.

… Until the French Revolution, that is. Stirred by that movement’s calls for liberty and equality, a mulatto named Vincent Ogé called for the same ideals to be introduced in St-Domingue. When he was ignored and thrown out of the National Assembly, he resorted to a revolt in 1791. Although it was short-lived, it helped inspire a much longer, more violent one. Stoked by the cruelty with which they were treated and coordinated through secret societies imported from Africa, the revolt could not be put down. The story of the ensuing Haitian Revolution is an involved and interesting one; it includes a three-way war between St-Domingue’s different racial classes, the whites’ political confusion as the home country tore itself apart, rank betrayal, the unification of Hispaniola under black rule, British and Polish (!) intervention, outbreaks of yellow fever, a prominent starring role by Napoleon, accomplished generalship by Haiti’s national hero (Toussaint L’Ouverture), and a LOT of grisly violence, torture and destruction. When it was all over in 1804, St-Domingue was independent at last, as Haiti (an old Arawak term). It was only the 2nd country in the world (after America) to throw off colonial rule, and the only successful slave revolt in history, 2 facts that give Haitians enormous pride to this day. On the other hand, its white population mostly fled during the war, except for a band of Polish soldiers who stayed behind to farm.

Haiti struggled from the beginning. The revolution left it split in 2, with Henri Christophe ruling the north as a king and reintroducing slavery and Alexandre Pétion ruling the south as a president and encouraging small-scale subsistence farming. Unsurprisingly, slavery was unpopular, and the kingdom crumbled in 1820, leaving the republican system ascendant. But the shift from sugar plantations to small cassava farms hobbled the Haitian economy. America despised Haiti for setting a “bad” example for its own slaves and refused to recognize it. France demanded 60 million francs in compensation for all its colonists had lost (and to assuage its own wounded ego); Haiti spent over a hundred years paying it off, bankrupting the economy. Like other ex-colonies later in history, Haiti was deprived of crucial knowhow and leadership by the violence of its revolution. Its politics were highly unstable, and its presidents kept getting overthrown and assassinated. Santo Domingo successfully revolted in 1844.

The early international isolation of Haiti had subsided by the 1900s, and a small German community gained disproportionate influence over its economy. That unnerved America, which was determined to control the Caribbean and safeguard the Panama Canal nearby. It occupied Haiti in 1915 after its dictator was lynched and essentially recolonized it. According to Hans Schmidt in his study of the occupation, it “embodied all the progressive attributes of contemporary Italian fascism” — better roads, bridges, and buildings than Haiti had before, plus a more productive economy, but with all power in the hands of the American army, censorship and arbitrary arrests, forced labor, sugar production oriented for America’s own benefit, and systemic racism along the lines of America’s “Jim Crow” system of segregation. The occupation ended in 1934 — either because America wanted to promote better relations with its neighbors or because growing resistance in Haiti had made it unpopular at home, depending on your level of cynicism. Still, the Haitian treasury remained under American supervision for another decade.

After this, Haiti was ruled by a series of weak, incompetent dictators who tended to get forced out by street protests. They were succeeded in 1957 by a strong one: François Duvalier, usually called “Papa Doc” since he was a folk doctor. He promoted blacks in the government (mulattoes had been dominant ever since the revolution) and by encouraging their culture, even styling himself after the Vodou spirit Baron Samedi. He also pillaged the government for his family’s gain and terrorized the country with his private militia, the Tonton Macoute (named after and dressed as another spirit who kidnaps kids). America sponsored him because he was anti-Communist. The Duvalier regime continued after Papa Doc’s death in 1971 through his son, Baby Doc, until he was ousted by a coup after popular revolts against his accepting payments from the Dominican Republic to send migrant workers over. (He ran off with the money.)

Tonton Macoute

Image source: Pinterest

The main political drama since the Duvalier era was the rise and fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A populist priest who won a following among the poor with his impassioned sermons, he won the election in 1990 but was overthrown in a coup only a year later. He moved to America and lobbied it for an intervention to restore him to power. A flood of Haitian refugees fleeing the dictatorship added to the pressure. American president Bill Clinton relented in 1994, and once again US troops marched on Port-au-Prince. Yet Aristide failed to turn around the economy, and he and his successor agreed to IMF-imposed terms that gutted Haiti’s subsistence farmers. The political situation and crime had grown so bad by 2004 that the UN intervened, the only UN occupation force in the world outside of a war zone.

As if all this wasn’t dire enough, Haiti was battered by God in 2010, when an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. At magnitude 7, it would be difficult for any country to deal with, but with Haiti’s shoddy infrastructure, most of the capital was in rubble, including the presidential palace. To make matters worse, much of the foreign aid Haiti needed to clean up afterward never arrived or was slow in arriving. To make matters even worse, UN troops from Nepal introduced cholera through lackluster sanitation, killing another 10,000 Haitians. And to make matters even worse, it has become increasingly obvious that foreign aid workers indulged in sex slavery rings.

Given this dismal history, it is easy to conclude that Haiti has been “cursed by one thing after the other,” as the American preacher Pat Robertson once claimed. And it continues to face huge challenges. Only half the population can read or access basic health services. Most Haitians rely on informal jobs or farming small plots to get by. The contrast with Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, is glaring, leading many Haitians to head east for work, despite the racism (both petty and official) they face by its lighter-skinned population.

Yet this is only one aspect of Haiti. It offers picturesque scenery like all the other Caribbean islands. Its heritage is evident in sites like the massive Laferrière Citadel built on a prominent peak and the colonial architecture in its towns. The ethnic cleansing in Haiti’s past means that African culture has been better preserved here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, although it has blended with European and Arawak influences. That means its language, Creole, is basically French but with different grammar and a smattering of vocabulary from Spanish, Taino (an Arawak language) and West African languages. Haiti also has its own religion, Vodou, which is descended from a similar faith in Benin; it is a blend of Catholicism with the worship of unique spirits called lwa, which can possess adherents in lengthy ceremonies. Vodou’s tight-knit secret societies makes the religion a potent political crucible, but it’s also led to a lot of bogus portrayals overseas since its priests are said to perform magic.

Haiti art

An example of metalworking art in the artists’ neighborhood of Croix des Bouquets. Image source: Students Rebuild

Vodou is a major source of inspiration for Haitian culture, and Vodou images, paraphernalia, flags and clothing are important preoccupations of Haiti’s vibrant arts scene. Haitian painting is colorful and creative, but the most interesting thing about Haitian art might be how its artists use whatever stuff they can find to make something strange, ghoulish or beautiful. Street and even bus art is everywhere. Music is also a Haitian highlight: rara uses crude instruments like drums, bamboo trumpets and maracas to bang out simple but infectious beats, while Cuban son, Dominican merengue and American rap are also popular and filtered through Haiti’s more African sensibilities. All of these art forms come together in wild Carnival parties, which rival any other of the Caribbean’s many wild parties.

Haitian culture also places a big emphasis on solidarity and community spirit. Urban neighborhoods and rural villages are tight-knit and mutually supportive. Haitians are resourceful and used to making do with what little they have. They are hardworking and, out of necessity, patient in the face of adversity. This has made Haitian workers crucial for the Dominican Republic and the American state of Florida, as well as other Caribbean countries. Haiti also may hold promise as a low-wage manufacturing center and already has a textile industry.

That being said, Haiti resembles Africa in other ways too. It is the poorest part of the Americas, and by quite a margin too (its average per capita income is $719 a year). Damage from the earthquake is still evident 8 years later, and some still live in tents in “temporary” camps. Living conditions in general are shabby: power and water are scarce, roads are potholed, and public transit is unreliable and crowded. Port-au-Prince’s vast slum, the Cité Soleil, was once considered one of the world’s most dangerous places and was basically ruled by warring gangs until the UN took control in 2007. Crime and violence are still very high. About 150,000 Haitians have AIDS. Sanitation is in a dire state: trash and poop are dumped in ditches and canals, which means they get in houses when there are heavy rains. Most Haitians have to skip meals or eat basic foods like yams, plantains and rice. 200 years after the revolution, a racial divide between mulattoes and blacks persists.


Yet another problem is pell-mell deforestation, caused by a lack of regulation of Haiti’s many poor hill-dwellers. From the air you can see quite clearly where the Haitian-Dominican border is.

At the root of all of these problems is the government, which struggles to provide even basic services. It is caught in a classic African trap: it has very little tax revenue to spare, but its people have very little money to tax. This means it is very dependent on foreign aid, even if that means accepting crippling conditions from the World Bank and IMF. For example, the government is currently buckling under protests against a slash in fuel subsidies that makes the kerosene many Haitians depend on unaffordable. This is not new in Haiti: as the historical background should make clear, Haiti doesn’t exactly have a stable political tradition, and civil disorder can make the country ungovernable sometimes. The usual corruption and mismanagement of developing countries hollows out government resources even more.

Haitians are optimistic and stoic in even the worst of circumstances, and there are far worse neighborhoods than the Caribbean. But it will be a long time before Haiti becomes a place most people want to go to instead of a place they’d rather leave.




Image source: JACSES

One of the missions of this blog is to introduce readers to obscure corners of the planet and little-known stories the news media usually passes by or scarcely covers. Sometimes, entire countries get overlooked, often in favor of more famous, photogenic, or controversial counterparts nearby. Bangladesh definitely fits this slot: few outside of South Asia have heard much about it, it’s surrounded by giants like India and China, and it has a light footprint on global affairs. But it deserves more attention: it has a rich culture of its own, a stirring history, and a collection of problems familiar to other developing countries. And who knows? It may play a greater role in future Asian geopolitics.

One of the first things that needs to be known about Bangladesh is that, like Pakistan, it does not have a long history as an independent unit. (As we will see, this is not a coincidence.) Until 1947, it was part of the area generally referred to as “India,” now “South Asia” because India refers to a particular country. It is culturally, geographically and historically inseparable from India. But unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh is (mostly) unified culturally: it is the land of the Bengali people. Indeed, that’s what Bangladesh means. The Bengali language binds the country together — but it also binds it with West Bengal, another Bengali region directly to its west in India.

Another thing that needs to be known is that Bangladesh has a lot of people — a LOT of people. 163 million by a recent estimate. With only 147,570 km² of land area, that makes for a population density of 1,100 people per square kilometer — way more than any other country except tiny islands and city-states. If you ever wanted to know what the most crowded part of the world is, this is it — throw in the similarly populous West Bengal, and we’re talking about 260 MILLION people here. As is normally the case in densely populated regions, this is because Bangladesh is very fertile — 2 major rivers, the Ganga (“Podda” in Bengali) and Brahmaputra (“Jomuna” in Bengali) flow down from the Himalayas here and empty into the ocean, accompanied by dozens of minor rivers. Floods and rain are frequent, transport is easy, and the climate is tropical — perfect conditions for farming.

Bangladesh crowd

As such, Bangladesh has been farmed since ancient times. Rice and jute are the staples (in fact, Bengalis probably consume more rice than anyone else), but tea, pearls, silk, fish and fruits drew the attention of various outsiders over Bangladeshi history. Bangladesh’s strategic location near China and Southeast Asia and where the Ganga River meets the sea also made it a prime trading entrepot. As a result, it grew rich and powerful, and was the heartland of the important medieval Pala Empire, whose monuments can still be visited in northwest Bangladesh today.

Like the rest of India, Bangladesh “began” as Hindu*, then went through a Buddhist phase under the Palas, then reverted to Hinduism later in the Middle Ages as Buddhism lost its local appeal. (There was also a significant Jain minority, an Indian religion that strictly venerates all life.) But as India fell under Muslim rule in the 2nd millennium, Bangladesh increasingly converted to Islam as well. (How and why this happened here more than elsewhere in India is a matter of some scholarly debate — if you’re really interested, this goes into it in detail.) As a rich and populous region far away from the North Indian power center in Dilli, Bangladesh was mostly independent for a while, but eventually fell to Mughal rule after repeated attacks in the 1500s. This was arguably Bengal’s Golden Age, and Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, grew huge and wealthy on the profits of textile manufacturing and shipbuilding.

By the 1700s, with Mughal power on the wane, Bangladesh was independent again, but next it was conquered by the British, who used it as their headquarters and primary power base as they swallowed the rest of India. On the one hand, this began a long, slow process of impoverishing Bengal — the British taxed it mercilessly, as their colonial venture started out as a business enterprise led by a multinational corporation, the British East India Company. On the other hand, the 1800s was a “Bengal Renaissance,” with talented Bengalis revitalizing Hinduism, writing beautiful poetry, staging plays, and debating politics. (Still, most of this happened in Calcutta, British India’s capital, which is in West Bengal — Bangladesh got shafted in comparison.)

In 1905, Bangladesh’s modern territory first emerged when the British carved Bengal into 2 units to make it easier to administer — but since this was done along religious lines (West Bengal being mainly Hindu), it was highly unpopular at the time as a blatant example of colonial divide-and-conquer. Nevertheless, this ended up being the main demand of the Pakistan movement, which argued that Muslims couldn’t possibly be governed fairly in an independent, democratic India and so needed their own country — Pakistan. (See this blog post for more details.) The idea was never very popular in Bangladesh, but religious riots broke out in both parts of Bengal in the 1930s and ’40s, convincing Britain that it was the most prudent option to take. Meanwhile, the Brits ensured they wouldn’t be missed by allowing 2 million Bengalis to die in a famine thanks to coercive food policies during World War II.

And so, India was partitioned into 2 countries, with Pakistan getting created on both its northwestern and northeastern flanks. Yep, that’s right, Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan. Most of India lay in between its 2 parts (“wings”), but Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the other founding fathers of Pakistan thought the common bond of Islam would be enough to tie them together.

Partition map

… So this will work with Palestine, right? Right? Image source: pgapworld

It wasn’t. Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is barely spoken in Bengal, and with their own rich literary and musical tradition Bengalis were in no mood to prioritize Urdu. West Pakistanis looked down on East Pakistan as a sweaty, tropical land of rice farmers, merchants and poets, while they prized military service and bureaucracy. Bangladesh’s history of comparative religious tolerance bothered West Pakistanis. The capital, Karachi, was in the west wing. It became abundantly clear in the years after Partition (1947) that the westerners did not care about the east; during a war with India in 1965, for example, Pakistan made no real attempt to defend the east, even though it’s almost surrounded by India.

2 straws in 1970 finally broke the camel’s back. One was a devastating cyclone that wiped out most of East Pakistan’s infrastructure; the west wing was very lethargic in helping out afterward. The other was a parliamentary election, which would’ve put an end to 12 years of military rule, but an exclusively Bengali party, the Awami (People’s) League, won it. The westerners refused to accept this and jailed Sheik Mujibur Rahman, its leader. They then went much, much further, determining to break the will of the restive Bengalis with violence, terror, rape and mass incarcerations. It only provoked an insurgency and a massive refugee crisis, but the Pakistani terror campaign managed to reach genocidal proportions before India invaded and put an end to it. Bangladesh finally had its independence, but at the cost of about a million dead.

Sadly, Bangladesh was not out of the woods yet. Sheikh Mujib’s charismatic rhetoric and populist touch didn’t necessarily mean that he made a good president. He alienated the army, surrounded himself with yes-men, implemented ruinous command economic policies that provoked another famine, and assumed dictatorial powers. He ended up getting assassinated in 1975, and was replaced by a military dictator, Ziaur Rahman (no relation). Zia was in turn assassinated in 1982, and was replaced by another military dictator, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, until 1990. They stabilized Bangladesh’s internal situation, reintroduced Islam as a political force, normalized Bangladeshi relations with Pakistan and decentralized the administration.

Since 1990, Bangladesh has been a parliamentary democracy — albeit a very flawed one. Power swings back and forth between the Awami League, which is more secular and pro-India, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is more religious and pro-Pakistan. Both are headed by women, making Bangladesh unique in the Muslim world in this regard. But lest feminists get too excited, they are both heirs to prominent men: Sheikh Hasina Wajed is Mujib’s daughter, while Khaleda Zia of the BNP was Ziaur Rahman’s wife. They absolutely HATE each other, and Bangladeshi politics in the ’90s and ’00s devolved into endless squabbling between them (they are known as the “battling begums,” begum being a Muslim term for a lady) and their parties, which spilled out into the streets, especially during elections. Bangladesh was periodically paralyzed with violent strikes meant to humiliate the party in power. Caretaker administrations took over the government during elections because the parties didn’t trust each other to manage them fairly. Actual governance just devolved into blatant patronage and corruption. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, to the extent that it featured in international news at all, mostly became known for poverty, squalor and miserable working conditions.

Although it might be too soon to say definitively, it looks like the begum battle is over, and Sheikh Hasina has won. She has ruled the country since 2009, and used the opportunity to throttle the BNP, both by breaking up its base of support and by jailing its leaders. An election in 2014 wasn’t much of one, since the BNP boycotted it. The Jamaat-e-Islami (“Islamic Assembly”), a major Islamic party, has also been wiped out as a political force, since its leaders were collaborators with Pakistan during the Liberation War and Hasina has old scores to settle. The result is that Hasina faces few checks on her power, and the Awami League can dispense patronage and pass legislation without trouble. Investors tired of Bangladesh’s turbulent politics are relieved; democracy advocates and human rights campaigners are nervous.

In general, the Awami League pursues a secular, socialist, Bengali nationalist agenda similar to that of India’s Congress party, while the BNP emphasizes Islam and ties with Pakistan. The League sees itself as the founding party of Bangladesh and dismisses the BNP’s agenda as running contrary to what Sheikh Mujib intended. And indeed, compared to Pakistan and the Arab world Bangladeshi Islam has been moderate and tolerant. But there are signs that this is changing. Saudi influence is on the rise in Bangladesh as in Pakistan. Visible signs of Islamic piety like head coverings are becoming more common. Fanatical vigilantes have been lynching anyone who espouses atheism or even secularism, or who even seem liberal or cosmopolitan, for years, creating a chilling atmosphere for free speech. Terrorist activity has occurred as well — the most spectacular instances were a coordinated series of bombs in 2005 in all but one district (that’s 63!) in the country, and a tense hostage stand-off in 2016 in a bakery in a posh part of Dhaka frequented by infidels. The Awami League has been ambivalent about this; it’s talked about dropping Islam as the state religion, but it’s also pandered to the Hefazat-e-Islam (another Muslim group), introduced changes to textbooks that minimized Hindu writers and emphasized Muslim ones, and blamed the victims of the lynchings for being blasphemous.

Economically, Bangladesh has long been written off as a “basket case,” and it still is dependent on foreign aid. But it’s no longer the dire and malnourished example of poverty it was at its birth. Economic growth has been steady for the past decade at about 6% a year, and infrastructure is booming. Bangladesh has carved out a niche for itself in the global market doing what it’s done best for centuries: textile spinning. It is a common destination for low-wage manufacturing priced out of China. Rural poverty is acute, but Bangladesh has a more robust network of social support than India. NGOs are widespread and very active, and the notion of “microfinance,” or very small loans to enterprising villagers (often women), was pioneered here in the ’70s and ’80s by Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 2006. Using toilets is much more common than in India. But Dhaka is a polluted, overcrowded city, and working conditions in Bangladesh are still grim, as evidenced by a deadly factory collapse in 2013 and the extremely dangerous ship-breaking industry.

On the international stage, Bangladesh has been in India’s shadow since its independence. Except for a narrow linkage with Myanmar in the southeast, Bangladesh is surrounded by India. In general the 2 countries get along well, especially during Awami League governments. But geography and population density combine to push a lot of Bangladeshis out of the country and into India, which has historically been O.K. with other Bengalis but not so much with Assamese, the ethnic group north of Bangladesh. Islam is also unpopular in India these days thanks to the government’s Hindu nationalism. As a result, Bangladesh and India have quarreled occasionally, with India accusing it of turning a blind eye to illegal immigration and sponsoring anti-Indian insurgents on its territory. For its part, Bangladesh sees India as an overbearing neighbor, and it has been growing closer to China in the past decade to help counterbalance that — Bangladesh forms a node along China’s Belt and Road Initiative of Chinese-financed infrastructure projects along Asia’s coast. (As for relations with Myanmar… well… as this post should make clear, they could be better.)

Bangladesh flood

Image source: IFRC

For all its violence and poverty, Bangladesh’s biggest problem might be the looming specter of climate change. It’s been ravaged by storms and floods for a long time, as the history section should make clear, but they are becoming worse and more frequent now. During last year’s monsoon season, a third of the country was underwater and over 50,000 people were displaced by the floods. To an extent Bangladeshis are used to dealing with high water levels, since the country is so low-lying and rice farming is partly dependent on regular flooding, but climate change promises to make life in Bangladesh a lot less predictable and probably less pleasant. If sea levels rise as much as current climate models predict, Bangladesh will probably be the biggest single disaster zone; most of the country is under 10 meters above sea level. The government already allocates 6-7% of its budget on climate change adaptation.

Bangladesh may get short shrift in the international media, and it’s definitely got its share of problems. But it deserves more consideration. Its struggle with Islamism and religious violence is emblematic of the wider Muslim world’s struggle. It is a manufacturing powerhouse and rising economy just like its neighbors. It has a cultural and literary heritage its people are fiercely proud of, and natural and historic sites worthy of tourist appreciation. Most of all, it has that massive population to consider — there are more people than Russia here. Bangladesh is probably the country most overlooked in proportion to its population, and if it can harness its people’s energy and talents instead of letting them head off to greener pastures in the Gulf, Britain, America, etc., then it could be a force to be reckoned with.


In reality, Hinduism itself evolved from earlier religions, but what these were isn’t very clear, nor is the point at which “Hinduism” begins and the older religions end.



Image source: Imgur

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and hassling of eastern Ukraine, relations between Russia and the (rest of the) West have taken a nosedive. Mutual suspicions have poisoned diplomatic relations. Russian military maneuvers have unnerved Europe and prompted a redoubled defense effort, especially in the small Baltic countries bordering Russia. A debate rages within the West over how to respond to Russia, and whether bolstering Ukraine more would prompt Russia to back off or further inflame the situation.

One country that gets lost in these discussions is Belarus, a fairly large country in between Lithuania and Ukraine. But then again, Belarus usually gets left out of discussions. That’s partially because it’s only 27 years old.

If this section is too long and dull for you, maybe this Belarusian video is more interesting. Note: Medieval Lithuania is considered Belarusian in this version. (English subtitles available.)

Belarus may be only 27, but it exists at all because, well, the Belarusians have been around for a long time. How long exactly is a matter of debate. Their origin dates back to the Middle Ages, when the whole area around European Russia was referred to as “Rus” and was dominated by Kyiv (now in Ukraine). It was colonized by Vikings called “Varangians” and mostly developed along the long rivers that flow through this part of Europe. Given Belarusian’s close similarity with Russian and Ukrainian, it’s unlikely that the three different nationalities were well-distinguished back then; even when Kyivan Rus fragmented into minor principalities, it wasn’t really along ethnic lines.

The Mongol invasion of 1237 wiped out most of these, but the Principality of Polotsk — most of what is now Belarus — survived. It was weak and vulnerable (Belarus is mostly just forests and fields), and in the 1300s it was conquered by its northern neighbor, Lithuania. Lithuania was Europe’s last pagan holdout and spoke a completely different language from the Slavic Belarusians, but they didn’t really care as long as their underlings paid their taxes. Over the ensuing centuries, a Slavic language called Ruthenian even became the lingua franca over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, since it was more widely understood than Lithuanian itself. (Lithuanian is a Baltic language pretty different from other European languages except Latvian.)

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania fused with its smaller western neighbor, Poland, in a dynastic union in 1386. At first it was mostly just a union of their rulers (although Lithuania converted to Catholicism), but in 1569 the union was bound into a tighter commonwealth. Lithuania and Poland became tangled together, with Belarusians still included within Lithuanian territory yet culturally closer to the Slavic Poles… except for their religion, which was Orthodox (a relic of the Kyivan Rus era). Polish became the common tongue, at least among the nobility. In addition, the whole commonwealth attracted a lot of Jews, and by the 1700s most of Belarus’s towns and cities were predominantly Jewish. They spoke either German, Yiddish (a German dialect) or Polish.

But Belarusians were coveted by Russia, which saw them as true Russians who adhered to a wayward form of Russian Orthodoxy (Greek Catholicism) under the influence of Catholic Poles.  They called the area “Belorussia,” or “White Russia,” for reasons which are much debated (there’s no consensus about this). Belorussia happens to lie between central Russia and Poland, with the result that it was overrun in a series of wars between the 2 powers in the 1600s, then suffered some more during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden in the first decade of the 1700s. In the 1790s, as any proud Pole will tell you, Poland-Lithuania was smothered by partition among its more powerful neighbors: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Belorussia naturally, went to Russia, which organized it as a governorate based in Minsk, a town pretty much right in the middle of the country. Its strategic location right in between Warsaw and Moscow now worked to its benefit.

While Poles chafed under Russian rule and revolted a few times, Belarusians were mostly O.K. with it and carried on much as before (although the local church was merged into Russian Orthodoxy). This was mostly because there still wasn’t much distinguishing them from Russians. The beginnings of a Belarusian national movement stirred in the 1800s, but the language — and Belorussia’s cultural identity in general — blurred into Ukrainian, and they were collectively referred to back then as “Ruthenian.” (Meanwhile, Jews had a much different experience, as the Russian Empire took a dim view of them, encouraged public persecution of them, and restricted their movement and lifestyle.)

Belarus cartoon

Poland joins with the infant Soviet Union to tear Belarus apart. Great way to recover from a long partition! (Also, both trample Ukraine.)

Belorussia suffered as much from the turbulent early 1900s as any other part of Europe, and arguably most of all. Its westernmost corner was mauled during World War I. Russia’s humiliating surrender to Germany in 1918 led to Germany setting up a Belarusian puppet state as part of its effort to fragment and weaken Russia. It was wiped out after only a few months by a resurgent Russia, only to be taken by a revived and ambitious/greedy (depending on your interpretation) Poland in 1919. After a short but fierce war, the region was partitioned once again between Poland and Russia. After a relaxing peacetime marked by forced collectivization, famine, and Communist purges, Germany invaded again in 1941. After a sadistic war in which a quarter of Belorussia was killed (including most of its Jews) and Minsk was utterly destroyed, the Soviet Union was triumphant, and emerged from the war with all of historic Belorussia under its control.

Belorussia went on to enjoy one of the higher degrees of industrialization among the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. Since the USSR was divided along ethnic lines, Belarusian identity also experienced a revival (even if this involved a little ethnic cleansing to make the units tidier). Of course, it still languished under a dysfunctional economic system with rudimentary consumer goods and little knowledge of the outside world. Also, the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl was just over the border from Belorussia and mostly affected Belarusians. In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and for the first time since 1918, Belarus was an independent country.

Like many newly independent countries, Belarus was fragile and hesitant. It wasn’t sure what sort of political or economic system to adopt or what sort of cultural orientation to take. Belarusian nationalism had never really taken off. Russian identity and culture had taken deep root in the country over the centuries, and most Belarusians still speak Russian instead of their “native” language.

Again like many newly independent countries, Belarus soon fell back into dictatorship. The winner of its only competitive presidential election, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has ruled with an iron fist ever since 1994. Political opponents are barred from the legislature, independent media outlets have been hounded into submission, and protesters are beaten and jailed. Lukashenko enjoys a Soviet-style personality cult with fawning songs and a nationalist youth union. The KGB, the Soviet Union’s infamous secret police, survive here. The Soviet state-run economy has been preserved as much as possible — 75% of it remains under state control, and farms are still collectively managed.

None of this really endeared Belarus to the EU. After a policy of patient disapproval and stern lecturing went nowhere, the EU slapped sanctions on the Belarusian leadership in 2006. Ties with the countries to its west are strained — tourists rarely visit, even from Poland, and Belarus is a nonentity in European affairs. Its frustrating and complex bureaucracy stifles most business ventures. Few Belarusians speak a language other than Russian or Belarusian. Sources about the country are scarce, except in Russian.


Minsk today. Image source: Sergey Nik-Menik via Pikabu

As a result, Belarus has been pushed into the arms of Mother Russia. As mentioned before, Russian is still widely used, even when ethnic minorities who don’t understand Belarusian are scarce. Society is still cast along the old Soviet model, and Belarus’s experience with many of the same disasters as Russia have given it the same sense of victimhood and unfair treatment that shape Russian nationalism. Lukashenko gets along well with Vladimir Putin, a fellow dictator with similarly earthy tastes, conservative mindsets, and an economic model of domination by a few companies with close ties to the state (meaning himself, basically) — a model usually called “oligarchy,” somewhat inappropriately, in the West. Belarus gets subsidized oil and gas from its petrostate neighbor. Belarus and Russia are so chummy, they formed a “Union State” in 1998, with the aim of a currency union and some kind of governmental fusion in the future.

So it may seem like Russia and Belarus are best buds joined at the hip with no meaningful distinctions… but in reality, it’s more complicated than that. The past decade has made it very clear that Russia sees the former Soviet republics (a region now called “Eurasia,” also somewhat inaccurately) as its rightful sphere of influence, with Putin as the modern czar of “all the Russias.” That’s a little too close for comfort for Lukashenko. Making your political opponents disappear might be fine, but when someone else does it and acts like your boss, it’s a lot less fun. Neither the Union State nor the currency union proposal have gone anywhere. Russia’s attacks on Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) rattled Belarus, and Belarus sheltered Kyrgyzstan’s renegade president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, when he fled in 2010. This has led to a few spats with Russia, including threats to cut off Belarus’s critical gas supply and a refusal to host a Russian air base.

This has led Western observers to come to the opposite conclusion on occasion and predict a falling-out, or even an imminent Russian intervention. The EU has softened its tone since the upheaval in Ukraine, seeing Belarus as the lesser of 2 evils and a possible wild card in its ongoing geopolitical game with Russia. But Belarus remains aloof and unpredictable. Landlocked, comparatively poor and weak, with a hazy sense of national identity to draw on, it is frankly unlikely to burn its many bridges with Russia anytime soon. (Moscow is only 300 miles away — very close by Russian standards.) For instance, it holds regular vast war games called Zapad (West) with Russia that react against a simulated EU-backed uprising in its western region bordering Poland. Relations with Lithuania are dismal due to a nuclear power plant built (again!) right by the Lithuanian border. Lukashenko sneers at the West’s high-handedness, capitalism, and tolerance for homosexuality. Memories of the Soviet Union are not nearly as bad as they are in its neighboring former Soviet republics — the Baltics were annexed unwillingly during World War II, while Ukraine was basically punished through famine in the 1930s.

So Belarus continues its delicate dance with its neighbors to the West. The EU and America were encouraged by a slight thaw in political repression and (probably more so) by Belarus hosting peace negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU in 2015. As a result, most of the sanctions against Belarusian leaders and companies have been lifted. But the thaw seems to have been an illusion, and protesters are still treated like armed gangsters by the KGB. It remains hard to imagine that Lukashenko would suddenly change his mind after all these years and democratize with the Russian military breathing down his neck. Belarusians still have much in common with Russians, from a love of borscht and vodka to a cynical sense of humor and suspicion of outsiders. But the experience of Ukraine isn’t lost on Belarusians either, and Russia isn’t exactly a trustworthy ally. It may not make the dramatic headlines that its neighbors often do, but Belarus is a country that deserves more attention, and could play a more critical geopolitical role that its location and history entitle it to.