Promoting cultural dialogue

[b]Not long ago, a milestone event occurred in Belarus’ public life: the Pro-rector of the Academy of Arts, PhD Svetlana Vinokurova, was elected Chair of the Dialogue Eurasia International Organisation[/b]The initiative unites scientists, public figures, writers, journalists and figures of arts from over 20 countries (including those from Western Europe and Mongolia) promoting international dialogue across Central Eurasia. Belarus is at its heart but our country’s chairmanship of the initiative — known globally as Platform DA (YES) — is not simply the result of its geographical position.Ms. Vinokurova tells us what attracts Eurasian partners to Belarus and why a representative of our country has been honoured to head Dialogue Eurasia. During the elections, our candidate won more points than any other, despite being up against some well-known figures: the mother of Georgian President Saakashvili - Giuli Alasania; and the sister of globally known writer Chyngyz Aitmatov — Rosa Aitmatova.
Not long ago, a milestone event occurred in Belarus’ public life: the Pro-rector of the Academy of Arts, PhD Svetlana Vinokurova, was elected Chair of the Dialogue Eurasia International Organisation

The initiative unites scientists, public figures, writers, journalists and figures of arts from over 20 countries (including those from Western Europe and Mongolia) promoting international dialogue across Central Eurasia. Belarus is at its heart but our country’s chairmanship of the initiative — known globally as Platform DA (YES) — is not simply the result of its geographical position.
Ms. Vinokurova tells us what attracts Eurasian partners to Belarus and why a representative of our country has been honoured to head Dialogue Eurasia. During the elections, our candidate won more points than any other, despite being up against some well-known figures: the mother of Georgian President Saakashvili - Giuli Alasania; and the sister of globally known writer Chyngyz Aitmatov — Rosa Aitmatova.
We congratulate Ms. Vinokurova — wishing her success in accomplishing her mission of uniting cultures and nations.

Ms. Vinokurova, nobody in Belarus needs convincing of the importance of international dialogue, alongside respect for the customs, values and cultures of other nations. Belarusians are known for their tolerance, which is viewed as our primary national feature. Is this why you were chosen, despite other worthy candidates?
I should mention a little of the history of our international public association, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. In 1998, it was initiated by writers and journalists — led by writer Chyngyz Aitmatov — aiming to promote inter-cultural dialogue, based on principles of religious tolerance and exchange of cultural values. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Estonia and Turkey were among the founders - representing Europe, the southern part of the former USSR and Slavonic nations. Unity and religious tolerance are revered by us all, and are values upheld by various religious faiths.
Belarus has been a member since 2009 — which is not long. However, the honour of leadership speaks for itself. Our country’s stance is based on the politics and values of the past 20 years (since our independence). We have a multi-vector approach to diplomacy, with an open attitude towards international relations. We are naturally hospitable and tolerant. Around 140 nationalities live in our country — of varying beliefs, including atheists. This creates no obstacle to family life, work, employment in state posts or participation in politics. Of course, it’s attractive to many, setting a good example, which some other countries are yet to achieve.

Many states are enduring conflict due to religious intolerance…
You’re right. Wars and conflicts unfold when society lacks tolerance for the culture or race of others, and where there is gender inequality. We have a choice whether to be in unity or conflict. Belarus unites people and, generally, tolerance is the norm.
We all wish to enjoy freedom of expression. Belarus’ various cultures and nationalities have their own public associations, diaspora, editions and magazines — sharing their cultural values. Grodno, one of Belarus’ most beautiful cities, has long hosted the Festival of National Cultures, which is held every two years. Diasporas of various nations living in Belarus prepare concerts of national song and dance, as well as exhibitions. Belarus has become known globally for its openness in allowing a range of cultures to blossom and our path, which has covered Belarus while bringing humanistic ideals into life, is recognised for working successfully.

For many years, you headed a working group of sociologists looking at how best to promote social harmony and equality. How would you characterise this in Belarus?
It’s very important to analyse social trends. In the 1980s, we launched a five year cycle of research, looking at social choices made by school leavers. We were eager to see who was shaping our social structure. We collected data in villages and small towns, as well as in the capital, comparing the dynamics of social structure and values among these young people.

What were the results?
The study was conducted in almost every Soviet republic and, later, the Belarusian group was included in a global report. Similar research was conducted in Europe and in the USA. Of course, trends tend to travel worldwide.
Several years ago, I travelled to Tajikistan — visiting its Nurek hydro-electric station, among other facilities. We learnt that, after the station had launched in the 1980s, many parents were keen to see their children enter a technical vocational college. In contrast, Belarusians aspired for their children to enter universities, studying for degrees.
The explanation is simple. Back in Soviet times, Belarus enjoyed a high level of technical industry. Meanwhile, Tajikistan lacked even electricity until quite modern times, so there were far fewer technical opportunities for young people. Many blessings of civilisations are still unavailable in Tajik mountain settlements even now, so teenagers and their parents were dreaming of at least a working profession. They simply dreamt of gaining a job to escape from their remote villages, wishing to work at enterprises. Despite Tajikistan being known for its high educational traditions and respect towards education, sadly, not all have access to them.

Your words throw light on why some post-Soviet republics are experiencing unfortunate trends — such as religious fundamentalism. Much depends on the level of education and employment of young people. Where they lack opportunities, destructive groups are formed — including those based on religion. In Belarus, such a situation is impossible, since our high level of education ensures immunity against savage, medieval behaviour.
All layers of Belarusian society have access to higher education, and can find employment in high-tech spheres, which require a certain degree of skill and knowledge. At present, Belarus is among those who can be proud of their level of education and scientific development; we enjoy a corresponding cultural environment.
The sociological study revealed another interesting trend. In Georgia, parents wished their children to become Komsomol workers, seeing it as a bright start to their career. In Soviet times, this was a normal path which formed a leader through work in public organisations: starting from pioneer organisation, Komsomol even, top ranking state posts. The formation of leaders was an acute problem and remains so today. Tomorrow’s leaders need to be nurtured and encouraged. I’m convinced that many of our modern social problems stem from a lack of such training.

Throughout Soviet times and earlier, during the times of the Russian Empire, the intelligentsia drove society forward. Later, after Perestroika, the advent of market principles brought a ‘middle class’ boasting more material wealth. Of course, having money does not always inspire people to contribute to society. American researcher Richard Florida introduced the notion of ‘the creative class’. Which social layers tend to act as leaders and ensure progress, in your opinion?
I think that nothing has changed. We still need the intelligentsia: artists, scientists, educationalists and doctors. Their enlightening and cultural mission must continue. Their role may be less significant today, as people have more opportunities to choose or change profession and fulfil their potential. It’s also easier to train and to set up your own business...
As far as who makes up the intelligentsia, the social layers are intermixing more these days. I’m sure that educated people will always be in demand, so we need to cultivate them...

I can’t help but agree that the easy path is not always the best. Solid values need to be at the foundation of our choices.
An outstanding person once said: ‘Freedom is a powerful word with which to sway the crowd’. Freedom to choose your beliefs and professional path is certainly attractive. However, each free choice brings responsibility; it’s an integral element. The more individual choices we make, the more individual responsibility we bear.
A spiritual leader of the 20th century, who returned from a gulag, Russian academician Lickhachev, once said to journalists that even under these severe conditions he has managed to learn life lessons and collected much material for his research scientific work. He also noted respectful and sympathetic attitude towards him as a carrier of education and science. He was a true intellectual! Such a personality always arouses admiration and respect in society. Others listen and follow their example.
When distinguished Belarusian nano-technologies expert and academician S. A. Zhdanok or famous Russian Oriental scientist R. B. Rybakov lectures at our Arts Academy, students always listen enrapt. Bearers of true knowledge always possess a high degree of intellectualism, which makes them fascinating to listen to.
For the sake of self-preservation, society must respect and cherish its true spiritual leaders, avoiding the creation of false idols — like those who try to gather uneducated youngsters in large crowds, such as we’ve seen in the squares of many Eastern capitals.

Some poor, underdeveloped Eastern states have descended into clan systems and sharia law. The West, in turn, appreciates science, education, freedom and individuality. How can these two societies — which share different values — find a common language?
The Eurasia Dialogue Platform focuses on problems arising from lack of dialogue between Eurasian nations. It proposes peaceful, constructive solutions, treating all individuals and nationalities as equals, deserving of respect, non-violence and tolerance. It acts in line with the principles, norms and traditions of each country, community or religion.
Of course, it’s often been said that the East and the West can never find consensus. Having studied Chinese philosophy, Kant said that ‘it would have been better if this Eastern wisdom had been spared us’, implying that the rational European approach can never find harmony with the East’s multi-faceted views on life. He might have felt differently today, foreseeing the possibility of peaceful co-existence. The alternative can only bring destruction.
We need to try to understand each other. It’s wrong for the West to perceive Eastern philosophies as cunningly ambiguous and similarly empty for the East to view European objectivism as being primitive. Life is certainly complicated and needs to be viewed from more than one angle. Morality is subjective and, as the Chinese say, contrasts are merely different sides of the same story.
Of course, there are cultural, historical and archetypal differences; we lead different lifestyles and have varying approaches to education, culture, religion and family values. Our world is not uniform but, as in nature, diversity brings strength and harmony. The question is whether we use our minds to promote harmony and mutual understanding or to indulge in childish conflict.
Our public association, like various others around the world, aims to encourage mutual understanding. We aim not only to promote the idea of tolerance but to see it in action — primarily through uniting writers, journalists, scientists and figures of arts and culture. We arrange scientific conferences at which they can discuss topical problems, with a forum of Eurasian intellectuals in Antalya every two years, devoted to global problems of our modern times. One of the latest such events tackled family problems, with six hundred people from 50 countries sharing their opinions. They looked at how family life has changed of late, set against an historical background. A representative of Belarus made a report at the forum. In 2012, the forum was devoted to economic problems, attended by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, who delivered a speech, as did famous scientists from the USA, Austria, Ukraine and other states.

Can we view modern economies as a uniting force, rather than just a way of generating money?
In making a material product, we cannot help but think of its fair distribution. One of the slogans of today is ‘to produce more and to distribute more fairly’. In past times, there were those who laboured to produce while others did little more than ‘receive’; a fairer system is vital.
The principle of equality of opportunity is at the heart of today’s economics. Of course, it’s nothing new, having existed under various names in the past: communism, socialism, democracy, or a socially-oriented economy. At heart, it remains unchanged. Material wealth alone cannot make life interesting; we need to embrace higher, spiritual values.
Interestingly, the Antalya Forum is hosted by Turkey, which has a European and Asian face. Nobel Prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk best describes the spirit of his nation and culture, speaking of ‘the lost paradise of Istanbul’; it intermixes times and civilisations to create something uniquely fascinating.
The city and its architectural monuments demonstrate how Christianity and Islam can successfully intermix, while each retaining their identity. The city’s division either side of the Bosporus into European and Asian sectors, shows that Europe and Asia have been co-existing since ancient times, with the two sides connected literally (and figuratively) by many bridges. Istanbul is perhaps the ultimate symbol of the ties between Europe and Asia, so it’s fitting that the Eurasia Dialogue Platform — supported by the Government — was established on Turkish territory.
Not long ago, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Turkey. It was the first country to acknowledge Belarus’ independence, which has significance historically. Without doubt, it’s been of huge mutual benefit to encourage intensive bilateral relations (including at governmental and interpersonal levels) for these two decades.
Naturally, economics form the basis of our relations. As Lenin said, ‘we should talk in the languages in which we trade’. Our friendly ties with Turkey began with tourism and trade. Later, Turkish businessmen became acquainted with our country, finding it attractive for business and human contacts. Belarus is a rare country within the post-Soviet space, having never witnessed acute national or religious disputes. Of course, countries showing such stability are more attractive to potential partners. Our ties gain strength via trading links and Turkish investments, alongside political relations. We have potential to co-operate in the fields of science, culture and education, supported by the Eurasia Dialogue Platform.
Our geographical location at the centre of Europe has brought pressure from the European West and Russian East, as well as influence from the north and the south. Our historical experience has taught us to be open and tolerant. It’s unsurprising that we are interesting to others as a venue for business; we boast a high level of education and culture — ever developing, competing, adapting and learning from others.
Eurasia Dialogue supports stability, which is essential for democracy. When public initiatives develop in line with state policy and inter-state relations, more can be achieved. The interests of state and society coincide.
The international public initiative, stipulated in the work of the DA Platform, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, harmonising the interests of various parties with state policy. In unifying diverse countries and cultures, we develop high spiritual values which will help preserve and move forward the human race.

Thank you for the interview!

By Nina Romanova
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