Satellite diplomacy – John Horgan on a visit to Belarus

An Irishman’s Diary

The current goings-on in Belarus, one of the few remaining Soviet-style, Moscow-dependent jurisdictions, since the large-scale dismantling of the ancien régime, have an antique air about them. They are an echo of the era when that country was only one of a ring of satellite states surrounding the old Soviet Union, created and maintained as a sort of defensive shield against Western encroachment into the Soviet sphere of influence.

It reminded me of the time, almost half a century ago, when as an employee of this newspaper I was invited by the Irish-Soviet Friendship Society to study education in the Soviet Union. A fellow invitee was the late Seamus Ó Buachalla, a long-time friend , an authority on Irish education, and a member of Trinity 's academic staff. We had an official guide throughout. Unsure of the degree to which our conversations might prove politically problematic, Seamus and I would often tic-tac in Irish about potentially sensitive topics.

Minsk, the capital of Belarus, was our first stop on a long peregrination via Moscow. Although the second World War had ended almost 30 years earlier, the city seemed as if it had only recently risen from the ashes of that fierce conflict, in which the city had been seriously damaged by artillery. Many of its architectural features had been reduced to rubble, and long, grey, featureless streets like concrete canyons stretched as far as the eye could see. There was little evidence of commerce, or of social life, and – despite the fact that we were ostensibly on a study-visit to investigate the Soviet educational system – all the schools and colleges were closed for the holidays.

The idea that the avenues of Belarus would, in a few decades' time, be the location of almost continuous, colourful and peaceful protest against the hard-line, two-decade long rule of Alexander Lukashenko, was then unimaginable. The high point of our visit, it turned out, was to be an interview with the then Belarus minister of higher education, a second World War veteran commander whose craggy , inscrutable features would not have been out of place on some Soviet equivalent of Mount Rushmore.

I'll return to him shortly, but the rest of our visit was of a different calibre. In Moscow itself, we met the man who was just about to be appointed as the Soviet Union's first ambassador to Ireland, Anatoli Kaplan. He had trained as a historian before fighting for two years as a Red Army soldier on the Moscow and other fronts during the "Great Patriotic War".

I wrote about him at the time: “He is a tall man of almost military carriage. His demeanour is as impassive as that of any copy-book diplomat, but in private conversation his sense of humour is quickly and naturally displayed . . . it is difficult to avoid the impression that the ambassador would make an excellent poker player . . . perhaps this is why he has been chosen”.

The latter part of our visit was spent in the capital of Kazakhstan, Alma Ata, a city almost as different from Moscow and Minsk as Dublin is from London. A huge beneficiary of the then Soviet policy of favouring the development of satellite states, it had become so economically successful, our Russian interpreter told us, that policy might have to change to ensure that Moscow's own economy did not suffer unduly from Soviet generosity towards its dependent regimes. Its other political problem, he told us, was that the dominant ethnic grouping in Kazakhstan, who accounted for about 40 per cent of the population, had managed to secure about 100 per cent control of the senior political positions. I assured him that this was a socio-political phenomenon not unlike one with which we in Ireland were also acquainted.

That part of our visit was also the occasion for the most lavish hospitality we were to encounter in the USSR, culminating in an extraordinary banquet . At the conclusion of this feast I, as an honoured guest, was given the job of carving succulent morsels from a roasted sheep’s head and, prompted by our ever-helpful interpreter, distributing them to favoured guests in order of political and social priority. Given the amount of vodka that had been consumed, it was no easy task.

Back in Belarus, formality had been the order of the day, and there was nothing that Seamus or I could do, or any question we could ask, that could alter the impassive features of our ministerial host, or secure any admission that higher education in Belarus had any problems whatsoever.

As our interview ended, I expressed our thanks to the minister for his courtesy, adding, in as pointed a manner as I could muster, that I hoped that in the next allocation of funding for education by his government, his own department would receive favourable treatment.

A wintry smile briefly passed across his countenance.

It was the closest I got to a political reaction.