by Elena Zdravomyslova, St. Petersburg, European University
Historians of science have shown that the development of sociology is directly related to the structure of society and its political regime. Authoritarian political regimes hinder the development of social studies, and sociology, if it survives, becomes a transmission belt of repressive rule. In such conditions independent sociological examination becomes impossible, and repression can threaten the position, and sometimes even the life, of the sociologist.
This is what we observe in the case of the famous Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky, the director of the research laboratory “Novak”. For more than a dozen years, virtually every month, “NOVAK” has conducted polls for Belarusian citizens. Vardomatsky is, also, one of the experts for the civic campaign “Tell the truth!” This citizens’ initiative aims to inform the Belarusian society of social problems: unemployment, the still tangible consequences of the Chernobyl disaster on public health, etc. It has even put forward an alternative candidate for Presidency in Belarus.
On May 18, 2010 the research lab and apartment of Dr. Vardomatsky were searched. On June 1, 2010 the Belarusian sociologist, for no apparent reason and without explanation, was detained at the border when he was returning to Minsk from Lithuania.
According to most commentators, and Dr.Vardomatsky himself, the arrest and search was a form of political intimidation, connected to his professional activity and cooperation with the independent media. These actions of the authorities are taken in the context of the on-going election campaign. Presidential elections are expected in December. Note that the current President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has managed to be reelected three times since 1994 and, according to the country’s constitution, he can run for President for an unlimited number of times. Authorities are taking measures to intimidate the independent media, civic initiatives and social scientists collaborating with the opposition. This has become traditional practice just before elections – it happened in 2001 and 2004.
Searches conducted by law enforcement have been widely covered in the independent media, but the state media are silent about these repressive actions. Belarusian authorities are most wary of professional public opinion research, especially during election campaigns. That’s why part of the 2010 Presidential campaign is threatening action against independent sociologists and their organizations.
The international sociological community expresses concern over the harassment of Andrei Vardomatsky by the authorities, and raises its voice in defense of the rights of its profession and its scholars. Repression and intimidation against independent social science are signs of the vulnerability and fragility of an authoritarian regime. As sociology is increasingly becoming a science without borders, research data become available outside the countries where they are collected. Belarus, without an independent sociology, becomes a pariah society, in effect preserving Soviet-style attitudes towards our profession. A tamed sociology has no value, and it mirrors a tamed society, that is one where there is no freedom of speech and pluralism of opinion.