Those who have seen the 2001 film 'The Grey Zone', directed by Tim Blake Nelson, surely remember that the grey zone in question designated the antechamber of death where Auschwitz detainees were prepared before being sent to the gas chamber. By extension, the notion of a grey zone implies a certain uncertainty and angst but also a glimmer of hope that what will actually happen will not be as dire as what one imagines. That is how I felt during four days spent in Belarus.

Since 1994, [when Alexander Lukashenko was elected president], the country has lived under the thumb of an authoritarian regime, "the last true dictatorship at the heart of Europe", as Western leaders call it. I could not pass up the opportunity to visit this country, after having been there a first time in 1998 to participate in a boxing championship. At the time I had the impression of being in any former Soviet bloc country, neither better nor worse than Moldova, Ukraine or Russia.

Today, I have a different view of Belarus. I took advantage of being Moldovan, with more than one passport in my bag [because of family ties, many Moldovans have several passports including EU ones such as Romanian] to freely exit Lithuania with the Romanian passport and to calmly enter [neighbouring] Belarus with the Moldovan one. I felt like I was entering Transnistria [a break-away pro-Russian Moldovan territory]. The green Soviet uniforms and the suspicious looks were the same.

In the train, I passed through villages with neat houses, clean cities, and I saw good roads. In Minsk, the capital, the streets are wide, Soviet-style architecture alternates with modern buildings and Soviet symbols live side-by-side with major representatives of Western capitalism. The first impression is of order and tranquillity. I asked some passers-by if they shared my feeling. Their answers were full of wordplay, with that irony that reflects so well the "doublethink" that allows the Belarus to survive on a daily basis. "Peaceful as a cemetery", and "Here, they wash the streets and our brains".

News coloured with anti-Western rhetoric

I quickly got used to their jokes on daily life, but it took me longer to understand the underlying realities. In the metro or in the stores, people do not smile and they always look down. When it gets late, groups of more than three people run the risk of being arrested [due to legislation that allows the arrest, on the grounds of criminal conspiracy, of groups of more than three]. I saw fear and the absence of hope in the eyes of the people I crossed in this country in which everything is decided by a single man, "the father of the Belarus people, Batiushka," the father-Tsar. A country in which the elections are fixed, the candidates are physically abused, youth mistreated, in which people disappear, in which everything has a militaristic after-taste starting with the schools, in which the all-powerful secret services ensure the peace. Belarus is as peaceful as a cemetery.

On the television, I saw only news coloured with anti-Western rhetoric, assuring that the end of the Eurozone and of the European Union are imminent and that, in this troubled context, Belarus is an oasis of peace and prosperity (even if most of the population lives below subsistence level). One also learns that the only alternative for the continent of Europe is the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Union, soon to become the Eurasian Union. The project has aroused the curiosity of over 20 nations including New Zealand and Moldova, although the latter "until recently wanted to enter the EU".

But to my great joy, I also saw another Belarus, one attached to the memory of a time when its lands belonged, under various States, to European civilisation. A time which gave several enlightened minds to European and world culture, and which moulded a country moored to the values of the Belarusian language and culture. A country tied to its historic white-red-white flag which the Belarusians now only display in their homes since it was banned in 1995 by Alexander Lukashenko and replaced by the Soviet Belarusian flag.

Throughout their long history, the Belarusians have been torn by a conflict: to belong to European civilisation or to join a future Eurasian group? Belarus has belonged to various state entities from the Principality of Polotsk, considered the cradle of the Belarusian state, to the Principality of Lithuania, to the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, to the Russian Empire and to the Soviet Union. Its identity and linguistic problems are very real, stifled as it is by Russia's language and culture. Belarus has nonetheless tried several times to be something other than just a part of the "Great Russian People".

European Union is a constant magnet

In 1812, it supported Napoleon against Russia in the hope of returning to the 1792 borders before Poland was partitioned three times between 1792 and 1795. In 1918, the People's Republic of Belarus was recognised by Germany, Austria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey before being destroyed by the invasion of the Red Army and turned into a Soviet Republic. During World War II, the Rada Central [government] tried again but it was suppressed with the return of the Soviets. Finally, in 1991, Belarus pulled away from the Soviet Union and experienced the beginnings of democratisation.

These historical memories provide hope to the Belarus and push them to the streets to protest, to speak their own language in their kitchens rather than Russian and to keep, in hiding, their historic flag. I told my friends that they are even more miserable "than we Moldovans were during the Soviet era". At least, at the time, we did not know how the West lived and we were convinced that we lived in "the world's most democratic country, the wealthiest, and the most powerful".

Today, the Belarus go shopping or to university in Poland and Lithuania and the European Union is a constant magnet for them.

I do not think that this cemetery-like silence can last much longer. The time when the Belarus will be able to listen to [Belarus rock band] Liapis Troubetskoï at home in Minsk, Gomel or Mogilev is near. This despite the fact that today, they can only be heard in Kiev, Warsaw or Vilnius because "Batiushka" has banned Belarus' most popular band from living and singing in its own country.