Reviews Female shuttle trade between Belarus and Lithuania. Dissertation review
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2015, pp 122-123
Published on balticworlds.com on november 19, 2015
The dissertation analyzes everyday life on the borderland — a space that is getting more and more attention from researchers from different parts of the world. Recent scholarship has shown that proximity to the border not only shapes the political and economic development of the territories on both sides but also greatly influences the life of individuals and families living in proximity to the border. Furthermore, the presence of the border not infrequently impacts on the power structures and creates new formal and informal hierarchies.
The dissertation is concerned with a particular group of border crossers — the small-scale commuter traders involved in the cross-border trade between Belarus and Lithuania. This small-scale trade, usually addressed as a shuttle trade (čelnočnaja torgovlja), is not, however, a unique practice specific to this particular region; rather, it is widely spread through the post–state socialist space and is very frequent in countries like Russia or Ukraine. In spite of this, the shuttle trade has not received significant attention from scholars up to now.
The dissertation closely examines the shuttle trade using the example of the Belorussian city Ašmjany, situated in proximity to the border with Lithuania. The author of the dissertation explores whether the political borders contribute to creation of the social ones, and how the borders influence trade and identities. Therefore Sasunkevich sees her aim in reconstructing two histories: the history of the political border between Belarus and Lithuania after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the history of the shuttle trade.
The attention to the role of the border defines the periodization of the study: the changes in the border regimes are seen as important turning points, and the years between these changes are analyzed in the separate parts. Sasunkevich starts from the late Soviet period when the border was rather symbolic. She continues her analysis with the period after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and creation of the independent Lithuanian and Belorussian states, separated by the border that could no longer be approached as symbolic. Further transformations of the borderland are connected to introduction of the visa regime (1994), Lithuania’s entrance into the European Union (2004), and the Lithuanian state’s entrance into the Schengen agreement (2007). The final period studied in the dissertation corresponds to the post-2007 situation.
Inspired by de Certeau’s approach to practice of everyday life, Sasunkevich departs from the perspective of the Belarus border crossers and problematizes the view of the shuttle trade as a low-status enterprise. The author approaches cross-border trade not only as an economic activity, but also as a culturally embedded practice. At the same time, this practice does not exist by itself; it is a result of women’s entrepreneurial efforts — the shuttle trade reveals their agency.
The strength of the dissertation is the use of oral history sources: the author collected 14 interviews with women involved in the shuttle trade during the period under research.
The study by Sasunkevich challenges many established views on the historical period that used to be called the “period of transition”. Among them are those about the lesser importance of borders after the end of the Cold War as well as those interpreting the shuttle trade in terms of insignificant activity of the poor.
Using interviews with traders belonging to different generations, Sasunkevich shows how the “invisible” border of the Soviet period not only “becomes visible” through checkpoints and visa regulations but also hinders the established patterns of communication. Later changes in the border regime influence the cultural and personal connections, including trade: from a mass occupation of the early 1990s it became diversified and professionalized in the late 2000s. The Schengen regime, according to the author, should be approached as a complex construction bringing free mobility inside of the Schengen Area and restrictions of mobility outside. This allows her to emphasize the continuing importance of borders in the contemporary world and growing inequalities on a global level.
The study also challenges a view of the shuttle trade as a small business of the “unimportant people”: the story of Marina, for example, indicates that in some cases the shuttle trade was the beginning of well-established businesses. On the other hand, the shuttle trade is shown as having different meanings and different places in the lives of representatives of different social and age groups. Contrary to the assumption about the “insignificance” of the shuttle trade, Sasunkevich shows that it seems to substantially affect the city’s everyday life and the prosperity of its inhabitants. Indeed, the author writes about her surprise on discovering that many families in Ašmjany have more than one car. As a result of the long-time presence of the border, cross-border trade activities became normalized. Therefore, the shuttle trade became a part of the social reality of the city and of that borderland. The last is particularly true for the young people.
The final chapter of the dissertation is dedicated to the analysis of the shuttle trade from the gender perspective. Listening to the stories of the local women about their experience of taking part in the shuttle trade, Sasunkevich noticed the absence of men in this practice and their insignificance for the life stories she heard, as such. It caused her to explore the gender regime in the borderland, paying attention to both its changes and continuities. Following Kristen Ghodsee, Sasunkevich defined Soviet-era gender equality as lopsided, and indicated that the Soviet legacy with respect to gender roles and expectations influenced the business of shuttle trade and the stories about it. Indeed, women’s greater involvement in everyday practices and networking was an important precondition of their involvement in the shuttle trade and a resource for their success. At the same time Sasunkevich refuses to see the women of Ašmjany as victims on the basis of their involvement in the shuttle trade and instead emphasizes their agency, enthusiasm, and creativity.≈
In June 2014 the first World Conference of the Association for Borderlands Studies took place in Joensuu, Finland. A short report is to be found on the Baltic Worlds website.