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Belarus in Focus
Online guide for journalists writing about Belarus. Find out who's who in business, society or politics, get practical tips and contacts, and read about other journalists' experiences. Got some more questions? Get in touch with us.
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Belarus in Focus 2011

14 Nov

Polonca Frelih, (Slovenia)

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Like Fish in an Aquarium that can Sense the Sea

The election, where the long-term president Alexander Lukashenko won by almost 80 per cent, were marked negative as all elections after 1996; OSCE also demanded the release of 700 opposition protesters arrested on the election night by special police units, some of whom were even beaten up brutally. The detainees include many young people sentenced to 15 days of imprisonment for taking part at the forbidden convention, which means that they will spend their New Year holidays behind the bars. But this is by any means not the worst that can happen to young Belarusians if they stand up against the system.

“I’m coming from the No Man’s Land, I’m heading for the dead end. I’ve got no future, I’ve got no name. I was already lost when I was born.” These are the lines of the song Lost Generation sung by Belarusian rock band Rahis, the residential band of the online project Belarusian Generation Y, which is one of the most popular in Belarus. In the spirit of the opening song, their aim is to prevent the generation born in 1980’s from actually becoming lost. “We are the first generation that grew up in the independent Belarus, so we’re not familiar with the Soviet ideology. This is where we differ from our parents and the older generation in general, as they grew up in the Soviet Union and have kept the old way of thinking. We wish to contribute to people’s education, making them think with their own heads, speak in Belarusian language and respect their roots,” is how the co-operator Volja Dudko presents her project. According to editor Ales Gerasimenko, trends are rather grim: “The survey on Belarusian youth has showed that they view the future with more pessimism than the older generation. As many as 70 per cent of young people wish to leave the country as they see no future in their homeland. They are also much more passive than their Western contemporaries as they are certain that nothing can be changed. They are afraid, for a single wrong move can put their entire existence at risk.”

Instead of focusing on politics, on which it has no influence, the Belarusian Generation Y devotes its efforts to social and cultural life and tries to show “that even the most isolated European country has a group of active young people who believe that the world can be changed for the better and who do not differ from their peers around the globe.” The authors of the project “whose aim is to overcome the stereotype that Belarus is nothing but a dictatorship” met us in a bar in the centre of Minsk with the same music, the same fast food and the young clientele dressed after the same fashion as elsewhere in the world. In view of the merciless Sunday altercation with opposition protesters, the seeming likeness feels like a cheap fa?ade hiding sad stories of severely disadvantaged Belarusian youth. If they were long unaware of it when living like fish in an aquarium, they have been able to sense the sea behind the glass for quite a while. This is mainly thanks to online social networks and student exchange, which was organised especially by the neighbouring Lithuania and Poland after similar election repressions of 2006.

Online Networks - Thorn in the Authorities’ Side

Online social network Facebook gains new users in Belarus much faster than in any other country of the world, as this is where young people dare to speak out their positions which they would otherwise almost certainly have to suppress because of constant supervision. There is a great divide, however, between brave words and brave deeds. “In Switzerland, a girl had used Facebook to organise a meeting which gathered five thousand people; this is impossible in our country.  Under Article 193 of the Criminal Code, as few as a group of three people may constitute a cause for arrest. A good test of responsiveness of our youth was a pillow battle advertised by an active user. It was a perfectly innocent meeting, which nevertheless attracted only a hundred people. Police dispersed them, of course, as the organiser had been released from prison half a year ago in accordance with the ordinance on amnesty of political prisoners, so security authorities had assumed it was a political action. This proves that we live differently than people in other countries,” was Gerasimenko’s illustration of the level of repression.

The more countries you have marked as your travel destination, the bigger your reputation in online social networks in Belarus. Everybody wants to get to know foreign countries, but only few succeed. “I’m the only one in my academic class who has travelled abroad. There is simply no interest, but the lack of money is an even bigger problem. We’re getting 20 euro of scholarship, while a visa we need for almost every country costs 60 euro. Who can afford to travel? What’s more, you need an invitation if you want to travel to the Western Europe. Without a visa, we can only travel to the countries of former Soviet Union, Venezuela, Ecuador, Serbia, Montenegro and Iran. There are too many obstacles,” is the gloomy conclusion of Gerasimenko. “We live in an isolated world. I want to meet friends from all over the world, keep up with global trends and be a part of them. No matter how clich?d it may sound, what I want most is freedom," was Dudko’s description of the wishes of many a Belarusian. The recent events in Belarus condemned by the whole world threaten with an even worse isolation.

Even more popular than Facebook is a Russian social network Vkontakte, which 3 million of the total 10 million of Belarusian population has joined. This is where the opposition presidential candidates saw their opportunity, too. “Many directed their presidential campaigns especially at social networks. They bought groups with a large number of users where they then published their photographs and invitations to vote for them.” This is how an active user of the network outlined a vibrant online pre-election situation. The authorities have been long aware of the threat posed by the new media, so they adopted an even stricter Internet legislation on 1 July. During the post-election protests their first action was the blocking of the access to the opposition website Hartija97; this was followed by a raid of their premises, during which the authorities seized computers and detained the staff. “All collaborators were arrested, including my daughter Iryna. I went to KGB to bring her personal things, but I was not allowed to,” said Vladimir Khalip, the journalist’s father. Irina is the wife of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who ended up behind the bars, too, which confirms that the normal rules of the game simply do not apply in Belarus. From the total of nine presidential candidates, as many as seven were imprisoned, facing up to 15 years of prison for having organised mass protests.

Let’s Make our Youth Old! 

The Belarusian ideological apparatus is attempting to turn young people into clones of their parents and grandparents; to this end, it employs the education system which remains the same as in the Soviet Union. Although education is free of charge, it deprives young people of any option of free choice. In the last year of studies, the faculty management chooses jobs for future graduates, at which they must stay for at least two years. These jobs are usually located in the countryside, very often even in the area of radioactive radiation remaining from the Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986, after which as much as 72 per cent of radioactive particles ended up in Belarus. They are paid a meagre monthly sum of 200 dollars, which is a half of the average salary. “The surveys have shown that the aim of our education system is to prepare the young to learn to live like their parents in the Soviet era. Life is miserable and dreary, and young people begin to think that the state will take care of everything. Such a person becomes non-competitive in the labour market and politically completely resigned. This is the so-called stability Lukashenko keeps talking about. Most young people don’t want stability, they want to know where our country is going," was our interlocutor’s assessment of the main defects. In order to avoid the work assignment, he left the computer science studies in the last academic year and is now paying for his education himself, which means that he can, after all, make independent decisions about his future.

As many as 55 per cent of Belarusian students, who pay their school fees, have chosen freedom in this sense, which means that Belarus is, after all, not a welfare state to the extent presented by the state media. “A very revealing example is that of Kseniya Avimova, a student of journalism who won the Deutsche Welle award for the best photo blog in the world in 2007. The dean of the faculty wanted to send her to work for a state paper, whose mission is merely to extol the government. As she resisted this and wanted to stay at her old independent newspaper, she had to pay a fine of 10,000 EUR. Thank god her prize could cover it. See, this is how our country rewarded the best blogger in the world;” is the sarcastic account of the young editor.

If she gave in to the pressure, she would be rewarded with a state apartment and many other advantages about which an average Belarusian can only dream and with which the regime buys people’s loyalty. At the same time she would be forced to write articles about street riots of drunken youth, which flooded the Belarusian media after the post-election protests. Such denigration is a popular tool in the battle against the opposition, which was supposedly fatal for Belarusian fighter for human rights Yana Palyakova. After the largest newspaper, "Sovietskaya Belorussia," ran an editorial which ascribed her injuries to her drunken condition, although she had been beaten by a police officer at a police station, Palyakova took her life. Before this, the activist from the town of Salihorsk was sentenced to two and a half years of forced labour because of a policeman’s action for false testimony. The compromising editorial signed with a pseudonym was pulled from the newspaper website after the tragic event, which may be understood as an indirect confession of the responsibility for the activist’s death. The mentioned example is by no means an isolated event.

The source of it all is the so-called ideological services set up in all state-owned companies with the task of checking the loyalty of employees. Such a career can be started early on, say our interlocutors. “There is an organisation called Lukamol which gathers young followers of Lukashenko. They are active at universities where they check the students’ loyalty to the regime and report to KBG about it. Such people then easily get a job of state ideologists in companies. This is a job where you don’t have to work at all, but only spy on others. Immediately after graduation you become a deputy director of ideology, get an apartment and a good car. Can you imagine such a career jump!” Cooperation with authorities is a cause of many broken childhood friendships, adds Dudko: “I had a really close friend in my home village. I had enough when I saw photographs of him jumping around wrapped up in Belarus flag and carrying the photo of Lukashenko. I could no longer speak to him, as too many of my friends who do not agree with the regime have ended up in prison."

The Area of Silence

In the category of freedom of the media and freedom of speech, Belarus ranked as 189th of 196 countries, which means that its position was even lower than that of Iran, while it ranked even lower than Zimbabwe in the category of human rights. As a side effect of the repression, young Belarusians have developed an excellent sense of black humour and a vibrant artistic streak. The best known dissident art project by far is the Belarus Free Theatre whose shows staged in Great Britain just before the election received standing ovation and attracted celebrity audience. The theatre, which operates illegally in Belarus, was founded by married couple Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin. Invitations are sent by text messages and blogs by which the public learns about the venue of show just a few hours before the event. This is a preventative measure taken in 2007, when police units stormed their performance and arrested the entire theatre group as well as audience members. On the day before the election, the audience consisting mostly of foreign journalists was shown The Area of Silence, a play made up of tragic stories about growing up in a dictatorial regime.

“The moment is right. I don’t know whether it’s enough to bring down the regime, but the fact is that we all want a change,” was Khalezin’s prophetic forecast of mass demonstrations which gathered 20,000 people on the following day, which is more than any other event in the history of the independent Belarus. The response of security services was merciless and the raid was also fatal for Nikolai and his wife. “We are at KGB. The cleaning of the city has begun,” was their telephone message to friends and acquaintances. After 14 hours they were released – probably only because of the fame they enjoy abroad.

Even before the elections, artistic freedom proved costly for three young Belarusian citizens, Jauhen Sjaptjyts, Pavel Bandzich and Aleh Anufrienka, who were fired from work and expelled from the university because of video clip Hide Your Grandma’s Passport. The message of the video clip was that this was the only way to prevent the fourth term of office of Lukashenko, who had been in power for 16 years. The parody, which instantly became a YouTube hit, pointed out the well-known fact that the “last dictator of Europe”, as he is called by Americans, is voted for especially by the older population, which, of course, cannot be done without a passport. “There is no doubt that this is the doing of the ideology department of the secret service KGB,” is the conviction of Bandzich, the former head of the theatre department at the university named after a well-known Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. “I will inquire at the faculty why they failed to notify me about my expulsion by the appropriate deadline, and it’s very likely that I will challenge the decision at the court, too,” says Anufrienka, who has not given up yet.

“The point of the film is that our parents and grandparents must be warned that things are no longer like they were in the Soviet Union and that more than one candidate stands for the election,” was Gerasimenko’s rendition of the principal message of the short film. That the young, who are far less numerous, depend on the decisions of the older generation who must be convinced to vote differently is also the opinion of Dudko, for whom the actual effect of the clip was opposite than desired: “Belarusian professor Elena Gapova, who lectures in America, responded in a very negative way. She is always critical towards the opposition, for she believes the opposition members insult those who vote for Lukashenko. They call the latter kolkhozniks who cannot think clearly and take their own decisions. The truth is that they decide so because they think that only Lukashenko can guarantee their pensions.”

Although not yet finished, the process is inevitable. Even in the last fortress in Europe, the old Soviet man steps down in favour of the new generation of people fostering the values of the Western world such as democracy, human rights and market economy.


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