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Belarus in Focus
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Belarus in Focus 2011

15 Nov

Ulrike Gruska, Publik Forum (Germany)

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Otherwise you go mad

The life of Alesya Aleksievich*, however, is anything but dreary. The 32-year-old woman organizes cultural events in Minsk and gets in touch with artists and foreign guests as she does with the Belarussian secret service. A few months ago, she moved into a new flat together with a friend, the actor Vladimir Zhuravkov. They told their neighbors that they were a married couple, because sharing a flat with friends is unusual in Belarus – as is working as a freelancer. They painted the walls in bright blue and orange and moved the baroque-style armchairs of their previous tenants into the kitchen. It is even smaller now – but incredibly cosy, when friends drop in.

Alesya has set the table, she put out biscuits and chocolate, oranges, tea and wine. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke are hanging in the kitchen. Olga Suvorova came around, a pianist teaching at the conservatoire, and Alexander Ivashkevich, who is acting on stage together with Vladimir. The doorbell is ringing again and again. Vladimir shows a video on his laptop: the latest performance of the Korniag-Theatre, one of the few independent theatres in the country. Vladimir and Alexander are part of the ensemble. In „Play No. 7“ people are sitting around a table engaged in endless debates – just as they do here in the kitchen. In the play, they sometimes rise and gather for a demonstration. They hold up banners without any slogans and disperse as unnoticed as they had appeared. At the opposite end of the stage a creature from another world looms high above the others. When director Evgeny Korniag is asked for an interpretation, he explains ambiguously, that it is the personification of destiny sitting there on a throne. And everyone makes up his mind on his own.

Alexander Lukashenko has reigned Belarus since 1994. Back then he won the first – and so far only – free presidential elections. In the following years he based his power on three pillars: a state-directed, Soviet-style economy, that ensured a modest but steady prosperity; a foreign policy, that skilfully played off Russia against the West; and a tight network of security services, which brutally crushes down any criticism and  

fosters an atmosphere of fear among the people. When tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in December 2010 to protest against vote-rigging, they clashed with the full force of the police state: More than 700 people – many opposition leaders among them – were arrested, some tortured and sentenced in show trials to long prison terms.

In addition, the country suffered a severe economic crisis this spring: The Belarusian Ruble was devalued by 55 percent, foreign investment fell to almost zero and one in ten employees faced temporary layoffs. Ensuring stability and security is what many Belarusians have appreciated their president for so far. But when, in addition to the economic crisis, 14 people were killed by an explosion in the Minsk metro in April 2011, the confidence in the political leadership has been irretrievably destroyed. The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) estimates, that today less than one third of the population supports Lukashenko.

Alesya Aleksievich looks out of the window. It is a wet cold day in October. A meeting of opposition groups was planned for today on Bangalore Square in front of her house. There is no evidence of the verve of the summer months, when Belarusians attracted international attention with sophisticated new forms of protest: They arranged meetings through the internet, gathered in central areas of Minsk and other cities – and in some cases did not do anything at all. Predominantly young protestors expressed their dissatisfaction with the regime by clapping hands, calling each other on their cell phones or simply hanging around. No banners, no slogans, no chanting. Nevertheless, several hundred people were arrested. The law on public assembly was tightened, now it criminalizes people in certain areas even for doing nothing.

None of Alesya's friends went to the meeting on Bangalor Square today. Olga shakes her head and takes a deep drag on her cigarette. "We are not the country in which the people decides anything", she says. A few hundred dissatisfied, Alesya states, gathered on the Square today anyway – a ridiculously small number in comparison to "the blacks" who surrounded them: policemen in riot gear and intelligence officials in civilian dress. They filmed the faces of the protestors and recorded the speeches of their leaders.

The secret service, still called KGB in Belarus, is omnipresent. "They show you clearly: You are being observed", says Alesya. She talks about letters from abroad, which arrive damaged and resealed by the Belarusian Post with strange regularity. She mentions the unknown man, who showed up at one of her poetry readings the other day. He stood there for ten minutes demonstratively listening and then disappeared. She recalls the evening, when she noticed the light burning in her empty flat. Fearfully, she spent the night at her friend's house and came back in the morning. The light had been switched off. "There was a time, when I was so terrified, that I almost panicked", she remembers. „But then I said to myself: Stop! You must not think about this any more, otherwise you go mad."

Alesya is convinced that the problem of Belarus is not Lukashenko. It is, she says, the fear and passiveness of the people. This is why she organizes exhibitions for modern artists and readings for young poets. In spring she held a workshop in creative writing. The 27-year-old Dasha Martchuk composed a play about Belarusia's parallel worlds for it: about the normality on the streets, the violence against dissidents and the  

forlornness in virtual networks. "Art needs to wake people up", Dasha says. "They must stop lamenting at the kitchen table and think about how they can change the situation."

Vladimir and Alexander staged her play – so poignantly and so insistently, that it hurt watching it, said a woman in the audience. Somebody asked the actors, what it is, that could be changed, which kind of country they dream of. The young men did not utter a word for a while. "Well", Vladimir then thought aloud, "what kind of Belarus do we dream of?" And Alexander said vaguely, more to himself: "If only we knew."

* all names changed

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