Belarus: image is all

Catherine Reilly
8 January 2009


On a car journey through the outskirts of Minsk, Anna* explained why she was transferring her energy into other things. University-educated and in her mid-twenties, she no longer campaigned against the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko. Her mother would be mortified if she was arrested at an opposition march, explained Anna, and besides, the situation "cannot be changed".

Eager to keep the line of conversation going, I asked Anna why Lukashenko was bringing his young son with him everywhere, having noticed the boy's presence in many recent photo opportunities involving the Belarusian president. "I don't know," she replied, with a sigh, "I don't know why he brings his son with him everywhere." Her eyes glazed over; she didn't want to do this. The discussion quickly moved on to other things.

Artem*, a Minsk-based professional in his early thirties, was similarly pessimistic but more talkative when it came to Lukashenko. Also of an oppositional mindset yet not actively involved in politics, he seemed somewhat numbed by the fact that Lukashenko had actually managed to maintain power for 14 years: "Never underestimate those who overestimate themselves," he said wryly, before despondently speculating that the president's eldest son, Viktor, will probably take over the reins in a few years. Some drown out their depression, continued Artem, but what about those who "don't drink but think", and had I noticed how cheap the alcohol was in Belarus?

Anna and Artem were two of the people I happened to meet in Belarus in November- not as official interviewees, just accidentally. They were ordinary young adults, clearly struggling to put the ‘greatness' of Lukashenko's Belarus to the back of their minds.

It is doubtful whether 2009 holds much hope for them, or those who continue to actively promote and seek democratisation in Belarus. In fact, 2009 could mark the point when the world finally shuts its eyes to the type of dictatorship that exists in this eastern European country, for it's not an obvious one. Western journalists may attempt to bolster their credentials by regaling us with tales of their brave visit to this "outpost of tyranny", but they - we - only perpetuate misunderstandings about Belarus in this way. Militias with machine-guns don't prowl the streets; people move freely; talking about  - and even criticising Alexander Lukashenko -on the street or in a café is not something that fills people will fear. At least it wasn't in my personal observation.

British PR guru Lord Timothy Bell, whom Lukashenko hired in 2008 to improve Belarus' image (to make friends in the west while keeping friends in the east), has demonstrated his ‘worth' by playing-up the relative normality that greets visitors who expected to see more severe sights in "Europe's last dictatorship".

"When I go there, I mix perfectly happily with ordinary people," Bell cheerily told the EU Observer in October, the month when the EU suspended travel sanctions on some Belarusian officials, following the release of political prisoners. "I see a country that has a perfectly nice atmosphere about it, people are very relaxed, people I talk to in hotels, bars and restaurants don't keep looking over their shoulder."

Opposition press

But perhaps Bell hasn't delved beneath the surface: after all, that's not his job. He is there to add gloss, not delve.  Had he stopped by the Minsk-based Narodnaya Volya, a key oppositionally-orientated newspaper, Bell would certainly have seen another side to the Belarusian reality. When I visited the paper's office in mid-November, the latest edition had just returned from Smolensk, Russia (it was not allowed to be printed in Belarus) and it had no advertisements (advertisers having been scared off through ‘impromptu' visits from tax officials, according to the paper's deputy editor Svetlana Kalinkina).  By all accounts, the paper should have died, and financially it was unclear how it kept going, with Kalinkina only referring to donations from readers.

A group of pensioners had gathered in the office to help distribute it in Minsk. "We're prompted to do this because we are Belarusians," Taissia Sack, a diminutive pensioner who began busily packing the paper, told me. "We are the patriots of our country and we want to help the newspaper because it was thrown out from our country. But for Narodnaya Volya, we have no other source of independent information here."

Journalists at the paper - who work in a country where insulting the president or the state carries possible criminal charges and jail time rather than civil defamation proceedings - detailed the routine obstructionism they had encountered. Such obstruction was often mundane yet crippling - such as being barred from reporting on events despite holding media credentials.

Coincidentally, a week after my visit, it emerged that Narodnaya Volya - alongside another oppositionally-toned newspaper, Nasha Niva - was to be admitted to the state-controlled subscription and kiosk systems, after years of being frozen out.

It appears that, preceding this, a leading official in Belarus' Presidential Administration had written to the European Union announcing that barriers faced by non-government media would be removed.

New Media Law

Speaking shortly after this development, Svetlana Kalinkina told me that since then demand for Narodnaya Volya had been high, but she expressed extreme caution about the situation. The commercial terms and conditions were not good, she felt, and she added that it was a concession easily retracted if EU-Belarusian negotiations come to nothing. Furthermore, several other non-government newspapers continue to be omitted from the state's subscription and kiosk systems, she remarked.

With prophetic caution (and speaking before the announcement regarding Nasha Niva), Aliaksandr Kudrytski, a journalist with the newspaper, expressed similar vigilance, particularly in the context of a new media law that will come into effect this February.

"If they want better relations with Europe, maybe the law will be mild," he reasoned, "but when the whole story of friendship with Europe is over, the law could be used to wipe out the rest of the independent press."

Andrei Aliaksandrau, international officer with the Belarusian Association of Journalists, shed further light on the possible ramifications of the new media law, which some fear will facilitates a clampdown on independent online journalism in Belarus. "The most dangerous thing is uncertainty," said Aliaksandrau. "The problem is not that the law regulates the internet but that it gives the power to the government to do so."

On the fact that the law requires all media outlets to be re-registered, he explained: "Our experience shows that this can be dangerous for the existence of some newspapers... it's very difficult to register a newspaper, it's not easy to re-register an existing one, and it's a serious danger to deal with something that is not registered."

Aliaksandrau also outlined concerns in relation to the warming of Belarusian-EU relations: namely, the frightening prospect that soft concessions will lure Europe into bed with Belarus, while democracy activities will continue to struggle out in the cold.

"It's obvious for me that Lukashenko and his administration is trying to play games with the west," he said, adding that the Belarusian government has been searching for a "balance" that helps maintain power - one that is achievable through continuing to get cheap Russian oil and gas ("this is the essence of the Belarusian economy") and developing greater economic cooperation with the rest of Europe.

And Europe has been talking. "I understand that Europe is quite tired of Lukashenko and it feels like European politicians just don't know what to do with ‘this Belarus'," he said. "So they are trying to find new ways of communicating. And there is a very popular word among European politicians now, which is dialogue. Everybody wants a dialogue. Because they say if there is no dialogue there will be no improvements. And this is right.

"But the key issue to my mind is what we understand by the word dialogue. It's very important for us, the people who keep struggling within the country, that we believe in certain democratic values, and we think these values should not be questioned. Europe should be prepared for playing games."

A cursory glance at the latest news on the website of the Belorusian Association of Journalists confirms that major curtailments and obstructionism continue to face non-government journalists in Belarus. This is without even mentioning the tactics and dominance of the state media, which is indeed another story.

And what of westerners like myself: where will we get our information about Belarus? The most significant English-language book about Lukashenko's reign was published in 2007 by Trafford Publishing in England and is written by one Stewart Parker. It is glowing in its account of Lukashenko and the economic stability he has presided over during most of his terms. It certainly helps redress a balance concerning information on Belarus, but is far from balanced. Parker admits this himself. Last weekend, in email correspondence to me, he outlined some of his thoughts on the book, and denied links to the Belarusian government. "My motivation for writing it was largely personal," he wrote, "and stemmed from the fact that when I tried to get information about Belarus I had to sift  through so much negative propaganda that bears so little relation to what you see when you actually go there."

But maybe what you see isn't what you get.

*Names have been changed

Catherine Reilly is deputy editor of Metro Éireann, Ireland's multicultural weekly. Her series on Belarus is accessible at http://www.metroeireann.com/articles/inside-belarus

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