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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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How to enter
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Belarus in Focus 2011
Michal Potocki

Michal Potocki was born in Warsaw in 1984, and studied international relations at Warsaw University. In 2008 he started to work for the Polish daily newspaper ‘Dziennik’ which in 2010 was unified with ‘Gazeta Prawna’, a daily specialising in economy and law, and subsequently became ‘Dziennik Gazeta Prawna’.

In addition to Belarus, he covers Russian and Ukrainian issues as well as the European debt crisis. He was an ad hoc correspondent during the parliamentary and presidential elections in Belarus as well as presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine. Belarus and Ukraine are not only his professional duties but also a hobby that started with a fascination in Belarusian and Ukrainian rock music in the early 2000s which eventually turned into an interest in the political and economic situation in these states.

Besides his mother tongue he speaks English, Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian. In the past he also learned Esperanto, German, Greek and Japanese, and promises he will improve some of these languages.

David Marples The author provides a personal view of the different perspectives of Belarusians, illustrating their cynicism toward the authorities and the superficial nature of the so-called social contract between the president and the public. Well written and perceptive.
Yuliya Slutskaya A deep understanding of the topic while maintaining objectivity. Potocki is able to put Belarus in context for a broad readership outside of Belarus.
Oliver Money-Kyrle Using the elections as a backdrop ’split personality provides a crash course on all aspects of the problems facing ordinary Belarusians pulling no punches in its assessment of either the authorities or the opposition. Excellent journalism.
Polona Frelih In-depth exploration of the three different Belaruses and all the reasons why the silent one still prevails. A deep understanding of Belarus reality, achieved by visiting the country on a regular basis.

Split Personality Intersection

Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, September

Behind our eastern border not one, but three Belaruses exist. One lives under the white-red-white flag and the Pahonia as the coat of arms. Over the heads of the other one flows the red-green flag, not much different from the one from the Soviet era. The third, and the biggest, has no flag and no coat of arms. It only has a slogan: ‘leave us alone.’ Both the other Belaruses are trying to win this silent majority. Each one of them is afraid of the other two.

The silent Belarus is growing because of disappointment. The opposition activists are losing the sense of further fight, which changes nothing. The supporters of the current head of state slowly begin to see the nature of the system, which, however, does not change their earlier mistrust towards the opposition, since it has an unpleasant tendency to treat them with disdain as people unable to understand what the democrats are fighting for. The state propaganda correctly identifies this arrogance of the dissidents, describing them with the word ‘sviadomyja’ (‘the conscious ones’), which takes on a negative connotation in the mouth of Alaksandar Lukashenka .

Inside the already alienated group of the opposition supporters those who are exceptionally alienated are its elites. Many opponents of Mr. Lukashenka accuse their leaders of delaying tactics, senseless sending of the young guns into the streets and preferring personal ambitions to the good of the nation. Insults are thrown – some people are accused of being ‘grantasos’ – meaning the ‘suckers of EU grants.’ ‘The last time our opposition united was in 1922, for the Poland’s parliamentary election’ – one of the journalists wrote on Facebook. And there is something in it. Before the last week’s parliamentary elections Belarus has experienced one of the worst periods of repressions in its history. And even in spite of this, the opposition could not even agree whether to take part in the elections of not, and during the campaign some leaders came to blows.

Talks in the kitchen

‘Seminars with “grantasoses”, while we’re bleeding from our noses. An image of freedom fighters is what you’re creating. Hiding your ineptitude is what you’ve been making. Indeed you are running to the other finish line: don’t want freedom, but attend banquets and be fine’ – rapped Krou, the most distinctive voice of the rebellious part of the younger generation. The risk, that the ordinary Belarusians take when they take part in protests, is real. There have been cases of mysterious deaths, show trials, disciplinary recruitments into the army. Fear returns cyclically.

When a manifestation of between ten and twenty thousand on the night of December 19th/20th, 2010 was dispersed and thus a two-year thaw was ended, Julija, a then 24-year-old activist of one of the human rights organisations, was walking me to the Minsk railway station. The number of the arrested exceeded 500 by then, and the police was organizing hunts for those who had taken part in the ‘Ploshcha’ (‘square’), as the Belarusians call the protests. ‘I have a feeling, like it was 1937 during Stalin rule. Nobody knows if they start killing us this time or not’ – she told me, smoking one cigarette after another, her eyes in panic.

The KGB can shut down the Viasna (‘Spring’), one of the best known Belarusian human rights organisations, anytime. The doors of its bureau can be sealed, because the bureau itself belongs to the state. Until recently, the huge flat in the centre of Minsk belonged to the Viasna leader, Ale? Bialacki, but in 2011 he was sentenced for alleged tax crimes (i.a. thanks to the help of the Polish prosecutor’s office) for 4.5 years of prison along with confiscation of his property by the state. However, the Viasna might still be able to operate in the office for years (not anymore; the flat would be eventually confiscated in November 2012 – edit.). There are many ‘axes’ like that, hanging over the heads of the opposition activists. For the membership in an unregistered organisation you can be send to labour camp for two years, and giving information to foreign media might be in some cases treated as high treason, for which the law provides even 15 years. The laws remain unused, but they can be used in any moment. It is also nothing new – Minsk just uses the modus operandi from the Soviet era.

Fear mobilizes some people, the others prefer to avoid risk. In 2010 Ryhor quit his job in one of the regime-controlled TV stations. He had not been throwing mud at the opposition or the West on a daily basis, he dealt with the economy. First he looked for a job in his profession. However, he eliminated the Belsat, a TV station broadcasting from Poland, right away. ‘Give me a break, I don’t wish myself and my parents to have our flats searched by the KGB’ – he told me, his hand doing this gesture ‘forget about it.’  He tried, though, to fix himself a membership card of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, an independent organization acting parallel to the state-owned equivalent. With no success. He heard from one of the officials that he has murky past.

Mistrust is justified, because – as in each and every system – the eyes and ears of the regime are the KGB agents. The authorities try to insert them in every possible institution. Ryhor can hardly keep himself from smiling, when he talks how the agents had been placed in the regime-controlled TV in which he worked. ‘It was easy to recognize them, because they speak in their own jargon. Especially one of “journalists” was on the rage in the newsroom. He came to our desk, said hello to the colleagues, and when asked about his previous job he replied, that he had worked in the police for 10 years’ – laughs the ex-TV reporter.

Average Belarusians, not engaged on any side, are just as afraid as the opposition itself. Difficult topics are discussed – as in the Soviet times – ‘in the kitchen.’ Ryhor recalls a scene from recent harvest festival, which he reported for the TV. The festival is the most important feast for the regime, which spent on it this year an equivalent of over USD 100m. The authorities choose a town, which is thoroughly modernised for this purpose. Cinemas and health care centres are built, streets get new asphalt, elevations are renovated. ‘We entered the bar. The TV shows Lukashenka’s speech, repeated again and again. Six people in the bar: three policemen and three girls in traditional clothes. All of them staring into the screen, as if each of them was afraid to look at the other persons or show irritation or boredom’ – he recalls.

Every time when an election comes, the people are made to cast their ballot during early voting. This is the best time to manipulate the elections, in order to give the election day the appearance of normality. And so the students, soldiers or workers of the public sector are shepherd to the ballot boxes before the election Sunday. ‘They throw people out of the university rather not for not having voted as requested, but rather for being an active member of the opposition. And despite that large groups of students vote early’ – says Micha? Jan?uk, head of the Belsat’s Minsk bureau. The TV does not have such problems as Viasna. The flat, which their journalists occupy, belongs to a Belarusian – a permanent U.S. resident. The KGB has no possibility to persuade him.

Meanwhile the demands are becoming more and more absurd. In this year’s elections the policemen and soldiers were ordered not only to vote early, but to bring their wives to the ballots. The authorities must work harder and harder to pump the turnout up.

The stick becomes more real only after one engages himself in anti-government activity. In Belarus there are no long-term work contracts. Instead, a short-term contract system exists. The employees sign contracts for a period between one to three years. ‘Even private companies react to the KGB’s suggestions like “apparently you do not need this employee anymore”’ – says Micha? Jan?uk.

There’s the carrot, too. ‘Lukashenka’s power relies on a social contract. The authorities buy themselves peace in exchange for full employment, rent bonuses, free health care and education, safe and clean streets – Piotar Marcau from the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) told ‘Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.’ Indeed, everything, that belongs to the state, is subsidised. A ticket for the Minsk underground costs 1500 roubles (USD 0.18). Because of this, although the nominal salaries are still low (average in August: 4.1m roubles = USD 485), their purchasing power puts the Belarusians between EU citizens from Romania and Bulgaria. It is actually quite close to USD 500 – the sum, that Mr. Lukashenka  promised before the 2010 election to buy himself support. The residents of Minsk call those who believe in artificial salary-pumping ‘The Five Hundredth Dollar Adventists.’

The presidential newspaper ‘SB. Belarus Segodnya’ costs 900 roubles (USD 0.1), though only a small number of people buy it willingly, and more and more often it raises laughter. Every year the propaganda becomes more and more stupid. On the election day, the state TV announced an investigative material prepared by Belarusian journalists, covering election scandals: forcing people to vote early, multiple ballots cast by ‘trusted’ voters. In Belarus? No – the story was about the United States.

On the other hand, the full employment, mentioned by Mr. Marcau, is for the most part fictional, just like in the communist-ruled People’s Republic of Poland before 1989. If you enter a grocery, you will see one lady serving eggs and dairy products, another one serving cooked meat, a third one – wines and spirits, and you have to pay the fourth one. The minus is that there are vacancies, e.g. at the construction sites of the second and third Minsk underground lines (the second one being extended, the third one being built). Such system, however, results in that everyone can be kicked out without any loss for the employer – which is another reason not to stand out of the crowd too much. Furthermore, this system encourages the Belarusian citizens to keep their allegiance to the authorities, often creating a false demand for their services. How does it work? The pro-government media are a great example.

Stability is everything

Taciana works as a postman on the outskirts of Minsk. Her post office receives the subscription plan from the city education department every month. That means she has to collect from the people living within her walk not only the orders for the daily press, but also for the specialist press, issued by individual ministries. There is then the ‘Nastaunickaja Hazieta’ for teachers, ‘Meditsinsky Vestnik’ for doctors and so on. If someone has two kids who go to school, he often must subscribe two issues of a certain magazine for pupils. For most of them people do not pay a dime. The teachers receive a bonus to their salary especially destined for ‘Nasta?nickaja Hazieta.’ The bonus is fictional, because it is deducted from their salary by the employer beforehand. So in the end they receive a newspaper, which in most cases lands straight in the bin. It is simply boring.

I asked them many times, if they couldn’t just resign from this unnecessary subscription. Almost nobody tried. ‘You know, that’s life’ – I heard in reply – says Taciana. She is scared, too. Although in our conversation, (led, of course, ‘in the kitchen’), she does not hide her negative attitude to the government, she calls the president only ‘mister Lukashenka,’ silencing her voice and lowering her sight. It is a common conduct. Last year the economic crisis led to silent protests. Their participants expressed their opposition by clapping their hands. In July they agreed to ‘clap out’ Mr. Lukashenka  during the Independence Day parade. When the president mounted the rostrum, almost nobody clapped his hands.

There are a lot of opportunists, too. Especially for them the Belarusian Republican Youth Association (BRSM) was created. It is the Lukashenkist version of the Soviet era Komsomol. Who has activity in BRSM in his CV, ends up in the presidential human resources reserve. That means he might be able to gain access to the carousel of governmental posts. For these people, the worst nightmare is the end of the status quo. Which is why the key slogan in the regime’s propaganda is ‘stability.’ ‘Yes, of course, we must reform our economic model, but in such a way so as not to lose the country – as it’s said within governmental circles’ – Vadzim Hihin, one of the main ideologists of the ruling camp, told ‘Dziennik Gazeta Prawna’.

What are they scared of, if the people are apathetic? A straw, that will break the camel’s back and cause the people to stop being afraid. Michas Janchuk mentions a story from the Soviet era. When the schoolchildren reached the age of 14, they received their Komsomol ID’s. So did the first four 14-year olds from his class. Mr. Janchuk declined. He and his father were called for ‘reformatory’ talks, also in father’s workplace, but in the end nothing special happened. From that time none of his classmates joined the Komsomol.

Today, then, the word ‘stability’ is all over in the media. Thanks to such stance many officials and journalists are still faithful to Mr. Lukashenka, because they can expect good salaries and a separate queue for a flat.

The only thing you have to do is master the skill of doublethink. There’s no problem with it in Belarus. There are streets in the big cities, named after communist prophets, full of shops selling Western brands. The headquarters of the Union of Poles in Belarus in Grodno are located on the corner of September 17th (the day date of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 – edit.), and Felix Dzerzhinsky (the creator of the Bolshevik secret police Cheka – edit.) streets. If you take a walk starting from the train station in Minsk, you can walk along Kirov Str., turn into Komsomol Str., and then follow the Marx Str. and Engels Str. straight to Ulyanov Str. (Vladimir Lenin real name – edit.). Ulyanov Str. crosses with Lenin Str., though. ‘We call this place the Split Personality Intersection’ – laughs one of my interlocutors.

Some names have been changed.

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