Archive for July, 2010

Status Quack

And still I am not impressed. A media war between Russia and Belarus? It was to be expected after years of a “gas for kisses” policy and recent milk, sugar and hydrocarbonate border battles. At least now Minsk’s rhetoric is very clear: Belarusian foreign interests are purely economic, be it a brotherly neighbour or a God-given neighbour.

Of course, it’s not every day that Russian TV shows hastily prepared documentaries accusing the head of the neighbouring country of being affiliated to the forced disappearances of political opponents – in 1999-2000. It seems the Russian leadership doesn’t have (or doesn’t want to reveal?) any sleaze on Lukashenka.

By playing so openly, Moscow is putting up the ‘Love Over’ sign and exerting pressure before presidential elections in Belarus, pushing for more loyalty.

But you can’t beat Belarusian state media in Belarus.

The Russian documentaries weren’t shown in Belarus at all, first hand. As an immediate reaction there was an interview (very poorly prepared as well) with the Georgian president. This gave Saakashvili a chance to criticise the Kremlin and mock its politics. Soon afterwards there was an interview with another Russian ‘favourite': Latvian president Valdis Zatlers. He didn’t talk about Russia, but praised the EU and was hopeful about the fruit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, in which Belarus participates.

The power of the state controlled Belarusian TV channels is amazing: the masses tend to use quotes from the repeatedly aired news reports without noticing it. As a result, people believe that Russia deviously turned its back on Belarus and EU Commissioner Fuele visiting Minsk never raised the question of human rights as Lukashenka said. Russian reports are seen as propaganda and Fuele’s repudiation couldn’t possibly have a wide outreach.

It’s all because the Kremlin wants to topple Lukashenka, Western media reports. Sorry? Topple who? And to get who? If it’s true, it could only be a very long-term goal. Belarusians barely recognise cabinet members. To say nothing of political leaders or businessmen. Everything begins and ends with the same and only person. TV news is Soviet style – “all about Lukashenka and the weather forecast.” If Lukashenka goes, the whole system will have to be rebuilt – and that means towards a demonstrably democratic style.

As with any neighbour Belarusian stereotypes about Russia are clearly divided: Russian culture, Russian people, Russian leadership. For example: the Belarusian private sector is very positive about the EU. People prefer fair play and steady business rather than the Russian “clique is always right” style and rule by the strong.

The EU is also a very attractive destination for education. Amazingly, after all these years of abstention, Lukashenka has tasked the government with starting the procedure of making Belarus a participating country in the Bologna Process.

Belarusian future development and economic benefits are now contrasted with Moscow’s potential economic pressure and the EU’s diplomatic pressure. The choice is pretty limited: a more or less pro-Western or pro-Russian Lukashenka. Still not a zero sum game.

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Mr Fuele’s Best Kept Secret

I think I would give one of my toe nails to eavesdrop on certain behind-closed-doors meetings. Maybe even a toe. We rarely get VIP guests from Brussels. Just 18 months ago, I would have said we never get them. I wonder what is the accurate picture the Belarusian authorities paint for their distinguished guests?

In looking at EU travel/international relations arrangements, you can spot the difference: while we hosted EU commissioner Fuele on 8 and 9 July, Kiev next door hosted EU President Van Rompuy.

You can also see a difference in the way Belarusian TV presents the EU and Russia. Brussels is associated with “dialogue” – “it’s the beginning of a long process, but we are on the way to normalising our relations because the EU and Belarus are important economic partners.” Moscow is associated with “conflict” – “their imperialist mentality, their condescending approach to their closest ally is calling our brotherly ties into question.”

Our leader’s rhetoric addressing Mr Fuele front of the TV cameras speaks for itself.

“We won’t fall down, won’t crawl on our knees in front of anyone – you [EU] or Russia or America,” President Lukashenka said Friday. “We won’t be running around Europe or America or Russia, taking money from you,” he added, urging Brussels to “adhere to democratic values without double standards”.

Lukashenka noted that the EU wants take a long look at the upcoming presidential elections before making any fresh moves.

“On the one hand, it is right and objective – you and others want to know whom you will have to deal with, who will be president in Belarus. But I want to caution you against excessive hopes and expectations: Belarus will be taking its own route,” he said.

Decoding the diplomatic language, this means: We don’t need Paul the octopus to predict the outcome of the elections here, brother. So what are you waiting for?

Meanwhile, the opposition at a separate meeting urged Fuele to demand the release of all political prisoners and an end to repression of political adversaries. They were relieved to hear from Fuele that the EU and Russia will not “solve the Belarus issue” behind its back.

Pre-election temperature is rising in Minsk: political groups are dividing the financial resources, their members are changing places like amoebas in a warm pond. The authorities have passed a new Internet edict giving them the right to suspend websites. Not many know but that’s no surprise for them that an issue of an independent newspaper hasn’t found its way to newsstands, one activist got arrested, another was beaten up.

The Czech Republic’s EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy was relaxed and smily. He declined to divulge to journalists the details of his Lukashenka tete-a-tete. But he voiced hope of a “joint interim plan” to develop EU-Belarus ties, currently under negotiation.

He called Belarus the “best kept secret” in Europe.

Does it mean, that the EU worries about Belarus, wondering: “She loves me. She loves me not?” This is no secret. I’m afraid, it just changes every day. We are taking our own route after all!

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Belarus, Young and Sexy

It is, isn’t it?

Today is the national holiday of Belarus. It’s a beautiful, sunny day with untypically gorgeous weather, people in the streets are peaceful and relaxed as usual.

On these summer days Belarusian cities are full of flowers, blooming in the baskets on lamp posts and in flowerbeds in the shape of labyrinths and peacocks. Public transport and buildings are dressed in the colours of the national flag: red and green. And even the two prominent colours of the rainbow on the billboards “Я ♥ Беларусь!” (I ♥ Belarus!) are red and green.

Summer becomes Belarus. That’s when you clearly see that politicians, conflicts, problems, they all come and go. Whether you associate yourself with the regime or not, you love your country. The notoriously tolerant spirit of Belarusians has a very modern side: we accept different points of view (e.g. of Belarusian wisdom: “Sure, God exists, we just don’t believe in him”), we are modest and self-sufficient, and absolutely never aggressive in our individualism. Actually, all European values start with tolerance, and we have this quality.

Nobody knows us, nobody loves us? It’s their problem. A country can’t be absolutely independent, anyhow. It’s impossible to be independent from money, and there are fewer and fewer cultural differences between countries. But Belarusians exist happily: a humble nation, which knows to work, has a sense of duty and responsibility, knows how to enjoy small things, knows that money can’t buy everything, a good-tempered and wilful people.

And if you have a look at the map, you’ll see that Belarus is not only the geographical heart of Europe. It also has the shape of a heart.

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