Your Cause

Guess which European country held a nationwide, three-day official period of mourning after the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez?

This country didn’t mourn after a blast in the underground that killed a dozen people (only the capital mourned, the city where it happened). It didn’t join European nations in mourning when half the Polish ruling elite perished in a plane crash. It didn’t mourn the victims of the Japanese nuclear disaster.

But this time it’s different. Even the celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March is postponed.

It’s all about ideology. There is a country in Europe that wants to be a twin brother to far-away Venezuela. To rely on its own oil, erratically choose its allies and foes; be generous with the first and dismissive with the latter. Stay populist and popular, win elections… Till death do us … Well, you know.

Regimes are similar all over the world. For this reason they are categorised and labelled. And so are the people who embody them.

When your authoritarian twin at the other end of the world dies, you write an epitaph that you hope will be read out for you:

“Our hearts have been rocked by the sad news … the untimely death of one of the greatest statesmen and leaders of our time, a tenacious hero, a flaming patriot and fighter for independence, an outstanding politician, thinker and public speaker, a brilliant, strong and life-loving man whose life was completely and entirely devoted to the service of the Fatherland… led his nation to happiness and freedom with a strong and firm hand. He was and I am sure will remain in the hearts of millions of people, who will remember him as the true farther of the nation, a defender of the poor, underprivileged and oppressed, a focus of hopes and a pillar of democracy on the continent.”

It is the President of Belarus who believes that the name of Hugo Chavez, “should be inscribed with golden letters on the scroll of world history.” Or even, beyond history.

“Your cause will last forever,” Lukashenka concluded.

He went to Caracas to take part in the funeral.

This official grief in Belarus is indeed a bit exaggerated. But little wonder. When fear of your own death is so big.

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A Real Poker Face

Did you know that there are Belarusians who unlike Lukashenko don’t have a moustache? But they all are very serious.

Please meet Vitaly Zelkovsky who travels but doesn’t get emotional.

Vitaly, seriously, you are my hero.

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…and if you ask me I think it’s no coincidence that he lives in Belgium now ^^

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Empire Strikes Back

Everything you wanted to know about human rights violations in your country but were afraid to ask: A report is drawn by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of (surprise, surprise) Belarus and describes countries that “traditionally represent themselves as developed democracies.”

In the introduction FM Makei states the intention to spotlight “the victims that are traditionally given a blind eye” as well as “the most resonant human rights violations in 2012.”

The report is based on data, collected by Belarusian embassies and accessed online.

It covers USA, Canada and countries in Europe. Of the EU members, several are not even mentioned. Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxembourg and Malta seem to be the least troubled spots on the map.

There is already criticism and comments on the report. However, who-are-you-to-judge is the bottom line of the discussion.

But don’t be too hard on the authors. They just wanted to chime in with their view of the appalling human rights violations. Just imagine how worried Belarusian MFA is about situation back home!…

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Rinse and Repeat

It sounds familiar in 2013: Belarus is aiming high. It plans to have 8.5 percent GDP growth and it has unveiled a big-hearted programme on modernisation, social housing, wage growth and debt repayment. After another period of turning its back on the West, it also says it wants to get back to the negotiating table.

But time is a river, you cannot really step into the same water twice. Yes, the average wage is back to $500/month. Meanwhile, prices keep growing. Stable, but low is the President’s popularity rate, at just 30 percent.

So who can help with a bit of cash to keep ambitious plans alive? It is Russia and/or the West.

Moscow already owns the gas pipelines that run through Belarus. It does want to see more extensive privatisation. But with oil prices going down, its support is also dwindling, be it in the form of Russian oil which Belarus refines and sells on, cheap gas, loans or, more simply, in terms of Russian demand for Belarusian exports.

The EU is a rich neighbor. It also has the means to help modernise industry and to bring private sector investment. But it wants Belarus to free political prisoners and to see economic and political reform.

So today it is cheaper to come to terms with the West. You release the inmates and you pick up the discourse of yes-we-want-to-be-your-democratic-friend.

The Russians want the family jewels, and you can only sell those once.

However, the EU might be less easy to fool after the violent post-election crackdown in December 2010 than it used to be. Lukashenko can put on his poker face. But he has already showed his cards.

Let’s wait and see who outwit the others.

The game is: promise more and give less. Complain about the iron fist of Russia but reap the benefits of its Eurasian Union project. Release dissidents and arrest new ones. Rinse and repeat.

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Decree Me

Belarus used to be one of the most technically advanced republics of the Soviet Union. Today, 21 years after the collapse of the USSR, it’s just one of the most Soviet. Years pass, but certain qualities stay.

Belarus’ strategic efforts to attract investment and modernise the industry are overshadowed by presidential orders and decrees. Recently at the stroke of a pen two of its biggest candy makers were nationalised. Decree No9 on planned reconstruction of the wood-processing enterprises also forbids their workers to quit their (yet poorly paid) jobs.

2012 is the Year of Books here, 2013 will be the Year of Frugality.

The country starts paying off its debts next year and plans no further loans so far. It is unlikely that they could get any from the West due to the lack of (promised!) structural economic reforms.

But Russia can never fail a true friend, even though this friend failed to fulfill the precondition for 2012, a $2.5 million privatisation. Moscow already signaled that the last of tranche of its EurAsEc grant ($440 million) will be wired in December.

Despite the difficulties, Belarus aims high. There are lists of factories for sale, with impressive price tags. For example, the state share of Belaruskali potash company can be acquired for $32 billion.

These attempts to sell the crown jewels remind me of a story about a neighbour, who hoped to sell his ancient car for $8,000. Just because he badly needed money.

I don’t mean to underestimate Belaruskali, it has some 40 percent of the world’s potash fertilisers market. But if you want to be effective, you have to be realistic.

Now all eyes on economic security! Economy should be economic was the Soviet slogan.

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Save Belarus Farmers

Oh, this wonderful fatigue… Problems that can’t be resolved in a limited span of time annoy ad infinitum, don’t they?

Eastern Europeans from their big and small Russias are too elusive to grasp. They have alternating periods of colorful revolutions, flawless democracy and authoritarian rule.

I understand the EU attitude. There are too many national and local problems, with politicians stuck within election cycles, between voters’ pressure and populism, foreign policy being domestic policy-making.

There are very different parties assuming power and bureaucrats merrily-going-round due to rotation.

There is anaemic, drowsy strategic planning and no painstaking decisions as to the countries outside the EU.

As if EU doesn’t have any neighbours any more.

One of the recent episodes of South Park shows Americans supporting the fight of farmers in Belarus. Or was that about cosmonauts in Armenia?

Whatever. Politicians have to act anyway.

And if you have five minutes to spare, please join the fight. Ukrainian stamp collectors need you.

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Vladimir Vladimirovich Lukashenka

So here we go again.

The regimes of Russia and Belarus tend to look more and more like twins, identical twins.

Political activists are arrested under a “hooligan” label? Been there, done that. The laws for demonstrations and associations are tightened? Same o’, same o’. Politicised trials for flash mobs in churches and teddy bears dropped out of planes? C’mon, tell me something new.

A Russian friend put it very nicely: She could have been very optimistic about all the protests and anger that rises in Russia, if she didn’t know the situation in Belarus so well.

The Belarusian and Russian leadership are acting as if there were no moral laws, no neighbouring countries, no international agreements and – no tomorrow. For this reason, domestic policy can lie solely in the hands of the elected heads of state and their clique. The majority, minority, the dissidents and well-wishing international organisations can be disregarded.

The Pussy Riot case showed it very clearly. For Putin not just a handful of opposition leaders, but any citizen with a critical and active political stand is a thorn, even if not an immediate threat to his power. And yes, he himself is not a pussy.

That’s exactly what happened in Belarus in the last decade. First the opposition politicians were silenced, now everyone should go into ostrich mode.

Here let’s not forget that a triplet twin is on the way. Kyiv gets less media attention but cultivates the same tendencies.

It is impressive enough to see modern leaders acting to the disadvantage of their country to conserve the status quo and consolidate their power.

And it works well.

There are stars and VIPs supporting Russian activists and unfortunate punks, EU regularly pulling in and out its ambassadors from Belarus, European leaders pronouncing threats to sports events in Ukraine. To no avail. Moscow, Minsk and Kyiv couldn’t care less.

With the bottom line here being general apathy and frustration in the societies.

The possibility for the united democracies of European Union to face the united autocracies of the Eurasian Union is getting higher.

Are you scared? Then act today.

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Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear

I think it’s funny. Peaceful Swedish citizens get themselves a small jet and sneak off from Lithuania over the Belarusian border to scatter teddy bears in support of the freedom of speech. In Belarus, which is so obsessed with its security.

I don’t find it funny when there is a show of toys with slogans for more human rights and freedoms and the human organisers are tried and put behind bars. The toys luckily, not.

It is not very amusing to see Soviet style parades during the Victory Day and Independence Day celebrations, showing off military aircraft and defence equipment, all those tanks and other examples of the munitions wardrobe of Belarus.

Twenty five years ago, in 1987, as the Soviet Union was crumbling and tumbling, German Mathias Rust illegally landed next to Red Square in Moscow, in the heart of the Soviet empire.

Of course he was tracked, but nobody was decisive enough to give an order to shoot him down. As a result there was a window of opportunity for Gorbachev; he fired key defence officials who opposed his perestroika ideas.

Belarusian history also knows a very different story: In September 1995 a balloon participating in an announced international race was shot down; two Americans were killed. A big international scandal followed.

Who knows what happened now, when Belarusian authorities have tense relations with both Europe and Russia? If there was a decision not to shoot the low-flying plane. If the plane went unnoticed and managed to violate the Nato-Belarus border. Or if it was disassembled and brought to Belarus across the Russian border, where there are no border controls.

The facts are: there are videos showing hundreds of teddy bears with signs “We support the Belarusian struggle for free speech” flying towards places in Belarus that can be identified; there are witnesses who saw them, and those who picked them up.

The State Border Committee of Belarus denied any invasion of Belarus’ airspace, claiming that the video is a fake; the Lithuanian side confirmed the trespassing of the border but refused to elaborate if it was linked to the teddy bear flight.

Notoriously, Belarusian air defence system is meant to protect Russia as well. And now Belarus is planning to help Venezuela build up an air shield.

But apart from the question of national security. With human protests being silenced, the toys are still able to cross the border and ask for more freedom. But this time most of the teddy bears from Sweden ended up in police stations for further investigation. Isn’t it ironic?

 

PS  It was on 10 July 1994 that Lukashenka came to power.  18 years ago today.

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When In Doubt, Shoot

Apropos of countries with capital punishment, what do you think the notification looks like which informs you that your relative has been executed? White letters on black paper? Mournful coloration and a red stamp with the national coat of arms? Or it’s a telegram? Clear and brief, no condolences. Will it be dated? Will it be personal? Will God be mentioned?

Human life is not the biggest value in the 21st century. So many die daily in car crashes, domestic accidents, street and domestic violence, diseases, hunger. Norms are changing. The Catholics are about to use condoms, conservatives are having a second thought about abortion. But capital punishment could still for many be just a part of normal life.

The politicians made a clever decision to write laws and proclaim the rule of law – all to prevent the irrational and emotional from dominating reason, to defend people from each other. In dubio pro reo – when in doubt, for the accused.

Well, people are still being executed, even though most civilised countries abandoned this measure to show that not just the accused or his family, but that the of whole society failed if he or she committed such a serious crime.

Again, apropos of countries with capital punishment. What do you think it feels like when the judiciary is not independent? When it is in dubio pro rex (when in doubt, for the king)? When you have no trust in the judgment?

Two young people were recently executed in Belarus. They were arrested the next day after a terrifying bombing in Minsk metro in April. The show trial took place in September in the House of Justice, where the accused where put on display in a cage on a big stage. Over five hundred volumes of evidence and hundreds of victims and witnesses’ testimonies were rushed through in 10 weeks. The sentence was the harshest: death row both for the terrorist and his friend, who knew about it but didn’t try to stop it.

The reaction of society was strange. It provoked discussion about the barbaric notion of state killing exactly because people had their doubts that the terrorists could be identified so quickly, that they confessed several bombings and 14 crimes all together and that their aim was no less than “destabilisation of the society.”

The family of the accused even stayed in Minsk with a victim of the bombing. Even the victims were afraid that toll number of casualties will simply go from 15 to 17.

People were not convinced, but not the king. On 14 March President Lukashenka dismissed the pardoning petition. Days later it became known that both convicts have been executed. The fastest capital case in Belarus ever. Now the volumes of evidence can be put in the bin.

What does the note look like? I can tell you. One day you get a short bureaucratic statement. You won’t even know the exact date when it was over for your closest family member.

The executed have no grave in Belarus. But those who have their doubts have been bringing flowers to the house where the executed lived and to the memorial of the victims who died in the metro bombing; people abroad have been coming to the Belarusian embassies. In memory of the victims of the regime who they failed to defend.

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Not Russia

As a Belarusian joke goes: There are tours to Belarus organised for the Russians to see what they will have after the presidential elections on 4 March.

Putin will be elected, but of course situation in Russia is and will be different. Even the demonstrations show how different we are.

In Russia rallies are tolerated.

And there are so many creative and witty posters. People mock at the regime and its corrupt nature: “Don’t shake the boat, our rat is sick”, “Veggies are good for the regime”, “Putin cheats at maths”, “Passive intellectuals are here today as well”, “They killed elections! You, bastards!” etc, etc.

And I thought: why have I never written anything funny when joining a rally?

It’s been 17 years, it’s bitter not witty.

There’s nothing funny about any new scandal, every other broken life of an expelled student or a sacked trade union activist.

It’s not in Russia that a dissident receives two weeks imprisonment for placing toys with slogans against the regime or two years for hanging out a white-red-white flag that is not forbidden.

It’s not in Russia that terrorists are arrested a day after the bombing and the death cases of the journalists or politicians stay unsolved.

Not in Russia the results of the national Eurovision contest are declared rigged and revoked personally by the president after the scandal in the internet forums.

It’s not Russia that in response to EU sanctions raises the level of repression against its own people.

It’s not Russia that forces the EU to recall all ambassadors. Smiling and giving its best bark that is still worse than its bite, in a row that it can not afford and is bound to lose…

The knowledgeable ones here are unhappy as they also know how few they are, and how many are not interested to be informed.

Right, Russia also has those who care and those who don’t. But none of the parts is that disillusioned, hard-boiled, taken through the 17 years of mincing machine, with its ups and downs, being proven wrong, proven right but meaningless.

This is Belarus, baby.

“They killed our hope! F*ck you, bastards”…

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