A decade ago I was asked to meet a group of journalists from Belarus who were crossing over the border into Latvia for a few days. Latvia was just joining the European Union and the trip,funded by the British Foreign Office, was intended to give the Belarussians some idea of the freedoms enjoyed by their journalistic counterparts in a ‘normal’ European country. My strongest memory of our time together in the Latvian capital,Riga,was not their enthusiasm for learning about European institutions because frankly they weren’t that interested,it was the presence among them of a journalist from the Belarus state broadcaster who seemed to be taking copious notes of not only what I said but what her colleagues from various newspapers said to me. To their credit this note-taking didn’t seem to inhibit conversation,the Belarussians seemed used to it.
This month I finally got to visit Belarus itself as part of my hobby/obsession with travelling to every country in Europe.I found the centre of the capital Minsk apparently more prosperous than one might have expected,no more shops with nothing on the shelves though the surly Soviet style of service remains amongst the older staff.Lots of casinos seem to have opened since Putin cracked down on them in Russia and five star hotels are opening for the richer casino tourists. I stayed in a three star Soviet era hotel where men in dark suits still sit around in the foyer with nothing much to do other than keep an eye on the customers. I visited the block of flats where Lee Harvey Oswald lived for a time as a defector from the U.S before returning to live in Dallas with the wife,Marina,he met at a dance in Minsk. Most of the city’s other landmarks relate to World War Two which is understandable when you remember that a quarter of Belarus’s population was killed by the Nazis, many of them in the numerous incidents when German troops and collaborators herded villagers into barns and set fire to them.Belarus is the country where a group of Jewish partisans living in the forests fought the German army,as portrayed in the film ‘Defiance’ with Daniel Craig.Minsk certainly earned its place as one of the Soviet Union’s ‘hero’ cities in WW2.
Belarus would have been the 47th member of the Council of Europe I’ve visited but Belarus is not actually a member.Along with Kazakhstan its human rights record has kept it out. My very modest effort a decade ago to help bring new freedoms to its media,along with countless other initiatives to bring Belarus into that group of former Soviet states who now look west instead of east,have achieved very little.
Belarus has come to be known as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ and that seems a fair description but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.Take my first night in the capital Minsk. A taxi drove me past one of the enormous presidential palaces which Alexander Lukashenko has built himself.He says no Government money was spent on it which leaves the intriguing question of who did pay for it. Just along the road was a modern sports and events arena of the type you see in most American cities and a shopping mall with similar American antecedents. Inside the arena it was pizza and hot dogs,beer and coke,rock bands and cheer-leaders. The top local ice-hockey team was at home in the KHL ,Russia’s equivalent of North America’s NHL,and having seen the New York Rangers play at Madison Square Garden in New York, I can report that it is not that different when Dinamo Minsk play at the Minsk Arena.One of the Minsk players was even a former NHL man ,Geoff Platt, who likes the place so much he’s taken out Belarussian citizenship.
The KHL stands for Kontinental Hockey League which has 21 teams from Russia and 7 from former parts of the Soviet empire.Having now visited many of the countries in that empire I have found that a common feature is a museum or exhibition condemning the Soviet imperial period.The best examples are the former KGB headquarters in Lithuania where resistance leaders were murdered in a special facility in the basement,the Occupation Museum in Latvia where you are left with the clear impression that the Latvians thought their Soviet occupiers were a lot worse than their Nazi ones,and the Museum of Soviet Occupation in Georgia,a country still occupied in part by the Russians after the Georgians had the nerve to take on their former masters.
It is different in Minsk. At the ice hockey match there was warm applause when the Russian national anthem was played for the visiting team.In Minsk’s main street Independence Avenue, a classic piece of large scale Stalinist post-war architecture ,proudly stands the KGB building where it is absolutely business as usual. Everybody still calls it the KGB and former KGB men like Viktor Rusak, now a parliamentarian and ‘Deputy Chairman of the Standing Commission on National Security’ boasts in his CV that he is a ‘KGB honored security officer’ and lists his former roles in the KGB.
Along the road from the KGB is the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Department on Personnel and Ideology’ ,one of whose roles,according to its website,is ‘enforcement of regulatory and other acts of higher bodies on ideological issues’. It is said to be devoting more of its time to making sure bloggers in Belarus understand the enforcement of ‘ideological issues’. I was told the biggest threat to a blogger is that he or she becomes so popular that they are deemed to have fallen into the category of official media and become fully state-controlled.
Nearly two years ago Andrei Khrapavitski summed up in his belarusblog what I found to be still the mood in Minsk:
The last year in my home country could be summed up with one word “crisis.” It was the year of unprecedented weakness of Lukashenko. It was the year of awakening for many people who had previously kept silent . It was the year when many of us hoped the regime would fall by the end of the year.It’s 2012, and Lukashenko is still in power.
Since then Belarus has had an election of a kind in September 2012 and at the end of 2013 Lukashenko is still in power.According to official figures the three main parties,including the Communist Party, won just 5 of the 110 seats,the rest were all won by ‘independents’ who just happen to agree that Lukashenko is the man to run the country.So although the state controls most economic activity Europe’s last dictatorship isn’t so much a Communist one as a Lukashenkoist one.The dictator will be 60 next year and he doesn’t plan on changing much any time soon.