Stanislav Shushkevich – the last leader of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and the first president of independent Belarus. After Lukashenka came to power, he found himself in opposition, being a fierce critic of the Belarusian dictators policy. The regime retaliated by giving him a humiliatingly low pension – as a former president, he receives 2 dollars per month. Presently he supports Alexander Milinkevich.
Angelica Borys – an activist of the Union of Poles in Belarus for ten years. In 2005 the Union elected her their president but she was refused recognition by the Belarusian authorities. Borys became the leader of the Belarusian Poles protests and has been repeatedly interrogated and persistently persecuted by the authorities. She has the support of Polish authorities and politicians. Presently she heads the illegal, underground Union of Poles.
Anatoly Lebedko – the leader of the United Civic Party of Belarus, the most prominent oppositional liberal party. He is one of the founders of the oppositional election coalition Five Plus. One of the leading anti-regime activists, he has been repeatedly apprehended and interrogated, and, during a demonstration in Minsk in October 2004, he was brutally beaten up by the militia.
Józef Porzecki – When Józef Porzecki, the vice-president of the Union of Poles in Belarus, was released from prison after ten days of custody in March last year, he could only be sure of one thing: he would spend many a night to come behind the bars of the Hrodna prison. He was not mistaken: one of the most prominent activists of the oppositional Union of Poles, he has been arrested more than once. Despite this distressing routine of arrests he has not got used to the prison cell. It ruins a man, he says. The cell, hot as an oven in summer and cold throughout the rest of the year, the piercing dampness and insects, the bed of raw planks, lack of fresh air and company of criminals are normal conditions in Belarusian prisons. Such activists as Porzecki may land there any time, when an decent citizen denounces them to the authorities.
Irina Czarniauka – an independent journalist, the Hrodna correspondent of an union weekly Biełaruski Czas. She has received several administrative penalties for gathering and publishing information considered unfavourable by the authorities.
Nikolai Avtuhovich – an entrepreneur from Vaukavysk who last year started a private crusade against the corrupt and dishonest officials of Lukashenkas regime. He has been on hunger strikes a few times and mobilized resistance to the authorities among small entrepreneurs. In October last year he was arrested and has been kept in prison ever since.
Pawel Mazejka does not like to boast about his achievements, which are truly remarkable: despite his 27 years of age he has earned the reputation of one of journalists most hated by the authorities. It is even hard to call him a journalist, because the authorities have formally forbidden him to practise his profession. Pawel Mazejka worked for Hrodno newspaper Pahonia, which was shut down by the authorities. In 2002 he was arrested and sentenced to two years for spreading slanders about the president. Presently he works as the spokesman for the oppositional candidate for the presidency, Alexander Milinkevich..
It is not without a considerable effort that the Belarusian Peoples Front manages to keep up its only office in Minsk. In fact, one of the biggest opposition parties operates half-legally and its headquarters in a shabby interior of a dilapidated tenement is repeatedly harried by militia searches. But it is not the conditions in which the BPF activists meet that matter – much more troublesome is the persecution by the militia: regular controls and confiscations of the remaining obsolete computer equipment.
The only high-class hotel in Hrodna – Turist has always been regarded with suspicion. Its guests are emissaries of foreign foundations and NGOs, who support the Belarusian oppositions plots against the authorities. All that happens under the vigilant eye of the KGB who eavesdrop on the guests and watch carefully who enters and leaves the building. The hotels corridors are pervaded with the Soviet surrealist style and atmosphere and feel as if the time had stopped in them and security services still mercilessly persecuted the dissidents. Sadly, in Belarus it is not just an impression: both dissidents and KGB officers are still very real.
Dima Ivanovskis works reveal a longing for a different Belarus: a richer, more European country of traditions. His studio is full of paintings of battle scenes in the style of Jan Matejko and more contemporary, apt, artistic commentaries on the political reality. Such works stand no chance of display outside the artists atelier, hidden in the yard of a tenement in Hrodna. The financial support of the state is limited to works that commemorate the USSR and the World War or to homespun folk art. Other artists have to work in garages and can show their works only to a limited number of trusted friends.
The commemoration of the end of World War 2 was the most important event in Belarus last year. The victory celebrations were used at the greatest possible length by Lukashenkas propaganda to show Belarusians that the president gives the Soviet traditions and veterans his greatest attention. By order of the highest authorities from Minsk, all display windows, like this one in a street in Hrodna, were covered with suitable posters. Advertisements and displays were replaced with pictures of the Red Army soldiers and other paeans of praise for the victorious Soviet army. Not all shop owners gave up their windows voluntarily. Then they could find out personally what the lack of faith in the Soviet tradition may lead to. The obstinate paid fines and their shops were harried by unexpected sanitary, fire and other inspections. As a result, the streets of Belarusian towns are still stuck over with the posters, because shop owners do not take them off just in case.
The official state propaganda in Belarus announces almost every day in TV news bulletins that the economic situation of the country is constantly improving and the problems of poverty and unemployment beset only the neighbours: Poland, Russia and the EU. The propaganda does not allow any poverty or lack of jobs in Belarus. According to the official media, the pensioners standards of living are the best in Europe, because they regularly receive ample amounts of money and enjoy the right to numerous social benefits. However, the reality of Belarusian streets is much different: half of pensioners and even people working in the excessively large public sector are able to make ends meet only by earning on the side. In order to survive they commonly resort to selling fruit and vegetables from suburban allotments and to making trading trips to Poland, Lithuania and Russia, where they try to sell cigarettes, soap and washing powder. In recent years, due to the rise in prices of energy and basic products and the economic crisis, the living standards in Belarus have been falling rapidly. An allotment is a real treasure, as it at least allows to make some winter food supplies.
Christian, pagan and Soviet traditions often go hand in hand in Belarus, which is a result of its complicated past. Belarus has never been an independent political entity, but only a part of the neighbouring powers: Russian duchies, Lithuania, Poland, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Throughout the centuries, cultures, nations, traditions and religions mixed on the Belarusian lands, and great ideologies fought over Belarusians souls. This blend, which can be seen clearly for example during traditional visits to friends and relatives graves, is both a treasure and a nightmare for contemporary Belarus. In fact, the majority of people do not feel their national identity, and the most common answer to the question who are you? is were locals.
The guerrilla traditions are carefully cultivated by Belarusian authorities. The image of Belarus as the country of guerrillas who defeated the German army on the home front is very important for Alexander Lukashenkas regime, because it ensures the support of the two millions of pensioners who still remember the war. It is for them that the anniversary guerrilla celebrations are organized. The veterans support is bought at little cost: some vodka, some sausage, performances of folk musicians and dancers – all that seasoned with a sentimental veteran sauce of the state propaganda. It is not much, but for people who survived the tragedy of the war and the hardships of the Soviet reconstruction of the country, Lukashenkas symbolic gesture and assurances that they live in a peaceful country, are enough to love and worship him.
The Belarusian big blue does not refer to the longing for the beauty of tropical seas. In the grim reality of the post-Soviet republic, blue is the colour of the omnipresent kitsch. Village fences and bus stops, walls, lampposts and artificial flowers in restaurants and railway cars – all these are painted blue. It seems as if some clever mind-control strategist in Lukashenkas office had figured out that this colour would have a soothing effect on Belarusians souls and ordered to paint the country blue. Maybe people are calmer and more aware of their luck of being born in Belarus when they see all this blue around them? However, the presidents officials are not that smart and their aesthetic sense is very low: the blue paint is simply the cheapest and that is why it is used for fences, gates and walls. Even small trinkets should have some blue elements in order to stick to the general rule – thats the way it should be in a respectable Soviet republic. The hope for a change of the Belarusian reality involves also the faith that one day the awful official blue will be painted over with brighter colours. For the time being, however, Belarus is drowning in the sad blue.
Moving around in Belarus is not simple: roadsigns are scarce and there is only one train service per day on the routes between the biggest cities and the capital. Most small towns are cut off in winter and roads are empty for several kilometers as cars are still a relative rarity.
Paprika seedlings occupy a prominent place in the flat of the first president of independent Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich. Professor of physics and ex-president, he is forced to live on the pension of two dollars. He was punished in this way by Lukashenka for his oppositional activity. In the spring, the seedlings will go to an allotment near Minsk, thanks to which Shushkevichs family will have vegetables for the winter.
I grew up among plants and animals, said Alexander Lukashenka, who sets great value on the work on the soil. Unfortunately, the hard work in the state farms – the kolkhozes – is badly underpaid. It is a kind of contemporary serfdom – for the most part of the year the workers do not get any money but only some basic foodstuffs. That is why no-one sees the kolkhoz as their own – the numbers of thefts and acts of devastation of state property in the countryside reach truly alarming levels.
For Poles living in Belarus, faith plays an extremely significant role in maintaining their national and cultural identity. Many Poles of the older generation, who remember the years of persecution in the Soviet Union, believed that in independent Belarus churches would at last be allowed to function normally. It turned out, however, that in Lukashenkas country, being a Catholic is not an easy thing. More and more often, Catholic priests from Poland are denied Belarusian visas. This time, Catholics have become the aim of attacks because, like the whole Polish minority, they are being accused of anti-state activities. Sometimes the persecutions are quite mundane, but extremely troublesome: for example the ban on Corpus Christi processions in the streets because public gatherings are forbidden. In the authorities eyes, a religious procession is an illegal gathering. That is why, last summer, the faithful carried out the processions either on churches grounds or at cemeteries, and mounted their provisional altars on trees, like in the village of Ejsmonty in the Hrodna region.
The colourful, globalized world does sometimes enter Belarusian cities. Sadly, a simple fast food restaurant is very often perceived as an oasis of luxury. McDonalds outlets are popular places where lovers have dates, the few rich Belarusians arrange their business meetings, families meet for weekend dinners and people from the provinces go on excursions – they still awake very strong emotions.
Belarusians say that when God distributed land among peoples, He endowed them with the most beautiful part, yet, on second thoughts, to remind them that life is not a piece of cake, He gave them stupid government.
In Belarus, a city is a bigger village. During the Soviet industrialization, village people were forced to move to towns. Even today, despite living in urban districts of blocks of flats, many Belarusians feel that mentally they belong to the rural life.
In the Hrodna region, the Orthodox cross standing before a village is an expression of the religious beliefs of its people. Likewise, Catholic crosses welcome the visitors entering Polish, Catholic settlements. In this area, religious symbols mark the boundaries of national identity, although the inhabitants of the Polish gentry villages and the Orthodox peasant ones do live in harmony.
The dreariness of everyday reality is a part of Belarusians lives since they are born. Everybody is used to dingy reliefs and monuments – the remnants of the years of socialist realism. In Belarus no-one cares about aesthetic values when life is so hard.
The elections in Belarus are a one actors performance. As other candidates apart from Lukashenka are barred from the media, the elections can hardly be called democratic, but the authorities are not after democracy – the elections are a means of mobilizing the society under the slogan The whole nation supports its president. The only right results are ensured by an extensive official machine, from politruks in the media to members of local election committees.
The mainspring of Belarusian democracy is the electoral retail trade. In Alexander Lukashenkas state, the best incentive for the citizens to come and vote is the possibility of buying attractive goods in shops located in polling stations. To buy, one has to vote. Cheap beer, sandwiches, sausage, chops and fruit raise the voter turnout and are a better motivation for Belarusians than the appeals of the official propaganda. Unfortunately, the authorities are well-aware of it, and take a cynical advantage of the peoples poverty to turn elections into fair-like entertainment. Then, after a few promotional- electoral beers, it does not matter anymore what the elections are all about.
Children are the countrys treasure!, ensures President Alexander Lukashenka during each of his frequent visits to nurseries, kindergartens and schools, shown with reverence on television. The fate of Belarusian children is not so optimistic as the president claims. The number of divorces, which has reached record levels in 20 years (with one divorce for every two new marriages), and abandoned children is a result of the lack of respect for family values - a left- over of the Soviet era. Due to the miserable economic situation and the pervading sense of uncertain future, children are often not a treasure but a burden for Belarusian families, who go to great lengths to make ends meet. The Belarusian state avoids the problem by trying to prove that it is nonexistent and covering up the data concerning the deplorable state of health of newborn children (only 30% of babies are born healthy), which is partly caused by the Chernobyl accident.
Even in peacetime the army has to be in constant battle readiness. During a victory day parade in the centre of Minsk, Belarusian armed forces flexed their muscles and displayed their heavy combat equipment. Large-scale maneuvers, when whole divisions march through Belarusian cities, are organized at least once a year. Army officials admit in private that from the military point of view, mobilizing thousands of reservists and sending tanks on the streets make no sense. However, keeping the army on the alert has some political grounds: the authorities believe that Belarus is in constant danger; that is why they mobilize the army for manoeuvers that the country has not seen since the Cold War.
Young people are the most resistant to the state propaganda and indoctrination. But at the same time they are state officials most important target. In every school and in every university faculty, there are bureaux of Lukashenkas youth organization, the reactivated Konsomol. Members of the pro-regime organization enjoy several privileges: cheaper entertainment, discos, excursions. The aim of Lukashenkas organization is to control young people so that they do not come upon the idea to defy the system. One of means to this end are the prearranged mass celebrations and festivities in the streets of Minsk: the authorities want to emphasize that young people are Belarus future. Just in case the students thought otherwise, strict supervision of foreign scholarships and passports issued for young people was introduced last year. Three fourths of students leaving the country for scholarships abroad do not come back. It seems that the promises of happy future do not stand comparison with the reality outside their homeland.
Some use has been found for the old uniforms of the Red Army soldiers taken from the wardrobe of a theatre in Minsk. The props from the Brezhnev era enjoy second youth. For Belarusian authorities, everything goes according to the plan: the Soviet symbolism has good associations for older generations who still remember their younger days, and young people have no choice – they have to like it, because these are the only costumes in Belarusian theatre.
Michał Kacewicz A journalist with Newsweek Polska, specializing in the former Soviet Union region.