1 Dec

“Belarus is changing, but not all changes are perceptible”


Belarus through the eyes of Belarusian and international journalists, past winners of the Belarus in Focus competition 

By Sandra Užule-Fons

Belarus Free Theatre with Harold Pinter. Photo: Robert Sharp/ English PEN. Creative Commons

“One day I went to the George Pompidou Library in Paris to look for information. I found out that there were many more books dedicated to Moldova or Armenia than to Belarus, the supposed ‘last European dictatorship’. So I decided to look into it and that’s how I became involved” says Argemino Barro, laureate of Belarus in Focus 2013 competition, talking about how he found his path to Belarus.

Among the 120 journalists who have taken part in the annual Belarus in Focus competition since it started in 2011 - from Bosnia and Herzogovina to Ecuador, and even Indonesia – there are many who have interesting stories about how they first discovered Belarus. For example, Spaniard Angela Espinosa Ruiz, a poet and talented pianist who won first place in the Citizen Journalism category in 2011, decided to promote the Belarusian language despite her young age after being in the USA on a young leaders’ programme. Now she teaches Belarusian at Grenada University. Brendan McCall (laureate of 2011, citizen journalism) an American living in Norway has weaved Belarus into his exceptional theatre activity: “After the violent protests in Minsk´s Independence Square on 19 December 2010, which were largely ignored by the Norwegian news media, I organised a petition to the Norwegian government for the release of those arrested, as well as organised a reading of Belarus Free Theatre´s Being Harold Pinter in January 2011 at Oslo´s Black Box Teater.” Ever since, Brendan has continued to publish articles in different languages for different media and set up an international theatre project, Belarusian Dream Theater, when plays about Belarus by 25 playwrights were performed around the world on March 25, to mark Freedom Day.

Belarus in 2011 and today?

Looking at articles sent in by past competition participants reveals a rich palette of perceptions. In 2011, articles journalists asked questions such as: Can Belarus Be Saved? Is the end of Lukashenka’s regime coming soon? Forgotten Belarus, Forgotten EU? Why do Belarusians go to Western countries to study? Belarusian opposition: on the verge of marginalization?. In 2012, the hard-worn phrase ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ had not yet disappeared. A year later, the situation in Belarus started to be examined at in a more regional context, the Ukrainian theme had appeared which, it seems, will dominate competition articles this year. As Argemino Barro points out, the regime has relaxed more, the economic situation has slightly improved, and the “unrest in the neighbouring country justifies Belarusian propaganda (democracy equals chaos) and the quarrels between the EU and Russia allow extra room for diplomatic/economic maneuvering.”

 “By and large, if something happens in Belarus, Western media correspondents based in Moscow will write about it. Therefore, they look at Belarus from the point of view of Russian rhetoric, which you feel from what they produce” considers Michal Potocki, a 2012 laureate who writes for Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a Polish daily. As Barro points out, neither the media in Spain, his home country, nor the media in the US, where he now lives and works as a CapitalRadio correspondent, pay attention to Belarus. “If the media refer to Belarus, it is normally in relation to Russia or Ukraine and framed in the usual clichés.” In this sense, Poland is different. “Of course, interest in a neighbouring country will always be higher”, emphasises Katerina Barushka, a 2013 laureate. As for clichés, Argemino Barro’s compatriot, Angela Espinosa Ruiz, points out that these also change, and, for example, in Spain today Belarus is most often associated not with a president who has presided for many years, but with the tennis player, Viktoria Azarenko.

If the cliché has changed, then has Belarus as a whole changed over these years? “Not much” considers Katerina Barushka “Belarus remains a country with high potential, restricted by so few opportunities for personal initiative.” Laurent Vinatier, a researcher at the Thomas More Institute in Paris, and laureate of 2012, also notes this stagnation: “There is the same attempt to balance the EU and Russia’s interests. The same opposition in disarray. And Lukashenko has probably reinforced his position”. Slighly less sceptical is a representative from one of Belarus’ neighbouring countries, Lithuania. Indrė Vainalavičiūtė, a journalist from a major Lithuanian information portal, lyrtas.lt, whose article about the nuclear power station being built on the Lithuainian-Belarusian border won a prize in last year’s competition, believes that Belarus is changing, but not all these changes are visible straightaway. “I am sure that Belarus is constantly changing and although not every positive change can be seen immediately, this country is becoming more and more open to new ideas, more attention is given to human rights issues. Moreover, society is becoming more tolerant and dynamic.” says Indre.

Summit on Ukraine, Minsk, August 27th 2014 | Viktor Drachev/EEAS

Belarus is part of a region in which the future of Europe is being decided. The crisis in Ukraine brought journalists who are interested in the transformation of former Soviet republics an opportunity to cover a state in which social dissatisfaction brought about not only a change in power, but a change in the state’s border. The two events which are pivotal in the articles of most competition finalists from previous years are the civic protests in Minsk in 2010 and the EuroMaidan in 2013. Some former finalists, for example, Michal Potocki, Kasia Kwiatkowska-Moskalewicz, Annabelle Chapman - a freelance journalist contributing to The Economist, among others, or Shaun Walker, now a Guardian correspondent, regularly cover events in Ukraine. What is more, being invited to the competition award ceremony in March 2014 proved to be a turning point for Argemino: “Since I was living in the U.S., and the ceremony was held in Warsaw, it allowed me to return to Europe. Right after the competition I travelled to Ukraine. The pro-Russian uprising caught me when I was in Odessa. I decided to stay and ended up covering the conflict for several media. Therefore, Belarus in Focus 2013 changed my life.”

In 2011, in the competition’s first edition, Angela Espinosa Ruiz entitled her article “Spain – Belarus. Contrast of Concerns”. The concerns have not melted away, but let us hope that future articles in the competition will be more of an opportunity to observe positive trends in Belarus. 

*Sandra Užule-Fons is a journalist at Polskie Radio who cooperates on certain projects with Belarus in Focus Information Office (aka Solidarity with Belarus Information Office).