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14 Jan

Simone Brunner (Austria)
DATUM, 01.04.2014

Im Eispalast/Inside the Ice Palace

Belarus is considered the Europe’s last dictatorship, the death penalty is still applicable. Will it become  new Ukraine or will it stick with Russia?

The luxury suite is the only place where King Bobby still gets the blues sometimes. He put a wallpaper of Paris by night above the twin bed. The sober design of the Eiffel tower is awkwardly misplaced between the dim, red shades of the bedside lamps and the washed-out sheets on the rickety bedframe. His eyes soften and he starts shaking his head. “In France, a woman will call the police as soon as you only start touching her”. His gestures become erratic and he continually runs his hands over his accurately trimmed beard when talking about his favourite topic. His bright red suit and tie fit perfectly, he  is planning on going out with some girls later this night. “ You know, Germany is a giant in politics, and Belarus is a dwarf. But when it comes to women, it’s the other way round”, he says in broken Russian.

In Belarus, the native Kenyan has become the guy he always wanted to be. A successful hotel owner. A ladies’ man. A daredevil. Something like a superhero. His employees respectfully call him the “King”, they admire him for his business sense. And for his courage to do things differently. He was still a student when he came to Minsk on an exchange programme from  a Paris university twelve years ago. He entered Minsk gastronomy with a French credit. By now, he runs four hostels in the capital of Belarus. At the reception of King Hostel there is a portrait of the man to whom this all is due: Alexander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus, put into an affectionate wooden frame. “To say that it’s bad here is just Western propaganda. Lukashenko ensures security. It would be pure chaos without him”.

Belarus. This country always earns its dubious 15 minutes of fame when there is an election, when there are rumours of election fraud and imprisoned opposition members. Little is known about the country itself which, covering approximately 2.5 times the size of Austria, is located between Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic and Russia. This country of roughly ten million people has been ruled with Lukashenko’s iron grip for 20 years. Longer than Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych alltogether. It is the last country in Europe to impose the death penalty. Members of the opposition are beaten up, deported, imprisoned. EU sanctions have been in power for already eight years, the country is isolated from the West. Western media’s label for Belarus sounds like they have resigned to reality: “Europe’s last dictatorship”. The West, it seems, has brought it to a close. What is behind the myth of the last planned economy, the last dictatorship on the continent?

Visiting Minsk for the first time, you are flabbergasted by its vast and empty squares. The streets are not just traffic routes, they are downtown motorways. Like an aorta, the eight-lane Independence Avenue, the central grand boulevard of Minsk, pumps the constant flow of vehicles through the city centre. This street is lined with huge, ochre-coloured buildings in the style of Stalinist classicism, massive war monuments and deserted parks. Traffic almost completely stops at night when the people of Minsk pour back into their tower blocks made from prefabricated concrete blocks on the outskirts of town.

After the Second World War, which left Minsk almost completely destroyed, the town turned into an experiment, an architectural drill ground for a social utopia, as the author Artur Klinau writes in his book “The Sun City of Dream”. An utopia of massive buildings, planned on a drawing board –  a dress rehearsal for Moscow and other socialist cities.

And the Sun City is still growing. Belarus will host the Ice Hockey World Championships in May. It is going to be a kind of personal Sochi for Alexander Lukashenko. Ice hockey arenas have shot up all over the country within the last few years. Behind the closed doors, Belarusians laugh at the numerous “ice palaces”, futuristic cubicles of glass and steel in Belarusian cities and the countryside. They jokingly refer to a new “ice age” as well. The most obvious example of this is the newly constructed Chishovka Arena in Minsk, a folly of mirror-coated glass with seats for 10,000 spectators. Allegedly, students have been recruited to forced labour in order to complete construction on time for the championship.

If it was up to Lukashenko, the ice hockey would have the same status in Belarus as has American football in the USA. Observers assume that every important decision within the inner circle of power is made during an ice hockey match with Lukashenko. Alas, the prescribed national sports does not get going as easily: with an average income of 400 Euros a month, many families cannot afford the expensive ice hockey gear mostly sold at Western European prices.

But how strong is support for Lukashenko among the population ? Is there slowly growing unrest within Belarusian society? Is Eastern Europe about to experience some kind of a “Slavic Spring”? Igor Busovski sits in a corner building across from October Square, next to the presidential office. He has the piercing eyes of an intelligence agent but according to him, he has only worked at the president’s office, the military and in the ice hockey league. Nowadays, Busovski is secretary general of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), the successor organisation to the communist youth organisation Komsomol.

The BRSM is the training ground for Lukashenko’s nomenclature. Supposed the figures provided by the BRSM are correct, one out of three teenagers is a member of Lukashenko’s junior staff. This is Busovski’s message: Stability instead of Maidan. Sausage instead of revolution. Voluntary service is how the youth earns its spurs before entering a well-paid civil service career. “As a citizen of the Republic of Belarus, one does not only enjoy rights, but duties as well”, Busovski says. Beneficial work assignments for the state – the so-called “Subbotniki” (from “subbota”, meaning Saturday), which were also very common in the GDR – are still on the agenda.

Back to the USSR. Lukashenko has turned back the clock in Belarus. For example, he re-introduced the official flag of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) in 1995. Hissing the alternative white-red-white flag  has been criminalised. And the KGB, the Belarusian intelligence service, still bears the same name. So to speak, closemouthed men dressed in black who blatantly overhear conversations next to them are part of the furnishings in any café in Minsk. Experts describe the strategy as a bizarre mix of anti-Western politics, paranoia and loyalty to Russia. Lukashenko asks a high price for this loyalty: Over the last ten years, Belarus is estimated to have received higher per capita subsidies from Russia than Poland did from Brussels over the same time period. And Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of EU payments in absolute figures after all.

But not everybody wants to live in a remake of the Soviet Union. Surveys of the Vilnius-based Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) show that indeed 33 percent of the population support Lukashenko, but at the same time, 45 percent are in favour of moving closer to the EU, 34 percent support closer ties with Russia. The country has been deeply divided but the pro-European forces could be roughly compared to those in Ukraine, Ales Lahwiniets says. He is a political scientist and has been active in politics for ten years. On Twitter he describes himself as an inveterate optimist, and this is not an exaggeration. He has already run for regional election five times and never got elected. Not a single opposition member  is represented in the Belarusian parliament, however, Lahwiniets is convinced that he will become the Minister of European Affairs of the Republic of Belarus one day.

Things quickly turn philosophical when talking about politics in Belarus. Europe or Russia? State economy or capitalism? Rule of law or autocracy? Russian or Belarusian? Russian language was the cement that held the people of the Soviet Union together; from Riga to Tiflis, from Kiev to Vladivostok were united under the banner of Soviet identity. Belarusian is only spoken by 11.9 percent of Belarusians; according to official figures, Russian language dominates all aspects of everyday life. Schools teaching in Belarusian were closed down under Lukashenko. The Belarusian language was deemed cloddish and provincial for a long time but has evolved into a symbol of political opposition within the last few years. “In our case, we have to foster our own language in order to create a new democratic reality. We have to base our identity on European values”, Lahwiniets says. Thus, he speaks Belarusian at any occasion. “I recently went to the printing shop across the street. The shop assistant, who was even younger than me, snapped at me for not speaking Russian.” Consequently, Lahwiniets filed a complaint with the management. He is well aware that he will not get by with that. “I know that the state does not protect me – even though I have every right to employ my native language in my own country”.

Svetlana Sugako, too, does not allow for herself to be discouraged. When talking about public authorities, she only refers to “them”. “Common people are mostly scared by them. But we want to change that. It’s our country and not theirs after all”. She works as an assistant to the underground theatre project Belarus Free Theatre. Officially, the theatre group is banned from performing anywhere in Belarus. When they won an international award, international congratulations were outright rejected by the Ministry of Culture: Belarus Free Theatre? Such a theatre group does not exist! Life has been made unpleasant for the group by public authorities and they have been persecuted by the KGB ever since they staged their first piece on suicide and alcoholism in a café in Minsk nine years ago. Special squads raided the venue a few months ago, the director lives in exile in London by now, they rehearse via Skype. Belarus Free Theatre performs in backrooms and private flats, the audience receives information about time and place on their phones. Each play addresses a taboo in Belarusian society: homosexuality, death penalty, opposition members who disappeared, suicide, or alcoholism. The aim is to have the audience question the official propaganda art of the state. “Belarus can only change from the inside”, Sugako says. She is tired of calling Belarus “Europe’s last dictatorship”, but what she says about the country is actually  the same, just put in her own words: “Lukashenko employs his means very wisely. He allows  as much as is necessary to stay in power. And the EU says: We imposed sanctions, that’s all we can do. Nothing changes”.

“May the feat of the people live forever” – this phrase, commemorating the partisan fights of the Belarusian people during the Second World War, marks the Northern limits of October square, the main square in Minsk. It glows dimly and looks worn out, as if it has lost its radiance. Here, Minsk experienced its own Maidan already twice in 2006 and 2010. Thousands of people flooded the streets after presidential elections because of the election fraud. Police forces executed a massive crackdown but there was no live streaming or buzz feeds as seen in Ukraine lately. When the first people died on the Maidan in Kiev, the Belarusian television aired symphonic concerts. Meetings of any kind are prohibited in Belarus. Clapping hands was criminalised after people had marched through the streets of Minsk on a silent rally, just clapping their hands, in the summer of 2011. It is a decreed peace. A graveyard peace.

In private conversations, when they are sure that the KGB is not listening, people tell each other about “Euromaidan”, the revolution in the neighbouring country, and their eyes shine brightly. Many active members of Belarusian civil society stood side by side with Ukrainian protestors in Kiev. The second victim of the bloodshed in February, when fighters of the Maidan and police forces fired at each other, was a Belarusian. The Maidan in Kiev has become some kind of proxy protest for the post-Soviet world as a whole. In Belarus, however, all signs point to a new ice age rather than a Slavic Spring. Those laws against which the Maidan was revolting entered into force in Belarus years ago. On an ice rink in front of the monstrous Palace of the Republic on October square, where 700 demonstrators were arrested three years ago, teenagers are laughing and passing pucks; only recently, former member of the Queen Brian May gave his first concert in Belarus inside the Palace. A video wall on one of the square’s corners shows Alexander Lukashenko giving a lecture on legislative changes, signing decrees and praising the country’s stability. Here, on Belarus’ former Maidan, it seems that Belarus has come to peace with its pro-Russian isolation.

The fact that many regret, but not all. King Bobby is sitting in his Soviet hostel and rubbing his hands. He hopes for fully booked hostels by the time the ice hockey championships will be inaugurated on May 9th. Once again, the stern looking Lukashenko’s portrait at the reception is overhearing praising of the Belarusian system. “I have travelled a lot, in Africa, in Asia, but the best place is right here. Belarus is like a fever, like a virus – it’ll stick with you forever”.

Translated from German by Simon Barthelmess 


Originally published: http://www.datum.at/artikel/im-eispalast/