Dazhynki Festival Upsets Belarusian Villagers

Dažynki in Žlobin, 2013. Photo: budzma.org

On 25 February the local government of the Belarusian town of Kruhlaje announced that its residents will have an obligatory unpaid day of work. The authorities still are trying to collect money for the annual Dažynki festival, since the financing from the state budget was cut back in 2014.

In 1990s the authorities decided to turn a folk harvesting holiday into a magnificent festival, to demonstrate the success of Belarus's agricultural policy and concern for the average Belarusian. Thanks to the lack of cultural development and the hands-on administrative management of culture in Belarus, the festival has become notorious for its ridiculous decorations, which has been nicknamed “agrotrash style”.

Despite its role in state ideology, the actual success of Belarus's agricultural policy appears has been quite. Salaries in agriculture remain among the lowest in the country, alcoholism is widespread and it suffers from severe labour shortages.

The Festival of Agriculture and Ideology

Aleksandr Lukashenka, a former collective farm manager, established the harvest festival of Dažynki as a major national holiday back in 1996. Previously a rural folk holiday dedicated to harvest season, it became a major economic and ideological event for Belarus. The celebration of Dažynki took place in a new town every year.

The state provided huge financial subsidies from the national budget for the reconstruction of towns where the festivities were scheduled take place. A serious renovation project usually take place throughout the year leading up to Dažynki has been typical in the interceding years. The authorities renovate roads and buildings, and sponsor large-scale projects “for the people”, like ice hockey arenas.

For the local authorities, Dažynki has transformed into more than a festival which the president visited personally, but a huge investment project large influxes of cash from the national budget. Since the mid-2000s, the government has allocated around $100m for the festival annually. The right to host the holiday was subject to intense lobbying and competition between regional governments.

However, in 2014 Aleksandr Lukashenka decided to switching things up. Instead of a nationwide festival, regional festivals were established in all six regions of Belarus, as well as in the villages. Introducing these changes, he called the local governors 'parasites' on the national budget.

The end of subsidies for the festival has forced the local authorities to seek for other sources of financing. In some cases, as in Kruhlaje, they have no choice but to collect the funds from people whom they control that work at state-owned enterprises.

Who Will Finance Dažynki 2015?

This February the local Kruhlaje authorities in the Mahilioŭ region announced an initiative which upset local residents - in place of a holiday, they would have an unpaid workday. Enterprises and organisations received orders about the number people they would need to send to the festivities. Local people say the unpaid workday will take place every month and their daily earnings will go to the Dažynki festival fund, which Kruhlaje will host this autumn. The authorities deny that the unpaid workday will become a monthly occurrence and have dismissed it as a special situation.

The authorities claim that employees from local enterprises were behind this shift in policy – a infamous Soviet-style formula of faux democracy. Yet, locals are very distressed with the state's proposal.

The region is poor and most local enterprises are already bankrupt. So people prefer to keep their jobs and work one day for free rather than openly criticise the government. A majority of the local residents in the region work in state organisations, which can easily fire 'unruly' workers.

Over the past couple of years, the Belarusian authorities have been suggesting introducing forced labour as an administrative solution to the nation's economic problems. In 2012 Aleksandr Lukashenka signed a decree which banned wood industry workers from quitting their jobs without the express permission of their enterprise heads. In 2014, the government came up with a similar proposal for the agricultural sector, but the initiative went no further than that.

Dažynki's Culture of the Absurd

Not only foreign visitors, but also Belarusians are taken aback by the ridiculous decorations that the local authorities put out for the festival. Cultural expert Maxim Žbankoŭ commented to Belarus Digest called the current image of Belarusian culture Soviet, but minus the ideology. The authoritarian system of Belarus inherited the culture mobilisation of the Soviet Belarus, which served as ideological support for the communist government.

The Lukashenka regime has failed to create a viable national ideology which people would accept and respect. Thus, the authorities deprived the country of cultural mobility with ideological content, while also repressing new cultural patterns and intellectual movements developing in civil society.

In these circumstances the archaic views of a festival coupled with Soviet mobilisation culture led to a “collective farm culture”. It received the name “a crackle and a shot”, meaning teh satisfaction with basic needs and support for the authorities, alongside the “agrotrash” culture, which sponsors ridiculous rural art.

The Future of the Belarusian Village

The Dažynki festival has been serving as a kind of grand sate for the achievements of the Belarusian government in agriculture. However, these achievements appear to be more modest than they really are. Despite massive investment in agriculture, nearly $50bn since 2001, the government has failed to create a sustainable rural society in Belarus.

Wages in agriculture remain among the lowest and the authorities discourage private farming. Lukashenka has been continuously saying that there can be no alternative to collective farm in Belarus, while other officials acknowledge that most collective farms have poor management.

Problems in these villages have reached a troubling state. Alcoholism ravages their inhabitants, with most males and a fair share of females partaking in drink on a daily basis. The youth flee to the cities and never return. Life in the village rarely provides employment alternatives, so those employed at bankrupt or unprofitable farms have to seek employment in the cities or in Russia, where they often are used.

Although the government tried to improve upon the nation's regional development through tax and housing incentives, little has changed. Without the possibility of making farming a real business, rural communities will continue to decline. A comprehensive land ownership reform and an agricultural market, as well as programmes of support for private farming could be a solution, but the authorities have turned their backs on such ideas.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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