Kurapaty restaurant divides business, state and civil society activists
Since 31 May protesters have blocked the entrance to a recently opened restaurant outside Minsk. Built in Kurapaty, 50 metres from a memorial to victims of Stalin’s repressions during 1937-1940, the ‘Poedem, Poedim’ restaurant has caused heated debates.
Conflict quickly erupted between business interests and the values of certain sections of civil society, while the state’s position remains unclear. The owners received permission from officials to build a restaurant near the Kurapaty forest, yet civil society representatives view the construction as morally unjustifiable and strive to preserve the sanctity of the Kurapaty memorial.
The case of the restaurant illustrates a pattern of communication between business, state and civil society in Belarus. As has already happened with the nuclear power plant (NPP) project in Astravec and the reconstruction of the historical Asmalouka district in Minsk, civil society largely remains excluded from the discussion.
Protecting the Kurapaty memorial
The public learned about Kurapaty in the late 1980s, when excavations discovered evidence of a burial site for Stalin’s repressions victims. Zianon Pazniak, then the head of the Belarusian National Front political party, led the push for the installation of a memorial and fought for the right to publicly recognise Kurapaty as a mass execution site. The memorial in Kurapaty, which takes the form of wooden crosses, has become a traditional place for honouring ancestors, especially among the Belarusian opposition.
Several times Kurapaty has come to public attention because of construction projects. The first scandal occurred in the early 2000s when authorities approved the construction of a ring road on the territory of the memorial. Dozens of activists camped out in tents so as to prevent access for construction machines to Kurapaty.
A few years ago, the construction of an entertainment centre, ‘Bulbash Hall’, commenced beside the memorial. Activists protested against the ‘inappropriate’ name and lobbied for a change of the centre’s name as well as a ban for its construction. The protests reached the prosecutor’s office and construction on the site ruled as illegal. However, in 2012, the Minsk city executive committee diminished the protection zone in Kurapaty and construction of the entertainment centre became legal but under a new name – ‘Poedem, Poedim’.
On 5 June the restaurant ‘Poedem, Poedim’ appeared close by to the Kurapaty memorial. Even before the opening it provoked a strong reaction among politically-active Belarusians. Since 31 May opposition activists have organised a series of protests. A dozen or so protesters blocked the entrance to the restaurant for visitors and chanted against the restaurant’s opening due to its location, 50 metres from the memorial Kurapaty.
Instead of ‘Poedem, Poedim’, defenders of Kurapaty suggest erecting a museum to the victims of Stalin’s purges. On 29 June oppositional activist Zmitser Dashkevich initiated the installation of new wooden crosses but was detained together with two other activists. The situation continues to develop: oppositional activists protest every day. The restaurant owners insist they have bought the territory and own it, but also suggest they could sell the restaurant for construction of a museum as demanded by protesters. The authorities still avoid particular interference in the picket, although they have fined some participants for the blocking the road and detained activists for the planned installation of crosses.
Divided opinions about the restaurant
Apart from those physically protesting against the restaurant, the opening has provoked strong public criticism from some famous Belarusians. According to the Nobel laureate, Sviatlana Aleksievich, in any other European country hundreds of people would defend a comparable historical site; only Belarusians prove unwilling to take a proactive position. On 24 June, during a lecture in Brooklyn, Zianon Pazniak, the oppositional leader who in the 80s initiated the installation of the current memorial, claimed that the situation might have a Russian trace.
Some have expressed the opinion that the restaurant has little chance to survive economically. Viktar Prakapenia, a famous Belarusian IT entrepreneur, in an interview with dev.by, said that each member of society has a responsibility to avoid visiting the restaurant. Moreover, he believes that the restaurant should be closed by the owners themselves on moral grounds. Jury Zisier, the owner of one of the biggest independent media in Belarus, TUT.by, claims that the restaurant has little chance to survive due to its location close to the only memorial of Stalin’s mass executions in the country.
At the same time, some experts believe the restaurant should continue working. A lawyer, Yury Ziankovich, who wrote about the situation in Kurapaty believes the restaurant owners, state and citizens should compromise and come to a solution on how the restaurant and memorial can be linked together. Ziankovich told Radio Liberty that the restaurant owners bought the territory and preserve the right of ownership and so to turn it into a museum, as protesters demand, someone should buy the property from them.
Business, protesters, state: positions on the restaurant
Despite wide discussion about the restaurant, the authorities hesitate to take a clear position although do demonstrate readiness to negotiate. According to the official response of the general prosecutor’s office, the restaurant did not violate any rules during its construction. However, the prosecutor’s office would review the documents on construction if a visible public concern exists according to Sputnik.by, which cites the prosecutor’s office.
Additionally, on 20 June, Pavel Seviarynets, the leader of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, negotiated with the Ministry of Culture. According to the activists, officials referring to the legal documents seem confused and still have no clear solution to the situation. Although the negotiations have barely simplified the situation, the talks between the opposition and the state on the issue show that authorities recognise an alternative point of view exists.
Similar situations have already emerged in Belarus. The Astravets NPP project led to mass public discussion due to the absence of proper negotiations between state, business and civil society stakeholders. In yet another example, since 2014 the plan to reconstruct the historical Asmalouka district of Minsk resulted in protests because of the lack of public hearings.
The situation with the restaurant in Kurapaty shows how civil society, business and the state interact in Belarus. On the one hand, the owners have received a right to construct a restaurant on the territory. On the other hand, the construction by the important historical site has never been discussed in public hearings. That raises the question of decision making in similar situations in the future. Excluding the civil society from the business-state communications, the Belarusian government will continue to face backlashes similar to the one in Kurapaty.
Lukashenka’s new media policy: what to expect?
On 10 April, Alexander Lukashenka met the heads and staff of the largest state-owned Belarusian media. He stated that they could not work in the old fashion any longer and called for a new era in their work.
In February Lukashenka replaced the heads of the key official media, bringing in young loyalists in place of the Soviet-minded, pro-Russian old guard. Moreover, in April, the government amended the Law on Mass Media to significantly boost state control over the internet; the last resort of freedom of speech in Belarus.
All these measures target the two main concerns of the Belarusian leadership: the shrinking audience of official media and the growing influence of Russian and Western-financed media in Belarus.
The new media policy
On 10 April, Lukashenka met the heads and employees of all the largest state-owned Belarusian media. He demanded that journalists modernise Belarusian media in order to attract people of different ages and backgrounds. According to the president: “It is hardly possible to get young people away from smartphones and computers and make them read the newspaper, therefore you should expand your presence online and offer [the young] something interesting, correct and objective.”
Frankly, the change in media policy stems from a number of concerns among Belarus’s leaders. First, the state-owned media lost both readership and influence. Belarusians, especially young people, go online where independent and foreign resources dominate. In terms of creativity and efficiency, state media simply cannot compete. The independent information portal TUT.by remains the most popular website in Belarus with 230 million monthly views (although page view statistics cover many subsections which do not relate to news, such as recruitment advertisements).
Over the past month, Charter ’97 had 28.3 million views despite the authorities’ recent blocking of the site . This made Charter ’97 the second largest website in Belarus in terms of page views. The highest ranking official media, Belta, had only 1.7 million views, behind independent sites Belarusian Partisan (5.5 million), Naša Niva (2.7 million) and Naviny.by (2.6 million).
A second reason for the urgent change in media policy comes from the overwhelming influence of foreign media on the minds of Belarusians, whether Russian or financed by the West. The Russian media dominated in Belarus since the collapse of the USSR, and Belarusians see them as an indispensable part of television. According to a study by the Information and Analytical Centre under the Presidential Administration, Russian TV channels account for three of the five most popular TV channels in Belarus. Moreover, they occupy the top two spots in the ranking with NTV first and RTR in second place. However, as Russian propaganda turned increasingly aggressive, the Belarusian authorities realised the extent of its impact on the population.
The professional and effective coverage of the spring 2017 mass protests by EU or US-funded independent media (including Radio Liberty, Belsat and Euroradio) demonstrated that they can be a powerful actor in domestic politics and potentially spur a change in power. The Belarusian rulers therefore also needed a shield protecting them from the western front.
Young loyalists replace the old guard
To implement the new media policy, Lukashenka introduced new people into key media posts. Dzmitry Žuk, previously the head of the state information agency BelTA, replaced the legendary Paviel Jakubovič as the head of the SB-Belarus Segodnia holding company, the main producer of official printed newspapers. Jakubovič, who was very close to Lukashenka, had held the position since 1995.
Ihar Lucki left his post as deputy minister for information to take up the leadership of the STV television channel. Another important recent appointment included the promotion of the former deputy head of the National TV and Radio Company, Ivan Ejsmant, to head of the company. He replaced Hienadź Davydźka, who was transferred to lead the public association Bielaja Ruś, the largest Belarusian GoNGO.
Relative youth distinguished the new media bosses from their predecessors. Unlike the old guard who retained the Soviet style and pro-Russian sentiments, the new generation built their careers in an independent Belarus under Lukashenka. Their loyalty to Belarus’s independence and its everlasting leader serves Lukashenka well.
Along with the new appointments, the government introduced amendments to the Law on Mass Media. These amendments sparked criticism from civil society, which sees it as an attempt to tighten control over the internet – which remains the freest source of information in Belarus.
Belarus tightens control over the internet
The amendments suggest voluntary registration of internet resources as mass media under the term “web resources”. The employees of unregistered internet resources will lack the rights of journalists and will not be able to accredit their correspondents.
The amendments also introduce a mandatory identification for those posting any materials online, including social media and forum comments. The authorities claim that this will prevent the dissemination of fake news, illegal activity, and discrediting the honour or business reputation of individuals and legal entities. At the same time, this obligation can easily be used by the state as a tool for identifying political opponents or any activity that the authorities consider undesirable.
The law also prohibits the publishing of foreign media products in Belarus without a permit. By doing this, very likely, the government will attempt to limit the influence of Western-financed media inside Belarus.
The editors of TV channels will have to ensure that 30 per cent of the TV broadcasts consist of Belarusian media products. This looks like a response to the domination of Russian content on Belarusian television. Civil society and the political opposition should support this step since they remain the most active proponents of restriction of Russian media in Belarus.
According to the information minister, Aliaksandr Karliukievič, the amendments aim to protect national security and harmonise Belarusian legislation with that of Russia and Kazakhstan in the framework of Eurasian Economic Union. However fair and sound the arguments of the authorities may sound, it is also clear that the new regulations present a handy tool for the control over the last space for freedom of speech in Belarus.
As the representative of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists put it during the discussion dedicated to law amendments: “We feel like a frog in slowly heated water that will soon be boiling.” 2018 will show how the authorities will actually apply the amended laws.