The Ukrainian Flag Banned in Belarus?

On 21 November the Minsk Arena hosted the famous Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, who are known for their support of Euromaidan and its pro-European orientation. The musicians did not raise any political issues during the gig according to agreement with the administration, but their concert became politicised nonetheless.

The next day videos appeared online in which policemen refused to allow people sporting the colours of the Ukrainian flag into the concert and even went so far as to pull a flag out of a fan’s hands inside the venue.

Belarus has so far only placed a ban on the Belarusian national white-red-white flag which is considered by the authorities to be an anti-government and anti-Lukashenka symbol that is unauthorised at public gatherings.

With the start of Euromaidan and the Ukraine Crisis the symbols of these conflicting sides have also become a target of political persecution.

Music and Politics

The Russian government banned Okean Elzy from holding concerts back in the spring while the Euromaidan revolution was unfolding in Ukraine. St Petersburg city government representative Vladimir Milonov accused them of radicalism and holding anti-Russian views and went on to urge the Minister of Culture to restrict their activity in Russia. Shortly afterwards several entertainment agencies informed the band that they were not going to be able to have any concerts in Russia.

However, in Belarus Okean Elzy does not face any restrictions so far. On 21 November they played a gig at the largest concert hall in Minsk -- the Minsk-Arena, which holds a total of 15,000 people.

The band was truly triumphant in their return to Belarus with a hall full of fans – a rare situation for Belarus. This itself did not come as much of a surprise as the previous Okean Elzy concert in Minsk, back in December 2013, had a similar turnout.

Deputy Director of the Minsk-Arena Mikalaj Serhiejenka commented after the concert that the administration had discussed the set list with the band in advance and asked them not to sing certain songs that might be viewed as having political undertones. “We do not want to escalate the atmosphere during the concert as it can lead to some kind of abnormal action”, he said. In compliance with this agreement, Okean Elzy did not raise any political issues during the concert.

The Ukrainian Flag Banned?

The next day, however, a video appeared on the Internet in which plain-clothed policemen, who were searching audience members, refused a group of girls enter the concert with a Ukrainian flag. They forced visitors to leave all symbols containing yellow-blue Ukrainian colours in a cloakroom outside the hall.

The girls demanded to see some kind of documentation that forbade Ukrainians symbols being displayed at concerts, but instead they received only a vague response that “this is not a political event”. After some resistance and the police's own persistent demands, they gave in after being threatened with arrest.

Another video from the concert showed a policeman pulling a Ukrainian flag out of a fan’s hands after failing to persuade her to give it up voluntarily.

In an interview with TUT.by after the concert, Volha Kavaĺkova and Maryna Chomič, the girls from the same video, said that “the police did not even let people in with small Ukrainian flag ribbons on their bags. They even insisted that we remove a ribbon from my friend’s hair”.

The Minsk-Arena web site only says that visitors cannot display symbols of fascist or racist content at concerts.

The Authorities Deny Political Background

The concert organisers acknowledged that the decision to ban Ukrainian flag came from the Minsk police. Regarding the inquiries made by TUT.by journalists, the Press Secretary of the Minsk Internal Affairs Department explained that flags and other things might disturb other visitors, and their use was restricted strictly in the name of security.

After a few taped incidents appeared online, the Press Secretary of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote on his twitter in Belarusian: “Colleagues, is this sane? Is the Ukrainian flag banned in Belarus?”

On 24 November the Belarusian MFA replied to the tweet “According to the Ministry of Interior, when the house is full, the same thing would be seen with the Belarusian flag because it should not disturb the spectators. Our people love Okean Elzy!” The Ukrainian reply was “Thanks for the reply, but I cannot imagine [a scenario where] the police handled the Belarusian flag with equal disrespect and brutality”.

On 25 November the Belarusian Ambassador to Ukraine was summoned to the Ukrainian MFA. The Ukrainians asked him to explain the incident with the flag and he replied that concert regulations do not allow for it to be displayed. However, he failed to explain why the police handled the flags with disrespect.

Politicised Symbols in Belarus

In Belarus, the white-red-white flag that was abolished by the Lukashenka-initiated referendum in 1995 remains one of the most contentious of outlawed symbols in the country. The flag can only be used as a BNF political party symbol at officially sanctioned meetings and pickets. Otherwise its appearance in public is regarded as a kind of anti-government protest and is a regular target for the police.

Merely displaying it in a public place is qualified as an "unauthorised action" that can lead to fines being levied or even a few days in jail. Even hanging the flag out of the window of your own apartment is illegal.

The most famous case of a demonstration held under the white-red-white banner occurred in 2010 in Viciebsk when the activist Siarhei Kavalienka placed a flag on the top of the city's downtown Christmas tree. Thus far this has also been the only strictly flag-related criminal case, though Kavalienka was accused of disturbing public order.

Despite the authorities’ claims that during a concert flags cannot be displayed on security reasons, the official Belarusian flag can regularly be seen at concerts. In fact, before the Euromaidan revolution, the Ukrainian flag also was not considered a “political symbol”. Afterwards, however, it has become highly politicised and a source of potential problems with the police.

It now appears that besides the white-red-white flag, symbols employed during the Ukraine crisis have also received official censure. The flags of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics have yet to show up at large public events, but during Victory Day this past May, Belarus banned the use of St. Georges ribbons – a World War II symbol that has also become a symbol of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Another remarkable case of pro-Russian symbol restriction occurred back in November 2012, when the Mahilioŭ local authorities forbade the organisers of “Slavic March” to use a black-yellow-white flag - the traditional symbols of Russian monarchists and nationalists. In effect, this means that the authorities are restricting not only the symbols of the democratic opposition but every other dubious political symbol that they cross.

Belarus continues to maintain its balancing act between Russia and the West on the Ukraine issue, all while trying to be a reconciling partner for the conflict. Clearly, non-alignment will remain an important element of Belarus's foreign policy, including the symbolic dimension that this entails. The Belarusian police, as usual, will continue to try to serve Lukashenka to the best of their ability, even if that means ensuring that the smallest disagreeable symbol does not rear its head in public.

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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