Belarus Bans St. George’s Ribbons at V-Day Celebrations
On the May 9th most post-Soviet countries, including Belarus, celebrate Victory Day to commemorate World War II.
But unlike in previous years, this time around before May 9th state organisations in Belarus received an unexpected order – replace all V-Day decorations containing the St. George’s ribbon.
Originally a Russian Empire military decoration, it was used during World War II in a modified form and since that time all former Soviet Union republics have widely used the symbol in their annual celebrations of Victory Day.
However, after the separatist actions in Ukraine, where militants use the ribbon as their identifying colours, it has acquired a negative meaning and became associated with Russian imperialism.
Unlike in Ukraine, where this year authorities introduced a completely new symbol, the Belarusian authorities simply replaced it with the colours of green-red flag of Belarus. With such a move Lukashenka is demonstrating his unwillingness to back Russia-inspired separatism in Ukraine.
History of St. George’s Ribbon
The Georgian ribbon emerged as part of the Order of St. George, established in 1769 as the highest military decoration of Russian Empire. After 1917 the Soviet authorities abolished the imperial award, but the black-orange ribbon was used in the Soviet Army under the name the Guard Ribbon on banners and decorations during World War II. Afterwards it became widely used in commemoration of World War II throughout the union.
The modern Russian army reestablished the Order of St. George, but in public opinion, which Putin’s propaganda has pushed, the imperial and Soviet ribbons are seen as identical and called the St. George’s ribbon.
The popularisation of the ribbon started back in 2005 with an ideological campaign in Russia. Activists began to distribute the ribbons among the population leading up to the annual Victory Day celebration on May 9th. People usually attach the ribbons to their clothes, cars and the black-orange colours are used on visual materials elsewhere.
However, in the current turmoil in Ukraine the St. George’s ribbon has become a symbol of pro-Russian separatists, who “fight Kyiv's fascist junta” for East Ukraine's independence.
Most militants in Ukraine wear the ribbon along with other separatist symbols. Due t this, the Ukrainian authorities banned the use of the ribbon as commemorative symbol for May 9th, although it had been widely used in the past.
Previously, Belarus also supported the post-Soviet symbol and the authorities were ordered to distribute the ribbons among state organisations and government bodies. However, this year the Belarusian authorities have apparently banned the use of St. George’s ribbon – a decision that was almost certainly made at the highest levels of government.
No St. George’s Ribbon in Official Celebrations
On May 6th a photo of a note appeared in the Vkontakte social network which was sent to all the schools in Homiel. In the note the Homiel BRSM (Pro-government Youth organisation) chief, with a direct no nonsense message, ordered the schools not to use St. George’s ribbon in their V-Day celebrations, but instructed them instead to use the green-red colours of the Belarusian flag.
Another BRSM functionary from the central committee explained to Radio Liberty that the colours of Belarusian flag are the official colours of BRSM, and the organisation does not associate its activity with the St. George’s ribbon colours.
The pro-government Belaja Rus public association, which includes practically all representatives of the ruling elite of Belarus, said that it was not planning to use St. Georges ribbons in their annual celebration. “We never used them, we have used the green-red ribbons and our emblem”, commented the Belaja Rus press-secretary.
Many other state organisations also confirm in private that they were ordered to remove or replace all decorations containing the St. George’s ribbon leading up to May 9th.
Not only the state but also private companies received the order not to use the ribbon. Belarusian retail giant Euroopt posted on its website that its volunteers will distribute the ribbons in large cities of Belarus from the 7-9 May. However, after multiple publications about the campaign in the media on May 7th Euroopt deleted the announcement.
Society and State in Symbolic Controversy
However, the authorities could not prevent some public associations and parties from distributing the ribbon.
The Liberal-Democratic Party, mostly loyal to the regime, claimed it will hand out the ribbons at its office and in the streets. Russian-backed organisations like Rus Molodaya (Young Rus') actively engaged in ribbon campaign in Belarusian cities, though fortunately they are very small in number.
Opposition forces, on the contrary, urged the authorities not to use the ribbon calling it a symbol of separatism and military aggression.
In Ukraine this year, authorities decided to introduce a new symbol of commemoration – a red poppy flower. According to Kiev, it presents a Europe-wide symbol of remembering war victims. Ukraine also launched their commerative celebration on May 8th as many countries of the anti-Nazi coalitions do annually. This symbol will avoid the glorification of war a la Soviet and will avoid parity with the separatist's symbol.
The Belarusian authorities decided on their own approach to the problem in a more delicate and gentle manner. They did not announce a total ban on individual use, but in official celebrations replaced the orange-and-black symbol with the colours of the current flag of Belarus.
Many Belarusians would not accept a ban on donning St. Georges ribbons, as large portions of the population remain friendly to Soviet ideology and are heavily influenced by Russian propaganda. Despite this, the infamous symbol has become a rare sight in Minsk, particularly when considering its widespread usage in years past.
Lukashenka Will not Back Separatism in Ukraine
This time around the celebration of Victory Day coincided with Lukashenka’s own urgent visit to Moscow, the details of which remain unknown. On 7 May he reassured Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that, “Belarusians have never hesitated about celebrating Victory Day as the [nation's] greatest holiday”, and invited Medvedev to visit the new museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk. But these words sound like an excuse for the recently altered policies from the Belarusian leadership towards St. George's ribbon in Belarus, an issue which has caused discontent in Russian media in recent days.
Interestingly, in 2010 in Moscow during the commemoration events Lukashenka himself wore the green-red ribbon of Belarusian flag, while his colleagues, Medvedev and Yanukovych, wore St. George ribbons. It should also be noted that in Belarus, Lukashenka has always worn only the nation's flag colours during WWII commemorations.
The fact that the ribbon's usage was banned at the highest level demonstrates that Lukashenka is currently very suspicious of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Lukashenka refused to officially recognise the Crimea annexation and supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and non-federalisation. At the annual address to the nation and Parliament in April he employed a fair amount of independence rhetoric and went on about the importance of preserving Belarus’ sovereignty as the unfolding regional crisis continues. The case of St. George's ribbon has become another sign of Minsk's altered view of the Kremlin politics.
Museum Fair, Internet for Activists, SocStarter – Belarus Civil Society Digest
In this issue of Belarus Civil Society Digest: demands for a special amnesty on the occasion of the ice hockey championship, training for social activists, competition for bike-friendly companies, discussions of Belarus investment possibilities and transparency of university budgets.
The digest also covers several recent cultural initiatives, including Museum Fair, festivals of Hrusauka and of Belarusian advertising and communication.
Civil Society and the State
Appeal for special amnesty on IHWC occasion. On the occasion of the Ice Hockey World Championship, the human rights organisation Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights demands a special amnesty from Belarusian president Lukashenka for the release of all political prisoners. Another appeal has been launched by representatives of international and national human rights organisations which call the concerned States to refrain from sending official government delegations to participate in the events related to the Championship. One more statement named Belarus Must Play Fair, in Sports and Beyond calls on Belarus' leaders and citizens to take decisive steps towards making Belarus an open and democratic country.
Legal Transformation Center Lawtrend continues its activities on researching an access to government online. On April 28, Lawtrend conducted a round table to discuss the methodology and results of the last year monitoring of 45 governmental websites. The event was attended by about 20 representatives of government organizations, including the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Communication and Information, the Ministry of Defense, state committees, etc
Memorandum of Partnership Alliance signed. On April 23, in Minsk, six CSOs signed a Memorandum of Partnership "Alliance" – the initiative Europerspectiva, Institute of History and Culture, Lastovsky History Society, International Association of Environmentalists, the initiative Sober Life, analytical project Belarus Security Blog. The mission of the new coalition is to increase public control over the decision-making and implementation processes at the state level, to achieve real changes in the Belarusian society, etc.
Contest of small deeds Let's Make it Better 2014. The Assembly of pro-Democratic NGOs continues its campaign Let's Make it Better! and announces a new contest of positive ideas. Any CSO which is a member of the Assembly is invited to participate in the campaign aimed at revitalization of society through involvement of citizens in solving local issues. The application deadline is June 15.
Internet for activists. Basics Manual. The Assembly of pro-Democratic NGOs prepared a second edition of the manual, which aims to help civil society activists to find their way in the world of modern technology and adapt it to their needs. The manual is help CSOs to talk about their activities for a wide range of people, promptly inform and educate the public about important issues and offer solutions, find new activists, etc. The book is available in various formats.
SocStarter training program launches its 2nd season. From May till July 2014, the 2nd season of SocStarter offers 10 social initiatives the chance to get a full training with the goal to enable to start their own social enterprise. SocStarter is an International Social Entrepreneurship Training Program organized by SocialWeekend.by, Maesens.by, Bel.Biz, UNESCO Clubs. The program invites to the participation teams (from two people) who want to implement social business in Belarus.
Competition for bike-friendly companies. Minsk Bicycle Society and Center for Environmental Solutions launched a competition Business Bike among bike-friendly companies. The contest covers Minsk and Grodno and will identify an organization, that develops internal cycling infrastructure and support staff using bikes. The website of the competition describes the rules and criteria of the winner's selection, as well as suggests useful tips for managers who want to make an active lifestyle as part of a corporate policy.
Conferences and Roundtables
Panel on investment possibilities in Belarus. On April 22, in Minsk, analytical community Liberal Club organized a panel discussion Is it possible to do business in Belarus? The discussion raised such issues as success factors for foreign and Belarusian investors, the examples of business projects developing in Belarus despite or because of ambiguous investment reputation of the country, etc. Among the speakers were Pavel Daneiko, the Belarusian Economic Research and Education Center (BEROC), Mikhail Borozdin, Investment Consulting Company, Daniel Krutzinna, International consulting company Civitta.
International conference on protection of children. On April 23-24, Minsk hosted the 5th International Conference Safe Belarus and CIS Region for Children. The results achieved in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States were thoroughly discussed as well as practical recommendations in the field of law, treatment, training and education were worked out. Master-classes and presentations of the speakers answered the question HOW to PROTECT children and PREVENT child abuse. The organizer of the Conference is the International Ponimanie NGO.
Discussion on transparent budgets of universities. On April 24, at the Minsk Gallery Ў, Analytical Laboratory of Development Center of Student Initiatives held a discussion titled as of Making transparent budgets of Belarusian universities!During the discussion, a new campaign of student organizations on transparency Belarusian universities was presented. The discussion was attended by representatives of the research project BIPART, public Bologna Committee, Association of Belarusian Students (ZBS), Studentskaya Rada/ Student Council.
Local Hrushauka Festival took place on May 1, in Minsk. The Festival became the first ever local community collaboration in one of the Minsk districts. The event was initiated by a private person and facilitated by a crowd-funding platform Talaka.by. Hand in hand with inhabitants of the district the Festival was joined by some organized groups – Youth union Falanster, CPM independent project, Center for Environmental Solutions and some others. The Festival had a big rotation of people to come and to leave according to varied day-long programme and gathered up to 1000 visitors.
Art-Siadziba says goodbye to the premises with a big concert. On April 25, Art-Siadziba held a farewell concert party Solidarity with Art-Siadziba, headliner was NRM band. The concert had a charity nature – all the musicians performed for free, and the money will go to purchase of own premises. On May 1, Art-Siadziba should release its current office – the fifth one for the last two years. Meanwhile, the total amount of funds raised on the new office already exceeds $7,100 out of 200 thousand dollars needed.
Museum Fair. On May 15, the cultural campaign Budzma conducts Museum Fair dedicated to new, relevant ways to expand the audience of museums and modern models of working with visitors. Special attention will be given to projects that not only stimulate scientific and educational activities of the museum, but also take into account the needs of today's Belarusian society. Both professionals and amateurs are invited to participate. Professionals in the museum field will assess the project ideas.
AD.NAK! launched for the fifth time. On April 22, the Fifth Festival of Belarusian Advertising and Communication AD.NAK! was launched with a press-conference. The Festival is traditionally presented in a new concept, namely Think globally – Act locally! The current Festival promotes the idea of the high value of the local communications that can be developed via the new modern formats. The final awards ceremony will be held on June 27 in Minsk. The initiator of the Festival is the campaign Budzma.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.