Belarus Music: From Propaganda to Protest (+Videos)
On Saturday 13 April, around 4 pm the most popular Belarusian music channel BelMuzTV was broadcasting porn. The video engineer working at the channel for reasons which are not yet clear added a porn film to the playlist and headed off from Minsk to another city.
When discussing this incident, many Belarusian media outlets were, somewhat bizarrely, focusing not on the fact of porn broadcast but on the fact that the channel also showed videos of a blacklisted rock-group Liapis Trubetskoy on that day. Frontman of the group Siarhey Mikhalok even put an ironic video on Youtube where he denies their involvement in the incident. Belarusian authorities banned the group several years ago for political reasons.
These days Liapis Trubetskoy is the most popular rock-group in Belarus. They first became famous in the Russian speaking world during 1990s performing pop music parodies. Their second wave of popularity came at the end of 2000s, when the band started performing Ska and Punk music.
In recent years the Siarhey Mikhalok, has repeatedly criticised the Belarusian political regime in public. For this reason it is impossible to hear Liapis Trubetskoy on the radio and the band is banned from organising concerts in Belarus.
The case of Liapis Trubetskoy is not unique. The Belarusian rock scene has a long tradition of protest rock criticising the political regime. From the end of the 90's to the beginning of the 2000's, the two most popular rock groups in Belarus were N.R.M. and Neuro Dubel. They regularly performed at opposition demonstrations and the lyrics of the songs frequently made reference to the political situation in Belarus.
At the turn of the century, protest was a common trend in Belarusian rock. Both N.R.M. and Neuro Dubel played successful shows in Belarus and were headline performers at Belarusian open air festivals. The most famous of these is the Basovišča festival which has taken place in Poland, near the Belarusian border, since 1990.
From 2000 on, it is a familiar recurrence that in Belarus the police would disrupt concerts featuring protest rock bands. But targeted repression of Belarusian rock only really started at the beginning of the following decade. In 2011 Belarusian independent media published a list of banned artists. According to journalists, officials were spreading the list to radio stations. FM radio stations had to remove them from playlists.
The black list started with Liapis Trubetskoy, N.R.M. and Neuro Dubel. Now in Belarus it is impossible to hear these bands on the radio or to see them on TV. Likewise live performances of protest bands are also banned.
Loyal Pop Musicians
It is a fact of common knowledge that Lukashenka likes Russian pop music. Most Belarusian pop musicians who are allowed to perform on radio and TV copy the Russian pop scene. Lukashenka regularly attends Slavianski Bazaar – the annual pop music festival held in Vitebsk, a festival were Russian pop stars dominate. The official media describes Slavianski Bazaar as the main musical event in Belarus.
Belarusian pop singers have to demonstrate their loyalty to the political regime by performing concerts during state holidays and election campaigns. For example during 2006 presidential election campaign Belarusian officials organised a concert tour of Belarusian pop-singers “For Belarus!”
During one such concert, the Belarusian pop-group Siabry presented the song Listen to the Father. In Russian speaking world Lukashenka has a nickname “Father” and the audience was identifying Lukashenka with the main character of the song. The concert was broadcast on Belarusian state TV to make sure the whole country could see the concert.
He is great and powerful!
He will not teach bad things.
Father can put everything in order
And he is way cooler than the others!
Just look around – and it's immediately obvious
Who's the boss of the house.
So listen to father!
In the morning, during the day and at night
Listen to father!
If you feel bad
Listen to father!
And everything will be alight.
During the 2010 presidential election campaign the song Sanya by the little-known pop group Rockerjocker gained huge popularity. The plot of the song boils down to the relatives and friends of Sanya (a common nickname for someone named Alexander) persuading him not to leave them and as a result Sanya agrees to stay.
The musicians from Rockerjocker assured journalists that politics was the last thing on their minds and the song was written to congratulate their friend on the occasion of his birthday party. Radio and official Belarusian TV regularly broadcasted the video and even made a video of the song.
Mommy asked you to stay with us,
Father asked you to stay with us.
If Sanya will stay with us,
Everything will be OK!
Sanya, stay with us!
We cannot be by ourselves, we cannot.
Sanya, stay with us, Sanya.
I'm with you.
A few days before the elections in response to Rockerjocker someone unknown uploaded to youtube a parody of Sanya, called Sanya will go to the Hague. The lyrics of the song hints at the future trial of Lukashenka at the International Criminal Court.
Europe asked you to go to the Hague!
People asked you to go to the Hague!
The Hague requested: Come here Sanya!
Sanya will go to the Hague!
Sania will go to the Hague,
Will go to the Hague
Everything will be OK.
Sanya will go to the Hague.
Skiing withan ice hockey stick
Everything will be OK.
In today’s Belarus, as in the last years of the USSR, music is strongly connected with politics. Some artists are against the political regime and for that reason they cannot perform in Belarus. They perform concerts in Vilnius, Kiev and Polish cities. Some travel agencies even organise tours for fans so they can watch concerts of blacklisted Belarusian bands abroad.
Other artists are part of the state system of entertainment and they regularly have to prove their loyalty to the ruling elite by putting on shows during election campaigns in support of Lukashenka.
The propaganda songs for and against Lukashenka have become a part of the cultural landscape of Belarus. The best examples of such art are eventually becoming a part of folklore. After the current political regime has collapsed these propaganda songs still will be on Youtube and they will be able to tell us and future generations a lot about the period – the “Lukashenka times”.
How Far Is Belarusian Education from European Standards?
"Belarus aspires to the integration with the universal educational system preserving its achievements and traditions", – said the Deputy Minister of Education Alexander Zhuk on 3 April 2013. However, what he meant under "traditions" sometimes clearly contradicts the principles of education accepted elsewhere in Europe.
The system of manual control, absence of real self-governance, political pressure on students and universities plague the atmosphere of educational freedom in the geographic heart of Europe.
Evident Lack of Academic Freedoms
Belarus remains the only European state outside of the Bologna system. This gap complicates recognition of Belarusian academic degrees and slows down the Belarusian-European academic exchanges. Bologna system experts expect substantially greater amount of academic freedoms in Belarus – something which the government of Belarus resists.
European University Association completed in 2012 a study on university autonomy in Belarus. The study authors examined problems in four areas: organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy. Their methodology allows assessing progress in each area in figures: from 0 (the worst) to 100 (the best).
|Area of Autonomy||Index (out of 100%)||Country With a Lower Index in Europe|
|Financial||26,5%||Cyprus and Hesse (a German State)|
In terms of organisational autonomy, Belarusian universities demonstrate poor results. While in Europe the academic community itself elects and dismiss the heads of universities, in Belarus this right belongs to the President for state universities and the Minister of Education for private universities. The same dependency on the Ministry of Education also plagues other organisational issues such as structural arrangement of university departments and composition of its management bodies.
Universities’ financial dependence also weakens Belarusian academic freedom. In accordance with the Code of Education, the Ministry of Education prepares all the budgets of universities and appropriates funds for them. They cannot even dispose of the money left after a fiscal year – they have to return it to the state. In addition, universities do not own their building – they only have a right to use them. This makes them very dependent on the true owner of the campuses – the state.
Some restrictions also affect the "staffing area" of academic independence. Candidates for top academic posts must have a prescribed minimum academic degrees Why decides on awarding degrees? The state body called the Higher Attestation Commission plays a crucial role. Only this agency, but not universities, can award people scholarly degrees. It decides who "deserves" a PhD or another degree to become a Belarusian academic.
Proper academic autonomy includes a number of rights of universities: to decide on the number of students to enrol, to select qualifying candidates, to launch and terminate educational courses, to draft study plans and programmes, to choose the language of education etc. The government decides on each and every of these issues.
Education as a Tool for Politics
The Belarusian regime as many other autocracies does its best to control the higher education not just legally or financially, but politically and ideologically.
At the end of 2012 three Belarusian NGOs: Centre for Students Initiatives’ Development, "Solidarity" and Public Bologna Committee – prepared a joint report, in which they highlighted serious interference of the universities by the government into the process of education.
Incidents of interference include multiple reported cases of forcing students to vote during the parliamentary elections in September 2012, using students to do unpaid work and putting pressure on dissident professors. For example, at the end of March 2013 Ihar Kuzminich, a lecturer of the Yanka Kupala State University of Hrodna retired in protest against pressure upon him and the dismissal of his colleague for writing a history textbook.
In 2004 the whole institution – European Humanities University – had to move to Vilnius because of intense pressure for free-thinking and attempts to become academically independent in European sense. Now this university operates in Lithuania as a local educational institution with 90% Belarusians out of all students.
Another example of politicisation of higher education is the practise of politically-motivated expulsions after almost every electoral campaign. After the last wave of such expulsions dating back to December 2010, six heads of the universities joined the "black list" of Belarusian officials, who cannot travel to the European Union.
All students are also supposed to take the mandatory "Belarusian ideology" course, which shows that the government sees higher education a mere tool for its own political purposes.
Students Cannot Fully Enjoy Their Rights
For decades Belarus is no longer a totalitarian state and the situation is much better than in Soviet times. Hundreds of students travel abroad to study via Erasmus Mundus, Tempus and other exchange programmes. Universities can also invite foreign lecturers for short- or long-term visits.
Formally, students self-governance exists in form of "students' councils" at every university. But in reality these bodies always go along with the administration and are composed mostly of members of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) – the largest pro-governmental national youth organisation. The latter, meanwhile, has its own cells at every university, school and college.
One symptomatic case occurred in 2011 when the NGO "Civil Forum" tried to gather all the heads of students' councils from different universities for a workshop on student self-government. Many of those refused to attend the event after "consultations with the university administration".
All in all, these fake demonstrations of academic freedoms keep the Belarusian out-of-date higher education away from the Western educational standards. The government only conceals real failures, preserving its pernicious control over what must be as free as possible – universities.
With this approach it will be really hard not just to join the Bologna process, but even to maintain the current level of quality in higher education. De-politicisation, guarantees of academic freedoms and creating real student self-government bodies must become the first steps in the right direction.