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Belarus struggles to preserve its historical heritage

When travelling to Hrodna at the end of January, a group of tourists ended up saving a unique historical museum: the Yanush Parulis Museum in Hrodna was only able to survive financially thanks to local activism and a media...


An administrative building in jeopardy. Source: naviny.by

When travelling to Hrodna at the end of January, a group of tourists ended up saving a unique historical museum: the Yanush Parulis Museum in Hrodna was only able to survive financially thanks to local activism and a media campaign.

Whereas neighbouring Poland announces a 9.5 per cent budget increase on culture, Belarus is failing to implement its only state-funded project for national heritage preservation. Instead of cooperating with civil society to preserve important cultural sites, the government prefers to restrict NGO activities and spends money on safety and order.

Conservation of heritage

Belarus placed the issue of preservation of cultural heritage on its policy agenda only recently: the first document directly addressing cultural heritage protection appeared only in 2006. In contrast, in Lithuania heritage preservation laws date back to 1992, while in Austria such legislation goes back as far as 200 years. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government only introduced its first modest heritage project in 2011.

International programmes are also pushing Belarus to protect its cultural heritage. In 2015, the Belarusian town of Mstislau became a member of the COMUS project (Community-led Urban Strategies in Historical Towns), which aims to foster active civic participation in heritage preservation. Likewise, UNESCO has designated four world heritage sites in Belarus. Broadening the list of historical places would put more sites under protection.

However, the Belarusian government has so far failed to create a comprehensive project for heritage preservation. Over the past years, Belarus has begun to commercialise heritage conservation in such famous tourist sites as Mir Castle. Nevertheless, castles in Kreva and Lubcha survive due to the voluntary work of historians and locals. By liberalising the visa regime, Belarus has a greater chance of benefiting from tourist money, but the government should first focus on effectively preserving heritage sites which could be of interest to tourists.

Maintaining castles

Although Belarusian historical sites often attract tourists, the government has chosen to focus exclusively on castles: in 2011, money was allocated to a programme called ‘Castles of Belarus’ for 2012 to 2018. The programme aims to repair and restore 38 historical sites in Belarus. However, while local authorities choose to repair some castles, they also demolish many other historical buildings, as recently happened with two 19th century military buildings in Minsk.

‘Castles of Belarus’ has not received a large enough budget for proper implementation, and only a few castles have benefited from the programme so far. Castles in Kosava, Ružany, and Lida were the first to be renovated, while restoration of many other historical sites, such as Hrodna or Sviack castles, has yet to start. Already in 2015, deputy minister of culture, Aliaksandr Jacko, stated that the project was under-funded and could not go on with the current amount of money.

Due to the economic crisis, the Belarusian authorities are not prioritising the preservation of historical heritage. In contrast to the budget for public order and safety, the budget for culture and media has remained very low over the past seven years. In comparison, at the end of 2016 the Polish authorities announced an increase in the culture budget of 9.5 per cent of the GDP. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities put culture, media, and sports all in the same bracket.

Historians have expressed concern about the 'Castles of Belarus' programme. For example, Stsiapan Sturejka, a famous anthropologist, told Tvoj Styl that the state is working on restorations without consulting historians or experts. According to Anton Astapovich, the chairman of the Belarusian Voluntary Society for Protection of Historical Monuments and Culture, there is a huge difference between renovation and restoration; the authorities often do not take this into account.

While in most neighbouring countries consultation with experts and discussion with locals prior to restoration is a requirement, in Belarus the authorities prefer to skip this crucial step. According to Astapovich, only those sites which the authorities consider to be historically valuable are safe from demolition. Local authorities are prone to decide whether particular sites should disappear without historians' input. The state should discuss each restoration project with experts and citizens, as in Poland.

Heritage protection: the business of society?

Thus far, conservation of historical and cultural heritage in Belarus has mostly been the business of enthusiasts. In 2016, the streets of Minsk received historical names. Shortly after, historians in Hrodna initiated a similar project, which started on 15 February. Due to the initiatives of local activists, some historical sites continue to function.

The Yanush Parulis Museum in Hrodna was in jeopardy, as the owner could no longer afford to pay the rent. However, it was able to survive into 2017 thanks to the media and a campaign organised by locals. Media coverage allowed the owner to attract tourists, who are now visiting the museum more and more.

Some initiatives aim to solve a legislative deficiency which significantly complicates the monitoring of the renovation of historical objects. The Belarusian Voluntary Society for Protection of Historical Monuments and Culture continuously fights against demolishment of historical buildings. Several weeks ago, they sent an appeal to the parliament with a proposal to enhance legislation on renovation of historical sites.

International projects also aim to support heritage protection, although the scope of such projects is small. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation organises an annual competition for projects aimed at improving heritage sites. At the end of each year, however, the fund is only able to support a few heritage-related projects.

Belarusian heritage as a priority

Conservation of historical heritage should not only be left to volunteers. The government finances heritage protection poorly. Civil society does not possess the resources to conduct such projects without governmental support. Additionally, NGO initiatives are constrained by legislation requiring registration of international funds. Consequently, many historical sites are left to citizens or volunteer groups.

The Belarusian government itself is does little to protect heritage, but it is not willing to allow civil society to be part of the solution. Authorities try to save money on heritage preservation, limiting the budget only to 0.9 per cent of GDP. At the same time, they ignore suggestions to organise public hearings or expert consultations about renovations or demolition.

Grassroots initiatives over the last year demonstrate the ability on behalf of civil society to achieve goals. By opening up space for conservation initiatives, the state delegates more functions to civil society, thus empowering citizens. Instead of dividing responsibility for culture heritage, civil society and the government could unite forces to create an effective heritage conservation programme.

Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik – is a PhD candidate in political science at Karlstad University (Sweden) and a research fellow at the Belarusian think-tank 'Center for new ideas'.
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