Blacklisted Musicians Gather A Large Crowd of Belarusians Abroad
Last Saturday, the famous Belarusian band Lyapis Trubeckoy gathered over ten thousand fans, mostly young people who came from Belarus, at a concert in the Siemens Arena in Vilnius.
Today a number of prominent Belarusian musicians face serious difficulties when they want to perform for the Belarusian public. Playing concerts in neighbouring countries is one of their solutions.
Tickets for the concert of Lyapis were sold out almost immediately after sales began, as were tickets for buses and trains going to Vilnius. Lyapis Trubeckoj, which is the most famous of all Belarusian bands, has fans all over the former Soviet Union. Unknown Object
Their success streteches back to the late 1990s. Last weekend, they presented their first album fully in the Belarusian language.
Almost eleven thousand people, primarily fans from Belarus, attended the concert last Saturday. Already on Friday morning long queues formed on the Belarus-Lithuania border. Hundreds of fans were also waiting to cross the border on foot. Despite the long waiting hours, almost all fans managed to get to the concerts on time. The concert area was fully packed, and in the end, the concert felt like it was being held in Belarus rather than in Lithuania's capital.
The lead singer of the band, Siarhei Michalok, mentioned the current events in Ukraine throughout the show. While showing pictures of the crackdown of protests in Kiev, he referred to people in Belarus that, much like those protesting in Ukraine, wanted to live in an independent country where nobody dictated to them how they should live.
Michalok compared the current situation in Belarus to gangrene that started there and was then spread all over the former Soviet Union. He condemned those who said that people with similiar thoughts were supporters of the CIA or paid off by American money. Although he chose not to name any politicians, he made his point of view very clear.
Liavon Volski in Cologne
For several Belarusian musicians, it is also easier to organise a concert abroad rather than at home. In October, the Belarusian singer Liavon Volski gave his first concert in Cologne. Liavon Volski is an icon of Belarusian music, the leader of two of the most famous Belarusian bands of all time. Both groups have been banned from giving concerts in Belarus for some time now. Nevertheless, Volski remains an influential artist and critic of the Belarusian regime.
Liavon Volski has been part of the Belarusian music scene for more than 30 years. He started in the 1980s with the band “Mroja” (or dream in English) which he renamed “NRM” (an abbreviation for Independent Republic of Dreams) in the 1990s. He is now also the head of the Belarusian Ska band “Krambambulya” that brings together elements of folk, ska and rock music.
Ingo Petz, freelance journalist and expert on Belarus, organised the concert. The day before Volski and Pavel Arakelian, who accompanied him on flute and saxophone, played in the German town Solingen at a festival of prosecuted arts 'Festival der verfolgten Künste'.
The musician, son of Belarusian writer Artur Volski, has moreover been successful with a series of solo projects like 'Sauka and Gryshka' for Radio Liberty in which a government clerk and an opposition activist discuss political events like the 2006 gas crisis with a refined sense of humour in Belarusian. Volski takes up topics important to all Belarusians and that touch on their everyday lives.
Apart from the contents of his songs, Liavon Volski sings in Belarusian and therefore brings the Belarusian language to Belarusian households that usually only use Russian. Volski personifies a culture where many young Belarusians are readily protesting against the current political situation.
Moreover, Volski’s songs appeared on the soundtrack for the film 'Zhyvie Belarus!' (Long live Belarus) made by the Polish director Krysztof Lukaszewicz. This movie deals with the events surrounding the 2010 presidential elections from the perspective of young opposition activist Franak Viachorka. Volski and his bands are often associated with the opposition and critics of the regime.
Blacklists and pressure at home
Giving concerts in Belarus has become more difficult for many artists. The Belarusian authorities consider them a threat to the regime. In their songs, some bands criticise the current political and economic system in Belarus. They often express the thoughts and feelings of a whole generation and put into words what remains unsaid in the controlled media. Concerts as a potential mass gathering may constitute herds of resistance against the current regime.
According to some sources, almost 60 Belarusian and international artists find themselves on an unofficial 'black list' that is regularly circulated to all state media. It includes actors like Kevin Spacey and Jude Law who have supported Belarus' democratisation movement and it also includes Belarusian singers, writers and painters. Those whose name are on this list cannot perform in public or appear in the media.
Hanna Volskaja, manager of the band Krambambulya and wife of Ljavon Volski, a famous Belarusian singer, calls this list absurd. It prevents Krambambulya from performing under their band name, but tolerates concerts of the same band under a different name.
The system of black lists started up back in 2006, when some Belarusian rock bands supported the opposition after the presidential elections. During the period of liberalisation from 2008 to 2010, in accordance with a gentleman's agreement reached between the authorities, the bands agreed they would refrain from performing at meetings of the opposition's meetings. As a consequence, bands like Krambambulya could once again give concerts in Belarus. The state media published articles about them, an official sign that those bands were no longer considered 'forbidden'.
With the economic crisis that arose in 2011, a new, more absurd version of the black list became public. This list was given to media outlets without a signature or any sign of official ownership. However, the blacklisted artists may no longer appear in public in Belarus, as they usually they simply cannot find a place to give a concert.
State institutions refuse and private venues are also worried to anger authorities by hosting undesireable musicians. For example, in January 2013, the vocalist of the group Dziecuki was warned by the authorities that the musicians should not go near the Jolly Roger café where a concert was planned or they would be arrested.
At that point of time, the Belarusian authorities had two choices: either host concerts of bands that have already shown their readiness not to mingle in politics – or let thousands of fans travel abroad where they will gather to hear the music.
By gathering thousands abroad, the bands will achieve an ever greater status of heroes and the Belarusians will have the possibility to sincerely compare the lives of those in Kiev, Warsaw or Vilnius to that of Belarus. Internet broadcasts of their concerts will attract even more attention. That may serve a goal runs against what the Belarusian authorities are hoping to achieve.
This coming Saturday Lyapis will play a concert in Kiev.
Belarus Exit Fee: The Authorities Back Down
On 6 September many Belarusian families were vigorously discussing Alexander Lukashenka's proposal of a new charge for those who shop abroad. Additional fees would certainly end their shopping trips to the EU countries.
But last week Lukashenka himself unexpectedly backed away from this idea, making a number of Belarusians breathe a sigh of relief.
The main thrust of this additional tax was to discourage Belarusians from spending money abroad and encourage them to purchase domestically produced goods. Today thousands travel from Belarus to shop in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania. These shopping trips bring benefits not only to Belarusian customers, but also the local economies of the bordering regions, such as the Podlasie region, in Poland.
Belarusian civil society and independent media did not wait long to show its disapproval for the suggested tax. It launched an Internet petition to the authorities and collected almost 27,000 signatures of dissatisfied Belarusians who openly contested the new tax which was briefly mentioned by Lukashenka on 6 September.
Exit Fee: Because You Can Buy Stuff in Belarus
Lukashenka suggested introducing an additional system of taxation during his working visit to the Minsk company "Motovelo". Soon after the Belarusian media reported that he had already ordered Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Prokopovich to prepare a bill. Prokopovich subsequently announced that he needed around 1.5 month to complete the work.
At the same time, the Belarusian authorities kept underscoring that it would apply such a tax only to Belarusian citizens going abroad to shop, not foreign tourists leaving Belarus. This, in turn, gave everyone the impression that the authorities had already made a decision and a bill on the tax was only a matter of time.
Lukashenka’s rationale was fairly clear: Belarusians spend too much money in the West instead of supporting the Belarusian economy. Around the same time the Belarusian Ministry of Trade published statistics showing that fewer people were purchasing Belarusian goods. This, de facto, aids the EU economy, as Lukashenka emphasised. In his words, Belarusians spent around $2bn on goods, most often making their purchases in Poland or Lithuania.
However, on 28 September, at the harvest festival, Dazhynki, Lukashenka tuned down his rhetoric and was much calmer on the topic. He not only explained his arguments, but also withdrew his support for an exit fee in the form that he had previously suggested.
Instead of imposing the previously suggested tax, the authorities now plan to introduce a special departure tax – it will be much lower and of a different character than the previously mentioned exit fee. He emphasised that the welfare of the nation is as important as the welfare of the state. He was presumably referring to the clear dissatisfaction voiced by a large swathe of society to the exit fee.
Would $100 stop Belarusians from shopping abroad?
Mikola, a 27-year old man from Baranovichy, for a number of years has been visiting Bialystok in Eastern Poland. There he buys food, building materials and various things for his household. He finds many goods for much cheaper in Bialystok or Bielsk Podlaski, than in his hometown, Baranovichy, located about a 2 hour drive from Poland. He did not hide his frustration when found out about Lukashenkas proposal.
In the opinion of Mikola, only those who want to purchase cars or have serious business would still be prepared to pay the $100 fee. Otherwise, shopping in Poland would no longer make sense. He could not come up with any idea on how one could avoid the tax. "People could not bribe the border officers. For sure, they could not bribe them. This tax would rather stop them from travelling and buying stuff there", he told Belarus Digest.
On the list of most desired items among the Belarusian customers remain goods such as food, electronics, building materials and clothes. Mikola said that usually he just bought everything he could that was cheaper than in Belarus. The tax return service already available most stores make shopping in Poland all the more attractive. People can claim up to 23% pf the price they paid if they use the tax return system. It is particularly visible on Saturdays when Belarusians almost "invade" Polish shops, something which brings joy both to themselves and the local businesses.
The Belarusian State Border Committee made public its data on the number of Belarusians who traveled abroad and its figures are worth considering. It shows that Belarusian citizens travel most frequently to Poland and Lithuania. In 3.33 million out of 5 million overall trips Belarusians went to Poland. 1.3 million people went to Lithuania. These destinations are not surprising given their proximity and their well-stocked shopping centres.
To meet demand, travel agencies even organise special shopping trips to Bialystok. They include visits to the largest supermarkets and electronics shops.
For a small town such Baranavichy shopping and smuggling remain the most basic sources of income. Read more
Mikola told Belarus Digest that a few of his relatives and friends can live a fairly good life thank to these shopping trips. For a small town such Baranavichy shopping and smuggling remain the most basic sources of income. "People use every opportunity to take advantage of it”, he adds.
Shopping trips remain a serious benefit to the regional economy of Bialystok. A press speaker of the Customs Chamber in Bialystok, Maciej Czarnecki, told Belarus Digest that since the beginning of 2013 the regional chamber registered over 660,000 receipts for the tax free procedure in the Podlasie region. 150,000 people claimed tax free exemptions with an estimated total value of $204m.
The statistics of the Border Service in the Podlasie region show that in 2012 alone, Belarusians crossed the border with Poland 7,902.6 times. 82% of people declared that went to Poland primarily for shopping. Almost 90% of them crossed the border a few times a day.
Why is the State Taking a Step Back?
Alaksiej Shein from Minsk initiated an online petition to Lukashenka's administration raising reasons why the authorities should not introduce the fee. On the website change.org, the author reports that they have already collected 26,925 signatures from people who openly protest the tax. Shein claims that such fees would breach the Belarusian Constitution as well as other international agreements that Minsk has. In his opinion, the tax would make traveling abroad for a majority of Belarusians nearly impossible. It would seem that the 27,000 people who signed the petition agree with his position.
Taking an additional 100 dollars from their pockets could potentially have a negative impact on the domestic image of a leader who likes to portray himself as the main defender of his people's welfare.
The whole discussion on the suggested fee invigorated Belarusian society. The initiation of this petition, but also jokes on the Internet, demonstrate that the Lukashenka's proposal caused serious dissatisfaction within some social circles.The exit fee story also shows that although Belarus remains an authoritarian state, its citizens can put pressure on the authorities who have to back down.