Chinese Investment, Forgotten Vitebsk, Forced Labour Hunger Strike – Western Press Digest
As Lukashenka tries to improve ties with his Western counterparts, questions arise as to the merits of this thaw in relations for both parties. Despite the conciliatory tone of US and EU officials, their representatives at the UN Human Rights Council maintain a tougher stance towards Minsk.
While the West may be vacillating on how to best cooperate with Lukashenka, the Chinese President's recent visit to Minsk demonstrates that Belarus' global standing may indeed be improving. Agreements signed with China promise to bring much needed investment and loans.
Still, the imprisonment of Belarusian citizen for an anti-Lukashenka tattoo and a new law which will fine people for not working shows that little has changed in Belarus as the presidential election approaches. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Weary of Russia – The Guardian reports that Russia's involvement in the Ukrainian conflict and the annexation of Crimea has raised concerns amongst the authorities and opposition alike. Whereas Lukashenka use to speak fondly of the brotherly nature of Belarusian-Russian ties, his reserved tone and caution is not only being restricted to speeches, but is also find its way in state-controlled organisations. One such organisation is a think tank that is now monitoring what imperially-minded Russian authorities and thinkers say about Belarus.
Lukashenka's rhretoric on preparing Belarus to defend itself if it should be attacked (by an unnamed force) or the government's level of preparedness for the appearance of any 'green little men' may seem like paranoid thinking to some, though it may have some merit to it after all. One prominent popular nationalist online news site, that said parts of Belarus were 'gifts' from Russia, has apparently garnered the favour of the authorities in Moscow, and may be under its protection, a development that warrants further suspicion.
Belarusian rapprochement with the West – The recent thaw in relations between Belarus and the EU and US is a welcome development by most parties, though it may just amount to little more than Lukashenka trying to better his position at the bargaining table with Russia. According to the Washington Post, with the country's small opposition divided as to what to do in the face of potential Russian aggression, a Russian-dependent Belarus is unlikely to undergo any significant change.
China Makes Its Move – A recent visit by the Chinese President Xi Jinping may signal a shift for Belarus' isolated economy. According to AP, the Chinese President signed nearly 20 agreements with his Belarusian counterpart to the tune of roughly $15.7bn, including a $700m loan. A contract with China for potash is one of the most prominent agreements made, though the exact terms of the deal are unknown. The Chinese president said of the improved ties that it was China's hope to make Belarus a hub for its 'silk road' development project, uniting Asian markets with European markets.
Not Working? Then Pay For It – In an effort to combat making welfare payments to able-bodied individuals who are unemployed, the Belarusian parliament has passed a law that will require them to pay an tax. The law is based on a proposal made to parliament by Lukashenka and is designed to motivate people to get to work. The new law will not affect the elderly, disabled, or individuals with young children and is temporary in nature. AP reports that according to the Minister of Labour, the measure is a temporary one that is meant to incentivise individuals to find gainful employment and limit their burden on the state's coffers.
Civil and Human Rights
Jailed Over A Tattoo – RFE/RL reports that Yury Rubtsou has been sentenced to another 2 years in jail, following his court date for violating a 18-month sentence of compulsory labour. His original sentence was handed down after he was arrested for wearing a 'Lukashenka, Get Out!' t-shirt — a phrase that he at some point got tattooed on his chest. During the course of his hearing, Rubtsou removed his shirt to show off his ink. He was originally brought into court for refusing to carry out his mandatory labour sentence and went on a 50 day hunger strike, complaining that wages were too low.
UN Human Rights Council Decries Belarusian Reality – Members listed their concerns about the situation in Belarus at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. RFE/RL reports that during the session, the US Ambassador to the council called on Belarus to reforms its electoral laws in line with OSCE standards, to which the Belarusian representative stated all had been done to make sure the elections would take place in an orderly and transparent fashion.
The representative Swiss pushed for change with regard to how civil society organisations were treated, calling for their 'decriminalisation', while her Swedish counterpart called for the end of the death penalty in Belarus — the only European country which still employes it.
Culture and History
Belarus' Lost Identity – Following the departure of Belarus' large Jewish population, little remains to suggest that it was once the centre of a vibrant community out of which world-reknown artists like Marc Chagall emerged. After the 1918 Russian Revolution and, later, the Nazi invasion of the region, the Jewish community in Vitebsk,Belarus has virtually been erased from global memory, save for a few classic paintings by Chagall. As the NYTimes piece suggests, after Chagall and his works were either ignored or defamed by the Soviet authorities, his presence and importance is finally beginning to be acknowledged again, as his love for the city emerges in the minds of Belarusians.
Patriotic Tattoo Fest 2015 – Belarus Photo Digest
Belarus Tattoo Fest took place in Minsk on 30-31 May. More than thirty artists participated in the event.
In its third year, the festival adopted Belarusian history and culture as key themes. Visitors tattooed themselves with national symbols, bought skateboards with the Belarus’s historical figures, and painted bodies with patriotic images.
With a $16 ticket (150,000 Belarusian rubles), festival guests gained admission to several art exhibits, a number of workshops by famous Belarusian tattoo artists. They could purchase tattoo equipment as well as a wide selection of arts and crafts at the festival.
“The trend for tattoos with national symbols started several years ago,” said Masha, who has over 30 tattoos, including a tattoo of letter “Ў”, unique to the Belarusian alphabet. “A growing number of people are becoming interested in history and our rich culture.”
Julia Pipetka, a tattoo artist, has been in tattoo business for six years. She is happy that the young people have become interested in national symbols and traditional ornaments. “It is absurd when Belarusians get tattoos with Chinese hieroglyphics,” she said.
“My old client Yauhen came to me one day to erase the tattoos he made in his youth. Instead, he decided to get tattoos with Belarusian ornament, national flag, and a girl in the image of Belarus,” Pipetka said. “To design the image, he even organized a contest to find a woman who represents Belarus best. He hired a photographer to shoot candidates.”
A portrait of Maksim Bahdanovich, a famous Belarusian poet, is tattooed on a man’s arm. The tattoo also includes a stanza from Bahdanovic’s poem, “Pahonia”.
The steeds fly and fly, onward straining,
Silver harness resounds in assault,
Pahonia of Old Lithuania,
None can conquer them, stay them or halt.
(translated by Vera Rich)
Another popular tattoo sketch was horsemen of the Great Duchy of Lithuania against the background of Belarusian national ornaments.
Ales Pushkin is well-known Belarusian artist, who also draws sketches for tattoos. Among Pushkin’s tattoo clients is Ales Bialiatski, a well-known political activist and a prisoner of conscience, released in 2014. Pushkin himself is no stranger to political activism, and was detained and arrested multiple times, including for bringing a wheelbarrow with manure to the office of President Lukashenka in 1999.
According to Pushkin, the trend of using national symbolic in tattoos goes back to the 2003 music project celebrating the work of Belarusian writer Uladzimir Karatkevich. A brochure with tattoo sketches on the themes Karatkevich’s work was prepared for the project. “The brochure came out, the tattoos became popular, but the CD with the music was never made,” Pushkin said.
About the author: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna region, he received a history degree from Belarusian State Pedagogical University.