Cycling As a Threat to the Belarusian Regime
On 17 August, Minsk cycling fans gathered to make an unusual ride – they agreed via social network to dress in 1950s style clothes. Around 50 people participated in the event, and it even drew the attention of Belarusian media.
Yet on 2 September police summoned Iryna Bijnik, the organiser of the ride. The police composed a record of evidence and the same day the trial occurred – Iryna received a fine for organising it.
It came as a surprise to her and her friends when they learned that she had violated the law on mass actions, amended after 2011 silent protests. According to it, any public announcement of collective action (including the Internet) should receive the authorities’ permission. Now, a company of friends that agreed to have a drink on Facebook can theoretically be accused of breaking the law.
Events with similar outcomes happened in Vitsebsk and Brest earlier in the summer. They indicate that the regime still perceives organised citizens, even apolitical, as a threat to its stability.
The Limits of Absurd in Regime Security
The 2011 summer appeared to be a quite nervous time for the Belarusian regime. With the Arab Spring in the background, it experienced the one of its most serious economic collapses and the widespread dissatisfaction of the public with state policy. This led to mass protests, which took place in many cities of Belarus and received the name “silent protests”, because people clapped hands instead of shouting slogans, which authorities could qualify as a violation of mass political actions and therefore initiate legal proceedings.
The authorities quickly realised this loophole in the law and in early autumn of 2011 the notorious Minister of Internal Affairs Anatol Kuliašoŭ presented amendments to the law before the Belarusian pocket parliament. The parliament announced that its sessions were closed for media and adopted the amendments in one day, as hardly any discussions are possible when it comes to the regime’s security.
According to the amendments, organisers of an event cannot publicly invite people to participate in it before they receive permission of local authorities. Importantly, this concerns any mass gatherings regardless of their aims – political, entertainment, or any other. The law also extended the list of places where mass actions cannot take place, and stipulates how those places, where organisers who have received permission, must have surveillance devices, fences and checkpoints.
Civil society took the amendments as a further restriction on civil liberties of Belarusian citizens, although the authorities rarely apply it since its adoption. However, in the summer and autumn of 2013 several cases of its ridiculous application finally took place.
Collective Cycling Prohibited
On 17 August, Minsk cycling fans gathered to make an unusual ride – they agreed to dress in 1950s style via social network. The event drew the attention of Belarusian media, which reported around 50 participants. Iryna Bijnik, who organised the ride in social networks, said they did not plan any particular number of participants. All interested people could join the ride.
After two weeks, Iryna unexpectedly had to visit the police. The same day the court imposed on Iryna a fine of BYR 2m ($220).
The police initiated the case because one policeman noticed the information for the gathering on the web after it had already happened. No policeman witnessed or made a report of the live event on the day it happened.
The head of Minsk cycling society Jaŭhien Charužy considers this fine a dangerous precedent. “Collective cycling takes places almost every day in Minsk, and up to 250 people take part in it. It is often spontaneously organised and it is hard to define the organiser”, he says. Now, as such cases are starting to happen, the police can interpret any gathering of people as an unauthorised action and therefore declare it as illegal.
No Candy Showers Too
It turned out that not only the Minsk authorities see collective cycling as a potentially dangerous action. A similar case took place in Vitsebsk on 5 September. Uladzimir Bulaŭski had already organised two cycling tours around Vitsebsk for all interested people and was going to hold another one. He arranged the meeting on a social network and provided his contact information, but the authorities did not contact him on.
Instead, on the day of the tour the cyclers found a number of policemen in the place of meeting. The police fined people right on the spot and even those who had no intention to participate received fines. Some people were detained for “absence of rear-view mirrors, bell and flashing lights”. Bulaŭski says the cyclers will definitely fix all necessary technical issues if the problem lies indeed there. But it seems not to be the case.
Earlier in July, another curious happening related to the law on mass actions occurred in Brest. During the opening of a new mall, the company decided to surprise the people and organise a candy shower. It announced that at the opening ceremony they will throw a ton of candy from the roof of the building.
The organisers requested an action of 500 participants at local authorities for this occasion. Instead, 5,000 people came while only 6 policemen were sent to keep order. The police ordered not to throw the candy to avoid a stampede, but the organisers ignored their orders. As a result, the police initiated a case against them for breaking the law on mass actions.
The Fear of Organisation
Authorities try to explain that a public announcement in social networks can be dangerous, because it can gather an inestimable number of people and the situation can get out of control. Some officials understand that permits for daily collective actions of citizens like cycling seems ridiculous, but they have to obey the law and recommend to cooperate with authorities on these matters. For instance, they suggest that people hold their actions under the aegis of local authorities or security services, which do not need permission for such actions.
But the reason behind the actions of authorities appears not to be their concern for the safety of the participants. They simply demonstrate that citizens in Belarus have no right to associate with one another without the state’s approval and control. Such irrational fear of harmless actions like cycling looks like nonsense, but it precisely shows the logic of the regime-society’s current coexistence.
The people in power regard organised citizens not as partners in the resolution of public problems, but as a potential danger to regime stability. Therefore maintaining an atomised society remains a priority of internal security in Belarus.
Getting to Know Belarus: Guide for Expats in Minsk
Establishing oneself as a foreigner in a new city can be a challenge, not only because of cultural and linguistic barriers, but also due to social norms.
It’s often easier to meet and befriend fellow expatriates or members of the international community than it is to blend into the local crowd. Of course, some cities have a much larger international community than others, and, as it were, Minsk is not one of these cities.
The international community in Belarus is very small, consisting of diplomats, foreign language teachers and students, missionaries and volunteers, and some people who simply love Belarus, coming from the United Kingdom, The United States, Germany, China and some of the other former Soviet States (although in Belarus, these may not be considered foreigners). Most of these foreign visitors are located in Minsk; there are hardly any foreigners in other parts of the country.
Though the situation seems bleak for those wishing to establish a social circle in Minsk, there is hope. In spite of the limited community and closed social structure it is becoming easier to develop a network of people in Belarus. Thanks to a burgeoning vibrant international community and the establishment of a number of youth social and educational organisations, like Fialta, Lamora, Dom Fishera, and the Open Ultimate Frisbee Club, Minsk is starting to give a more positive impression of its future as an international city.
Becoming Involved with the Right Crowd
To become involved with the right crowd of Belarusians, one must have a deep understanding of the Belarusian culture and some of the languages. After spending a great deal of time with colleagues, you might be invited for tea or dinner at their home. Even when a relationship has developed so far, it can hardly be called a friendship. Eastern European culture sets the bar for “friends” very high, and newcomers, particularly foreigners, are often at the bottom of this social food chain, labelled as eternal acquaintances.
One solution to this predicament is to simply seek out the other foreigners, who are easily spotted in the many cafes and bars in Minsk’s city centre. Though the bar culture, as it is understood in Western Europe or the United States, is quite weak, there are several places where connecting with other internationals has become quite easy. Such popular cafes include Tapas Bar (Internationalnaya vul.), News Café (Karla Marksa), and Gambrinus (Ploshcha Svabody).
Another solution is to seek out some sort of organisation or group that brings together people of similar interests. It is difficult to compare Belarusian cities to some of its neighbours in Russia and Ukraine, especially for foreigners. However, there are some niches emerging for the active expatriate looking for something to become involved with during their time in Minsk.
Though it may be hidden in plain sight, Fialta is definitely worth the search. This Youth Education Centre, no more than a two-minute-walk from the centrally located Red Church, hosts discussion groups, language clubs, and other events on a regular basis, all for free! A project of the European Volunteer Service, the centre hosts three to four volunteers from around Europe each year to help conduct operations and organise meetings. The atmosphere is casual and welcomes students of all ages to come in and learn something new, from the basics of German language to new yoga postures to the impressions of an American living in Minsk.
One of the most useful and popular meetings is the weekly Russian for Foreigners class. Once or twice a week, what seems like half of Minsk’s international community gathers at Fialta to practise their basic Russian skills. While some students are more advanced than others, the encouraging attitude of all those involved creates the perfect environment for learning and laughing over tea and cookies.
Before the new metro stops opened on the Moskouskaya line in November of 2012, it seemed nearly impossible to get to the House of Culture Lamora. This small, innocuous cabin in the Grushauka neighbourhood of Minsk hosts open cultural events and gatherings on a regular basis for anyone who is interested in attending. Advertised through a carefully maintained Facebook group, one need only contact the administrator to organise an event of one’s own.
Some days, the floor of the cabin will be covered in pieces of paper and magazine clippings for a Christmas Card making workshop, other days the yard is arranged to make a make-shift stage for an outdoor concert or dance performance. On any day, you will find a group of culturally open Belarusians willing and able to tell about their inter-cultural experiences. Find more info at
Dom Fishera – the Anti-Café
Cafes as most of the world knows them are places where you take a seat and pay for a coffee or a snack while you spend time with friends. The Anti-café Dom Fishera takes that idea and turns it upside-down. Upon walking in, give your name at the at the door, and pay by the minute for your time spent there, helping yourself to unlimited coffee, tea, cookies, games and fun for the length of your stay.
Located near Park Chaliuskinsev, it’s a convenient space to spend time with friends, if you’re looking to get out of the house, but not necessarily looking to sit down in a real café, or walk around in the cold winter weather. Dom Fishera quickly became popular after it opened in September of 2012 and, along with its usual services, hosted a variety of events, including several all-night-movie-nights and handmade craft fairs on a regular basis.
Apart from the above, Dom Fishera is also a good place to start a night out. Friday nights are open board game nights, where tea and mafia are the perfect prologue to a night of partying with friends. What’s more, people are more than welcoming when it comes to such games, and you may find yourself playing charades (or krokodil) with some complete strangers! Check them out on Facebook.
Minsk Open Ultimate Frisbee
A popular game around the world was finally brought to Minsk about two years ago. Ivan came to Belarus from China with two goals in mind: to learn Russian and to teach Frisbee. Since he started the Minsk Open Ultimate Frisbee group, it seems like hundreds of young people have visited the field on the Svislach by the Minsk Stella to play Frisbee on Sunday afternoons, and sometimes other days of the week, too! Although the game can be competitive, the group welcomes new players all the time, and encourages beginners to jump into the game and to the cheerful Russian and English banter.
What makes the Ultimate Frisbee group unique is its tenacity. The group’s leaders send encouraging messages by Facebook before every game to remind players of the time and place (which hardly ever changes) and also includes a fun bit of Frisbee inspiration, like "Carpe diem — it means grab the Frisbee." Whether in the sunny springtime or in the brutal rain or snow, the Frisbee group is always ready to play, and with rotating teams, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be on the winning team once in a while!
Towards a More Diverse Minsk
It takes courage to come to Belarus as a foreigner, but it takes even more courage to make friends in what some may consider the stifling social environment of Minsk. Use this courage wisely, take advantage of any and all invitations that will put you in unique situations, and attend any event that may catch your interest. Most importantly: maintain contact with people who interest you, whether they are Belarusian or foreign. You will quickly find that all the cool people in Belarus seem to know each other!
While not as laid back and social as some other European cities, Minsk is, in fact, European. Two factors are quickly bringing about a strong international community in Belarus: the youth’s interest in all things international, and a growing population of foreigners coming to Belarus. As these interests grow, Belarus will continue to become a stronger and more diverse Eastern European nation.
Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.