Homel Region: Epicentre of Troubles that Bore Celebrities
In the beginning of July, an unpleasant incident occurred in Homiel city, the centre of Homiel region. A 23 year old boxer beat up seven people on the street, including three women.
The aggressor stated that he did this out of disrespect for alcoholics – some of the people he beat were drinking alcohol in the street. However, it turned out that he was himself drunk since the morning time.
Such cases are not uncommon for the Homiel region. It always had a reputation of highly criminal area of Belarus. Homiel region is also known for high drug use and related to it number of HIV-infected people.
The region has another long-term problem – it suffered most from radioactive contamination after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Along with the Mahiliou region, it serves as the main base of support of the Lukashenka electorate.
Yet Homiel has produced many positive figures, such as Kirk Douglas and Maria Sharapova, whose families descend from here.
The Epicentre of Chernobyl Disaster
The Homiel region has the second largest population after the Minsk region and ethnically is 88% percent Belarusian, an average number for Belarus. Along with another region of East Belarus, Mahiliou, it serves as the main electoral base of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Its current governor, Uladzimir Dvornik presents a case of divergence from usual personnel policy of Lukashenka. If previously he tended to appoint residents of other regions to the post of governor to prevent the formation of regional clans, now it appears this rule does not always work and he has changed tactics.
Dvornik comes from the Homiel region and earlier occupied a post in the Mozyr District Executive Committee and also served as senator to the Council of the Republic, a representative body in the pocket of the regime. However, Dvornik presents a typical case of a governor regarding his profession – he has dealt with agriculture most of his life.
Economically, the region has a well-developed industrial base with around 300 industrial plants. Among them stand such giants as the Mazyr refinery and Belarusian metallurgical plant in Zlobin. Uncommon for Belarus, however, the region posesses mineral deposits and even has some oilfields.
Homiel region received the largest amount of radiation of all Belarusian region after the Chernobyl disaster. The region’s name became synonymous with contaminated lands in Belarus. The southeast of the region remains a so-called alienation zone, where a special regime exists and the movement of people is highly restricted.
As is true in other regions of Belarus, civil activity in Homiel remains scarce and is concentrated in its regional center, Homiel city. The oldest local civil association, Talaka, has been in existance since 1986. It became the center of the rennaisance of Belarusian culture after the USSR’s collapse. Today, its activists continue to study local history and culture and defend its architectural heritage.
Despite the difficulty of work of NGOs in Belarus, some initiatives still appear from time to time. The civil initiative “Stop Drinking – Start Living” is a recent case of youth engagement in civil action. It arrived on the scene in 2011, when Homiel resident Zmicier Karaskou decided to raise the problem of alcoholism among Belarusians.
The activists of this initiative try to draw attention of the local population and authorities to the problem by creating informational materials, advocating anti-alcohol policies and by organising amateur sports competitions. As Zmicier says, local authorities tend to ignore their activities. The authorities cannot comprehend that citizens can organise themselves without a state order to resolve societial problems and, in the end, they perceive this civil society project as opposition activity.
The Homeland of World Celebrities and Losers
A number of world-famous personalities descend from Homiel region. Among them is Herschel and Bryna Danielovitch, the parents of american actor Kirk Douglas (originally called Issur Danielovitch). The jewish family fled to the United States in 1908 to escape the persecution of jews. Subsequently, their son Issur became one of the most famous actors of Hollywood’s “golden age” and is now ranked 17th in the list of the greatest male screen legends by the American Film Institute. Kirk, for his part, also became the father of Michael Douglas, another great actor of the 20th century.
One more celebrity, currently world No. 2 in tennis, Maria Sharapova also has roots in Homiel. Her parents lived here until 1986, when the Chernobyl disaster occurred. They decided to move to Siberia in Russia to escape the contamination that took root in the region. Afterwards, her farther did his best to develop his daughter’s athletic talents. She entered a tennis academy in Florida and eventually became the world’s no. 1 female singles tennis player in 2005.
A more unsuccessful story of Homiel-born celebrity is Andrei Gromyko, in 1957-1985 a foreign minister of the USSR and in 1985-1988 Head of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Gromyko is best known for his position in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the moment when the Cold War was on the verge of a global nuclear war. He refused to compromise during the crisis and the Soviet leadership, with the help of its intelligence services, had to use other channels to contact the US administration. The sides finally resolved the conflict for the good of all living beings on earth, but the actions of Gromyko are considered one of the greatest diplomacy failures in human history.
Drug and the HIV Epidemic
Svetlahorsk, a city in the Homiel region, today looks pretty much like other Belarusian towns. But in 1990s it experienced the largest outbreak of drug use, and a corresponding HIV epidemic, in Belarusian history. The 40-year old city, created around several industrial plants, faced these problems right after USSR collapse. It lay on the route of a prominent drug trafficking route and getting drugs was not a problem here.
Until the outbreak, little was known about HIV in Belarus, as authorities officially registered only a hundred carriers of the disease in the whole nation. When they started to check the rate of HIV-infection in Svetlahorsk, a thousand carriers were identified, which indeed was a shock for the whole country.
As Jauheni Spevakou, a former addict and HIV carrier, now an activist of several anti-drug campaigns, says “The problem has not disappeared although visually there is no sign of the former disasters. The drugs and the ways of their production have changed, but the use itself persists.”
As for statistics, the Homiel region holds first place in the number of HIV-infected people, with a total of 6,548 people since 1987. This number is three times higher than in Minsk, who has two million inhabitants. In Svetlahorsk alone, this number has reached 3,070. After drug consumption numbers dropped in the last decade, sexual contact has served as the primary reason for spread of the disease.
Compared to other Belarusian regions, Homiel has suffered a great deal more, from the Chernobyl disaster to its criminal ridden history and disorder, not to mention its HIV epidemic. The region remains under the watchful eye of the authorities, as it requires a large amount of financial and human resources to tackle its problems.
In the future, it could benefit from European Union membership and use of its structural funds which could help to develop resources and infrastructure in these problematic regions, as well as receive vast technical assistance. So far, the Belarusian regime has chosen to fight its problems with the money lured in from Russia. But the effectiveness and sustainability of this approach looks rather doubtful.
Belarusian Opposition: Revolutionists vs. Evolutionists
On 15 July Alexander Milinkevich and Andrei Sannikau participated in a round-table discussion on Belarus in Warsaw. Although they both belong to the Belarusian opposition, their views on how to improve the situation in Belarus are not the same.
The leader of European Belarus Andrei Sannikau and the leader of the Movement for Freedom Alexander Milinkevich advocate different approaches when it comes to sanctions, participation in the elections and dialogue with the authorities. Milinkevich often says that if there is no dialogue between the regime and the EU, Belarus will lose its independence. Sannikau strongly argues in favour of the imposition of sanctions and accuses the EU of being too soft.
The first camp (“revolutionists”) believes that the international pressure on the government can change the regime. Therefore, the West should necessarily impose sanctions on Belarus and limit all contacts with the officials. According to the second camp (“evolutionists”), changes in Belarus will come from the bottom upwards, a more evolutionary approach and focus on the grassroots work with society. Instead of sanctions, this camp believes in Belarus’ engagement with Europe, including its officials on various levels.
Participation in the elections
Dialogue with the authorities
Sanctions put pressure and punish the Belarusian leadership
Participation in elections remains a complicity in crime
The EU should limit contacts with the authorities not to legitimise them
Sanctions hurt regular people and push Belarus towards Russia
The opposition should participate in elections to reach a wider audience of Belarusians
The EU should talk to the regime after the release of political prisoners
Sanctions, Boycott, No Dialogue
The “revolutionists” camp supports the imposition of sanctions against Belarusian companies and individuals. the Charter97 web site remains the main media instrument of this camp.
This camp believes that the sanctions put pressure on the regime in Minsk and is the only language which the regime understands well. By terminating the trade of oil products and potash fertilisers with Belarus, as well as the freezing of bank accounts and cutting off communication will create the necessary pressure to release political prisoners and the eventual fall of the regime.
This camp believes that in today’s Belarus, there is no need to participate in elections, and the opposition taking part in them have become partners in crime. In 2012 this opposition camp boycotted the parliamentary elections. Also, this group boycotted the previous parliamentary elections in 2008, but took part in the presidential campaign in 2010.
The revolutionists see no sense in holding a dialogue with the regime of Lukashenka. In their view, the dialogue only strengthens and legitimises the regime in Minsk and is immoral.
Engagement of Belarus and Grassroots Work
The evolutionists argue against economic sanctions towards Belarus. The For Freedom movement of Milinkevich, the Tell the Truth campaign and Party of the Belarusian Popular Front belong to the “evolutionist” camp. These organisations also support the recent “People`s Referendum”.
According to this camp, economic sanctions can be imposed only if the Belarusian opposition gains broad support in society. Otherwise, the sanctions would only increase Russia’s political and economic grip on the country without strengthening the opposition.
This camp believes that economic sanctions could not bring about any real benefits for Belarus, and dialogue remains more efficient. Consequently, EU economic sanctions against Belarus will lead to the isolation of the country: the authorities will not release political prisoners and the general level of fear in society towards the regime will increase, while support for the opposition and any pro-European mood will itself decline.
The “evolutionists” support the opposition’s participation in the elections. In their opinion, in today’s Belarus the opposition should use all available legal means at its disposal to communicate with Belarusians. If the opposition fails to participate, then, as their logic has it, it will simply become invisible to most Belarusians.
Alexander Milinkevich was the single candidate from the opposition who ran in 2006, but refused to participate in the 2010 elections because of the lack of strategy within the opposition. However, he took part in the parliamentary election of 2012, but the authorities did not register him as a candidate.
How to Find Common Ground
While these ways of thinking remain dominant in the Belarusian opposition today, some politicians may have a position that coincides with the opinion of one camp at one point, and with the opinion of the other camp at the other. For example, a political prisoner and former presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich opposes any dialogue with the regime, but at the same time feels that it would be good for the opposition should take part in the elections.
Both opposition camps agree that the EU should simplify the visa regime, introduce scholarships and the release of political prisoners. However, their tactics on certain issues remain mutually exclusive.
It is normal that political forces disagree on certain things. But if the opposition cannot work out a common strategy, it should at least reach a mutual understanding to avoid public attacks against each other. The self-destruction of the opposition is part of the Belarusian authorities’ plan for remaining in control. If the opposition reaches such an agreement, it would break the authorities’ stranglehold on politics.
Instead of focusing on how to appear more intelligent and principled by criticising other opponents of Lukashenka, the opposition should think how to garner wider support from Belarusian society and achieve practical goals. The West should also contribute to improving the culture of respecting the views of others within the opposition. This can become a long-lasting contribution to democracy building in Belarus.