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Kurapaty restaurant divides business, state and civil society activists

Since 31 May protesters have blocked the entrance to a recently opened restaurant outside Minsk. Built in Kurapaty, 50 metres from a memorial to victims of Stalin’s repressions during 1937-1940, the ‘Poedem, Poedim’ restaurant has caused heated debates. Conflict...

Since 31 May protesters have blocked the entrance to a recently opened restaurant outside Minsk. Built in Kurapaty, 50 metres from a memorial to victims of Stalin’s repressions during 1937-1940, the ‘Poedem, Poedim’ restaurant has caused heated debates.

Conflict quickly erupted between business interests and the values of certain sections of civil society, while the state’s position remains unclear. The owners received permission from officials to build a restaurant near the Kurapaty forest, yet civil society representatives view the construction as morally unjustifiable and strive to preserve the sanctity of the Kurapaty memorial.

The case of the restaurant illustrates a pattern of communication between business, state and civil society in Belarus. As has already happened with the nuclear power plant (NPP) project in Astravec and the reconstruction of the historical Asmalouka district in Minsk, civil society largely remains excluded from the discussion.

Protecting the Kurapaty memorial

The public learned about Kurapaty in the late 1980s, when excavations discovered evidence of a burial site for Stalin’s repressions victims. Zianon Pazniak, then the head of the Belarusian National Front political party, led the push for the installation of a memorial and fought for the right to publicly recognise Kurapaty as a mass execution site. The memorial in Kurapaty, which takes the form of wooden crosses, has become a traditional place for honouring ancestors, especially among the Belarusian opposition.

Several times Kurapaty has come to public attention because of construction projects. The first scandal occurred in the early 2000s when authorities approved the construction of a ring road on the territory of the memorial. Dozens of activists camped out in tents so as to prevent access for construction machines to Kurapaty.

The restaurant "Poedem, Poedim" by the memorial Kurapaty. Source: TUT.BY

The restaurant ‘Poedem, Poedim’ by the memorial in Kurapaty. Source: TUT.BY

A few years ago, the construction of an entertainment centre, ‘Bulbash Hall’, commenced beside the memorial. Activists protested against the ‘inappropriate’ name and lobbied for a change of the centre’s name as well as a ban for its construction. The protests reached the prosecutor’s office and construction on the site ruled as illegal. However, in 2012, the Minsk city executive committee diminished the protection zone in Kurapaty and construction of the entertainment centre became legal but under a new name –  ‘Poedem, Poedim’.

On 5 June the restaurant ‘Poedem, Poedim’ appeared close by to the Kurapaty memorial. Even before the opening it provoked a strong reaction among politically-active Belarusians. Since 31 May opposition activists have organised a series of protests. A dozen or so protesters blocked the entrance to the restaurant for visitors and chanted against the restaurant’s opening due to its location, 50 metres from the memorial Kurapaty.

Instead of ‘Poedem, Poedim’, defenders of Kurapaty suggest erecting a museum to the victims of Stalin’s purges. On 29 June oppositional activist Zmitser Dashkevich initiated the installation of new wooden crosses but was detained together with two other activists. The situation continues to develop: oppositional activists protest every day. The restaurant owners insist they have bought the territory and own it, but also suggest they could sell the restaurant for construction of a museum as demanded by protesters. The authorities still avoid particular interference in the picket, although they have fined some participants for the blocking the road and detained activists for the planned installation of crosses.  

Divided opinions about the restaurant

Apart from those physically protesting against the restaurant, the opening has provoked strong public criticism from some famous Belarusians. According to the Nobel laureate, Sviatlana Aleksievich, in any other European country hundreds of people would defend a comparable historical site; only Belarusians prove unwilling to take a proactive position. On 24 June, during a lecture in Brooklyn, Zianon Pazniak, the oppositional leader who in the 80s initiated the installation of the current memorial, claimed that the situation might have a Russian trace.

Some have expressed the opinion that the restaurant has little chance to survive economically. Viktar Prakapenia, a famous Belarusian IT entrepreneur, in an interview with dev.by, said that each member of society has a responsibility to avoid visiting the restaurant. Moreover, he believes that the restaurant should be closed by the owners themselves on moral grounds. Jury Zisier, the owner of one of the biggest independent media in Belarus, TUT.by, claims that the restaurant has little chance to survive due to its location close to the only memorial of Stalin’s mass executions in the country.

At the same time, some experts believe the restaurant should continue working. A lawyer, Yury Ziankovich, who wrote about the situation in Kurapaty believes the restaurant owners, state and citizens should compromise and come to a solution on how the restaurant and memorial can be linked together. Ziankovich told Radio Liberty that the restaurant owners bought the territory and preserve the right of ownership and so to turn it into a museum, as protesters demand, someone should buy the property from them.

Business, protesters, state: positions on the restaurant

Despite wide discussion about the restaurant, the authorities hesitate to take a clear position although do demonstrate readiness to negotiate. According to the official response of the general prosecutor’s office, the restaurant did not violate any rules during its construction. However, the prosecutor’s office would review the documents on construction if a visible public concern exists according to Sputnik.by, which cites the prosecutor’s office.

The group of protesters in Kurapaty. Source: svaboda.org

The group of protesters in Kurapaty. Source: svaboda.org

Additionally, on 20 June, Pavel Seviarynets, the leader of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, negotiated with the Ministry of Culture. According to the activists, officials referring to the legal documents seem confused and still have no clear solution to the situation. Although the negotiations have barely simplified the situation, the talks between the opposition and the state on the issue show that authorities recognise an alternative point of view exists.

Similar situations have already emerged in Belarus. The Astravets NPP project led to mass public discussion due to the absence of proper negotiations between state, business and civil society stakeholders. In yet another example, since 2014 the plan to reconstruct the historical Asmalouka district  of Minsk resulted in protests because of the lack of public hearings.

The situation with the restaurant in Kurapaty shows how civil society, business and the state interact in Belarus. On the one hand, the owners have received a right to construct a restaurant on the territory. On the other hand, the construction by the important historical site has never been discussed in public hearings. That raises the question of decision making in similar situations in the future. Excluding the civil society from the business-state communications, the Belarusian government will continue to face backlashes similar to the one in Kurapaty.

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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