Mahiloŭ Region – the Homeland of Lukashenka
On 6 July Aliaksandr Lukashenka visited a celebration in his village of origin Aleksandryja in Mahilioŭ region. There he admitted that he very much looked forward to visiting his native land during his pressing schedule. “I travelled around the world, but have always wished to come back to my own land”, he said.
In Belarus politics, Mahiloŭ region is associated with its most famous figure – the present ruler of Belarus. Here, he spent his youth and gained his first governing experience in administrative and agriculture management positions. During the early years of his presidency, he promoted his fellow Mahilou residents to high offices in the government, as they were the only people he could trust then.
Apparently, the region has greatly influenced Lukashenka’s identity and politics. It lies in the east of Belarus on the border with Russia, and is, for all appearances, the least Belarusian-speaking in the country. The region always shows up as the the strongest support base for Lukashenka during presidential elections.
Mahiloŭ suffered greatly from the Charnobyl disaster and today around 30% of its territory is still contaminated with radiation.
The Ruler’s Home
Mahiloŭ region stands out among other Belarusian regions – it is the native region of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. He was born in Kopyś village on the border of the Vitsebsk and Mahiloŭ regions and spent his early life in the village Aleksandryja. He studied at the Mahiloŭ Pedagogical Institute and Horki Agrarian Academy, also based in this region.
His early worklife proceeded from here – he was a secretary of the communist youth organisation Komsomol in the town of Škloŭ, and then went on to head several collective farms. Here, he started his political career as a deputy of Škloŭ constituency to the BSSR representative body – the Supreme Soviet.
Lukashenka cares very much for his native village Aleksandryja. The village has received huge investments in recent years and as a result, has a decent infrastructure. Apart from a club and a library, common for Belarusian villages, it has a hotel and a sports complex. The welfare of local people rose considerably thanks to the rich collective farm that was installed here. Local authorities pay a great deal of attention to this village and maintain an image of a model settlement, as Lukashenka has special feelings for it and could get really angry if something goes wrong here. Young A.Lukashenka
The Mahiloŭ Clan
In his early years of presidency, when the regime was still weak, Lukashenka suspected everyone of disloyalty. Therefore he used to appoint to high positions those people he knew well and who he had worked with – his countryside compatriots from the Mahiloŭ region.
One of them, Ivan Ciciankoŭ, a notorious figure in Belarusian political history, served as one of the outspoken suppporters for Lukashenka’s electoral campaign in 1994 and afterwards was appointed as the head of President’s Property Administration, the agency which runs a number of state-owned businesses. The companies which President’s Property Administration created under Ciciankoŭ had unprecedented privileges and, allegedly, even operated by illegal schemes. This issue in particular concerns primarily import operations, where the companies received exclusive rights.
Ciciankoŭ became the enemy of nationally-oriented Belarusians when after the 1995 referendum, which changed the state flag of Belarus, he personally removed and torn the red-white-red flag from the roof of the House of Government and put his signature on each piece. The pieces were subsequently sold as a rare item. However, Ciciankou did not stay long in the Belarusian system and already in 2000 turned up as the head of a department in the Russian gas company “Itera”.
Another of Lukashenka’s college fellows, Uladzimir Kanaploŭ served as Lukashenka’s aid from 1991-1994, then held a seat as a member of parliament and the speaker several times. He also retired from high politics and today heads the federation of handball, which also turns out to be a rather good position in scheme of the modern Belarusian system.
Aliaksandr Radźkoŭ, also a representative of the Mahiliou clan, has stayed in the game and currently holds the position of deputy head of the Presidential Administration. Earlier, he served as the Minister of education beginning in 2003. He is the leader of “Belaja Ruś” – the pro-Lukashenka civil association which was intended as a party of power like Putin’s United Russia, but Lukashenka has not yet granted it such a mandate.
The President’s Electorate
Mahilioŭ appears the most Russified region of Belarus – only less than 20% of its population speaks Belarusian at home. The region has always been the major supporter of the homegrown Lukashenka, which can be seen from the map below.
The head of Mahiloŭ region, Piotr Rudnik, presents a rare example of a high official with foreign education – he has a degree from Dresden Technical University. He made his career at various industrial enterprises in Mahiloŭ (city) and in 2008 was appointed head of the region.
Mahilioŭ is one of the two regions most contaminated with radiation as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Almost 30% of its territory today still has various degree of contamination. Around 7% of population of the region had to move to other regions of Belarus because of the contamination. Many villages were completely buried underground because of the high levels of radiation.
Babrujsk – the Jewish Centre of Belarus
Babrujsk is the second largest city in the region and a big industrial centre. Its claim to fame is that of being the most criminalized city in Belarus according to official statistics. In the 19th and early 20th century, Babrujsk was one of the centers of the Belarusian jewish community, who made up around 70% of its population. It had 32 synagogues and many Jewish organisations. Although World War II and postwar emigration drastically decreased the role of Jews in local life, it remains perhaps the most well-known Jewish city of Belarus. Synagogues, Jewish clubs, schools and newspapers still exist here.
Babrujsk and its jewish legacy appeared in the middle of a scandal in 2007, when Lukashenka at a press conference pronounced an anti-Semitic phrase: “If you were in Babrujsk, you saw how it looks like. It is scary, it is like a pigsty. It was largely a Jewish city, and you know how Jews care about the places they live in.” This speech resulted in the condemnation of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which summoned the Belarusian ambassador to express their concerns.
Apparently, Mahiliou region, its culture and identity deeply influenced the phenomenon of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Unlike his 1994 election rival, Belarusian-speaking pro-European nationalist Zianon Paźniak, Lukashenka presents himself as a product of a more Sovietised region of East Belarus. After winning the elections, he spread this culture to the whole of Belarus which strongly damaged the process of nation-building in the newly independent state.
Bearing the Cost of Teddy Bears
One year ago a Swedish PR agency bombed Belarus with teddy bears to support democracy in the country.
Last month, the authorities stated that they had completed an investigation of the incident and closed the criminal investigation. However, the debate of whether this action did more good than harm to Belarusians continues.
Some praise the Swedes as heroes while others consider them irresponsible provocateurs pushing Belarus towards Russia. If similar performances will be organised in the future, they must strengthen the position of civil society in Belarus, rather than expose it to the regime and weaken the image of the West in Belarus.
How Did It Happen
On 4 July 2012, agents of the Swedish PR company Studio Total illegally crossed the Belarusian border in a single-engine aircraft. The aircraft bombed Belarus with 800 teddy bears, holding notes in support of democracy.
At first the Belarusian Ministry of Defense denied the very fact of illegal border crossing. The regime`s propagandist Vadzim Hihin wrote a long article arguing that the Swedish PR people did not cross the Belarusian border.
In response, the Studio Total sent Belarus Digest and other media links to the full video of the teddy bear landing. The authorities had no other choice but to start a criminal case and to recognize that the Belarusian air defense has holes in its system. Military expert Alexander Alesin said that having such holes can be especially dangerous for a country that is building a nuclear power plant. Instead of teddy bears there could have been explosives to be used against nuclear reactor.
Although the teddy bear stunt has become a significant event in Belarusian media, the intentions of the Swedish PR people remain unclear. The Swedish company failed to publish, as promised, a report of the cost of the stunt. They also did not name the sponsors of the teddy bear stunt. These facts bring the independence of the Swedes into question.
It would be unfair to blame the Swedish PR people in all Belarusian problems when the main blame should lie with the state authorities. However, Total Studio`s actions brought Belarus more harm than good.
Lukashenka sacked a head of the Border Committee and the Air Forces. The Belarusian military court sentenced an ensign of the border service to two years in prison for not reporting the crossing of the Swedish aircraft through the Belarusian border.
Lukashenka`s regime arrested photographer Suryapin and real estate agent Bashamyrau and placed them in a KGB detention centre, the so-called “amerikanka” and kept them in detention for a month. Suryapin was the first one who took photos of the teddy bears on the ground and Bashamyrau provided housing in Belarus for the Swedish PR people.
Also, the Belarusian authorities fully used the teddy bears landing to reinforce its anti-Western rhetoric. The Swedish PR agency has put the Western countries in an uncomfortable situation where the citizens of Sweden violated both national and international law. Thus, the West has become the “bad guy” in bilateral relations.
Also, the regime did not extend the accreditation of the Swedish Ambassador to Belarus and closed the Swedish Embassy in Minsk. Belarusians appreciate Stefan Eriksson and for his support of the civil society as well as his perfect command of the Belarusian language. The Swedish Embassy has not resumed its work in Minsk yet. The Estonian embassy performs its visa functions.
It seems that Russia used the teddy bear landing to increase the pressure on the Belarusian authorities in the sphere of military integration. Soon, Russia will open a new air base in Lida, a town in western Belarus close to Lithuania from where the Swedes flew in.
Was the Action Worth It?
The cost of the teddy bear landing to Belarus turned out to be rather high and caused a debate about the appropriateness of such performances among the Belarusian opposition. The Belarusian civil society was divided in their opinion on the teddy bear stunt.
The opposition web-site Charter’97 awarded Studio Total a prize for their courage in the human rights struggle in Belarus. But the leader of the Belarusian opposition during the early 90s Zianon Pazniak said that the action brought nothing but harm, and called the Swedes provocateurs. Former editor of influential Belarusian daily “Nasha Niva” Siarhei Dubavets wrote that only Russia benefited from the action.
Despite the noise that the action caused in the Belarusian independent media it is difficult to say that it had a significant meaning for the Belarusian society. The reasons remain banal. First, the political apathy of Belarusian society. Secondly, civil society has not created an information tool that would reach all Belarusians. Without the appropriate media design, this action became another dry shot.
Will the Teddy Bear Stunt Happen Again?
Studio Total promises new performances in support of democracy in Belarus. It seems that not only a handful of PR people, but human rights activists from around the world who will use the World Hockey Championship in Belarus next year in order to draw attention to the problems of political prisoners or the absence of elections in the country.
The international media’s attention will focus on Belarus for a short time, so democratic activists will use this opportunity. Western journalists and human rights activists will use this opportunity as well.
However, the new actions should be different from the teddy bear landing. The organisers must anticipate the consequences of the action. The police would arrest local Belarusians for the performance rather than the organisers who could enjoy the results of their actions in a safe place, away from the Belarusian security services.
Furthermore, any actions should strengthen the position of Belarusian pro-democracy forces rather than weaken them and show Western activists as criminals. Lukashenka`s propaganda machine knows how to exploit tje actions of Western activists and divert the media discourse from human rights violations in the country to provocations of Western citizens.
Western activists often find it easier to tease and ridicule Lukashenka and his mates from abroad, rather than implementing projects for Belarusians with lasting consequences going beyond annoying the regime.