Punishing Citizen Journalism: A New Trend in Belarus?
On 12 August 2013 Ruslan Mirzoeu, an ordinary worker from Minsk was arrested for making a short provocative movie, ridiculing the life of socially deprived people. A couple of other cases of pressuring individuals for producing videos with social criticism have followed since then.
The Belarusian government resisted attempts to undermine its “social stability” myth, but these incidents will likely not lead to a new wave of harsher authoritarianism. The current regime will not punish people for simply any kind of citizen journalism and internet-activism.
Revealing an Unpleasant Reality
Ruslan Mirzoeu, an ex-drug addict, serving his term of restrained freedom (akin to house arrest) for theft, has become famous among Belarusian Internet users after he shot a series of short movies about ordinary working days at his machine-building plant.
These movies were full of cursing, workers’ complaints, pictures of horrible working conditions and general gloomy atmosphere. However, funny comments and interviews with workers made these videos rather entertaining.
The management of Ruslan’s plant made him leave his job under threat of “severe measures” to be taken against me if he continued with his videos. This did not stop Ruslan. He shot another movie about his own neighbourhood Kurasoushchyna, showing the ugly side of urban life: street fights, people drinking, taking drugs etc. As Ruslan later confessed, he faked some of the stories.
This time the police paid attention to his work. With state TV cameras in the courtroom, Ruslan was sentenced to seven days of administrative arrest for hooliganism (disorderly conduct), charges that were presented as if he himself cursed in public places and disturbed the passers-by.
The state TV newscasters covering the trial said something unimaginable in such a democratic state: “The prosecutors do not conceal that the true reason of his arrest is not public cursing: “One cannot deserve to have such popularity by manipulating social problems” – said Pavel Radionov, the prosecutor.
In other words, the state representative openly admitted to arresting a man for publicly showing a bad image of the Belarusian society.
An Alarming Trend
This story could have been explained as the casual excess and abuse of power of some second-rate official, which certainly somtimes happens in Belarus (for instance – prohibition of Press Photo album annual contest for extremism). But it fell in line with several other recent cases of pressure on people who also shot amateur videos that are unpleasant for the state.
On 6 August blogger and social activist from Svyatlahorsk, a district centre in the Homel region, Henadz’ Zhulega shot a luxurious cottage which belongs to the Head of a district on video, commenting on how rich this official was, while his town continues to stagnate. On 17 August, after the video was put online, policemen searched the activist’s home, confiscated his computer and warned him of a possible charge for defamation that could be brought against him.
A physician from Vitebsk (a regional centre in the north of Belarus), Ihar Pasnou, has recorded a number of public video addresses to the Vitebsk region’s governor. He harshly criticised local hospitals’ management and health care officials, in particular, for misspending funds.
In December 2012 Dr Pasnou lost his job but continued recording his video messages. On 16 August 2013 he informed journalists that he was put to a mental hospital after being threatened to be forced to go there. He refused be treated. On 19 August the doctors at the mental hospital took away his cell phone.
However different the described cases may seem, they indicate a relatively new trend in Belarusian politics: authorities are beginning to approach internet activism, blogging and social criticism by means of citizen journalism as a legitimate target for suppression.
A number of the provisions in the legislation enable such persecution. In addition to the previously mentioned hooliganism and defamation offences, often used by authoritarian governments for repressions, the Belarusian Criminal Code contains specific clauses for such cases.
Articles 369 and 369-1 (“An Insult of the Authority” and “Discrediting the Republic of Belarus”) remain two of the most criticised norms of the Criminal Code. Although the second clause requires “reporting false data about political, economic <…> situation in the Republic of Belarus or its citizens’ legal status to the foreign or international organisation”, Belarusian courts and police interpret the law broadly when it concerns politics.
For instance, in 2011 the court in the town of Mazyr’ fined local activist Mihail Karatkevich for announcing a mass rally on his social network account, having accused him of “unlawfully organising a massive public event”. In 2012 two women from Minsk had to pay large fines for a photosession with teddy-bears in the street (recalling the teddy-bear airdrop). The court accused them of “unlawful picketing”.
Breaking the Sacred Myth and Its Perspectives
These series of these cases provoked a discussion among Belarusian expert community. Blogger and journalist Dmitry Galko called this trend “citizen journalism”. He explained its growing influence by the decline of traditional media: state propaganda can only create rosy pictures of reality, while independent publications, suppressed by the government, lack the time and resources to properly cover the lives of real people.
Two media experts, Aleksander Klaskouski and Pauliuk Bykouski, doubted the prospects of citizen journalism and criticised it for its lack of professionalism and ignoring media ethics: “How would you treat “citizen” dentistry or “citizen” surgery”, – they argue. Klaskouski says, in the West so-called “citizen journalism” has a very narrow field of application: emergency situations, military actions, public rallies etc. – situations which traditional media sometimes cannot promptly cover.
Whatever it is called, this new trend irritates the Belarusian authorities. Dmitry Galko put it eloquently: “The authorities want to maintain their monopoly on producing the picture of reality”.
In all of the three stories described here, ordinary apolitical people tried to show real life in Belarus, with all of its problems and various miseries. The Belarusian government, who bases its legitimacy on “stability and prosperity” myth, cannot let anyone undermine it.
The future of Belarusian citizen journalism and other forms of civil activity on the internet depends on how the government will respond to the current series of such cases described in the article. Cracking down on several activists of this kind in a short time period will send a clear signal to bureaucracy all over the country.
If the given response is rigid, it will create a precedent. Belarusian officials, when facing such activism again will prefer to act tough with such issues because nobody will punish them for being too firm, but any sign of being soft can be seen as risky.
However, in reality, a truly tough response seems unlikely to follow. For now the internet has remained the only area where people can criticise the regime, usually without any consequences. Punishment on a regular basis for simply ridiculing the pictures of peoples’ ordinary lives or any internet-criticism will elevate the Belarusian regime to a new level of authoritarianism. A government in the centre of Europe, which occasionally needs to improve its relations with the West, cannot afford to act this way.
On the other hand, potential citizen journalists will now think twice before making videos on socially sensitive issues. Ruslan Mirzoeu’s case and a couple of other similiar stories can become a serious deterrent for them.
Belaruskali: A Victim of the Latest Russia-Belarus Economic War?
On 19 August, CEO of Belaruskali, the valuable Belarusian company, Valery Kiryjenka held a press conference on the situation in the global potash market. Kiryjenka criticised Uralkali and hinted that Uralkali keeps trying to make a raider seizure of Belaruskali.
Last month, Russian potash producer Uralkali announced that it would suspend exports through the Belarusian Potash Company. Many have perceived this step as the beginning of a new Russian-Belarusian economic war.
Economic wars remain an important part of relations between Russia and Belarus. By the means of economic wars, Kremlin points the proper place to its younger brother and restricts the independence of Belarus. However, the current conflict differs from the previous ones. For the first time a Russian private company, not a public entity, creates a big challenge for Belarus. The consequences affect not only mutual relations, but the whole world.
The new economic war shows the importance of Belaruskali, which remains the largest taxpayer of the country. Currently the company is undergoing changes. Although Belaruskali will lose part of its profits because of the new war, it will remain an enterprise owned by the Belarusian state. If Uralkali had a chance to acquire the Belaruskali before, the current conflict has buried Russia’s hopes to do so.
Why Uralkali Decided to Divorce
On 19 August, Belaruskali`s CEO accused that the Russian management has transferred a number of the BPC’s contracts to the Uralkali`s own Trader, and then has gone away to work in the Uralkali. Thus, the Belarusian Potash Company lost most of its distribution network abroad.
Last month, Uralkali`s CEO Vladislav Baumgertner said that Belaruskali started selling fertilisers outside the Belarusian Potash Company, which terminates the existing agreement to jointly trade abroad of all meaning. The Belarusian side quickly blamed Uralkali for selling fertilisers through its subsidiary.
the roots of the conflict lie in the difference between aims of Belaruskali and Uralkali Read more
Although both sides exchanged serious accusations, the roots of the conflict lie in the difference between aims of Belaruskali and Uralkali. For a long time Uralkali worked at only 50% of its capacity. The decline in production led to a retention of the high price of potash fertilisers on the world market. That was the purpose of Uralkali.
Belarus today has a very different goal: to earn now, and as much as possible. Belaruslkali remains one of the few companies that bring revenues into the Belarusian economy. In fact, Belarus was in a very beneficial position to increase the prices for potash while Uralkali was limiting its production.
Russians suspected the Belarusian enterprise of using “shady schemes” at the Brazilian market. Officially, this year Belaruskali has been responsible for nearly half of potash fertilisers imports in Brazil.
Economic conflicts between Belarus and Russia remain a significant part of the official fraternal relations. Conflicts of delivery of energy to Belarus exploded in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010. In 2009, Russia banned the import of Belarusian dairy products. Journalists called that conflict “milk war”.
Although economic conflicts between Belarus and Russia happen now and then today’s war has a few differences.
If the previous conflicts were conflicts between the states, today, a private company Uralkali has become one of the parties to the conflict. So far, Russian companies have never challenged Belarusian leadership at this level. Although it seems that Uralkali coordinated its decision with the Kremlin.
As the old economic conflicts were a continuation of the policy only with the use of other means, Minsk and Moscow solved them at the political level. Despite possible coordination, Uralkali`s leadership remains different from the Kremlin: the private company will not give up their own economic interests, if Lukashenka offers further Belarusian-Russian integration.
Previous conflicts have been more of a “local wars”, the current conflict has attracted the attention of the world media. Currently Uralkali covers about 20% of the world market. Belaruskali covers a little more – about 23%.
Before the global market crisis, the price of fertilisers reached $1,000 per ton, today it is about $400. At times, the price can go down to as low as $300 or even less. This is especially true due to the slowing pace of the economy in developing countries. In the short term, prices will fall, and manufacturers will start a new struggle for the redistribution of the market.
The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs
Aliaksei Valabuyeu, a local politician from Salihorsk, where Belaruskali is based, explained Belarus Digest that “people in town have become really concerned. Belaruskali had several crises during the last 10 years. Back then, the enterprises forced people to go on a long vacation, and that means not only Belaruskali, but also other companies cooperating with the potash producer.” Salihorsk locals worry because the Belarusian Potash industry is undergoing serious changes.
In December 2012, Alexander Lukashenka signed a decree that Belaruskali can sell their products not only through Belarusian Potash Company, but also through other traders. After the break with Uralkali Belarusian state-owned company announced a new partnership with the Qatari firm Muntajat and the Brazilian company Sertrading.
Over the last month the Belarusian Potash Company also changed its board of directors. Former director Valery Ivanou went to work to the Presidential Administration, and his deputy, Alena Kudravets became chairperson of the trader. Previously she served as Belaruskali’s Deputy Director for Commerce and Logistics.
Because of the competition at the market, Belaruskali had to produce more fertilisers and sell them cheaper. In the end, Belarus will also suffer from these skirmish. If in 2012 the Belarusian producer brought in a profit of $780m, this year the figure may drop two-three times. Belaruskali`s CEO admitted that “he would never go into an alliance with the Uralkali after what they did. Although if Uralkali change owners and approach – everything is possible.”
Belaruskali will bring in much lower profits than expected before the break with Uralkali. The increase in production will lead to a further decline in prices and income of the Belarusian budget. The goose that laid the golden eggs, it would appear, will soon be laying ordinary ones.