Why Belarus is not Ukraine

Last weekend many Belarusians came to Kyiv to support the pro-European demonstrations. Social activists, politicians and even the famous rock band​ Liapis Trubetskoy expressed their support for Ukrainians with their pro-European choice.

They came to take part in the truly massive political protests – something which they are unable to do back home in Belarus. Though Belarus and Ukraine have a long shared history, the two countries differ significantly in many ways.

While Belarusians have not yet gone through a true nation-building process, in many ways they live better than Ukrainians. Unlike Lukashenka's regime, Yanukovych's regime has many democratic attributes that make mass peaceful protests possible.  

The private sector also makes up a larger share of the economy and Ukraine's oligarchs play a significant role in its politics. They use their own money to finance other centres of influence, in addition to the authorities.  

Belarusians Reach the Maidan

On 7 December, the famous Belarusian rock band Liapis Trubetskoy performed on Maidan – the epicentre of the Kyiv protests. A week earlier the Belarusian band gathered over ten thousand Belarusian fans at a concert in Vilnius. The leader of the band, Siarhei Mikhalok, stated at Maidan: “We are here to send you a big hello from Belarus. We, Belarusians, look at you with respect and admiration.”

Not everybody who wanted to actually managed to get to Ukraine from Belarus. On 6 December, KGB agents and traffic police stopped 53 activists who were travelling from Minsk to Kyiv by bus. Law enforcement officials explained that they could not let the bus continue on to Ukraine due to the poor weather conditions and the danger it posed to the health of the bus' passengers. As a result, the bus had to return to Minsk, and the activists got off the bus before it turned back and got to Kyiv by hitchhiking.

Belarusian opposition leaders, including Uladzimir Niakliajeu of the Tell the Truth campaign​ and Yuri Hubarevich of the Movement for Freedom took the floor to share words of solidarity with the thouands of Ukrainains who were gathered on Maidan. It is not the first time that activists from Belarus have come to rallies in Ukraine. In 2004, hundreds of Belarusians with white-red-white flags took part in the Orange Revolution.

Why Belarus is not Ukraine

Many people in Belarus and in the West try to draw parallels between the rallies in Kyiv and those that have taken place Minsk. Some are wondering why Belarusians cannot organise something similar in their own country. To understand this, one must remember several aspects in which Belarus differs significantly from Ukraine.

Some are wondering why Belarusians cannot organise something similar in their own country.

First, unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians have not yet completed the process of nation building. Belarusians are much more like Russian-speaking Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine than the western Ukrainians or residents of Kyiv – who are the main participants in the protests.

But even the residents of eastern Ukraine use its national flag, emblem and anthem while Belarusians still use Soviet symbols. Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine, while coming from the east of Ukraine and having Belarusian roots, consistently speaks the Ukrainian language in public. In Belarus, even opposition politicians remain mostly Russian-speaking. All that makes it easier for Russia to influence Belarus.

In terms of economic well-being, Belarusians live better than Ukrainians. The average salary in Belarus hovers around $600, while in Ukraine it is about $400. At the same time the level of inequality between the rich and the poor in Ukraine remain much higher in Ukraine than in Belarus. 

One of the Belarusian participants of EuroMaidan, Mikalai Dziemidenka, said that when compared to Belarus, Ukraine looks like a flourishing democracy. The opposition is well represented in parliament, and there is real and constant political struggle in Ukraine between different different political forces. Representatives from opposition parties actually run several cities – a scenario that remains entirely unrealistic in Belarus. In Belarus, real politics rears its head out only once every five years during the presidential election.

According to the Constitution of Belarus, Lukashenka has vast powers which make other political institutions meaningless. Yanukovych must keep a watchful eye on what is going on in parliament and monitor its activities. Albeit imperfect, Ukraine's separation of powers and the reality of divisions within the government itself is further evidence of the differences between the country. The head of the presidential administration and many other Ukrainian officials resigned after the recent brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Kyiv. After the Minsk protests in 2010, all Belarusian officials either maintained their silence or condemned the demonstrators.

Moreover, President Yanukovych and his government have long been negotiating Ukraine's european integration. Lukashenka's regime cannot even begin such negotiations as it prefers to remain financially and politically dependent on Russia. 

On 9 December, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski publicly spoke out against impeaching Yanukovych​, which is technically and politically feasible, though remains totally impossible in Belarus. Consider the fact that Yanukovych is the fourth president of Ukraine and recently met with his predecessors to discuss the crisis. Belarus has only one president it gained its independence in the 1990s. 

The Real Power in Ukraine

Another key difference is that Lukashenka's power relies on police and law enforcement agencies while Yanukovych relies heavily on those oligarchs who are willing to provide financial support.​ Many people call the Ukrainian oligarchs the real seat of power in the country and for good reason. They financially support the existing political structures and determine the amount of airtime politicians get on TV.

Lukashenka's power relies on police and law enforcement agencies while Yanukovych heavily relies on the oligarchs
For example, the channel 1+1, which is owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, gives more airtime to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, from Yulia Timoshenko`s party. Another channel Inter, owned by Dmytro Firtash, likes to invite Vitali Klitschko as a guest on its programmes. Not a single TV channel in Belarus can promote opposition politicians. 
Several Ukrainian oligarchs, such as Vadim Novinsky and Kostyantyn Zhevago, are members of parliament. Each of their respective wealth is estimated to be about $1.5-2bn. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man whose personal wealth is estimated to be about $15.4bn, is claimed to control Yanukovych's party in parliament.
Belarusian oligarchs remain much poorer than their Ukrainian counterparts. Uladzimir Peftiev, the richest man in Belarus, whose personal wealth is estimated to be about $1bn, would have a spot on a list of the top 10 richest people in Ukraine. What's more, they do not have any real political power in Belarus.  Belarusian "oligarchs" are little more than managers who can be replaced and stripped of their property at any moment. There is no rule of law in Belarus, so all businesses remain at mercy of the regime.  
Although private philanthropy for social and non-political projects in Belarus is slowly developing, Belarusian entrepreneurs shy away from openly political projects. They fear that the government may take away their business and punish them personally. That is precisely what happened to Andrei Klimau in 1998, one of the most promising entrepreneurs of Belarus at that time, who supported the opposition. Klimau has since already served several jail terms for his perceived political involvement.
In the 1990s Andrei Zhukavets had a successful business in Belarus and gave money to the Youth Front. In 1999 the authorities started a criminal case against him, so he decided to emigrate to Poland. To this day the Belarusian authorities are still seeking Zhukavets’ extradition. Having seen a few examples like those described above, business people are afraid to be openly involved in politics. 
Ukrainian Lessons for Belarus

Will the recent events in Ukraine affect Belarus? Lukashenka's regime is closely monitoring the situation, although the state media and officials do not speak much about the events transpiring in Kyiv. It seems that the authorities have not yet developed their strategic ideological approach to the Ukrainian protests.

On the one hand, if Ukraine drifts to the east, Lukashenka may lose his status as Russia's only loyal ally in the west. On the other hand, if Ukraine strengthens its ties with Russia, Belarus will look more "normal" to the West and its own people, thus justifying the status quo.  

If the protests in Ukraine go devolve into turmoil, the Belarusian state propaganda machine will use it to praise Belarusian stability and condemn the dangers of an uncontrolled democracy. If it ends peacefully and leads to positive developments, this will give hope to Belarusians that changes – perhaps slower and through a different route – will also come to Belarus. 

Blacklisted Musicians Gather A Large Crowd of Belarusians Abroad

Last Saturday, the famous Belarusian band Lyapis Trubeckoy gathered over ten thousand fans, mostly young people who came from Belarus, at a concert in the Siemens Arena in Vilnius.

Today a number of prominent Belarusian musicians face serious difficulties when they want to perform for the Belarusian public. Playing concerts in neighbouring countries is one of their solutions.

Tickets for the concert of Lyapis were sold out almost immediately after sales began, as were tickets for buses and trains going to Vilnius. Lyapis Trubeckoj, which is the most famous of all Belarusian bands, has fans all over the former Soviet Union. Unknown Object

Their success streteches back to the late 1990s. Last weekend, they presented their first album fully in the Belarusian language.

Almost eleven thousand people, primarily fans from Belarus, attended the concert last Saturday. Already on Friday morning long queues formed on the Belarus-Lithuania border. Hundreds of fans were also waiting to cross the border on foot. Despite the long waiting hours, almost all fans managed to get to the concerts on time. The concert area was fully packed, and in the end, the concert felt like it was being held in Belarus rather than in Lithuania's capital.

The lead singer of the band, Siarhei Michalok, mentioned the current events in Ukraine throughout the show. While showing pictures of the crackdown of protests in Kiev, he referred to people in Belarus that, much like those protesting in Ukraine, wanted to live in an independent country where nobody dictated to them how they should live.

Michalok compared the current situation in Belarus to gangrene that started there and was then spread all over the former Soviet Union. He condemned those who said that people with similiar thoughts were supporters of the CIA or paid off by American money. Although he chose not to name any politicians, he made his point of view very clear.

Liavon Volski in Cologne

For several Belarusian musicians, it is also easier to organise a concert abroad rather than at home. In October, the Belarusian singer Liavon Volski gave his first concert in Cologne. Liavon Volski is an icon of Belarusian music, the leader of two of the most famous Belarusian bands of all time. Both groups have been banned from giving concerts in Belarus for some time now. Nevertheless, Volski remains an influential artist and critic of the Belarusian regime.

Liavon Volski has been part of the Belarusian music scene for more than 30 years. He started in the 1980s with the band “Mroja” (or dream in English) which he renamed “NRM” (an abbreviation for Independent Republic of Dreams) in the 1990s. He is now also the head of the Belarusian Ska band “Krambambulya” that brings together elements of folk, ska and rock music.

Ingo Petz, freelance journalist and expert on Belarus, organised the concert. The day before Volski and Pavel Arakelian, who accompanied him on flute and saxophone, played in the German town Solingen at a festival of prosecuted arts 'Festival der verfolgten Künste'.

The musician, son of Belarusian writer Artur Volski, has moreover  been successful with a series of solo projects like 'Sauka and Gryshka' for Radio Liberty in which a government clerk and an opposition activist discuss political events like the 2006 gas crisis with a refined sense of humour in Belarusian. Volski takes up topics important to all Belarusians and that touch on their everyday lives.

Apart from the contents of his songs, Liavon Volski sings in Belarusian and therefore brings the Belarusian language to Belarusian households that usually only use Russian. Volski personifies a culture where many young Belarusians are readily protesting against the current political situation.

Moreover, Volski’s songs appeared on the soundtrack for the film 'Zhyvie Belarus!' (Long live Belarus) made by the Polish director Krysztof Lukaszewicz. This movie deals with the events surrounding the 2010 presidential elections from the perspective of young opposition activist Franak Viachorka. Volski and his bands are often associated with the opposition and critics of the regime. 

Blacklists and pressure at home

Giving concerts in Belarus has become more difficult for many artists. The Belarusian authorities consider them a threat to the regime. In their songs, some bands criticise the current political and economic system in Belarus. They often express the thoughts and feelings of a whole generation and put into words what remains unsaid in the controlled media. Concerts as a potential mass gathering may constitute herds of resistance against the current regime.

According to some sources, almost 60 Belarusian and international artists find themselves on an unofficial 'black list' that is regularly circulated to all state media. It includes actors like Kevin Spacey and Jude Law who have supported Belarus' democratisation movement and it also includes Belarusian singers, writers and painters. Those whose name are on this list cannot perform in public or appear in the media.

Hanna Volskaja, manager of the band Krambambulya and wife of Ljavon Volski, a famous Belarusian singer, calls this list absurd. It prevents Krambambulya from performing under their band name, but tolerates concerts of the same band under a different name.

The system of black lists started up back in 2006, when some Belarusian rock bands supported the opposition after the presidential elections. During the period of liberalisation from 2008 to 2010, in accordance with a gentleman's agreement reached between the authorities, the bands agreed they would refrain from performing at meetings of the opposition's meetings. As a consequence, bands like Krambambulya could once again give concerts in Belarus. The state media published articles about them, an official sign that those bands were no longer considered 'forbidden'.

With the economic crisis that arose in 2011, a new, more absurd version of the black list became public. This list was given to media outlets without a signature or any sign of official ownership. However, the blacklisted artists may no longer appear in public in Belarus, as they usually they simply cannot find a place to give a concert.

State institutions refuse and private venues are also worried to anger authorities by hosting undesireable musicians. For example, in January 2013, the vocalist of the group Dziecuki was warned by the authorities that the musicians should not go near the Jolly Roger café where a concert was planned or they would be arrested.

At that point of time, the Belarusian authorities had two choices: either host concerts of bands that have already shown their readiness not to mingle in politics – or let thousands of fans travel abroad where they will gather to hear the music.

By gathering thousands abroad, the bands will achieve an ever greater status of heroes and the Belarusians will have the possibility to sincerely compare the lives of those in Kiev, Warsaw or Vilnius to that of Belarus. Internet broadcasts of their concerts will attract even more attention. That may serve a goal runs against what the Belarusian authorities are hoping to achieve.

This coming Saturday Lyapis will play a concert in Kiev.