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Belarus: Minsk Bans Publication Of 'Political' Authors

  • Valentinas Mite

Relations between the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Belarus appear to be getting worse. This week, the OSCE criticized Belarus for announcing that some well-known Belarusian authors would not be published in the country. The list includes several writers who are opposed to the rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Prague, 21 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Relations between Belarus and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appear to be deteriorating even further.

Just days after the OSCE mission in Minsk was forced to shut down after Belarusian authorities would not renew visas for some officials, the OSCE has now criticized a list compiled by Belarus of authors whose works cannot be published in the country.

Belarusian authorities say the writers in question are not in line with official policy. The list includes such well-known authors as Vasil Bykau, Ryhor Baradulin, and Sergei Zakonnikov, among others.

The OSCE's representative on media freedom, Freimut Duve, said in a report yesterday to the OSCE Permanent Council that: "The list [of authors] is something unheard of in Europe in years. It represents a dramatic challenge and is unacceptable in an OSCE participating country."

Duve told RFE/RL that he spoke with Belarusian representatives after presenting the report. He said their reaction was surprising. "We had a very interesting reaction. The Belarusian government was not very pleased [by the OSCE report]. They attacked me and they said that I don't know the famous saying of Voltaire [who said,] 'I don't share your opinion, but I will die for your right to have your own different opinion,'" Duve said.

The dispute comes at a time when authorities in Minsk have exerted strong pressure on the OSCE mission there. On 4 June, the OSCE was forced to withdraw its last senior diplomat, Meaghan Fitzgerald, after Belarus refused to issue visas for the OSCE's acting chief of mission and other diplomats. Only technical workers remain in the country now and the mission is not functioning. Nonetheless, Belarus remains a member of the OSCE.

Eduard Skobelev, chief of the presidential administration, announced the list of banned authors at a meeting with reporters in Minsk last week. Skobelev said the chief shortcoming of the authors is that they are too involved in politics, their political views are wrong, and that their books present unacceptable values. "The authors take part in political activities that represent international rather than national positions. They harm themselves and look funny. And as such, I can mention Buravkin, Gilevic [contemporary Belarusian authors in opposition to Lukashenka's regime]. And, regrettably, among them I must name our beloved [Vasil] Bykau," Skobelev said.

Skobelev said Bykau used to be a good writer but now his art is empty. He mentioned a recent story by Bykau as a good example of the bareness of his work. In the story, Bykau writes about a man who lives welded inside a metal pipe. Skobelev said such a plot is absolutely unacceptable. He said state-owned publishing houses would accept Bykau only if he creates something different, something Skobelev said had "more talent" and no "wrong ideas."

Skobelev has not hidden the fact that he is displeased by criticism of Lukashenka. "And on the whole, how can you allow yourself to rebuke Lukashenka that he doesn't work for the sake of Belarus. It is simply funny," Skobelev said.

Bykau is best-known for his novels "A Sign of Disaster" and "The Dead Do Not Feel Pain," as well as many short stories. He lives in exile in Germany.

Bykau told RFE/RL that this banning is nothing unusual. He said Skobelev is only airing a point of view that Belarus officials have adopted since Lukashenka won the presidency in 1994. "This attitude does not surprise me. The publishing houses [to which Skobelev was appealing] are state-owned and there are not many of them. They have not published my works for a long time. In this sense, nothing in the attitude toward me has changed. I never relied on them. I never gave them anything to publish and never approached them. Some of my works were published by Belarusian literary magazines, but the authorities have crushed [the magazines] too," Bykau said.

In March, Belarusian authorities established a state-owned Office of Literature and Art to supervise the activities of literary journals. One of the first acts of the office was to change some of the journals' editors in chief, claiming the journals were badly managed. They also reproached former editors for publishing authors, such as Bykau, who had fallen out of favor with the regime.

The journal "Neman" illustrates this case. Former Editor in Chief Ales Zhuk was removed and replaced by Lukashenka loyalist, Nina Chaika.

In an interview for the daily "Belaruskaya gazeta," Chaika said "Neman" is changing its ideological direction to try to become more attractive to ordinary Belarusian readers. Chaika has even promised to publish extracts from Lukashenka's speeches on literature.

She said "Neman" will start publishing the novel "Mister Hexogen," a best-seller by the Russian author Aleksandr Prokhanov. She called the book a powerful novel about the problems of modern life.

Prokhanov is a well-known Russian nationalists and the characters in his novels advocate a mixture of nationalist, anti-Semitic, and communist ideas. Chaika said she will not accept Bykau because he is engaged in politics and does not present "modern ideas." She said Bykau should write something as valuable as Prokhanov does.

Bykau told RFE/RL he has no wish at all to compete with writers such as Prokhanov. "I do not strive to compete with Prokhanov in Belarus. Let him be a king of the Belarusian readers. In this particular case I would prefer to step aside. I surrender. I would like to find some other audience," Bykau said.

Bykau said his works, outlawed in Belarus, are published in literary magazines in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He has also published his short stories in some Russian magazines in the West.

(RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report)