Sunday, October 04, 2015

Video In Tune With Lukashenka: Music Clips Laud, Lampoon Belarusian Leader

The Belarusian grannies extol Alyaksandr Lukashenka's prowess on the farm. "Lukashenka knows how to do everything, " they sing.


With a presidential election looming on October 11, a gaggle of grannies is singing the praises of Belarus's four-term president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. During his 21 years as a frequently heavy-handed leader, Lukashenka has been the focus of numerous songs. Unlike the current hit, however, many poke fun -- some subtly, others blatantly -- at the man dubbed by critics as "Europe's last dictator."

Decked out in colorful folkloric garb, the ladies of Krynichanka belt out their toe-tapping, shamelessly fawning tune -- They Called Us When Lukashenka Was Coming -- before a flag-waving crowd during a preelection variety show broadcast on state TV. A wide-eyed female presenter wows the audience, telling them the song has become an Internet hit, with tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

Krynichanka seem to be either the template for or a rip-off of the Buranovskie Babushki (Gradmas From Buranovo) who represented Russia at the 2012 Eurovision song contest. In their song, the Belarusian blue hairs extol Lukashenka's prowess on the farm, perhaps not surprising given he once headed a kolkhoz, or state farm:

"And Lukashenka knows how to do everything,
knows how to reap, and knows how to plow
With all his soul, and all his heart,
He draws people to work."

The image of a caring, cuddly leader doesn't exactly square with the image many have of Lukashenka abroad -- or at home, for that matter. Lukashenka has stifled dissent and extended his rule through votes dismissed in the West as illegitimate, constructing a poor man's personality cult. The sole opposition candidate who secured a place on the October 11 presidential ballot has rejected calls by some other Lukashenka opponents to withdraw and boycott the election.

Despite his despotic image in the West, Lukashenka has followers at home ready to sing his praises out of genuine admiration -- or, maybe more likely, fear from on high in Minsk. 

They include Ilya Smunev, a bard and local sports-complex director from Vitebsk. He and his band released this tune, Where My Father Is -- I Will Be, in September. Sticking with the agricultural theme, the band performs in a field of wheat, interspersed with images of weary yet proud Belarusian farmers:

"Where my father is -- I will be. Where my father is -- I will be.
Where my father is -- I will be. Where my father is -- I will be.
Where my father is -- I will be. Where my father is -- I will be.
Where my father is -- I will be..."

On the eve of the presidential election in Belarus in 2010, the duo RockerJoker came out with the song Sanya Will Stay With Us. (Sanya is the Belarusian diminutive for Alyaksandr.) While many in Belarus debated whether the tune was a joke or made to order, it was ordered to be played on most Belarusian radio and TV stations, even topping official music charts, suggesting it had the OK of Lukashenka's inner circle, at least:

"Mommy asked you to stay with us,
Father asked you to stay with us.
If Sanya will stay with us,
Everything will be OK!
Sanya, stay with us!
We cannot be by ourselves, we cannot.
Sanya, stay with us, Sanya.
I'm with you."

Joke or not, not everyone was amused.

In October 2012, RockerJoker's performance at the festival of independent Belarusian culture in Poznan, Poland, was canceled because of the song. After the 2010 presidential election, Lukashenka ratcheted up his crackdown on the Belarus opposition, jailing many of the presidential opposition candidates.

However, RockerJoker looks like it may have hoodwinked Belarusian officials if another of their offerings is anything to go by. In Sanya Goes To The Hague (date unclear), the duo appears to advocate the Belarusian strongman being put in the dock at the UN tribunal:

"Sanya will drive to The Hague
will drive to The Hague, everything will be OK.
Sanya will drive to The Hague,
and skiing with a stick, everything will be OK."

Other ditties, however, so overflow with obsequious lyrics that it’s hard to image they are anything but parody. Among such song craft is Listen To Father. Syabry, popular since Soviet times, came out with that number just before the 2006 presidential election and performed it at a live concert that just happened to be broadcast by Belarusian state TV:

"He always knows what to say,
Our father is strict, but fair.
Many books will be written about him.
And we would like to be like him, too.
He is great and powerful!
He will not teach bad things.
Father can put everything in order,
And he is way cooler than others!
Just look around -- and it's immediately obvious
Who's the boss of the house.
So Listen to father!
In the morning, during the day and at night
Listen to father!
If you feel bad
Listen to father!
And everything will be alright."

The band's frontman, Anatol Yarmolenka, later denied the song was about Lukashenka. But the man who penned the lyrics, Russian composer Oleg Sorokin, refuted that, saying Yarmolenka "knew exactly who the main character is of this song."

At the other end of the love-hate Lukashenka spectrum is the Belarusian band New Heaven. Officially banned from performing in the country, its 1995 ballad President, Go Home sums up the frustration many Belarusians feel toward their authoritarian leader:

"Every morning they go drink beer
But you and I, we chose freedom,
And we will not drink it like beer.
We leave three words:
'President, go home!'

"They forgot the word 'Love,'
But this word, I cannot use it anymore.
You and I, we choose words
But they do not listen to them.
We leave behind us three words:
'President, go home!'"

Lyapis Trubetskoy enjoyed immense popularity during the Soviet era. Now banned in Belarus, they have openly demonstrated against not only the Lukashenka regime but Russian President Vladimir Putin as well. Their song from the mid-1990s, Lukashenka, is a remake of a song from the film The Adventures Of Buratino, the Soviet version of Pinocchio:

"Who is coming into every home with a good tale?
Who is known by all since childhood?
Who is not a scientist, not a poet,
But has conquered the whole world?
Tell me, what is his name?
He is surrounded by rumors,
He is not a toy, he is alive!
He has the key to happiness,
And because he is so lucky,
All the songs are about him,
What is his name?
Lu-ka-shen-ka! Lukashenka!"

-- Written by Tony Wesolowsky with contributions by Franak Vyachorka and Aleksandr Arsenav of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service

As Putin And Obama Troll Each Other, Twitter Memes It Out

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 28.

Anna Shamanska

The U.S. and Russian presidents addressed the United Nations the same day, prompting Internet users to compete in their interpretation and mockery of the two world leaders.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin used their September 28 UN General Assembly speeches to lob thinly veiled attacks at one another. 

Obama, though calling Russia a partner of the United States, lambasted its "annexation of Crimea and further aggression in eastern Ukraine."

Putin, although only mentioning the United States once and never uttering Obama's name, was clearly accusing Washington of meddling when he said that "no one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one."

Online, supporters and detractors of the two were not so subtle.

The caption to this photo of Putin reads: "Dear Russians, I tasted sanctioned overseas products and let me tell you. So yucky, ugh…" 

Anti-Kremlin commentators shared a photo of a group of activists who had unveiled a Ukrainian flag riddled with bullet holes during Putin's speech, allegedly brought from Illovaysk, where one of the bloodiest battles in Donbas took place.

Pro-Russian Twitter users suggested that officials in attendance did not care -- using red arrows to point out audience members who appeared to be more interested in picking their noses or rubbing their eyes. 

Awkward photos taken at the official luncheon after both leaders had addressed the United Nations showed a rather grim Obama and Putin clinking glasses. One Twitter user posted stills capturing the moment under the line "Isolation in full swing." 

Putin, though, appeared to use a contemporary trick to fight off the awkwardness: "An urgent call from Voronezh," reads this tweet. 

Perhaps the scene could have been even more awkward, as suggested by this altered photo adding Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko into the mix. 

Russian media reported that most members of the Russian delegation had walked out during Poroshenko's speech the day before; the Ukrainian delegation then followed suit during Putin's speech.

When Obama and Putin finally had their first official meeting in two years, pro-Kremlin Twitter satirist Lev Sharansky pointed out that reality often imitates art.

The less-than-enthusiastic handshake between the two leaders seemed to mimic an episode of the political drama House of Cards in which fictional U.S. President Frank Underwood meets with his Russian counterpart, Viktor Petrov. 

But of all the Twitter barbs, none could trump the ultimate slight of the day: a CNN anchor mistakenly referring to Putin as his late predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. 

Russian Official: NASA Announced Mars Water Finding To Upstage Putin’s UN Speech

NASA's dramatic September 28 announcement claimed that the space agency had found "the strongest evidence yet" of flowing water on Mars.

Mike Eckel and Carl Schreck

NASA’s dramatic announcement that it had found "the strongest evidence yet" of flowing water on Mars was momentous. But according to one Russian lawmaker, it had a more nefarious purpose.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin-loyal member of Russia’s lower house of parliament, has alleged that the U.S. space agency decided to time the announcement to distract the world’s attention from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the United Nations on September 28.

"Putin's speech was certainly the central element of the UN General Assembly session," Nikonov was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying on September 28."It is not surprising that the United States held a NASA news conference devoted to water found on Mars at the time when Putin was addressing the UN General Assembly.”

Putin spoke not long after U.S. President Barack Obama gave his own speech before the UN assembly. In their speeches, each accused the other’s government of fomenting instability in the world.

Vyacheslav NikonovVyacheslav Nikonov
Vyacheslav Nikonov
Vyacheslav Nikonov

"Putin's speech was tough and concise. He formulated the basic principles of international relations without matching the United States and its allies. He offered concrete steps for resolving major international problems," said Nikonov, a member of the Kremlin-backed United Russia political party and a grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s foreign minister.

"This means that they had to interrupt Putin’s speech with something very serious," he added.

NASA announced that "new findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars." 
The finding was published in Nature Geoscience, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. 

NASA's information office told RFE/RL that the timing of the agency’s announcement of the finding was dictated not by Putin’s UN speech, but rather by an embargo set by Nature Geoscience. 

Russian Organizers Fly Polish Students To Crimea Instead Of St. Petersburg On 'Educational' Trip

Organizer Yury Bondarenko said he wanted to show students the places in Crimea that have a connection to Russian history, like Mount Sapun in Sevastopol.

Anna Shamanska

A handful of Polish teens unwittingly fell afoul of Ukrainian law when they were shepherded to Crimea by their hosts after winning Russian culture and literature contests.

And officials in Poland suggested to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the Russian organizers of the prizewinners' trip duped them into thinking the kids would stay away from the forcibly annexed peninsula. 

The group of 10 or so high-school students apparently planned on traveling for a week around Moscow and St. Petersburg as part of their prize.

But instead, less than a day after arriving in the Russian capital, they were put on a plane to Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine early last year.

An itinerary posted to the Russia-based Center For Russian-Polish Dialogue And Understanding foundation's website suggests the students have spent the days since their September 19 arrival in Moscow traveling extensively throughout the peninsula, visiting various landmarks connected to Russian history.

But the trip isn't purely cultural -- the itinerary suggests the group will also meet with Crimean officials installed by Russia since it declared the area part of the Russian Federation in March 2014.

A nonprofit group based in Bialystok, Poland, called the Russian Cultural And Educational Society held the cultural contests, but the Russian nonprofit, the Center For Russian-Polish Dialogue And Understanding, sponsored the students' trip.

Anna Marek, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education in the Podlaskie region, where Bialystok is located, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that officials had been made aware of the Russian plans to take the Polish students to Crimea but said there was a subsequent request to change the proposed program. They were later reassured that the children would visit St. Petersburg instead of Crimea, she said.

"At least that is what we were told on September 11," said Marek. "The head of the department [of education] requested the final trip agenda, but we never received it."

Poland joined most of the world in rejecting Moscow's annexation of Crimea, and under Ukrainian law it is illegal to travel to the peninsula via Russia.

The Warsaw-based Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue And Understanding, which was founded by an act of the Polish parliament (and should not be confused with the Russia-based Center For Russian-Polish Dialogue And Understanding, to which it has no connection), wrote on its Facebook page that those organizing such activities should be banned from using public funds.

"We warn Polish entities not to organize trips to Crimea, the occupied territory of Ukraine, for Polish citizens," the group said in a statement. "Visits of this kind can result in participants being refused entrance to Ukraine and other countries that don't recognize Crimea's annexation."

The Russia-based Center For Russian-Polish Dialogue And Understanding paints a different picture on its website, describing the students' trip to the "unique peninsula of the Black Sea with, perhaps, the most eventful history in the existence of mankind."

Yury Bondarenko, the organization's director, tweeted a photo of himself in a "Crimea, Russia" T-shirt under the #CrimeaOurs hashtag on September 24, following several days of sharing photos of the students.

A September 20 tweet from Bondarenko's account shows a group of teenagers on a plane. "I'm flying from Domodedovo [airport in Moscow] to Crimea with a group of Polish youngsters. With girls who were not scared of pressure from authorities!"

"Mount Sapun in Sevastopol. Polish girls took over a Russian tank," says another tweet.

Bondarenko was earlier quoted in the Polish press as saying he wanted to show students the places that have a connection to Russian history.

"I consider Poland to be a democratic state where people have a right to assess a situation themselves," he said.

Russian media have been tracking the trip, and one student reportedly told Russia's state English-language international broadcaster RT that she was "happy that I am here":

The students were the main prizewinners in two recent contests held in Poland -- one on "Knowledge of Russia" and the other a "Russian Poetry Reading." For the past 12 years, winners have been rewarded with trips to Russia.

This year marks the first time Crimea was on the travel itinerary.

'Foreign Agent' Label Spooks Russian Environmental Group Into Returning DiCaprio Cash

Russia's then-prime minister, Vladimir Putin (left), speaks with U.S. actor Leonardo DiCaprio in St. Petersburg in November 2010, after a concert to mark the International Tiger Conservation Forum.

Mike Eckel

A prominent environmental organization in Russia's Far East said it would return more than $150,000 in donations from actor Leonard DiCaprio's foundation after being labeled a "foreign agent" under Russian law.

Dmitry Lisitsyn of Sakhalin Environment Watch said on September 23 that the group had received the funding in July to help its effort to protect several nature parks and preserves on Sakhalin, an island off Russia's Pacific coast. 

The organization said, however, that it was formally identified as a "foreign agent" by Russian authorities on September 18 because of the money from the Hollywood star, as well as from other non-Russian charities and foundations.

Sakhalin Environment Watch is one of Russia's oldest environmental groups and has clashed in the past with local authorities over development of the island's massive oil and natural gas resources, which major international oil companies have participated in.

Lisitsyn himself was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2011 for his work trying to protect natural habitats from damage by oil and gas projects.

Passed by parliament in 2012, the "foreign agent" law gives the authorities the right to apply that label to nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding.

Human rights groups and other independent Russian groups have sharply criticized the law, saying the term has echoes of Soviet repression and severely restricts their activities.

Representatives of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation could not be immediately reached for comment.

Tags:foreign agent law

Photoshop Wars: U.S. Ambassador 'Attends' Russian Opposition Rally...And The Moon Landing

A photoshopped image of U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft allegedly attending an antigovernment rally in Moscow. REN-TV later admitted the image was a fake.

Carl Schreck

It was a report guaranteed to inflame Kremlin supporters: the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, attending a Moscow rally of opposition activists, like a shepherd keeping watch over his antigovernment flock. It even included a photograph purporting to show Tefft at the event.

But there was one major problem with the report by the Kremlin-loyal national television network REN-TV: Tefft was not at the protest in Moscow’s outer Marino district. And the image showing Tefft talking to reporters against the background of the September 20 demonstration was a fabrication.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow responded snarkily to the report on REN-TV’s website, saying Tefft had spent the day at home and publishing photoshopped images showing Tefft speaking to the same reporters against the background of famous historical events -- including U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in 1944 and the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.

Russia’s state-owned and government-loyal media apparatus has long portrayed Russia’s opposition as fifth columnists who do Washington’s bidding, and responses to REN-TV’s posting of the article on Twitter fit this narrative.

“The U.S. is explicitly and openly controlling paid-for opposition events. That’s who Navalny is working for!” one Twitter user responded, in a reference to leading Kremlin critic and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, who was among the rally's organizers:

Following the U.S. Embassy’s response to the article, REN-TV on September 21 slowly walked back its report. First, it edited the report to state that it is “unknown whether these images are real or a common photo montage.” 

A cached version of the original report is still accessible. It reads: “No matter how hard the American diplomat tried to get lost in the crowd, the media asked him why he showed up to this event. The short answer: He came to look at the development of democracy in Russia and judge its scale.”

Later in the day, REN-TV followed up with an item conceding that the photograph was a fake circulated on Twitter and apologized. 

The image of Tefft used in the photo mashup was taken from an interview he gave on February 28 at the site near the Kremlin where Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead the previous day:

Putin and his supporters have accused the United States of orchestrating the ouster of governments and installing pro-Western leaders in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union over the past 15 years, allegations Washington calls baseless.

Tefft, in particular, has been vilified in Russia as a “diplomatic diversionist” who foments unrest in what Moscow perceives as its sphere of influence, including Georgia and Ukraine. 

REN-TV is majority-owned by National Media Group, a pro-Kremlin media conglomerate controlled by Yury Kovalchuk, one of numerous influential businessmen and officials sanctioned by the United States in response to Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. Treasury Department calls Kovalchuk the "personal banker" to senior officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

National Media Group’s board of directors is chaired by former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who has long been rumored to be romantically involved with Putin -- a suggestion that she and Kremlin officials have dismissed and declined to comment on.

Kremlin Spokesman Linked To $7.1 Million House In Latest Navalny Exposé

A blog post by anticorruption blogger Aleksei navalny claims that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov lives in a multimillion-dollar home purchased by his then wife-to-be Tatiana Navka earlier this year.

Mike Eckel

First, it was the watch.

The Kremlin's chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was raked over the coals earlier this year by opposition activists after one of his wedding pictures showed him sporting a wristwatch allegedly worth some $600,000. 

Then came the yacht, a Maltese-flagged vessel available for 350,000 euros per week that Kremlin opponents claim Peskov used for his honeymoon, stoking yet more questions about whether Russian officials use their positions to enrich themselves illicitly. 

Now come reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin's longtime spokesman lives in an 8,400-square-foot house, worth an estimated $7.1 million, in an elite district on Moscow's western outskirts. 

In a September 17 blog post, Russian opposition leader and anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny published photographs of the luxury home and property records showing that it was purchased earlier this year by Peskov's then wife-to-be, Olympic figure-skating champion Tatiana Navka. 

Navalny, who first published the exposés that drove the outcry over Peskov's watch and alleged yacht honeymoon, suggested Navka may have bought the home with funds illegally acquired by the Kremlin spokesman, whose official stated income last year totaled around $137,000.

Navalny called this "the favorite scheme of government bureaucrats."

"First the [bureaucrat] buys expensive real estate in his fiancée's name, and after the wedding you can confidently live in that home, saying: 'Well, my wife bought it before the wedding,'" Navalny wrote. 

Peskov could not be immediately reached for comment and has not responded publicly to the allegation. Reached by the Moscow radio station Govorit Moskva, Navka also refused to comment, calling Navalny a "maniac." 

Navalny and his allies tracked down the home using data embedded in photographs -- known as geo-tags -- sent from an Instagram account used by Peskov's daughter. Using this information, they said they were able to pinpoint where the photographs were posted from.

They then dug up government real estate records that matched the property. The documents, which Navalny published on his blog, show that Navka bought the house in January.

Navalny said the value of the property was calculated using real estate listings for nearby properties, then by figuring the per-unit cost of the land and using an average valuation of other houses in the district.

The luxury dwelling in an elite Moscow neighborhood where Dmitry Peskov and his wife now allegedly reside.
The luxury dwelling in an elite Moscow neighborhood where Dmitry Peskov and his wife now allegedly reside.

​In his trademark sneering commentary, Navalny also quoted remarks Peskov made in April about the importance of fighting corruption.

"But so what? Is it really possible for a bureaucrat so irreconcilably connected to corruption to have to live in a common apartment?" he wrote.

Navalny, a bete noire of the Kremlin, has fueled his political ambitions with exposés of bureaucratic cronyism and political activism, famously dubbing Putin's ruling United Russian party the "party of swindlers and thieves."

A leader of antigovernment protests in 2011-12, he has rallied thousands in the streets of Moscow but is currently serving two suspended sentences on theft and embezzlement convictions. He denies wrongdoing and says the cases against him are politically motivated.

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at