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Belarus: Rocking The Political Boat

NRM in concert back in 2003 (file photo) ( Belarus's opposition will go into election day with a rally-cum-concert in Minsk at which acts banned for their direct or indirect criticism of the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will give headline performances. RFE/RL's resident former Belarusian pop star and the Belarus Service's music critic discuss rock's role in Belarusian politics.

PRAGUE, March 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The main opposition candidate in Belarus's presidential race, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, plans to hold a rally in Minsk on the eve of the March 19 election at which a number of popular rock groups banned by the authorities will play. Music played an important role in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but youth-driven pop culture appears to have less of an influence in Belarus. RFE/RL spoke with Bohdan Andrusyshyn, deputy director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service and himself a pop star in the 1980s and 1990s under the name Danchyk, and with the Belarus Service's music critic Volha Karatkevich about the nature and motivation of the groups, the problems they face, and the importance and place of youth culture in the opposition movement.

RFE/RL: What's the status of the concert at this point? Have they received permission to proceed?

"Yes, I'm afraid. But, you know, it's a very nice word, democracy." Alyaksandr Kulinkovich of Neuro-Dubel

Bohdan Andrusyshyn: The city's governing body has given them permission; they will be starting at 5 p.m. Minsk time. They did give permission. And Milinkevich is slated to speak there. So it's on, and it should happen, now that permission has been granted. There's no reason to think it won't happen.

RFE/RL: The concert comes on the eve of the presidential election. Is there reason to expect any kind of unrest?

Volha Karatkevich: I talked to some of the musicians about this, and they said, "We were wondering why this concert was allowed, and we think it may be a provocation by the authorities." They're a little afraid.

Andrusyshyn: We can only speculate that this might be a test for the authorities to see how many people -- Milinkevich supporters -- might then turn up on Sunday night [when Milinkevich has called for a postelection rally].

Playing For A Dream Republic?

RFE/RL: Volha Karatkevich (left) and Bohdan Andrusyshyn The bands scheduled to perform at the concert are some of Belarus's most prominent alternative groups. Two of them -- NRM and Neuro-Dubel -- performed at the March 5 concert in Warsaw in support of the Belarusian opposition. What can you tell us about these groups?

Karatkevich: NRM stands for "Independent Dream Republic," in Belarusian. This is a very old and well-known band, and they use the Belarusian language exclusively. They are extremely popular not only in Belarus, but in Poland, in Germany, and in Lithuania. In Ukraine, they took part in the concert on the Maydan [Kyiv's Independence Square] during the Orange Revolution.

RFE/RL: What about Neuro-Dubel -- a name that literally means something like "neuro-hammer"?

Karatkevich: Theirs is a very interesting story, because they started singing in Belarusian only two years ago, and their new album, "Tanki," won a prize at a rock festival. They were invited to sing in Russia like some other Belarusian groups, but they decided to stay in Belarus and they started singing in Belarusian and show their Belarusian character.

The Importance Of Belarusian

RFE/RL: When a band in Belarus decides to perform in Belarusian, what are they saying to their audience? What does that signify?

Karatkevich: Nothing, because it's their native language.

RFE/RL: It's not a political decision?

Karatkevich: In every field, it's a political decision. To write in Belarusian, to speak in Belarusian on the tram, or anything like this -- because of the status of the Belarusian language. But for NRM it was normal because Lavon Volski, the lead singer, is the son of a Belarusian writer, and this was from his family; it was natural for him. For Neuro-Dubel, it was of course a [deliberate] decision.

Andrusyshyn: I'd say that language in Belarus is political, and if you speak in Belarusian or you sing in Belarusian, even if you're not a political person you're making a political statement because of the decades of widespread Russification there. You're saying that you are Belarusian, that you're aware of your uniqueness, you're a representative of this unique nation, with a culture, with a history, with a heritage, that you're not just part of some Slavic mass.

I could talk about my experience a little bit. When I first went to Belarus [Andrusyshyn was born in the United States], I didn't consider myself a particularly political person. But when I went there and I sang and I spoke in Belarusian and not in Russian, the audiences that were drawn to me were audiences that came from a particular part of the political spectrum -- [in favor of] reform, democracy. In my experience, it was a two-way thing. The audience politicizes the artist, and the artist politicizes the audience, by using language. But I don't think it says anything necessarily about whom they support. They may just sing in Belarusian, but they're not necessarily Milinkevich supporters.

Karatkevich: The Ministry of Information decided that 75 percent of what FM stations in Minsk should play must be Belarusian music. But mostly they play Russian-speaking pop bands. Not these bands [like NRM and others]. They're not allowed. And people who aren't engaged in these political issues, they say they don't know about these bands. When I talk to my friends -- for example, businessmen -- and I give them these CDs, they say, "Oh, you have great music in Belarusian." They don't know about it, because TV stations, radio stations, don't play them.

RFE/RL: Whom do you expect to see at this concert? Will they be young people?

Karatkevich: Not just them. I think people -- how would you put it? -- the protesting mass will be there. The kind of protesting mass who are ready to go out on Sunday [March 19, the day of the election] and who met with Milinkevich at the beginning of March when he held a number of rallies.

Andrusyshyn: People who are ready for change.

For And Against Batska

RFE/RL: Woman with a pram against a billboard emblazoned simply 'Belarus' Political youth groups and popular music played a large role in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. You don't really see as much youth-driven opposition right now in Belarus. But would you say that the youth movement, and the role of rock music, are much the same as in Ukraine?

Karatkevich: I would say yes. Because when I visit concerts in Belarus with young people, they stand and sing [the NRM song] "Partisans." That is a political act. They know the words, they know the songs. That's what they sing -- and they choose these songs specifically.

Andrusyshyn: But, on the other hand, national consciousness is just not as high in Belarus as it is in Ukraine. And that's certainly true of the youth too. And then you have the Belarusian Patriotic Youth Union (BPSM), the government organization. They don't get thrown out of universities. There's a lot of pressure if you're going to be part of the Belarusian-speaking opposition. You're going to get yourself in trouble, and you can run into a lot of sanctions. In Ukraine, the scenario was very different.

Karatkevich: Now there is an official campaign in Belarus -- "For Belarus, For Batska" -- "batska" (father) is a name for Lukashenka -- and they invite very expensive Russian singers, Russian stars [to perform in Belarus as part of the campaign]. It's extremely expensive. And there was a scandal with a very famous Belarusian group – Syabry (Friends). They sang a song with lyrics like "For Batska, listen to Batska, do what Batska says," and that caused a big scandal. We know that these people are paid by Lukashenka, they have flats, they have the opportunity to sing, to have an audience. So they support him. But that was too much -- "do what Batska says." That was just too much.

Andrusyshyn: It's probably worth mentioning that a lot of these [opposition] groups appeared at a concert in the summer of 2004 in the same Bangalore Square [where the March 18 concert is due to be held]. And that was when Lukashenka's 10 years [as president] were up. This was a concert to bid him farewell. And then of course he made the referendum in the fall and got another term in office. So, after that, a lot of them were unofficially banned from state radio and from FM stations, and they have had great difficulties in getting concert venues, or if they have managed to get something, then very often at the last minute there will be some kind of a fire hazard announced or something and it's been cancelled. They don't have any kind of access to television. Why people do know them, though, is that they can put out CDs, and those CDs are sold in the stores. They perform mostly abroad.

Rock Is Protest

RFE/RL: Neuro-Dubel in concert in 2003 (Bymedia) Are the lyrics of bands like NRM and others -- like the relatively new band IQ-48 -- overtly political?

Karatkevich: Everybody who plays rock is into social topics, political topics. Rock is protest. Everywhere. Not only in Belarus.

Andrusyshyn: And they're artists. Their aim is to produce good music. And they happen to want to do it in their own language, because the members of these particular groups are people who identify with the Belarusian nation as something distinctive and unique. I know NRM's Volski said he wouldn't even sing in English, even though that might give them a door to a broader international market. He prefers to sing in his own language.

Karatkevich: We had an online interview with Volski, and he said, "I don't support any candidates. I just play for people." And yesterday, I talked to [Alyaksandr] Kulinkovich of Neuro-Dubel and I asked him whether he was afraid to go to Bangalore Square on [March 18]. And he said; "Yes, I'm afraid. But you know, it's a very nice word, democracy. And I convinced my people to go there." Because people in these bands aren't professionals, you know. Some work in factories, some work in universities, and they can lose their jobs after this. They're not paid by the state, they're not commercial. But Dubel said: "I convinced my guys to come and sing for democracy, not for a specific candidate."

Hear The Music

Hear The Music

Lavon Volski of NRM speaking to listeners of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on February 15, 2006 (RFE/RL)

A DREAM REPUBLIC: RFE/RL is pleased to present short excerpts from some of the songs that are playing a role in the presidential-election campaign.

An excerpt from IQ-48's "Vyjscie":
Real Audio Windows Media

Another excerpt from "Vyjscie":
Real Audio Windows Media

A third excerpt from "Vyjscie":
Real Audio Windows Media

An excerpt from NRM's "Partyzanskaja":
Real Audio Windows Media

A second excerpt from "Partyzanskaja":
Real Audio Windows Media

An excerpt from Neuro Dubel's "Tanki":
Real Audio Windows Media

Another excerpt from "Tanki":
Real Audio Windows Media

Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.

MEET THE CANDIDATES: Read brief biographies of the four candidates in the March 19 election.

Click on the image to view RFE/RL's coverage of the election campaign in Belarusian and to listen to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.

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