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Belarus: Writers Refuse To Bow To Government

Members of the Union of Belarusian Writers empty their rooms (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, August 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Union of Belarusian Writers (SPB) was evicted from its headquarters in Minsk today because of a dispute over unpaid rent with the presidential administration. The eviction is widely seen as a premeditated measure by Belarusian authorities to limit and marginalize the public significance of an organization still perceived as a rare model of intellectual independence in a country controlled by an authoritarian regime.

The SPB was first ordered to vacate its headquarters at the House of Writers last week, but was given a brief respite when the presidential administration postponed the eviction until today.

Until nine years ago, the House of Writers -- a three-story building in downtown Minsk -- belonged entirely to the SPB, an organization founded in 1934.

But in 1997, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree handing control of the property to his administration's property management department. From that point on, building space began to be rented out to various organizations and commercial firms.

Payment Due

The property managers made clear they also expected the SPB to begin paying rent. The union refused, saying its writers' royalties had contributed to constructing the building in the first place.

So when the union's lease agreement on the House of Writers expired in January 2003, the presidential administration declined to renew it. Union members, however, refused to leave.

Thus began a court dispute that ended earlier this year with a court ordering the SPB to vacate the premises and pay the president's office more than $20,000 in compensation for lingering past the expiration of its lease.

Belarusian writer and SPB member Volha Ipatava initially proposed that the union make a public appeal to raise the required sum.

"When they who owe us many millions for our house demand $23,000 from us, I think that we need to collect this sum," Ipatava said. "And we will collect it. We should remain in the House of Writers, because it's a really sacred place for us -- in contrast to them. They're going to make some kind of entertainment structure out of it."

Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich also suggested that the SPB should try to raise money in order to keep its office.

"There are two options. First, to fight to the end for one's own honor and the truth -- because it is unjust to pay this money -- and to find oneself on the street," Milinkevich said. "To do so would mean to lose this remarkable house. The second option is to begin paying, even if the verdict is unjust. In this case, we would preserve the most spiritual thing that we have. I am in favor of the second option. The world is not without good people, both in Belarus and abroad, and we all are able to stand together and to show that it is not so easy to break us."

Final Gathering

In search of a new home (RFE/RL)

In the end, however, a special council of SPB members gathered at the House of Writers for a final time today. They decided to forgo any further negotiations on their eviction, and to vacate their historic headquarters.

The decision was a disappointing milestone in the union's struggle with Lukashenka, which began shortly after his presidential inauguration in 1994.

Belarusian writers welcomed en masse official plans to revive the Belarusian language after the former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991. SPB members wrote mostly in Belarusian, and were delighted at the thought of a language revival.

Three years later, they were no doubt shocked to hear their first president declare that such efforts were of no value.

It's a statement that's become notorious among supporters of the Belarusian language: "The people who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speaking the Belarusian language, because it is impossible to express anything great in Belarusian," Lukashenka declared in December 1994.

"Belarusian is a poor language," he added, before delivering his final verdict. "There are only two great languages in the world -- Russian and English."

A referendum in 1995 gave Russian official status in Belarus, along with Belarusian. In practice, the decision meant that Belarusian was once again relegated to secondary status, deprived of any real opportunity to achieve widespread public use.

At the same time, the government began to gradually limit its subsidies to publishing houses and authors producing texts in Belarusian.

Takeover Timeline

In 2001, the government ceased to finance the SPB altogether. State-controlled media began to portray the writers union as a nationalistic organization hostile to the president's policies.

In 2002, the government attempted to take control of the SPB. A group of writers, at the apparent behest of the government, tried to replace the SPB leadership with a more compliant group that could provide a sort of intellectual support for the ruling regime.

But the SPB that year managed to elect one of its own to serve as its chairman -- 30-year-old novelist Ales Pashkevich. Pashkevich refused to bow to the will of the authorities -- an uncompromising stance that apparently recently cost him his job at Belarusian State University.

In 2005, the government tried a new tactic, creating an alternative group to the SPB -- the almost identically named Union of Writers of Belarus.

Its chairman, Mikalay Charhinets, is both a lawmaker and a Russian-language novelist. He has done little to conceal that his organization is ideologically driven and in full support of Lukashenka's program of re-Sovietization and re-Russification.

"I was brought up in a Russian-speaking environment," Charhinets has admitted in interviews. "I have never considered myself Belarusian."

Official Victory

The current eviction of the SPB from its headquarters appears to be just another official measure to quash political dissent among the intellectual elite in Belarus.

Many people in Minsk told RFE/RL's Belarus Service they were appalled by the forced eviction:

"I have no words for that. It's an absurdity. Most likely there is no other country in the world where such things happen," said one Belarusian woman. "Writers everywhere are highly esteemed and respected. Here, meanwhile, we watch as our pride is trampled down in the dirt."

Another interlocutor was no less categorical.

"Seizing the building by the presidential administration is an act of dictatorial violence," she said. "It is a step into nothingness."

Such opinions, however, are unlikely to carry much weight with the current Belarusian authorities. There is little that Belarusians can do to support their uncompromising writers, other than to continue buying and reading their books.

Reluctance to publish in Belarusian has led to a significant drop-off in the number of Belarusian-language publications. But the situation is not yet hopeless. Private publishing companies have filled the gap, printing four-fifths of the 500 Belarusian-language books printed in Belarus in the first half of 2006.

The Media In Belarus

The Media In Belarus

'A CENTRAL-ASIAN LEVEL OF PRESS FREEDOM': The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls the current conditions for journalists in Belarus "frightening."

CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator ALEX LUPIS, who had just returned from a trip to Belarus, told an RFE/RL briefing on 15 February that he found conditions that make it almost impossible for journalists to report independently on the campaign leading to the country's 19 March presidential election.

Lupis said the Belarusian government is "criminalizing" independent journalism, and forcing journalists to leave the country, change professions or join the state-controlled media. There is a "Cold War atmosphere" in Belarus, Lupis said, adding that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka makes up the rules of the game. The Internet, he said, is the "last free outlet" where independent journalists can publish, but Russia and Belarus are updating their media laws in order to restrict Internet usage. Numerous journalists with whom Lupis spoke said that they miss the support they used to receive from nongovernmental organizations such as IREX and Internews, which were once active in Belarus.

Lupis believes that the government in Belarus bans independent journalism because it fundamentally "mistrusts its own people."

Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
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See these RFE/RL stories on the media in Belarus:

Independent Newspaper Struggles Against State Interference

EU-Funded Media Broadcasts To Start Before March Elections

Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote

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

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.