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Belarus: Writers Critical Of State Agency Taking Over Literary Magazines

The Belarusian authorities last week created a new state agency to help manage the affairs of several of the country's best-known literary magazines. The magazines are small but publish the works of some of Belarus's top writers, many of whom are critical of the Minsk government. The authorities say the magazines are poorly managed and need the government's help to stay afloat. The editors of the magazines say they fear for their jobs and that the new agency is simply an attempt to quell voices of dissent.

Prague, 24 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian Ministry of Information last week announced the establishment of the Office of Literature and Art. The new agency will manage and publish several literary magazines -- "Polymya," "Maladosts," "Krynitsa," "Neman," and "Vsemirnaya Literature" -- that had been operated by the Belarusian Union of Writers.

Syarhey Kastsyan, a member of the Belarusian parliament, was appointed to head the new office. Speaking to the Belarusian daily "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," Kastsyan introduced himself as a man who has been in touch with art for a long time. "I used to work with writers and artists from my youth," Kastsyan said. "At that time, I was a Komsomol [a member of the Communist Youth Organization] and Communist Party official."

Kastsyan said his plans are to place the magazines on a sound financial basis and find new readers. Kastsyan also said he believes new writers must appear in the magazines.

Belarusian editors, writers, and opposition figures, however, say the move is aimed at stricter control of cultural life in Belarus. They say the authorities in Minsk are trying to prevent contributors critical of the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka from being published.

Alla Kanapelka is editor in chief of "Krynitsa," which has a circulation of about 750. Kanapelka told RFE/RL that, until now, "Krynitsa" had been formally supported by the state. However, she says the magazine hasn't received any money from the authorities this year. She says the staff has been working without pay but has managed to publish three issues this year. She says "Krynitsa" is not interested in politics and that its content concentrates mainly on literature and culture.

Kanapelka says representatives from the new Office of Literature and Art visited "Krynitsa's" offices recently and that she is afraid she may lose her job. Kanapelka was asked what kind of criticisms were voiced by the new managers: "No reproaches were made. They only said that our magazine is losing money, has a small circulation, and that the financial situation is hard. This is an absolute truth."

Kanapelka says the authorities are promising more subsidies and new equipment to "Krynitsa" as part of the Office of Literature and Art. However, she says "Krynitsa" and the other magazines will not be separate legal entities and will not belong to the Union of Belarusian Writers.

Some Belarusian writers believe the reorganization is really aimed at preventing the publication of authors critical of the Belarusian authorities.

Vladimir Nekliayev is a Belarusian poet, former chairman of the Belarusian Union of Writers and a former editor of "Krynica." Nekliayev, who recently emigrated to Finland, is one of those who are critical of the Office of Literature and Art. He told RFE/RL that the creation of the new entity is a punishment to literary journals for publishing the work of such independent authors as Vasil Bykau, Aleksei Dudarev, and Nekliayev himself.

Nekliayev said there are no prominent literary figures in Belarus who support the authorities and that the government is, in effect, trying to create some of its own.

"One of the ideas that pushed forward the creation of the agency (Office of Literature and Art) is to change the literary hierarchy [in Belarus] and create some new names in literature [that are loyal to the authorities] out of nothing."

Nekliayev said he had tried to privatize "Krynitsa" while he was its editor, but was refused because of what he called legal reasons, but which he believes simply hid the real motives of Belarusian authorities. "The authorities cannot let a literature magazine, which they think is an ideological enterprise, fall into private hands."

Writer Vasil Bykau -- best-known for his novels "A Sign of Disaster" and "The Dead Do Not Feel Pain" -- has also been critical of the Belarusian authorities.

Bykau -- who is living in exile in Germany -- told RFE/RL he is certain that creation of the Office of Literature and Art means the editors of the magazines will be expected to be loyal to the authorities in Minsk and that there will be fewer opportunities for Belarusian writers to be published in their own country.

He says the main problem is the negative attitude in the upper echelons of government to Belarusian culture. He says the authorities in Minsk are seeking greater integration with Russia and are hostile to the spread of Belarusian culture. He says he believes the takeover of the magazines is only the first of many discriminatory measures to come.

"The authorities took away property of the Union of Writers, namely the Writers Palace, which was build by the money of the Writers Union, and so the writers lost part of their income. Now the turn has come for the literary magazines, which were also published by the Union of Writers."

Kastsyan, the new head of the Office of Literature and Art, says he considers Bykau's work to be old-fashioned and predicts he will eventually have to return from exile.

"Nobody needs him there," Kastsyan said. "He has also lost his stature here [in Belarus]. Nobody wants to read him, even in schools. We must accept that the books written in the Belarusian language are not successful in the country. They are practically not published."

Bykau says books in the Belarusian language are not popular simply because they are not available and that it is state policy not to support the Belarusian culture.