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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 1, 2006

September 1, 2006, Volume 8, Number 30
WILL WRITERS BOW TO GOVERNMENT? The Union of Belarusian Writers (SPB) was evicted from its headquarters in Minsk on August 30 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 August 30.

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.

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 members 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."

In the end, however, a special council of SPB members gathered at the House of Writers for a final time on August 30. 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.

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."

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. (Jan Maksymiuk)

MINSK NOT SEEN AS POPULAR TRAVEL DESTINATION. More often than not, Belarus makes the headlines for its political repression, rather than as an attractive travel destination.

According to official statistics, 36,000 foreign tourists came to Belarus in the first quarter of 2006. Most of them came from neighboring Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states.

Most popular is Minsk, Belarus's capital, which attracted some 26,000 tourists in that period.

The number is very small when compared to Belarus's neighbors. Last year, some 3.5 million tourists visited Latvia and more than 2 million came to Lithuania.

The head of Latvia's State Tourism Agency, Valdis Vitalns, says Belarus invests too little money in tourist infrastructure and creates too many bureaucratic hassles for potential visitors.

Many Belarusians seem to agree. One young man, who declined to give his name, tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service in Minsk: "We have no infrastructure. You come to Mir [a medieval castle near Minsk] and, I am sorry to say, there is no toilet there. Why should people come here?"

A young woman says the authorities should allocate more money for advertising. She says that since foreigners know very little about Belarusian history and culture, they have no desire to visit the country.

"We simply need more promotion," she says. "We need to promote such places of interest such as the Mir Castle. Then I think we will have more tourists."

Belarusian officials say they are trying to fix the situation. Viktor Yankovenka, chief tourism expert at the Ministry of Sport and Tourism in Minsk, told the Belarusian news agency Belapan that officials want tourists to feel more comfortable in Belarus.

Yankovenka said that starting in the fall, new information points will appear in Minsk, informing visitors of city highlights. He said that in the next few years, Belarus will have new motels, camping grounds, cafes, and parking lots.

He also announced that travel agencies that fail to attract tourists will be closed.

Others from Minsk say that the environment keeps foreigners away. Belarus was heavily affected by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident.

"The main reason [why tourists are not coming] is the accident at the Chornobyl nuclear plant," one young man says. "People are not coming here because they are afraid of radiation."

But perhaps the problem lies deeper. A young woman from Minsk, who also declines to give her name, says the problem is Belarus's general image, which is seen as undemocratic in the West. "They [tourists] do not like our regime," she says.

Western countries have denounced as fraudulent Belarus's March 19 presidential election, in which Alyaksandr Lukashenka was reelected. The authorities have been widely accused of violating human rights and restricting political freedoms.

Meanwhile, the number of Belarusians traveling abroad is decreasing. In the first quarter of this year, some 224,000 Belarusians went abroad, 10,000 less than in the first quarter of 2005. (RFE/RL's Newsroom, based on material from RFE/RL's Belarus Service)