15 July 2005, Volume 7, Number 26
BELARUSFILM ABOUT PARTISANS GOES AGAINST OFFICIAL GRAIN. The 40th international film festival in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, in early July showed a rare bird in the world of cinema: a Belarusian feature film. The film, which bears the double title "Occupation -- Mystery Plays," failed to win a prize at the festival, but its 33-year-old director, Andrey Kudzinenka, did not appear to have been particularly upset by that fact.
The film had already been shown at festivals in Russia, the Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Estonia, Ukraine, and quite recently in Poland, where it won an award. Kudzinenka told RFE/RL that he did not expect any recognition in Karlovy Vary two years after his film was released.
Kudzinenka's 90-minute film is actually a collection of three separate novellas -- the "mystery plays" of the title -- named in their successive order as "Adam and Eve," "Mother," and "Father." The novellas depict western Belarus under the Nazi occupation in 1942 but -- like medieval "mystery plays" that were based on Biblical stories -- they are not without deeper, "Biblical" undertones.
Kudzinenka shot the film with a digital camera and subsequently copied it to celluloid. He says he is unable to estimate the total budget of the film, which was supported by a grant from the Netherlands, but its production costs were surely below $50,000.
"Adam and Eve" shows a Belarusian youth named Adam being recruited for the anti-Nazi guerillas by a Russian partisan. The Russian simultaneously gives Adam his first combat assignment -- to execute a fellow villager who defected from the guerillas to live a peaceful, even if physically exhausting life with his mistress Eve, a nymphomaniac Pole. Unable to resist Eve's lascivious charms, Adam obtains his first sexual experience and kills the Russian, while the fellow villager hangs himself in fear of the partisans' revenge. Adam stays with Eve, forgetting the partisans' cause.
This frivolous story alone could be anathema to Belarusian censors, as the guerilla war against the Nazi invaders in World War II has become an officially consecrated myth in Belarus. According to official sources, some 350,000 people took to Belarus's forests to fight the Nazis.
In official Belarusian postwar historiography, the Soviet guerillas were portrayed as an ideologically driven nationwide resistance movement against the Nazi occupation and for the return of the much-coveted Soviet Union. No erotic frolics, even in the context of the most unambiguous sacrifice for the liberation cause, were allowed in films about partisans made by the state filmmaker Belarusfilm, which was dubbed "Partisanfilm" in the Soviet era for its huge output of war pictures.
Kudzinenka's second novella appears to be even more controversial than the first. A child living with a mute mother is run over by two Germans on a motorcycle and dies. Partisans kill one German and wound the other but fail to find him. The Belarusian mother treats the wounded Nazi, feeding him with milk from her own breast. After the Nazi is back on his feet, he leaves for his unit while the mother goes apparently insane out of grief and burns herself in her house.
Initially, Kudzinenka's film obtained an official go-ahead for distribution in Belarus. But the authorities changed their decision after the movie was qualified to be shown at an international film festival in Moscow last year. It was the first time that a Belarusian movie was presented at that forum. Kudzinenka believes that the authorities were envious that his film was made by an independent filmmaker, not by Belarusfilm. Moreover, Kudzinenka says the authorities were worried that his film would seriously undermine the official Belarusian mythology about the Soviet partisans.
However, he is in two minds about the ban on his film in Belarus. "[The authorities] revoked the [distribution] license -- on one hand, they did a very bad thing, because we made the film primarily for Belarusians, who are the only people capable of spotting all the subtleties in it," Kudzinenka said. "But on the other, they [simultaneously] made publicity for the film."
In the third novella, a small boy longs for his father who left their village before the war, when it was in Poland, for the Soviet Union and never returned. The boy's mother lives with a Belarusian policemen, that is, with a Nazi collaborator. A partisan turns up claiming to be the boy's father and exploits the boy's affection for him to facilitate his comrades' way into the boy's house in order to kill the collaborator.
Another partisan, with ostensibly Asiatic features, slits the throats of the policeman and the boy's mother, only to be subsequently knifed to death by his comrade-in-arms, a Belarusian who boasts that his great-grandfather participated in an anti-Russian uprising in the 19th century. "My great-grandfather did not fight [the Russians] so that some Turks could slit the throats of our women," the Belarusian says after the slaughter ends.
Kudzinenka says he was given a peculiarly worded official explanation of the ban on his film in Belarus. "They wrote verbatim the following: 'The film does not correspond to the real truth, it can insult the sensitivities of war veterans and make a bad influence on the education of the rising generation.' It is a sort of Soviet formulation, but the most interesting thing in it is the expression 'real truth,'" he said.
It is difficult to figure out what "real-truth" elements are missing from Kudzinenka's film from an official viewpoint, but one aspect of the film seems to be in stark contrast to all partisan movies produced by Belarusfilm. There is no ideology in Kudzinenka's three stories. His heroes choose to join or abandon the warring sides, be it Soviets or Germans, not for ideological reasons but to pursue purely private goals and impulses. In this they seem to be closer to real life, even if simultaneously further away from the "real truth" of the official myth.
The Belarusian weekly "Nasha Niva" hailed the release of "Occupation -- Mystery Plays" as the birth of independent, de-Sovietized Belarusian cinema. The film, a rarity in Belarus because of its independent production and demythologizing bite, is even rarer because of its original use of the Belarusian language. Prior to Kudzinenka's movie, virtually all feature films in Belarus were made in Russian and only sporadically dubbed into Belarusian. (Jan Maksymiuk)
POLICE OFTEN ACCUSED OF BRUTALITY. Belarusian human rights activists say police are using brutality and excessive force to disperse antigovernment protests. In the latest development, a policeman reportedly struck the wife of a missing journalist in the face during a peaceful street demonstration. Rights watchdogs say abuse by police has become routine in Belarus. Opinion polls show that law enforcement is the most unpopular institution in the country.
Svyatlana Zavadskaya was holding a photograph of her husband, Dzmitry Zavadski, a journalist who vanished under mysterious circumstances five years ago.
But she says that didn't prevent a policeman from hitting her in the face on 7 July as she was taking part in a peaceful antigovernment protest on the anniversary of her husband's disappearance.
"People were literally scared. They were shouting: 'She is the wife, the wife. Don't touch her; she is the wife. They are [Zavadski's] relatives.' There was complete silence; everybody was shocked. I think everyone took it to mean that if they hit me, anybody else could just be trampled or shot," Zavadskaya said.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry denies Zavadskaya's account of the incident. They say it was she who attacked the policeman during the demonstration on a central street in the capital Minsk.
But Zavadskaya says she still remembers the face of the police officer who struck her. "I remember that he was of average stature, not very tall. He was very unpleasant," she said. "I don't know how to say it, but he had nothing human in his eyes. He had something brutal in his eyes. He looked as if I had done something wrong to him personally."
The small crowd of some 40 demonstrators was quickly dispersed. But questions persist concerning police conduct. Analysts and other observers say police brutality is commonplace in Belarus.
Tatsyana Protska, the head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, an independent human rights organization, told RFE/RL that antigovernment demonstrations usually end in violence, with protests forcefully dispersed. "Any demonstration, if it opposes the authorities or is not organized by them, ends up in the beating or detention of those who participate," she said.
Protska's organization files regular reports to the UN Human Rights Committee on incidents involving police brutality. She says the special police forces who deal with public demonstrations are particularly violent -- as well as loyal to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
"The president demonstrates his affection to them. On TV, they show the president mixing with them. He comes personally to check various unit, he shoots weapons together with them. He praises them and so on. They have good salaries," Protska said.
But ordinary police officers are guilty of abusive behavior as well. Alyaksandr Sosnou, the deputy director of the Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI), says they often suffer from what he calls a Soviet-style mind-set.
"Usually they don't have enough education and understand very little about life. They may even rob people -- that also happens, especially if the person is drunk or appears to be an intellectual," Sosnou said.
Sosnou says his institute has conducted a number of polls showing that the police are the least popular institution in the country. "We usually ask our respondents if they trust different state and public institutions," he said. "We also ask about the police. As a rule, the police finds themselves at the bottom of the list."
But little change is expected for now. Sosnou says that until Belarus's entire political system is based on democratic principles, there is no reason to expect a reform of law enforcement and police conduct. (Valentinas Mite)
MOLDOVATRANSDNIESTER HEAD SHOWS INTEREST IN KYIV'S SETTLEMENT PLAN. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met in Ukraine on 14 July with Igor Smirnov, leader of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region. According to the Ukrainian president's official website, Smirnov agreed to cooperate with Kyiv in implementing the plan that Yushchenko proposed in April aimed at settling the Transdniester conflict, which has been simmering between Chisinau and Tiraspol since a war between the two sides in 1992.
The Yushchenko plan sets its main objective as the peaceful and democratic reintegration of Moldova within the borders of the Moldovan SSR as of 1 January 1990.
The entire territory would fall under the constitutional system of the Republic of Moldova, but the separatist region of Transdniester would be granted "special status."
Chisinau seems unlikely to embrace such a plan wholeheartedly.
Moldovan Parliamentary Deputy Speaker Iurie Rosca suggested as much when he commented on the Transdniester conflict settlement for RFE/RL's Romanian Service earlier this week: "The Moldovan authorities do not want to negotiate with the criminals from Tiraspol because they represent the 'tools' of the Russian Federation in the region. Therefore, it's not rational for us to negotiate with the 'tools' but with the ones who 'handle' the tools -- meaning, with the administration of the Russian Federation. The Republic of Moldova wants to discuss this with its partners from Moscow even if this dialogue is a difficult one. To continue unfruitful discussions with Smirnov's separatists is also counterproductive and ridiculous for us. And I hope that that's something that will be understood more clearly also in other capitals of the world, not only in Moscow."
The plan's 18-month time frame proposes the Moldovan parliament pass by August a law defining Transdniester's status as an autonomous entity within Moldova.
It also calls for democratic elections to the Transdniester legislature under international monitoring by November, and for the clear division of authority between the central and autonomous government bodies.
The plan gives Tiraspol the right to participate in any foreign policy decisions by Chisinau that affect Transdniester's interests. The plan also stipulates Transdniester has the right to secede if Moldova joins another state or ceases to be a subject of international law.
This last provision appears to address the fear of Transdniestrians that Moldova may reunite with Romania at some time in the future.
The Moldovan parliament in June overwhelmingly endorsed the Yushchenko plan, but it added one important condition: that Russia withdraw its military contingent from Transdniester by 2006.
Russian currently has some 500 servicemen in the so-called security zone along the Dniester River separating Transdniester from the rest of Moldova.
Chisinau's apparent eagerness to resolve the Transdniestrian issue without Tiraspol, on the other hand, may not work with Moscow, which wants the separatist region to be treated as an equal partner in the negotiations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said recently that the Transdniester settlement is possible only if both sides participate in the negotiations. He slammed Chisinau for its reluctance to speak with Tiraspol:
"The impression is that the Moldovan authorities are trying to do everything possible and impossible not only to block the Transdniester settlement -- they boycott every attempt to resume the negotiation process -- but also to damage Russian-Moldovan relations even more," Lavrov said.
Tiraspol was initially hostile to the Yushchenko plan, reportedly fearing that its hidden purpose was to replace Russian troops in the region with NATO forces. But Smirnov's apparent consent to the plan more recently represents a significant step forward.
Yushchenko and Smirnov also agreed to invite representatives of the European Union and the United States to take part in negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol, which has so far been brokered by Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Both politicians also decided to set up a working group to formulate criteria for democratizing Transdniester and ensure a transparent electoral process there.
However, the Yushchenko-Smirnov agreement might be not enough to ensure that Chisinau and Tiraspol start talking about practical steps to implement the plan.
A Moldovan delegation to a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE in Washington on 1-5 July staged a walkout to protest an adopted resolution on the Transdniester-conflict settlement.
The delegation reportedly demanded that the Tiraspol administration be referred to in the resolution as "separatist" and "criminal."
Ukraine's prominent role in brokering a deal between Chisinau and Tiraspol is obviously a consequence of Kyiv's vigorous pro-European policies that followed the 2004 Orange Revolution and the installation of Yushchenko as president.
But Kyiv is also keenly interested in the fate of some 200,000 Ukrainians who live in Transdniester. Yushchenko's website reported that he and Smirnov, apart from political issues, also discussed the supply of Ukrainian textbooks to Ukrainian-language schools in Transdniester and quotas for students from Transdniester at Ukrainian universities. (Jan Maksymiuk, with contributions from RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service.)
QUOTES OF THE WEEK"I have driven myself into such a dead-end, such a corner that I even cannot afford myself...legally to provide my children with apartments.... I have no money to build them an apartment, even in Minsk. Myself, when I am not president, I have no place to live. But I hope that when I am not president, I will be given some small house. If not, I have hands and legs, I will earn something. I will build myself an apartment. But this is not normal, because I have done a lot for my country. Billions. I can tell where in the country I have put billions of dollars in real money." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in an interview with Russia's TV-Tsentr on 11 July; quoted by Belapan.