Mid April 2010 in Minsk, Belarus, is the time for the local elections and annual Chernobyl March (see video of Chernobyl March here) dedicated to the anniversary of Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. None of these is the synonym of democracy in this Eastern European country. The march was fully accompanied by policemen - militiamen - while special agents were filming every step of the two-thousand-activist crowd. There were more than 21,000 seats for the local government to select a candidate for, but only 9 independent candidates were chosen. Opposition accuses government of having committed a massive vote fraud.
While I went to Minsk it was still quite cold comparing to my home town. The huge clean city was waiting for me so I could find out more about "the last dictatorship in Europe" as it is called in „Lonely Planet”. I had the chance to meet many of active people and learn a lot from them. So this is the first lesson about democracy I took from Belarus. Here we come – Ales Piletski.
Polish readers can read the full interview here (Ales says more about what it means to be a journalist in Belarus)
Ales Piletski is a journalist for the independent magazine „Nasha Niva”,
one of the oldest Belarusian weekly newspapers. Nowadays the newspaper
„in Belarus is a symbol of independence on the one hand and an island of freedom on the other”
- as Vaclav Havel said while giving the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award in 2003.
Ales was born in 1984, in 2007-2009 he was studying Eastern Studies at the University of Warsaw.
What does your newspaper write about?
„Nasha Niva” covers everything that is connected with Belarusian language, culture, literature etc. Apart from „Nasha Niva”, there is no other purely Belarusian newspaper or internet portal. But for me, language is not so important. I would like to work on different levels...
What is more important for you?
For me more important than language is to tell people that they are able to do something. They don't need to do everything in Belarusian. In my opinion, democracy is more important than national culture. Freedom is more important than language, especially now, in the time of globalisation. When democracy comes, there will be space for promotion of national culture. Isn't it strange that the only TV in Belarusian language is broadcasting from Poland, that the TV is Polish? But it is so, because now I can't go to register an independent newspaper or TV. Nobody will register it. However, in free Belarus it will be possible, no one will be able to stop me from doing that.
How can foreign NGOs help to promote democracy in Belarus?
Education. If I hadn't received the good education in Warsaw, I wouldn't have started to work for an independent newspaper or translate banned literature. I learnt a lot about democracy during my studies, my stay in Poland or visits to Czech. Now I understand more. Many people from the opposition still do not understand what democracy is, even though they fight for it. Now I'm doing a project with the Arche magazine. I make a research about activists' attitude to the civil society term. In the end it will be a book containing interviews with famous people. And I'm shocked, because I have discovered that in Belarus people do not understand what civil society means, even if they work for it.
What does civil society mean for you?
For me it is the people's ability to do something without the state, the ability to defend their rights without court or authorities. Let me tell you one example: If I want to plant trees in front of my house, I just go to my neighbours and ask them if it's OK that I will do that. So we go and plant the trees together. However, in Belarus, people first go to the local authorities. They don't even go to their neighbours to ask if they agree with it.
And what does civil society mean for activists you spoke to?
For most of them, democracy means elections. From their point of view, civil society and elections means the same, there is no difference. But it is not the same. Democracy without civil society is not possible. Democracy doesn't only mean free elections. It is also the capacity of a majority to understand and respect minorities. If majority in Belarus decides without minorities' opinions, we will always have a president like Lukashenko here. He is the president of a majority, without any doubt. But it doesn't mean that we have democracy in Belarus. Another thing is that people from the opposition sometimes say that they don't want that homosexuals come to the demonstrations or meetings of opposition. They say: we don't like them and we would like that police take them away. It's frightening. When I think that this kind of people will lead my country in free Belarus, I'm scared. It means that nothing will change. Therefore, in my opinion, the most important thing is to change people's way of thinking.
How would you describe Belarusian Society?
As I said before, Lukashenka and all that we have comes from the people. The nation is like this – sovieticus people do not believe in themselves. They only wait that the state will do something for them, will give something to them. All the time they complain. For example, instead of learning English to get a better job, they prefer to wait in the queue for cheap credits or a free flat from government. Journalists also choose to work in the national newspaper rather than an independent one. They can earn more money there, more people read them (national edition is 50 000 and independent – 7 000). Sometimes I have the feeling that nobody reads our newspaper, nobody needs it, that we are active only for ourselves. Only once in my life I could feel that somebody needs us. It was in the tent city in 2006, after the elections. We were staying in the tents for a few days. There was 5 hundred of us. At that time people were coming and saying thank you. They brought us chocolate. But it was only once. We are mostly young people. Among activists, most people are under 30. For us, it is something exciting, a revolution. However, a man fights for a moment and then he goes to work in the bank, has a wife and kids, gets a credit, buys a car. He will never vote for Lukashenko, but nor will he go to demonstrate to stop this government we have. Therefore we need a generation to change people´s ways of thinking.
Chernobyl Way 2010, Minsk