For the first time in perhaps a decade, tensions are stirring in Belarus. The country is approaching a general election on August 9th, in which the incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is facing his stiffest challenge for many years.
Lukashenko is a complex character commonly referred to, in much too simplistic a way, as “the last dictator in Europe”. Certainly the highly authoritarian strongman brooks little challenge or dissent, with opposition candidates in presidential elections invariably finding themselves in jail, or worse. As we shall see in this article, his two most credible opponents- bank chief Viktor Babariko, and popular youtuber / blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, have already been incarcerated on fantastical charges whilst a third possible challenger, Valery Tsepkalo, has fled the country with his small children.
The source of Lukashenko’s present challenge is an extraordinary temporary coalition of three women, led by Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Joining Tikhanovskaya on the podium has been Maria Kolesnikova, formerly Viktor Babariko’s campaign manager until he was locked up and then barred from running; and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery , who has a background in Belarus’ booming new IT sector. Together, the three women have attracted an unprecedented amount of support from the public, who have turned out in their thousands to greet them, even in small towns with little history of protest.
The raw optics of the challenge are very telling. Whilst Tikhanovskaya’s reluctant coalition spends time with ordinary voters and leads the singing of Jacek Kaczmarski’s 1970s protest song, The Walls with her colleagues, Lukashenko has spent time mostly with military units, launching a spectacular display of military potential last weekend in the capital, using regular army and Spetsnatz troops. The President is indicating that he will not hesitate to use force if necessary to maintain his grip on power, attempting to frighten the voters into acquiesence.
The roots of Lukashenko’s current trouble, however, are not related to any specific political problem but to a grassroots movement that grew spontaneously in response to his dismissing and trivialising of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, as the world began to take unprecedented measures to combat the global health emergency, Lukashenko was one of very few leaders (he’s in the company of Bolsonaro and Trump) to refuse to stop normal life; he jeered at those suffering as either more susceptible to the disease through being overweight, or being old anyway, whilst describing the world’s response to the frightening new disease as “a mass psychosis”. In an infamous interview in March with a local television reporter, he asked incredulously “You don’t see any viruses flying around here, do you?“
The President’s callousness and indifference to the disease angered many and caused them to begin to organise themselves into a “People’s Lockdown”; if the president would not take controlling measures then they would for themselves. The disease also laid bare the basic inadequacies in the state run health system, with doctors and administrators obliged to crowd fund for urgently needed equipment, in a context of a sclerotic reaction from the official Ministry of Health.
The underlying reason for the state’s refusal to take action- that an ailing economy dominated by state-owned industrial enterprises and collective farms simply could not afford to pay people to stay at home indefinitely- was another reason for criticism to be levelled at the regime, for the economy being too weak to withstand such a crisis. As this article is being written, Lukashenko has claimed to have had and recovered from the virus. These claims are likely to be treated with the same contempt as his earlier observations on mass psychosis.
It’s important to understand this background and something of Lukashenko’s political personality. It’s not enough to call Belarus “the last dictatorship in Europe”, nor to fall back on cheap orientalising observations on collective farming, or still having statues of V.I. Lenin in public spaces. In fact this is a very nuanced regime, variously described on a spectrum between “crony socialism” and “agricultural fascism”.
Historians may in future argue that Lukashenko was a harbinger of the populist age, with his cheap and easy slogans, warm sounding words about a prosperous shared future without any clear plan to get there, and near-unique blend of the cultural and visual forms of Soviet Socialism with the pieties of the Orthodox Church; a nod and a wink towards the Belarusian language and culture whilst remaining rooted in the base certainties of a Soviet understanding of Belarusian history and national character. Lukashenko’s genuine emotion in attending the delayed May 9 (Victory Day) celebrations in Moscow, in June, is clear enough recent evidence of that.
The difference between Lukashenko and contemporaries like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Serbia’s Aleksandr Vučić is that whilst the latter authoritarian populists are both masters of the new digital landscapes that have formed in the twenty first century, Lukashenko is very much an analogue populist yet to work out that the old forms of messaging control- the television and the press-are increasingly less relevant. Whilst he is aware of the power of blogging, vlogging and independent media, by arresting over ten independent bloggers in recent months and forcing several others to flee abroad, he shows little interest in trying to engage meaningfully on-line.
This digital illiteracy is likely to play a major factor in any future endgame. The unusual pressure that he is under was shown in a “last appeal” type-speech delivered to the people of Belarus on national television on the morning of 4 August, with the president looking tired and ill, and delivering rambling, disconnected asides on betrayal and a possible ending of his much-vaunted national “stability”.
There are many excellent places to start reading about the contemporary political crisis in Belarus- I can recommend in particular these pieces here, here and here. However, having outlined the main contours of the current era of protest in the country, our object in the rest of this essay is to focus on the roles that visual culture has and will continue to play as the electoral crisis unfolds. Lukashenko has been rattled as much by memes and graffiti as he has been by the spectacle of unprecedented support for an unlikely opposition coalition.
Viktor Babariko & the Belgazprombank Collection : An Art Institution as Battleground
Belgazprombank is one of the largest independently owned banks in Belarus. The majority shareholders are the Russian energy giant, Gazprom. Under the chairmanship of Viktor Babariko, who relinquished his position on May 12th this year, to stand as a presidential candidate against Lukashenko, the bank has invested significant sums in building up a very impressive corporate art collection, and has sought to fill gaps in national collections by using it’s financial power to buy significant works made by Belarusian artists abroad- everything from sixteenth century rare maps and prints, to paintings and sculptures made in Paris between the wars.
The collection, which began to be built up in 2011/12, is unusual in the Belarusian context in that it is not state-financed. Art institutions, galleries and markets are dominated by the patronage of the Belarusian state, in a way not all that dis-similar from Soviet times. It is rather difficult for young people to make a living simply from selling art, and academic institutions lag a long way behind counterparts in other countries, in trying to prepare students for the precarious world of underemployment and on-line entrepreneurialism that is the lot of the young twenty first century creative.
The emergence of a collection such as this, therefore, marked a departure in the cultural ecology of Belarus, in building up a privately owned collection and inviting the audience to challenge their own perceptions of the country, through a changing collection; further, to support the self-starting initiatives of younger Belarusian creative in the production, distribution and exchange of art works, and in adding to their education. Belgazprombank, for example, partners with the cultural and exhibiting space OK16 in Minsk, which makes studio and exhibiting space available to younger people. Of course, in the long term, the bank’s investment is in line with global tends; in a volatile world of unpredictable stock markets, oil price shocks and pandemics, investment for the long-term in high value cultural objects is a good move for shareholder wealth.
The growth of the Belgazprombank collection has been one of the indicators of change in the Belarusian cultural sector in the last half decade. Students and emerging artists in the country have taken full advantage of the opportunities afforded by platforms such as vk and instagram and used them well in growing a virtual presence beyond the borders of Belarus that previously was impossible. As an authoritarian state where the government is the major player in the art market, Belarus, since independence, has been little integrated into the infrastructure of the global art market. The growth of artists’ portals on-line, such as Chrysalis magazine and the culture-sensitive travel portal 34mag, provide daily evidence of a dynamic expansion in visual culture; this can be presented almost as a parallel to the recent growth and development of Minsk’s rapidly growing IT sector, with interdisciplinary crossovers between the worlds of visual art and IT also noteworthy.
As the conflict between Babariko and Lukashenko heated up, the Belgazprombank collection was raided by the authorities on the 11th June, who confiscated 150 works of art as “evidence” of alleged crimes-in-preparation by Babariko. Much of the collection disappeared into the government’s custody; who knows what will subsequently become of these works. A week later Babaraiko, who had been running at nearly 50% of the vote in unofficial election polls, was arrested, together with his son Eduard, his campaign manager. The detention came shortly after the publication of a lengthy on-line interview with Babariko, entitled This Is a New Belarus. Both men have disappeared into the fog of KGB pre-trial detention.
Subsequently, Babaraiko has been the subject of ludicrous accusations in regard to the collection, namely that the works seized by the government were “being prepared to be smuggled abroad”, in the broader context of criminal charges relating to money laundering in Latvia. In respect of the art collection, this will be the first case in history of a smuggler building up a multi-million pound collection, bought correctly and transparently at auction and with import duties paid, dutifully entered into the State Register of Valuable Historical and Cultural Objects, and displayed in public over many years. Smugglers like to work in the shadows and attract as little attention as possible, having corrupt buyers already lined up, who also want as little attention as possible. A four year old child could see through the fabrication.
If the authorities had hoped that the seizure of art from the Belgazprombank collection would lead to the inevitable, indefinite closure of the gallery, they were to be disappointed sorely. Showing a remarkable resilience, curator Aleksandr Zimenko and his staff took some time to establish a series of QR codes, which were then placed in the empty frames of the seized artworks. The gallery then re-opened, with visitors invited to bring their phones, scan the QR codes, and continue to see the artwork that was no longer present, physically. As a result, the collection was able to continue its work whilst condemning implicitly the harsh, repressive actions that it had been subject to. In a global artworld still paralysed by shutdowns and retreat into lockdown, this is one of the most remarkable stories to emerge this year.
In the six weeks subsequent to the confiscation, the Belgazprombank collection has risen to a considerable prominence beyond the borders of the country. Within Belarus itself, one of the collection’s most prominent works- Chaim Soutine’s 1928 painting Eva– has become one of the many, burgeoning symbols of popular dissent from the government’s actions.
Soutine was a remarkable portraitist- born as the eleventh child of a very poor Jewish tailor’s family in Smilovichi, a small town about thirty miles north-east of Minsk. Soutine was educated in Minsk and Vilnius, fitfully, before moving to Paris in 1913; he spent the remaining thirty years of his life in France. This painting dates from the high point of his career in the 1920s, when he completed a remarkable series of portraits of waiters, bell-hops, catering and hotel workers. It’s not quite clear who Eva was, or if we will ever find that out, but the portrait dates from this period where Soutine was focusing on the precarious working-classes employed in catering.
Belgazprombank acquired the painting from an auction at Sotheby’s in New York in May, 2013, for 1.8 million US dollars, three times the estimated price. The work, which had been in the United States since 1952, became a cornerstone of Belgazprom’s developing collection and briefly appeared at the arts centre named after Soutine, founded in 2008 in his old home town. It’s one of the most valuable artworks located in the country at present.
Since the raid on Belgazprombank, Eva has popped up everywhere- on bags, t-shirts and as ever-shifting memes and graphics on social media. Her arms crossed, hugging herself defensively, the look from Eva’s smudged face is enigmatic; vulnerability, strength, pity, fatigue, alertness, defiance and contempt can be read into her expression. These jarring counterpoints of emotion map fairly closely onto the mood of many risking their liberty in pursuit of political change in Belarus at present. The face anchors our attention in the painting; her fluid, thickly painted black dress and the cobalt blue impasto background force us to engage with her expression.
Not that Soutine would know it, but the composition of the work make it perfect for today’s generation of photoshoppers and gif makers. As a result, the work now has a politically charged connotation in today’s context, developed from the ingenuity of the people who have engaged with it. This use of clever visuals and straightforward humour has been one of the defining characteristics of those involved in the Belarusian protest movement.
Every Protestor an Artist: Signs and Symbols of Spring / Summer 2020
Soutine’s Eva is far from the only popular meme related to the Belarusian elections. Independent political opinion polling in Belarus is de facto banned, but unofficial polls suggested that support for the incumbent president was as little as 3% amongst the voters. As a result, the meme “Sasha 3%” began to appear everywhere, as graffiti, on the net, as simply drawn placards. Concurrently, those who oppose Lukashenko have begun to visually locate themselves online as ‘I, We, the 97%”, with a series of (anonymous) illustrations showing the concept. One particularly powerful example shows a whole cross-section of Belarusian society, from children to the elderly, united under the White-Red-White flag. Significantly, an ordinary policeman, an OMON riot control officer, and a soldier are part of this idealised visual crowd.
It may be that this image derived in part from an astonishing series of anonymised “selfies” of members of the police, army, even an individual from the presidential guard- who posed with various signs relating to ‘Sasha 3%” and expressing solidarity with those protesting. This at the same time when the police and OMON have been out arresting protestor and journalists but also innocent passers-by caught up in the heat of a particular moment. Perhaps the most glaring attack on a “visual” was the case of the now closed shop symbal.by in Minsk. OMON and regular police launched an attack on the shop on the 23rd June, randomly arresting people queuing to get into the premises. The reason was that the business was planning to sell a “Psycho 3%” t-shirt which had come to the attention of the authorities, with physical force following up attempts to close the premises through cutting off electricity. The store closed shortly after this shocking incident but continues to operate on-line; the offending stock of t-shirts was confiscated before they could be sold.
Aside from simple use of satire and humour, perhaps the most striking “merger” has been the display of Belarus’ two flags side by side at opposition rallies. From Belarus’ emergence from the ruins of the Soviet Union in September 1991 to a controversial referendum in May 1995, the old Belarusian flag- a red stripe though the middle of a white background- was the national flag, a symbol banned outright during Soviet times. However, Lukashenko held a referendum in May 1995 to cancel the use of this flag and substitute it with a design based on the old Belarusian Soviet flag- two third red, one thirds green, with a traditional patterned edge by the flagpole.
At the same time, he signalled his intention to replace the figure of an armoured knight on a white charger, known as Pahonia, dating from Belarus’ origins in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with a slightly altered version of Ivan Dubasov’s Soviet-era coat of arms, first designed for use in 1950 and altered little until 1991. Lukashenko’s referendum was won three to one in his favour amidst allegations of vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing that have disfigured elections in the country ever since he assumed office in 1994. The flag and coat of arms, with Soviet origins, has been official ever since then.
These two flags therefore represent fundamentally different views of Belarusian history and identity, with many continuing to see the white-red-white flag and it’s long history as the true emblem of the country. The current official flag, is one of the (symbolic) ways in which Lukashenko has sought to present his current regime as a continuation of the forms of Soviet socialism, if missing much of the content.
The president has derided the white-red-white banner, quite unreasonably, as a collaborator’s flag; it was briefly used by a collaborationist puppet government in Minsk during the latter stages of the Nazi occupation in 1943/44, but it’s absurd to prioritise this misuse and over-write the rest of the flag’s long history. Tight restrictions still apply to the white-red-white flag; officially, it can only be flown at opposition rallies, with local authority workmen and police removing many examples of these flags being displayed from buildings during the present election campaign.
To see both these banners flown side by side at the astonishing mass rallies fronted by Tikhanovskaya, with the differences of those flying them set aside temporarily, shows just what a cut-through the opposition campaign has made in the last month. Individuals who would normally disagree on almost everything politically flying these emblems, with a long history of mutual enmity, side by side, is perhaps one of the most astonishing ‘visuals” for historians of Belarus in the last couple of months. A temporary and maybe uneasy unity, in favour of a candidate whose only policy is to be a temporary President in order to facilitate free and fair elections, is growing by the day.
Conclusion : The End of an Old Song, and the Writing of a New
“We are in times when the past is not interesting and the future is not known. We live in the present here and now…This time is full of injustice on the one hand, and hope on the other. And there is a chance to take advantage of the wind of change to develop and promote progressive ideas.” (Sergey Shabohin, Polish-based Belarusian artist)
It is widely accepted by all observers that Aleksandr Lukashenko will “win” Sunday’s election by a large margin, certainly with over 70% of the vote. In the decade that has passed since the turbulent events of the 2010 election, the mass protests, the jailing and exiling or erstwhile opponents, politics in the country has been rather dull, sullenly acquiescent to Lukashenko’s status quo.
The use of satire and humour through graffiti and memes, branded face-masks, the unity of previously opposing symbols of the state in opposition protests, the defiance of a private art institution finding itself in the eye of a political storm, protest songs re-cast and re-appropriated for the context of Belarus in 2020, are all symptoms of a society and an electorate going through a punishing self-taught series of experiences in relationship to political organisation and the power of the masses against the power of the machinery of government; a process that has been building since last year’s scattered protests against the proposed economic and customs union with Russia, through citizen anger at Lukashenko’s handling of COVID-19, to the present electoral stand-off. For the observer watching on from Scotland, there is more than an echo from recent history, and the Singing Revolution of the Baltic States during 1989-91; the parallels are quite clear.
Lukashenko controls the machinery of government in Belarus absolutely- he dominates the political space through his control of the State apparatus, State Control Committee, Electoral Commission, Civil Service, House of Representatives, KGB, police, armed services. This has allowed him, during this campaign, to provide the spectacle of the domination of space; more than 1,300 people have been arrested, with independent journalists and bloggers a particular target. He has been photographed most alongside senior army officers and securocrats, with the optics of power underlined by his speech to assembled nomenklatura on the 4th August. His manifesto, such as it is, is a farrago of vague promises and unrealisable aspirations that the Belarusian electorate have heard- and seen not delivered- many times before.
The focus of the opposition- the Tikhanovskaya / Kolesnikova / Tsepkalo camp- has offered a very different vision of the use of public space. On the 30th of July, over 60,000 people attended the trio’s rally in Minsk, one of the biggest in the country since independence. The symbol of the opposition campaign is three simple hand gestures in one white and red sign; a love heart, a V-sign, and a clenched fist. The momentum and simplicity of the campaign is having enormous appeal and makes Lukashenko’s campaign look analogue, backward-facing, and utterly irrelevant to the challenges of the contemporary age.
That simple visual symbols and humour can threaten an entrenched old regime is mere proof of the old dictum that the one thing an autocrat cannot survive is contempt and ridicule in equal measure. That Lukashenko’s victory in this election is assured is a given; it’s how he manages the election’s aftermath that will matter, as this is a popular movement and a moment of change that can neither be locked up nor wished away. Continuing to follow the simple visuals and humour of the protest movement in the country will tell us much on the development of their aspirations for change in the very difficult months that lie ahead.
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