Sunday, March 12, 2006

Milinkevich to Pinsk: Kak Ve nye stidna? (How are you not an embarrassment?)

(Note: For more about Milinkevich's visist as well as pretty much his whole speach and the Q and A session, please see today's BEING HAD Times.)

Milinkevich and his wife in the lobby of the Pinsk House of Culture
I got to go and see Alexander Milinkevich speak at the Pinsk Dom Kultura last night and if nothing else, I would have to say that it was an amusing night. It was not evangelical by any means. There were no new and great revelations. I don’t say this because of my personal feelings, because I agreed with a lot of what the man had to say, but more so because of the reaction that he got for his points from the audience and also from how the audience comported itself during the question and answer section. He is a straight man by my reckoning, he has something to say, but he just never really grabbed the audience, something Lukashenka is really good at, and made them his.

The lead up to this engagement though was as quiet as quiet could be. There was not a single poster advertising this event anywhere in town that I could see and even the time of the show was an issue of some disagreement. We tried calling the dome Kultura for an answer about when the show was three times and got three different answers. But thinking that it might be crowded anyway we chose to head out about 90 minutes before the earliest announced time (he started at 6:30) so as to get a good seat.

The protest signs read: I am proud that I live in Belarus. Pinsk is for a strong and developing Belarus, We're for Lukashenka, We're not goats, we don’t need Baran! (A reference to Milinkevich;s original name), And Milinkevich go home
People began coming over about an hour before the show and the first interesting moment was an arrest of a couple of young people. We could not find anyone who knew who the kids were hauled off or why they had been arrested, but in any case, this raised the level of paranoia a few notches.

After this though there was a street demonstration complete with flags, banners and a guy with a bullhorn chanting anti-Milinkevich slogans. These guys turned out to be something called the AKM, a pro Lukashenka group who seem to be advocating violence against the soft spoken candidate. One of their spokespeople, a very tall, incredibly scary looking fellow with a bomb sized shoulder bag, yelled out at the beginning of the Q & A section “Aren’t you afraid of being killed?” a question that was ignored.

But nevertheless things proceeded calmly. Tonight in his speech, unlike his television appearance, Milinkevich was absolutely without even a hint of Belarusian accent. This was true even during a couple of questions which were posed and answered in the second national language. Perhaps he reads me, or perhaps he understands that Pinsk simply does not do Belarusian, but in any case it wasn’t there.

The police hauling away two protestors before the start of the event
Milinkevich himself cuts a dapper if humble figure. He has a little bit of the frumpish academic about him and tries to be reasonable with people. This reasonableness came off as being a bit false and studied after a while, but I won’t hold it against him. He is like a college professor who is trying to be nice but in reality would rather be somewhere working on his next book rather than dealing with the problems of idiot students. And eventually this is how his ‘confrontation’ with Pinsk came off. Pinsk has been said to be one of the more provincial towns you might run across and certainly the over-stuffed crowd seemed more interested in taking in the show than in receiving any socio-political evangelism. Applause was reserved and short except for when he made his first stance against the contract system. About a dozen folks stood up to cheer when he made his entrance but the rest of the 900 to a thousand person crowd was rather reserved in their praise.

But his speech was reasonable and stuck to the facts. Milinkevich is of course in favor of doing business with the west and in the end this is the real heart and soul of the argument for these elections. Lukashenka is still the hard liner on one side about not letting the west dictate policy and Milinkevich, obviously now the only oppositionist left after Kozulin vaporized himself on television last week is standing on the other. The candidate tried with all he had to make reasonable statements about why Belarus should not be afraid to take some money from the west but I never got the feeling that Pinsk really bought into him. I might even go so far as to say that they were there hoping to be shown something that would have an effect on them. But in the end, either from the perspective of a tourist at a zoo or simply because they are behind Lukashenka, the people of Pinsk tended towards being quiet and just staring at the man rather than showing him anything more than polite respect.

Or maybe they were just asleep. I had to chuckle about Milinkevich’ calling Belarus a nation of Zombies (because of its boring television) and thought it apt. But certainly it was during the question and answer sessions that my town really showed its colors. The candidate had asked that questions be written down and sent forward to be read, but apparently this was too difficult for Pinsk to understand. Immediately upon starting the questions and answers, folks began to both shout out their thoughts, often rambling for several minutes, and speaking over each other rather than staying within any order. At first, Milinkevich was rather nice with folks agreeing to hear them rather than fight for orderliness, but even he started to lose it as was evidenced by the increasing volume that he (Him, not the sound tech) was using as well as his word choices. At first he would say “Please, just one question at a time” and then, “Alright, only two questions please, there are others who wish to talk and please just ask the questions.” And then finally he unloaded on a woman whom he had asked to be patient several times saying; “Please. How are you not an embarrassment?!”

I had no desire to be cynical about Milinkevich’s visit but in the end I could not help myself. Maybe it was that his Truth, Justice and Freedom slogan was a direct rip off of what Superman was supposed to stand for- and yes, we are speaking of the American way here. Or maybe it was because his populist platform covers the fact that there really are not that many new ideas to be heard. But then again, how many new ideas are there in Belarus? Where’s the money? This pretty much starts and ends all arguments. Or maybe it was just that he seemed so tired. And this really hurt because the apparent fatigue could have simply been from an extended schedule, but then again, you would think that all of that attention might be kind of uplifting. I might be thinking a little American here, but it certainly would seem to be kind of cool to be up there on stage. Or is it that he is not getting the strokes and therefore is looking, as Lukashenka so gleefully pointed out last week, like he has already lost.

The guy just to the left of the camera is the same fellow who tried to get us the films of Pinsk police harrasment a few weeks ago. This picture was taken just after he asked a question of the candidate.
And then there were the candidate’s shills, the folks who work for Milinkevich’s camp who at least three times took the mike to ask questions that the candidate wanted to answer. Maybe he thought that we wouldn’t notice, but I have had dealings with Milinkevich’s Pinsk team, specifically over those films of the police captain harassing a camera man, so I knew their faces. But in any case I decided in the end that it was all just part of the show.

And you know, there was no cost to get in. It is not like in America where an opportunity to sit and listen to a candidate speak is more an opportunity for the candidate to receive money for his campaign. I would have thought that at least people would have had the calm to control themselves a little. One woman in all white went on about how she saw him in her dreams, another also rather flamboyantly dressed women held the mike for five minutes ranting about Milinkevich destroying a street in Grodno. Milinkevich’s response sounded as if she was following him around Belarus as if he was a Grateful Dead show. Who knows, maybe he is.

Yours truly doing the old “extend-the-right-hand-and-get-a-picture-with-Milinkevich-at-the-press-conference” trick.
In any case, I am proud to say that our two written questions about where the money would come from for his newborn babies program and how he intended to deal with a 100% pro-Lukashenka parliament were the first to be answered. I say this even if we couldn’t hear the answer for all of the bitching and harping from the audience about who had the right to speak. And after it was over, I also got to go onto the stage with the local press for a second or two. My way was originally blocked by Milinkevich’s security, but I was recognized by his team captain and allowed up. I got to shake hands with him and asked him (In English) if he spoke English. He looked me in the eye and answered with a minimal accent that he spoke English, French and Italian. I then quickly asked him in English if he favors Belarus joining the European Union and eventually NATO to which he sort of stared at me for a moment. So, I quickly rephrased the question in Russian and he answered (in Russian) that he thought it a good move strategically and then after I asked for a more concrete answer, he said simply that yes he would try to join. I tried to get a picture with him, but I could not get any of the security people to make the shot. So much for professional journalism. So I got the picture you see here by sticking my arm out and taking it myself. Oh Well…

Did Milinkevich win over Pinsk? I do not think so. Did he get for himself a few more votes than he would have gotten if he had not taken the trouble to come here? Yes he did. This business of the old communists standing up and walking out on him was as much a part of the show as it was real and really, I think everyone understood this. But there was not really any sort of excitement over his coming. Yes, there was a completely full house and no, I don’t honestly think that people were subdued out of fear. I talked to people around me and we traded opinions and really, everyone knows that it is all about whether or not to agree to let the west in. I think everyone is hip to this and to be honest, though people do want more chances and some progress, they do not support working with the west and if there was a chance to do something, they would prefer to do it themselves.

This leaflet was passed out during the demonstration by the AKM. It reads basically: Capitalism is shit! America don’t come here. (Yankee go home?)
I knew a lot of the faces in the gallery. These are not stupid people. They are not Russian brides, they are absolutely not obsequious flatterers or coat tail hangers on. They may be corrupt and they may be hiding behind red tape so as to keep their jobs, but they were not thinking in terms of how afraid they were last night. They just wanted to hear whether or not Milinkevich could really do the job of being president of Belarus. And in answer to this question, and I know I am going to take shit for saying this, but unfortunately the fact of the matter is that Belarus can be a bit of a zoo, and Pinsk is absolutely is the capital of this. And having said this, and without any offence intended at all towards Mr. Milinkevich, I am not sure that this academic frump is really built for the job of being the zoo keeper and probably, even if this is a chicken and egg argument, Alexander Lukashenka is.

As I was walking home I was wondering what it would have been like if Lebedko would have gotten just a few more votes last year at the United Party Congress. I think Milinkevich got the nod because he is obviously a smart and cultured man. Lebedko though is a much more fiery orator and the thought struck me that even though I really would rather not have anything to do with Poland if I can at all help it, maybe Lebedko would have been a better choice for zoo keeper after all. Or maybe this is not the “image” we wanted to show our friends on the other side of the iron curtain.

In any case, regardless of the chickens and eggs, this is exactly what I was thinking as I was walking home. This, and about a remark I read from Milinkevich’s web page from an academic saying that Belarus already disserved (was ready for) an intellectual president. All I can say is that last night Pinsk really did a good job of trying to prove him wrong. Maybe this was just my town being itself, maybe not. But that is what it sounded like from my seat.


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