Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Belarusian Politics

The Belarusian Holiday Celebration Hockey Tournament I described over on the BEING HAD Times, came to an end a few nights ago. I got to see the highlights on the television news late last night. Oh, and I have got to tell you how great that was! The thing that made it great was that the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka participated in this tournament as a skater. And I don’t mean this as in he took the honorary slap shot either; he took his minutes at center ice right along with his teammates through the whole thing. He played of course for the “president’s team”, which also of course won the trophy, which was probably named “the President’s Cup”.

But all jokes aside, it really was great! Because what can you say about this? The president of Belarus is right out there banging the boards with the big guys. What fun! When I saw that they were showing the game on the news, I immediately got as close to the screen as I could and turned up the sound. Who wouldn’t? What a great thing to see!

Now, the first thing that you are going to ask is: Can the guy play? And the answer is… well… you know Lukashenka is 51 years old. Even Gordey Howe had to give it up some time, right? So, he is not really in the action and firing the puck at the net, and he just sort of stiffly skates around center ice and tries to harass the opposition as they go by. He did take at least one shot that I know of though. This was on a breakaway where he had a one-on-one opportunity with the goalie. No goal. But he was really good about getting in to the group hugs when a goal was scored. So you could see he liked it and was into the games.

But the best moment that I saw was in the closing moments of the final game. The game and the championship were already in hand. And in this moment, Lukashenka found him self in a one-on-one situation where he had to defend against a charging player from the other side. So, the player faked left and then went right and basically had the president beat like a rug. So what does the president of the Republic of Belarus do? Just as the guy went past him, Lukashenka reaches out and hooks the guy’s ankles, tripping him with his stick! That’s right! Oh, my G-d how I laughed at that. Yea, he drew the foul and the penalty shot made a goal, but aside from all of the speeches made later about the greatness and character building of sport and competition, I thought this was the best statement of the tournament. He was great.

So then after the game, at the ceremony where they gave out medals and gifts, Lukashenka both stood with his team to collect his gold medal (he gave it a kiss) and then took the mike and made the long speech I mentioned. It was not a bad speech, as speeches go, it was ok, but what made it interesting was that Lukashenka made this speech while still wearing his helmet. This was long after the game’s conclusion and as far as I could see he was the only one still wearing his helmet. I can only come up with two reasons for this. The first would be for national security, both from the potentiality of objects being thrown and against falling on the ice. For this first thought I suppose he might have also worn Kevlar under his pads- Lukashenka is a pretty big guy but I have always thought that it looks like he wears a built-proof vest under his suits. And the second idea is that…ehem… that the helmet might have been left… uh… on… because he… you know… does a comb-over. I really don’t know and I am not about to ask.

So, what else is going on? I had a really interesting moment the other day over at the market. Along Leningradskaya Street, the street that leads to the market, there was set up a little sandwich board with the picture of the main oppositionist presidential hopeful, Alexander Milinkevich. There were a few guys there and they were collecting signatures. It is one of the formal steps to becoming a presidential candidate that at least 100,000 signatures need to be collected. So I stopped in and told them that I had read in the Charter ’97 news that they had been harassed and abused by the Pinsk Police over the previous few days specifically for trying to collect signatures.

They said, “Oh, yes this is true. And in fact it was not once, but four times. What happened is that the police come by and tell us that we have to move because we are blocking the street and making it difficult for shoppers to get to the market.” And he also said that they looked in their bags and tried to take away their Milinkevich calendars.

I looked up and down the street and saw the usual 20 to 30 or so venders selling everything from socks to candy to frozen chicken legs to plastic bags to house shoes, butter, dried mushrooms and cheese, just like every day. He nodded that I understand how this goes.

But before I go on with this story, I think I need to explain a bit more about the elections process. Now this is according to Simon Shapiro, retired journalist and an extreme advocate of the president. He explained to me that the actual rules for procedure are that there is only a certain period of time in which the signatures may be obtained, and that period concludes, I think, on the 20th of January. Before that day, it is illegal to campaign in any way, because if you have not gotten your signatures (and completed a few other things), you are not a candidate. After January 20th, all potential candidates are allotted free time on television and radio and free space in the newspapers. All candidates receive the same allotments. These are the rules.

Now, the obviousness of how problematic asking people to sign for you when they are not allowed to know who you are and what you intend to do is countered by the allowance of people to sign for as many candidates as they would like. You can sign for Lukashenka and for Milinkevich, you just can’t vote for them both or to sign for either more than once.

So this might be an alternative view of why the police are harassing the signature takers. If they are passing out materials, such as these calendars, this means they are campaigning, which of course is different from collecting signatures for the petition to become a candidate and against the rules. And this is also perhaps why Milinkevich has been thus far so mum about his proposed platform.

But it does not do anything to disprove the rumors, also mentioned in the oppositionist press that Lukashenka’s signature takers have been going to the universities and demanding people’s passports and inferring that if the signature for the president is not made, the name on the passport will be noted. Or, in a similar scenario, Lukashenka’s people would come to the workplace and not-too-slyly imply that a worker’s contract will not be renewed if they fail to make the proper vote. In any case, you get the picture that Lukashenka’s people get their signatures and Milinkevich’s get thrown off the sidewalk.

So let me get back to my story. I told the signature guys that I wished them good luck, that I was note able to vote for the president, and I went on my way. And I got about halfway home when one of them came up behind me and said that he has something to show me. Let’s call this guy Kolia, because he has become a bit squeamish since this moment, and his name is really not all that important. Anyway, Kolia pulls a hand held video recorder from his pocket, opens up the viewer and shows me actual footage of the #2 Pinsk policeman (Officer Grinko, I think is how his name is pronounced), harassing a second photographer standing across the street from the signature takers. When Grinko attempted to take the camera, he was informed that there was a second camera across the street and that he was at that minute being filmed. Grinko then decided to walk away and that was the end of the film.

Hot stuff right? So what happened next was that I invited Kolia over to the house, explained to him how the BEINGHAD Times worked and offered to put the film on the web. He explained that he did not have a cable to download the information, but that perhaps we could put the film on disk and transfer it this way, and we agreed to meet last Sunday. When Sunday came though, he backed off from transferring the film, explaining that he wanted perhaps another chance to get a bit more dirt. But in any case, he had obviously become a lot more frightened. When I met him on the road to the market, he introduced me to several of his compatriots, including one soft handed young man in a black pea coat, whose name I forgot, who was said to be the team captain. This man spoke to me I rapid Belarusian about the insanity of Lukashenka’s regime, how there was no possible way other than to take to the streets and how the people were ready to demonstrate for their rights. I asked if it was possible to arrange for an interview with Milinkevich and was given a calendar and a copy of “Narodnay Volya”, the oft spoken of yet no longer available independent journal. I could reach Milinkevich by the e-mail address listed.

So what do I make of all of this? Yes, it is true that Milinkevich gets screwed by the rules of the Belarusian political game. Lukashenka gets to make speeches and be on TV every day, but Milinkevich must sit moot and wait his 20 minutes on the first national channel. But then again, Lukashenka is the boss, what he says goes and, making the rules work for you is something every successful businessman I have ever met has done. So what can you say? And as for the ethics, well, he cheats. But unfortunately this is also true for every businessman more or less and is also true for Milinkevich according to the Belarusian charter: He was only supposed to be taking signatures and not campaigning. Maybe it is simply his need to obey the rules that has kept Milinkevich from speaking, and if this is true, I have been in error of a lot of things that I have said about him. But maybe not.

And about that scandal with Kolia and the cop, well, I don’t know. Maybe you would look at this and say "oh, he was scared, he was scared..." But if Kolia really had a film that was worth showing, he already has his connections to the oppositionist media and didn’t need me. And when I told him who I was, his balking at sending it along under the auspices that he wanted a bigger scandal, just got me to thinking that scandal making was what all of this was about. They want the scandal, they want the attention and they want to point out with as much mud slinging as they can just how bad Lukashenka is. But to me, this does nothing to raise their own legitimacy, or prove competency. And so just as Milinkevich’s spare, minimalist statements have failed thus far to win my heart to his cause, so this little moment with a piece of film showing a cop harasing a guy who seemingly was set up there to be harrased, I am also not so moved.

All I can say is that obviously Belarusian politics is a dirty game. But then again, where is this different from anywhere else? The reporting from the congress that elected Milinkevich made a point in telling us that most of the speakers had nothing to say. The EU and the US press have screamed for Lukashenka’s head for years. But to my ears, I still don’t think I have ever heard a decent plan that will really make life better here from anyone. Nor for that matter have I heard a plan about how to raise the standard of living. Or how to restore popular culture from the place it is here now. But is this because no one is allowed to speak, or because no one has anything to say?

To me all I here is one guy saying he wants to make scandals and another guy saying that there are no scandals to be made. Makes you want to whip that pen right out and sign, doesn’t it?

More soon…