Sunday, September 03, 2006

Lukahsenka comes to Pinsk

Alexander Lukashenka at the Polessie State University in Pinsk. This is an official Belta photo
Alexander Lukashenka, the president of the Republic of Belarus came to Pinsk this last Friday to participate in the ceremonies surrounding the opening of the new Polessie State University. This story was covered by Belta, the presidents press core and was mentioned in Itar Tass, the Russian news service and four pictures we made available on the official site of the president of the Republic of Belarus. If you would like to read what all was said there, go over to the BEING HAD Times and read the lead story in the current edition.

Other than this, if you are here to find out what he said, what he looked like in person, my impressions of how others reacted to him- I got none of that because perhaps 120 meters away from his car was as close as I got.

But before I get into what I did get out of this day, let me preface by saying that in the beginning, early in the day when Tanya, Anya and I were really fighting to get to hear the man speak, I was thinking that this article would eventually be some sort of ode to Hunter S Thompson and his coverage of the 1968 elections. I mean, if you would like to talk about fear and loathing in Pinsk, this was the situation because the level of paranoia all morning was so high, I almost found it hard to breath. Eventually my feelings of anger at having been snubbed gave way to a touch of sympathy. I remembered something a friend said long ago when I first came to Pinsk. At that time I used to take long, long bike rides around the region. My friend told me that Lukashenka was probably jealous as hell over my freedom to do this. I don't think I fully understood that remark until yesterday.

The word around town was that the president was going to be at the newly constructed sports stadium and would give a speech there at 3:00. Tanya and I were at Egor's Linyeka, the first day of school parade when one of the mother's there told us that the speech was to be earlier and that she wasn't sure if access to the stadium was to be free or of it was by invitation only. When we heard this news, we left the speeches and songs at Egor's school and rolled Anya back to the house. Our plan was to go over to the stadium to find out what the story was and, if all was as the woman had said, to try and be first in line to get in.

Egor's Linyeka, the celebration of the first day of school
Before we left I tried to play a card and called a friend who told me he had received an invitation to the inauguration back in April. I asked if he had gotten one for this and he told me he had and wasn't going but refused to allow me to use his pass.

"Why not? I really want to go and I sort of look like you."

"No! It's illegal." He said.

"Are you going?" I asked.

"No. I have too many things to do."

"Then let me go because I really want to hear the man speak in person."

"Can't do it."

So we rolled the baby carriage across town towards the stadium which is perhaps ¾ of a mile away. But before we got three blocks we noticed that there were police of various jurisdictions stationed at every intersection along Pinskaya Division Street and each street on either side of it. They had also congregated around one of the main buildings of the new university.

Carrying m'baby off to see the president
(I guess I should say that this isn't really the opening of a new university per se. It is not like they started from scratch. All of the buildings except for the stadium were already in existence- even the stadium was built on the site of the old navy base football field where interdivisional rivalries were played out. They just renamed and refurbished the Minsk affiliated Economic University and annexed a bit of the Pinsk Banking College, shrinking their faculty and reducing the number of students there. I know this because I have spoken many times at the Banking College and am good friends with several of the teachers who complained about having hours cut and reductions in the number of students.)

Security was exceptionally tight around the stadium Army people were stationed along the street along side the sport complex and no one was allowed near the gates. Thinking I wanted to know what was going on and maybe to get a tip about where I needed to be in order to get in, I went up to a cop on the corner just in front of the entrance. I asked him what time would be the speech and he said to come back at three o'clock. I went back to Tatyana who, to be frank was starting to get a little nervous around all of the police, and I told her what he said. She agreed that this certainly didn't seem to be right, so I went back and this time waved over one of the private security people, a very muscular guy dressed all in black with a walkie-talkie. I asked him what time the speech would be.

"What speech?"

"What do you mean what speech? The speech."

"Whose speech?"

"Are you kidding me? You got the whole Belarusian army here. Lukashenka's speech."


"When?" I looked at Tatyana to see if she understood the joke. She was scared as hell. "Yes, this is what I am asking you, when?"

A picture of the people standing across the street from the stadium waiting for a glimpse of Lukashenka
"Look, there is nothing here to see. I think you would be best off going home."

"Look, I am a member of the Jewish community and I know for a fact that the president is coming. I just want to hear him speak. Can you understand this?"

"I think you need to understand that it is tie to leave."

"Look, just tell me what time the speech is, that's all I am asking"

"Ask him." He pointed back to the original cop who was not smiling. So I asked him again and he smiled.

"Look," said the original cop, "come back at three. At that time all of these guys will be gone and you can take pictures of whatever you want."

"But that's the point." I said to both of them, "By three o'clock the president will be gone."

"What do you want to do," Smiled the security guy, "Shake his hand?" I actually thought about that for a second wondering if that was what I was thinking.

"No." I said, "I mean, yea I would shake his hand, but really I think I just wanted to hear the speech and maybe take a picture or two."

The motorcade coming into town.
"Listen, go home. There's nothing here to see."

"Ok, look I am an American and I have an independent journal about Belarus and I am a resident of Belarus for four years, plus minus. I just want to hear the speech."

At this point he started to become angry and advised me that it would be wise to move along. I asked him for one more word. Actually I wanted one more word but how it came out in Russian sounded like I wanted the last word, which made the guy laugh and he agreed to listen to one point further. I asked him to explain to me what I needed to do in order to hear the president speak. He asked if this was really my "last word". I said yes. He said "Good. Go home. It'll be on television."


Sneaking a picture as the cars head into the stadium parking lot
We headed back home but we weren't happy. We walked slowly, talking about what had happened and what we had thought we had wanted to do. Several times we stooped to hash out a point but each time we did the policeman in that area became nervous and stared at us hard. I got to wondering if they had been alerted via ear phone. There was a lot of paranoia in the air. Once when Anya's red hat blew off her head, a policeman literally screamed at the man who went over to get it. Walking on the street was not a problem, stopping was.

Eventually though we did go home but basically all we did was to lose the baby carriage, change clothes and head back again. If in fact there was going to be a speech at the stadium, maybe we had just found a belligerent cop and that they would let people in after those who had a pass had been let in. This time we took a side street to the stadium and came to the intersection on the other side of the street. Here we encountered another group of cops, some in uniforms, some I plain clothes and this time we were herded into a larger group of about 100 people who had gotten dressed up in the hopes of hearing the president speak. We were advised to stand behind an imaginary line.

"Is there going to be a speech?" I asked the people around me.

"I don't know. I only came to see him."

"I also don't know."

"When did they say about this?"

This is as close as we ever got
"We knew about this perhaps a week ago. They came to all of the houses which had windows facing the stadium. They took all of our hunting guns, anything they could find. And they told us we should not stand in the windows when he came by." I realized at this point how many security people I had seen.

"How much does it cost for him to come to a place?" I asked. Several people nodded. This is Belarus and people are really sensitive about spending money.

"I was not allowed to go to my home. Everything was locked down."

"He was to come through our village once and men came and painted the fences. We never painted our fences for a million years. I wish he would come more often." This drew a laugh.

"We just want to see the man." Said a man with several war medals on the brest of his sport coat. He was speaking at the plain-clothes agent who seemed to be the boss of this particular sector. "We voted for him. Why can't we see him?" Several people nodded at this.

"He has nothing to fear in Pinsk," said another woman. "We all voted for him here." More nods.

After a few minutes, the corner boss came over and talked to us. "Ok people, we are going to need you to act in an orderly fashion. Stay together in your places. Now, if the president wants to, he will come over and speak to you. If he doesn't, he won't. If he does, you must absolutely keep still and don't speak unless you are spoken to. Does everybody understand?" We all nodded.

I lifted my camera to take a picture but a uniformed officer told me this was also against the rules. I put the camera in my pocket and he nodded and moved along. I then handed the camera to Tatyana and she prepared to take pictures from behind me.

The entourage following the president back to his car
I got into a conversation with a young man who was standing behind me about wanting to come and hear the president speak and he agreed that it would have been nice had we been able to. This conversation started when he asked where I was from and after we also talked a bit of politics. But our conversation stopped when far down the now complexly empty highway came a string of vehicles supported by several highway patrol cars. It was him.

Several black SUV's surrounded by two vans which were obviously security, one truck with a photography portal and the Belta Press wagon came down the road. The caravan turned into the parking lot of the stadium and perhaps 50 people exploded from the doors and scurried into position to record the president's visit to the stadium.

"Can you see him?"

"I think that's him there. The tall one in the black suit."

"No, that's him in the gray suit."

The entourage went into the stadium and the cars were arranged facing the exit. After a second we heard the stadium sound system come on for perhaps 10 seconds and then went off again.

"Is there going to be speech? There is no one in there but him."

"Maybe they take pictures of him and then they take pictures of us later and make it look like he was with us."

Two students of the newly opened university enjoying a coke after the president's visit. The tension was lifted by then.
"There's not going to be a speech, he is only looking at the stadium."

"Why is he looking at the stadium?"

"And why not? He paid for it."

After perhaps no more than 5 minutes, the entourage returned to the gates, this time the boom mikes and cameras were recoding what words the president was saying regarding the stadium.

"Yea, that is definitely him."

"Do you think he will come over?"

"I don't know he might."

We were all stage struck for sure. And then they all piled back into the vans and started over towards the university. As the cars rolled by we all waved meekly at the car we supposed the president of Belarus was riding in. The windows were blacked of course, but I guess we all would like to have believed that he waved back.


Dancers on the field celebrating the stadium's opening.
All the energy was for sure out of the day now. We walked towards our house really slowly. When we got to a side street which lead to one of the new buildings of the new university, we saw that a lot of the support vehicles we again rolling away.

"He must have spoken here too."

"Wasn't a long speech, we have only been walking for 10 minutes."

The student policeman who I had spoken to at the stadium was there as well and we smiled at each other; both of us being left on the outside looking in. We got to talking again about politics and he asked me what my opinions were about the president. I told him that it was hard for me to be really for or against.

"I fully believe that he is the best possible man for the job and had he not been president things here certainly would have been much different and not for the better. But several of his policies don't work for me, so all in all it is hard to be concrete about my opinion."

"You speak like an American about these things. Do you support Bush's policies?"

The sportsmen boxing and wresting for the crowds
"I support Bush even less, but this is an apples and oranges argument. You can't say that Belarusian politics are good because Belarus is not America. That's no different from the opposition's candidates screaming vote for us because we don't like Lukashenka. I like how he stands up to the west and I agree on his policy of demanding a fair deal in European business ventures, but I don't like the censorship and the closing of the newspapers and I also don't like some of the agricultural policies because I think they hurt the villagers. And I don't like doing business with the Arabs."

"Why not? We'll make money from the cars, from the cement. There is a lot of money there."

"Well you know, I am Jewish and therefore have an inherent problem there." This thought hit him rather hard and for a moment he fell into deep thought. It appeared that he agreed that I had a right in this case to be disagreeable. But then after a minute he spoke up.

"Most people away from here don't really understand us. Here, it is not really a matter of freedom and doing whatever you want. We have all agreed, especially this year that there is no good that can come from not agreeing to help. Here, as it has always been, it is more about discipline and working together for common goals. I suppose you can explain this as being as if we were all in the army here. In the army, you can't go around making problems and asking a lot of questions. The important thing is to understand that there is a job to be done and that we must do that job. And I think you as much as anybody understand that our people have responded to this and are moving forward and getting better." I agreed that I did see the improvment. "So for us it is not to say if we are for this or for that, it is simply about achieving a group victory. The stadium and the new University are signs of victory. That's why the president is here."

Pinsk's European championship motoball team carrying a giant Belarusian flag into the stadium
We shook hands again and Tanya, Anya and I started for home. Along the way we met lots of friends and with each of them we had some business to discuss. I was surprised actually in how many things we seem to be into these days. Outside a small shop I saw two students drinking coca-cola and I thought the picture juxtaposed well against the day and thoughts of this soon-to-be policeman. I asked them if they had seen the president and they say that they had. Several students from all of the schools received invitations to come. It wasn't a long speech but the boys agreed that he had said something. They also agreed that the level of tensions had dropped exponentially now that the president was gone.

We did end up going to the stadium though after all. There was a big show there celebrating the new stadium and Pinsk and its history. All of the children were given books about Belarus and its history and culture and accomplishments. Propaganda for sure, but not a bad book really.

The town fathers were there and lots of students and the music was really loud. And there were singers and dancers out on the polyturf field, and then the sportsmen came out and boxed and wrestled and kick-boxed and did gymnastics and tumbling and karate, volleyball and soccer. And then the European champion motoball team from Pinsk carried out an enormous Belarusian flag and then a lot of balloons got let loose. And then there was video on the new diamond vision all about how productive and growing Pinsk is and then there was a football game and some speeches on Lenin Square and later that night, there was a big fireworks salute.

Balloons and cheers at the conclusion of the show.
Pretty great day show actually.

When Tanya and I finally got home and relaxed we talked about a lot of cynical things that we knew about the town that this party seemed to ignore. We even talked about a lot of the lies we all are told and how strange it all is here sometimes. But then we agreed that only a couple of short years ago, there was never enough money to do any of this. The stadium which was there before they built this cool modern facility was neglected, rotten and falling down. Several of the buildings for the University got face lifts and new facades, the streets were clean, there is landscaping around town. And the students had nice clothes to wear and there was even, as there has been all summer, enough money for firework salutes late in the evenings. These are signs of victory here. Life has gotten better, despite the pain.

And one final picture comes to mind from early, early in the morning, as the children were parading around the school grounds of Egor's school, all of them following the same traditions as they always have; the same dresses, the same white hair ties for the girls. They were raising the Belarusian flag and playing the anthem and I was singing along with the music and a woman just to my left turned and smiled at me. It was not a cynical or ironic smile that I should be singing the song, there was no humor in the smile- she was just showing me she approved of my going along. I was showing I was one of them and therefore was worthy of a little approval.