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21 Jan

Interview with jury member Pavel Sheremet (Belarus)


'We have a new wave of fighting for freedom, for Europe'

For the past two months, Pavel Sheremet has been in Kiev, covering the events on the Maidan with his editorial team from Belarus Partisan.

The ‘Belarus in Focus’ project coordinator speaks to Pavel shortly after he has returned from helping a Finnish TV team to film on the Maidan - on the day that new laws were ushered in to stop anti-government protests.

Pavel, does this mean you often work with international media?

Not often, but I work regularly with international media because in Belarus there are many problems for foreign journalists to hold interviews, find people and so on. It’s difficult even for Belarusian journalists, and it’s twice as hard for a foreigner. Usually they find partners in Belarus, they ask Belarus Partisan and other media to help them, so we try to help and answer their questions.

What kind of questions do journalists usually ask?

Ten years ago, for example, they asked many strange questions. They regarded Belarus as a terra incognita, many questions were inadequate, we needed to explain all our history from start to finish, spanning a whole 1,000 years, but now we see they know more about the political and economic situation in this region, and we discuss details and concrete situations, perspectives and so on. I meet more and more journalists who are really prepared for working in Belarus. They try to find new and interesting heroes, details and so on, we understand that they think about Belarus like a part of Europe and understand Belarus’ position between Russia and Europe. But five years ago, there was a period when western journalists decided that a dictatorship was simply a typical situation for Belarus and former Soviet countries. They saw what was happening in Russia and regarded Belarus as part of Russia, so they thought that there was no perspective and that Europe should forget about Belarus because there’s no chance to change anything, or efforts to move toward independence.

How has Belarus’ situation changed since the 2010 presidential elections?

Since the last election, the situation is very critical because we are afraid that Europe and the neighbouring countries will forget about Belarus and only look at Ukraine. Since the Orange revolution, Ukraine has been in the centre of a political process in the centre of Europe, while Belarus is on the edge of this process, it is under Russian control and no one sees any sense in discussing Belarus’s situation because they all think about Russia, and think that if Russia’s situation changes, then Belarus and Ukraine will have new perspectives. In Ukraine, political and civic activity is high, but in Belarus we see only depression and groups of local opposition - very small, very weak. I think this is the most difficult period in our history in relations between Belarusian and western governments, and so also between Belarusian and western media.

How would you describe Belarus in three words?

In three English words…clean, calm, and hard-working.

All visitors say that Belarus is very clean; it seems to be a stereotype – poor but clean! I understand why journalists from Russia are shocked by how clean it is, but I don’t understand why western journalists are shocked by the same thing. It’s not an extraordinary situation for Europe, but this stereotype ‘poor but clean’ regarding Belarus is quite widespread.

Yes, I understand. I think what also strikes visitors to Belarus is that you don’t see many signs of human initiatives as you walk around cities, especially in Minsk. It’s all very top-down.

We have a new wave of fighting for freedom, for Europe, our kids are trying to change something, they remember our history and they know that their parents were arrested and spent a lot of time in jail. The younger generation wants a new life, newer, more modern and so on. They see changes in Russia, which has lots of money, they also see life in Poland or Vilnius, which are both developing well these days - and young Belarusians try to change something but the authorities repress all these activities.

In the future, we’ll see a new wave of depressions and emigration from Belarus, young, active people going to Russia, Poland or to western countries. Young people have hopes, they have plans, they have the strength to build new projects and they think that they will not make mistakes like their parents, but then they come up against Lukashenko’s various traditions and rules and get frustrated. I don’t know exactly how to help them. There are independent media and activists who are trying to change the situation, but the enemy is still very strong and powerful.

It’s interesting that you mention Belarus‘ potential - this was also picked up on by Michael Andersen, also on the ‘Belarus in Focus’ jury.

We hope that the Ukrainian experience will help in Belarus. I’ve spent two months in Kiev and our journalists from Belarus Partisan, three of our journalists (that’s half of our editorial staff) were in Kiev for several weeks, writing articles and we made 60 small videos and want to show Belarusian people how Ukrainians define their freedom, how they fight for their future, and we hope it will give our Belarusians inspiration.

Let’s return to the topic of Belarus in the international media. You are a jury member for Belarus in Focus 2013. What qualities will you be looking for in articles?

These journalists write for their audiences, not for Belarusians, so I understand that some processes will not be described like me and my colleagues would describe for Belarusians, but I feel that they will try to write about Belarus as a part of Europe, and not like about Africa or an Arab country. I think that readers should feel that they have met such people, that they understand the situation and life in Belarus. In particular, journalists writing for Polish, German, or Swedish newspapers tend to describe Belarus as a European country and Belarusians as Europeans who live in a difficult situation, between Europe and Russia. The focus on Belarus has changed from the soviet aspects of life to modern, European aspects of life.

And finally, looking ahead to 2014, what could be the hot topics in Belarus?

The Customs Union is a big topic, the world hockey championships, political prisoners is still a major issue, and….culture - traditional culture - because in culture, language, old traditions and our history, people will be looking for support for future prospects and political changes.