Heckling the powerful in Belarus
Freedom of speech is greatly limited in Belarus. Since 2006 the country has been included in the Reporters Without Borders’ list of ”Internet enemies.” The Belarusian author and blogger Jauhen Lipkovich describes his experience of writing on critical topics on his blog, livejournal.com.
This is my story in brief.
I used to write a blog that was on an American internet server, livejournal.com. While it was up, the blog became quite popular after a few years. I would mock and make fun of the powers that be, ridicule idiotic decisions, publish original caricatures which others had made for me, describe historical events and provide a dictionary of contemporary government officials and the terminologies of political extremists and anti-Semites.
Finally, the chairman of the Writers’ Union, who was the former Major General of the civilian police force as well as the former chairman of the Parliamentary Commission on National Security and the former head of Lukashenka’s presidential election team, took offense at one of the caricatures aimed at him personally. He turned to the Prosecutor General’s office with a demand that criminal charges be brought against the blogger. It was a malicious caricature: the chairman of the Writers’ Union had actively opposed the Rammstein group’s performance in Minsk, and a photo collage depicted members of the group shoving the national banner of the Belorussian Republic up his rear end. By the way, the Rammstein concert was performed on the biggest stage in Minsk and turned out to be a huge success. It was completely sold out.
Knowledgeable people told me that the Prosecutor General had declined to investigate and bring criminal charges against me. So the case was simply dismissed. He was after all a scientist with a PhD who was the former chairman of the Constitutional Court and the chairman of a university department. As amazing as this may seem in our situation, his personal views on citizen’s rights and freedoms turned out to be no mere empty phrases. And that became one (not the major one, of course, but still) of the reasons for his resignation.
However, the Major General of the civilian police force won over one of his deputies and a special decree was issued—without a court order—which obliged the internet providers to deny access to my blog. It was called “introducing a provision of limited access” in their newspeak.
“We made this decision,”—a junior official at the Prosecutor General’s explained to the press— “just for educational institutions and civil servants during work hours. After all, the government is the biggest employer, so we have the right …”
Then criminal proceedings began based on the fact that a national symbol had been desecrated, to somehow justify the restriction order.
There was a search conducted in my apartment, my computer was confiscated, and a chubby investigator who looked like a teddy bear called me in for questioning.
The particulars of our legislation require mandatory identification of the author of a blog. Since livejournal.com is on an American platform it adheres strictly to the U. S. regulations on freedom of the press. The investigation was clearly aware of the fact that it would be useless to try to retrieve information from an American blog server as to whether a caricature of the chairman of the Writers’ Union originated from a particular IP-address. Anyway, the case was opened. The wheels of bureaucracy were turning.
It is July and it is hot outside. Along the walls of a dreary office with bright wallpaper, there are piles of bundled up files lying on the floor with documents from interrogations of witnesses and defendants in the case of “December 19, 2010.” This was the date of our presidential elections, when disgruntled, desperate people allegedly smashed window panes in the Government Building in Minsk. The authorities classified their actions as mass disturbances.
There are two tables in the office. At the one next to mine yet another investigator is conducting interrogations. A witness mumbles something softly and indistinctly about a car speeding away.
They give me a piece of paper to sign whereby I would accept my responsibility for wittingly submitting false testimony and refusing to testify, and the battle begins.
The tactics of the investigators are always the same: they inform you that you are a witness in this or that case, shove a piece of paper to you to sign about you responsibility to testify and then start to exert pressure on you. If you refuse to cooperate, things will end up badly for you—very badly indeed. But, as an old friend put it, an honest confession reduces punishment but increases the term. In an instant, the investigator may change you from a witness under no threat into a defendant with the prospect of actually serving time for a caricature you never created. And all simply because it poked fun at the Major General of the civilian police force.
One of the British lawyers has said: since our system of justice is notorious, it is my right to defend myself by all available means.
The investigator finished tapping the computer keyboard to register my answers to routine questions about date of birth, place of work and proceeded to the most important part of Le ballet de la Merlaison.
“I’d like to understand,” he began.
Aha, I thought to myself. So now I am supposed to confide to you.
He printed out a black and white copy of the caricature on the printer and handed it to me.
“What can you tell me about this?”
“It’s an illustration from Moscow.”
The investigator lit up, his eyes glittering with victorious merry twinkles; he leaned over the keyboard, ready to type.
“Look here,” I pointed to the label, “it says here.”
“Where?” the investigator asked puzzled.
The conditions for publishing on the livejournal.com platform include the fact that all non-registered contributors get their displayed imagery filled with advertisement flags. They all showed up on the printout and I had also examined one of them.
“Indeed,” the investigator hemmed irately.
“You had some questions for me?” I said with sarcastic interest.
“This national flag …” he continued unenthusiastically and grew quiet.
“What national flag?” I repeated.
The investigator pointed his finger to the spot where the flagpole seemed to enter the rear end of the Major General of the civilian police force.
“The national banner,” I continued quoting the law, “is a red-and-green flat piece of material, 1:3 wide … But you are presenting me with some kind of puny black-and-white picture, maintaining that this grey rectangle actually represents the flag of the Belorussian Republic.”
The interrogation at the neighboring table came to a halt and both participants started listening to our proceedings with curiosity.
“And anyway,” I was finally becoming disrespectful, “this is not my blog and whomever it belongs to does not understand.”
The investigator, who had already scribbled something on the computer, suddenly leaned back in his chair, abruptly pushed the keyboard away and looked at me as if he had seen me for the first time in his life.
“Is that so …” he finally squeezed out, “but in the interview you admitted that this was your blog.
“Well, so you are finally being on familiar terms with me,” I said, unable to control myself. Bursts of quiet laughter were heard from the next table.
The investigator ignored my caustic remark and continued his attacks. He pulled out copies of different versions of interviews from the desk drawer where I had complained about the blocking of my blog without an order from the court.
“What do you say to that?”
“I could tell you the truth,” I replied in the same tone of voice.
Silence fell in the office. I was rocking my chair, creating a screech so loud and unpleasant that the investigator winced as if he had had a toothache.
“Speak,” he blurted out.
“You see …” I said and paused.
The investigator looked at me without blinking.
“So … this … means …” I continued, pretending to gather all the power I had in order to collect my thoughts and just lay out the whole truth. He began to display signs of impatience.
“Yes … it is … you see …
I kept on upsetting him indefinitely.
“This … I …
“What?” The investigator would not give in, “What?”
“Ah, I just wanted to become famous, that’s why I said that it is my blog,” I sighed.
The investigator’s face began to change colors. He turned crimson, his eyebrows formed little houses and his fingers, which had rested apprehensively on the keyboard, slackened and hung like sausages.
“But now,” I went on, “I am not interested in fame. I don’t need someone else’s fame. Because the blog is not mine …”
Since then I have not been called in for questioning again. But I have renamed my blog from lipkovich.livejournal.com to lipkovichea.livejournal.com, so that everyone with limited access will be able to read it. And this was actually the whole story.
 A French 16th century court ballet, used ironically in Russian as an example of an extraordinarily grotesque proceeding. Translator’s note.