||Focus: Human Rights||
This regime is not quite Soviet, but it treats the Soviet period as though it were a lost paradise.
History has become an extremely politicized topic in post-1994 Belarus. President Lukashenka has pushed historical interpretation to the forefront of his policies with regard to the central theme of his administration: integration with Russia. Historians who have unearthed and dared to write about Stalinist atrocities are seen to directly challenge this policy and subsequently face restrictions in their work.4 This is especially significant as such work uncovers and invites analysis of the effects of the atmosphere of intimidation, fear, and compliance with authority of the Soviet-era, aspects that apparently are being recreated in Belarus under President Lukashenka.
In the wake of the perestroika period and the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarusian historians were given free rein to conduct research in twentieth century historical archives and to publish their findings for the first time. Unsurprisingly, a number of these historians chose to research Stalinist repression and movements for Belarusian independence - themes that were anathema to the Soviet idea of harmonious unity between the constituent republics and had hitherto been banned. Academics and teachers enthusiastically embraced newly published high school and university textbooks on Belarusian history that for the first time spoke of the Belarusian independence movement, the struggle against Russian domination, and the programs and policies of Belarus' russification. However, following Aleksandr Lukashenka's election as president in July 1994, these historians gradually began to feel their freedom to research, publish, and discuss their findings and ideas being curtailed, although access to historical archives remained open. Similarly, Belarusian history classes in high schools and universities were suddenly on the front line of an increasingly sharp battle for the presentation of the "true" history of Belarus. In 1995, the Lukashenka administration attempted to rid high schools and universities of the new post-Soviet history textbooks and issued a directive, which it later denied issuing, ordering the removal of all such textbooks and their replacement with Soviet editions, a move that led to the resignation of two deputy ministers of education (see below). The state press began to be used to unleash harsh polemics against historians, notably those who researched Stalinist repression and the Belarusian independence movement, and occasionally demanded criminal sanctions for such work - or even for holding seminars on the topic. Researchers felt increasing resistance from their departments in seeking approval for research on such politically sensitive topics. Many of the new historians speak of a need to uncover and publicize the "real" history or the "historical truth" about Belarus. Naturally, history is subject to a multitude of interpretations, and even the most free and democratic societies are full of vigorous and impassioned debate on a variety of historical topics. But in Belarus today, it is clear that this debate has grown increasingly one-sided in favor of those historians who support the current policies of the president, while those that counter such a view find themselves in an increasingly precarious situation.
Nina Stuzhinskaya (see below) is a Ph.D. student at the History Institute of the State National Academy of Sciences in Minsk. She described some of the difficulties faced by historians today:
We have come to work in very complicated conditions because our ideas and our weapon in the fight for a better life, for a normal life, is just the historical word, the historical truth. We first had the opportunity to research the real history of our native country when, during the perestroika and post-perestroika periods, we were able to gain access to the archives. Although for a great many people this experience fundamentally changed their perception [of twentieth century history], we had very little time to bring this knowledge to awide stratum of society. That time wasn't quite enough, and now I see that official authorities and the most conservative pro-communist circles are waging an active battle against us, namely so that we fall silent and no longer tell people the truth about the history of our country.5
Stuzhinskaya is currently writing her thesis, entitled, "The Anti-Soviet Movement in Belarus, 1917-1929," a subject that senior members of the institute were reluctant to approve. Stuzhinskaya told Human Rights Watch:
It was mainly the senior historians who tried to persuade me [not to take up the theme], those who are around seventy years of age. Not because they don't like me, just that they understand how the situation has changed. They wish me well, in their own way. They know my possibilities and would like me to complete my Ph.D., but I . . . want to defend a thesis on that theme. They are honest and respectable people, but they understand that the state of affairs has very seriously changed and that learning is now controlled by bureaucrats who are very far removed from academia.6
Ivan Saverchenko is the director of the independent Minsk-based Institute of Statehood and Democracy and also runs academic programs in the humanities department at the National Academy of Sciences. Saverchenko maintains that the state now controls research irrespective of its academic merit:
A scholar, professor, or researcher, especially in the humanities, is currently unable to formulate the priorities of his or her academic research. The issue is that he does not select the theme. The theme of the research is formulated not from below from a scholarly, scientific body, but from above. It's all put in place the wrong way round. We are waging a war in that sphere and in the field of guaranteeing freedom of academic research.7
Saverchenko contrasts the current restrictions on academic research with the immediate post-Soviet period:
In the period when we had relative freedom, before President Lukashenka, the question was brought up thus. For example, I, the senior research associate of the academic institute, said that for the next two years I will be undertaking research on such and such an issue. For example, the problem of Belarusian political history or the problem of research into such and such a historical event. I wrote about that, and wrote that it is very important and they told me: "OK!" Others did more or less the same. The process went as follows: they received funding, this was confirmed, they did some kind of rough estimate. They undertook the research and published books.
Now they say to me: "No," the priorities are now this. The rector comes and assembles the heads of department and says, "Today we will research this and that." The head of the department goes to the department and says, "Guys, freedom is over, we will research this and that but not problems of an uprising against Russia." For example, one could propose research on friendship and cooperation between the Belarusian and Russian peoples. If someone says that he doesn't want to write on that subject, they answer that, well "all right, but you won't receive any money and we don't need you. Go out and gather firewood."8
The State-controlled Press as a Medium of Intimidation
The government uses its monopoly on the press to further intimidate independent-minded academics through the publishing of polemics in state newspapers while denying such academics the opportunity to respond. The following example is illustrative of the pressures that can be brought to bear.
On February 27-28, 1998, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) held a conference on "Political Repression in Belarus in the Twentieth Century" at a Minsk hotel. A wide variety of Belarusian and Russian historians and human rights activists attended. They included historians Nina Stuzhinskaya, Igor Kuznetsov, and V. Karbalevich, who also wrote articles the Belarusian Helsinki Committee later published in a collection entitled Politychnya represii na Belarusi v XX stagoddzi: Materyyaly navukova-praktychnai kanferentsyii (Political repression in Belarus in the Twentieth Century: Materials from the Conference).
In October 1998, the state newspaper, Slavyansky Nabat (The Slavic Alarm Bell), published an article encouraging criminal charges against the conference organizers and the authors of the articles in the book. The article cited a letter from a variety of "leaders of patriotic parties and movements, famous cultural and academic figures" that it said demanded that the "General Procurator of the Republic bring a criminal case in response to the publication of the book with material from the so-called conference, held by the Helsinki Committee . . . [and] to bring to account its organizers and participants who are guilty of humiliating the honor and dignity of the President of the Republic of Belarus."9 The accused academics were denied the opportunity to respond to the article in Slavyansky Nabat. Indeed, one of the accused, Igor Kuznetsov, told Human Rights Watch that despite his repeated attempts, every state newspaper that he approached, including Slavyansky Nabat, refused to print his response to the accusations. Although Kuznetsov confirmed to Human Rights Watch that he is able to freely publish in the independent press, due to restrictive government policies the circulation of these independent newspapers is minimal. This lack of an opportunity to respond in the state press leaves such academics helpless in the face of the well-publicized campaign against them. The abuse of the media to perpetuate a state policy of repression against academics is symptomatic of the wider problem of the lack of media freedom in Belarus as a whole.10
The government, through its use of warnings against the independent press for the publication of critical articles, has taken on the role of censor. This is apparent with regard to articles on academic themes such as history. Here, there is no academic debate, simply a message to toe the government line on history or face closure.
Nasha Niva (Our Land) is a humanitarian foundation that has a newspaper and publishing house that works to promote Belarusian language and culture. While the newspaper has had to fight for the right to publish in Belarusian,11 the newspaper became the target of a further official warning for publishing an article challenging the Soviet version of history. The case illustrates the administration's efforts to suppress academic enquiry into matters of history thatconflict with the current policy toward integration with Russia. Oleg Dernovich, the executive director of the Nasha Niva humanitarian foundation explained to Human Rights Watch what happened:
[W]e published in [March] 1997 in the newspaper . . . the recollections of people from the Slominsky district [Grodno region], who related how Soviet partisans from 1943-1944 wiped out the peaceful population. Here there was clearly an ideological side which we didn't lay much emphasis on, but it was evident: after the war these people [Soviet partisans] were, shall we say, heroes; Soviet propaganda used them for its own aims. In actual fact these people committed war crimes: they wiped out peaceful people, committed robbery, settled personal scores with different people. We published these recollections and literally a month later we received an official warning from the General Procurator.12
The General Procurator warned the newspaper on May 23, 1997, whereupon a public campaign on behalf of Nasha Niva began. Dernovich told Human Rights Watch:
In June  we received notarized documents from people who . . . officially confirmed that all their recollections published in our newspaper took place. We appealed the warning to the procurator's office. Our appeal was ignored. Then the quantity of facts became greater and I turned to the General Procurator and demanded [an investigation] into these mass crimes.
In the end, after a few months [on June 30, 1998] the procurator replied. There was the following phrase: " . . . There are no grounds for revoking the warning as far as the article's concludes that all [partisans] of the Great Patriotic War were bandits. Concerning concrete cases, committed on the territory of Slonimsky district, of crimes against the peaceful population by people, indicated in the article, they have been verified by the Belarusian KGB as directed by the Belarusian Procurator General." Can you believe the reply?! We appealed and asked them to examine recorded testimony and they replied that the KGB had already examined the case and that there is nothing to investigate further - that's it.13
Human Rights Watch takes no position on the veracity or otherwise of the account of Soviet partisans published by Nasha Niva. The warning issued by the General Procurator, however, clearly constitutes a serious threat to freedom of speech: its potential to chill freedom of expression is considerable, insofar as the Law on the Press and Other Mass Media, after two such two warnings have been issued, provides for the closure of a newspaper.
Banning Belarusian History Textbooks
The Belarusian government under President Lukashenka has attempted to reinstate Soviet era history text books and to prevent new work by alternative historians from reaching the classroom or lecture hall. The obvious aim of this exercise is to promote an ideology that stresses the unity of the Belarusian and Russian peoples.
In 1995 the government created a Commission on the Preparation of New Humanities and Social Sciences Textbooks under the Council of Ministers. The commission's chair is currently Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Zametalin, with Minister of Education, Vasily Strazhev as his deputy. The commission's purported goal is to vet and authorize new publications for use in schools and institutes of higher education. However, a number of lecturers and historians with whom a Human Rights Watch researcher spoke alleged that the commission performs the role of censor, filtering out politically sensitive historical texts. For example, Ivan Saverchenko, senior research associate and director of the Institute of Statehood and Democracy, told Human Rights Watch: "This structure selects, orders, and creates the authors' collectives and they, having prepared the manuscripts, present them to Uladzimir Zametalin at that commission." In Saverchenko's view, the preparation and assignment of textbooks should be decided at universitylevel: "The rector or the academic council decides which textbooks need to be published, how many by which authors' collectives . . . And the right to publish textbooks needs to be given to the lecturers' academic council."14
In August 1995, the Lukashenka administration stepped up its campaign against independent historians. It issued a Council of Ministers directive ordering the removal of all high-school history textbooks produced in the post-Soviet period and their replacement by Soviet editions. Although this directive was later withdrawn and expunged from the record, high-school teachers and university lecturers told Human Rights Watch that, with few exceptions, post-Soviet history textbooks have largely been replaced by Soviet-era texts.15 Notably, the post-Soviet textbooks were published in Belarusian while the Soviet-era textbooks are in Russian.
The issuing of the Council of Ministers' directive prompted the resignation of two deputy ministers of education. One of these deputy ministers, Tatiana Galko, told Human Rights Watch that her decision to resign was in protest at the directive, and that her decision was based on practical - there were not sufficient funds available to implement the directive - as well as ideological reasons. While opposed to the return to Soviet-era texts, she acknowledges that the new history textbooks had been developed hastily and were in need of further revision.16
Vladimir Orlov is a writer, historian, and vice-president of the Minsk-based Belarusian PEN Center, which is part of the international PEN organization. Since 1994, two books by Orlov on Belarusian history have been effectively banned. In 1993, the Ministry of Education told Orlov that it would publish a high-school teachers' textbook that he was writing on Belarusian history. Orlov claims that the ministry at the time promised to publish 100,000 copies of the book in order to make it available in classrooms throughout the country.17 Orlov explained to Human Rights Watch the purpose of the book, entitled Otkud' Nash Rod (Where We are From):
[M]y book . . . is a book of stories on the history of Belarus for young schoolchildren. The emphasis in the book is on the insufficient coverage in textbooks, in the earlier editions for children, of facts, namely those which were covered up with ideological stereotypes which predominated during the Soviet Union. [Then] the history of Belarus was presented as a history of friendship, brotherhood, and striving toward union with the brotherly Russian people, which absolutely does not correspond with reality . . . Belarusians have a thousand-year-old tradition of their own statehood, starting from the Polish kingdom, then the Great Lithuanian kingdom united several peoples and Belarus [was a state] in this kingdom. This kingdom fought long and hard against the Moscow state.18
Orlov's book contains a chapter setting out the historical roots of the pre-Soviet national symbols of Belarus that were reinstated in 1991 but that subsequently were banned and replaced by Lukashenka with Soviet-era symbols in 1995: the Pagonya, a knight depicted on horseback, sword in hand, and the white-red-white horizontally-striped flag. Orlov explained the role he believes this chapter played in the publishing house's decision not to publish the book:
[T]he book should have been published by the state publishing house "Belarus," but following the 1995 referendum, when by unconstitutional means, as I'm convinced, the national symbols of our country were changed, the publishing house became very afraid of that chapter. Evidently, that chapter became one of the main reasons why the publishing house was alerted and then told me that they would not publish [the book].19
Orlov subsequently sought and received funding from the Belarusian Soros Foundation, which enabled the book to be published in 1996 by the Batkovshchina (Fatherland) publishing house. Orlov explained the book's reception:
The book received a few reviews, some which were overly praiseworthy, including a review published in the Ministry of Education newspaper - Nastavnitskaya gazeta [The Teachers' Newspaper]. The author of the review recommended the book as a teaching aid, particularly because each story comes with questions and exercises. A few days later Nastavnitskaya gazeta published a statement in the first column about the publishing house Batkovshchina [Fatherland], which published the illustrated book by Orlov, which was not submitted for consideration at the [Commission on the Preparation of New Humanities and Social Sciences Textbooks] . . . The Ministry of Education "does not have permission for its use in schools, although the publishers recommended it for study in junior schools. The author of this work sets forth views that do not correspond with reality on separate questions of Belarusian history. The Ministry of Education considers such literature impermissible for use in the education process, since it is not conducive to pupils' development of a civil position and draws them into the examination of politicized and ideological questions."20
In early 1997, authorities seized the remaining copies of the book at the Batkovshchina publishing house and held them in damp conditions for a year. Orlov explained how the book was eventually released:
[A] year later, the book's publishers managed to free the book from seizure, but state bookshops refuse to stock it, that is the book is sold with fear and risk by only a few private bookstores. After publication, when the presidential administration became interested, state shops refused to stock it.21
A similar situation occurred with a second book that Orlov prepared at the same time as Otkud' Nash Rod with colleague and fellow historian Gennady Saganovich, entitled Desyat' vekov beloruskoi istorii: Sobytiya, daty, illiustratsii (Ten Centuries of Belarusian History: Events, Dates, and Illustrations). Orlov told Human Rights Watch that the book was already prepared for publication by the state publishing house Mastatskaya Literatura when it was suddenly sent for review to the History Institute at the Academy of Sciences. Orlov maintains that the institute came to a "very positive conclusion," but that despite this the publishing house refused to publish the book:
[T]he publishing house, Mastatskaya Literatura received a letter [from the State Press Committee] deleting it from the list of books financed from the state budget. Here's the motive: "Because firstly, it was almost wholly published in a journal . . . and is already known to readers, and similarly because it contains many factual inaccuracies, editorial shortcomings, was written in a tendentious, russophobic manner, and because it violates the law of a readers' right to objective information." Since that time, we have been searching for a sponsor for the publication of that book for two years, having written applications for a grant, hoping possibly with the help of a fund to publish it.22
Orlov later learned that his work as a historical writer would have personal consequences when he was dismissed in 1997 from the state publishing house in which he worked publishing books on Belarusian culture and history:
At that time I was still working in the publishing house Mastatskaya Literatura. I felt that the atmosphere around me was thickening, and one fine day the new director of the publishing house, Georgy Marchuk, a protégé of the president, summoned me and told me that in connection with staff cut-backs I was going to be fired and our editorial offices would be broken up: the editorial office that took care of the publication of historical literature, literature linked with cultural heritage . . . It looked like some kind of farce or stupid joke, but it was a very powerful blow to the program of returning to Belarusian history . . . A few days later, an official from the [State] Press Committee brought me a photocopy of a document with Zametalin's resolution, [who was] at that time chair of the State Press Committee "Decide once and for all the question concerning employees of the publishing house who publish questionable historical and other literature. Report back by April 10 ."234 Zenon Pazniak, the exiled leader of the most visible opposition party, the Belarusian People's Front (BNF), is credited with the discovery in the mid-1980s of a mass grave in the Kurupaty forest outside of Minsk. Here, he alleges, Soviet interior ministry troops, the notorious NKVD, executed some 200,000 Belarusian citizens in the 1930s. An official investigation into Pazniak's allegations, commenced following President Lukashenka's election to office, refuted his findings, alleging that the number of victims was far smaller and that they were in fact Jews of different nationalities executed by the Nazis during World War II.
5 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, October 30, 1998.
7 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, November 3, 1998.
9 "Za chest i dostoynstvo prezidenta" (For the Honor and Dignity of the President), Slavyansky Nabat, no. 40, Minsk, October 22-28, 1998. The article cited the authors as: chair of the Belarusian Patriotic Party, A. Barankevich; chair of the Council of Veteran's Associations of Belarus, A. Novikov; chair of the Belarusian Union of Officers, D. Ivanov; national artist of the USSR and academic, M. Savitskii; chair of the Belarusian Republican Association "Historical Knowledge"; doctor of history, Professor A. Zalesskii; and member of the Military-Academic Society Council, V. Sadovnichenko. In June 1998, the Council of Ministers passed a draft law criminalizing "insulting the honor and dignity of the president" for which offenders may be imprisoned for up to four years. The draft law supplements a December 1997 law that punishes publications for insulting the honor and dignity of government officials. As of this writing, the law had yet to be formally adopted.
10 For more information on the press in Belarus, see "Crushing Civil Society," a Human Rights Watch short report, New York, August 1997.
11 In 1998, the newspaper successfully challenged a warning from the State Committee on the Press issued on the grounds that the newspaper used Belarusian orthography outlawed by Soviet authorities in the 1930s.
12 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, November 3, 1999.
15 Russian media and the U.S. State Department Country Practices report for 1995 noted the issuing of the directive. See, for example, the Russian newspaper Segodnya (Today)-"Nostalgiya Po Sytomu Proshlomu" (Nostalgia for the Good Old Days), August 17, 1995. Former deputy minister of education Tatiana Galko also confirmed the decree's existence in an interview with a Human Rights Watch researcher. However, all ministry of education officials and representatives with whom a Human Rights Watch researcher spoke, including a representative from the State Documentation Center, either stated that the decree had never existed or that such a decree "could not exist" due to its implementation being impractical. The 1995 U.S. State Department Country Practices report on Belarus states that "After educators and intelligentsia strongly objected to the move, President Lukashenko denied having signed the decree."
16 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, February 12, 1999.
17 Orlov explained to Human Rights Watch that, before Lukashenka came to power, he enjoyed a very cordial relationship with the Ministry of Education, and, although he was not formally commissioned by the ministry to write the book, his decision to write it stemmed from great interest from teachers, researchers, and the ministry in his proposal.
18 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, November 2, 1998.