A Secular Cartoon Jihad

By Evgeny Morozov

In his 1979 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech writer Milan Kundera cautions against the dangers of institutionalized forgetting, portraying diabolic laughter as an effective response to the absurdity and pomposity of a totalitarian system. The Belarusian opposition can hardly get a better piece of advice. For the foundations of Alexander Lukashenko's Forgetful Empire are as much absurd as they are under-derided. A loud strain of Kunderesque laughter can crumble it in a few months. To win, the opposition should mock the quasi-institutionalized cult of forgetting and posit laughter at the cornerstone of its resistance campaign.

Lukashenko's obsession with forgetting started in 1996, when he organized and won a referendum on abandoning Belarus' traditional pre-Soviet insignia in exchange for the Soviet one (the latter being irrelevant to the history of the independent Belarus before 1922). From then on, Lukashenko attempted to efface all other traces of the real Belarus. All national heroes, who would be the pride of a nation in any other state, were marginalized, as if they could remind Belarusians of their pre-Lukashenko grandeur.

Shortly after, forgetting became an official policy, expanding into such unexciting areas as giving almost empty names to the streets that bore any resemblance to that "other" Belarus that Lukashenko despises. Thus "Skaryny Avenue", a major street in the capital, named in honor of Francisk Skaryna (the first publisher of a book in a Slavic language, who came from Belarus), became "Independence Avenue". "Masherov Avenue", named in honor of Petr Masherov, the most popular Soviet-era Belarusian leader, who advocated an early form of glasnost, became "Victors' Avenue".

Lukashenko's cult of forgetting had made him forget even the hardest of facts. A few years ago he proclaimed that he grew up reading verses of Vasil Bykov, the most eminent Belarusian writer and a nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature. Bykov never wrote verses, only prose...A devout fan can do better-Lukashenko did not bother to attend Bykov's funeral in 2003.

About two weeks ago Lukashenko made an even more blatant mistake, stating that "we should not be ashamed of our past [hinting at the centuries-long relationship with Russia]... Take Skaryna, for example. We all know that he had lived and worked in Saint Petersburg...". Good point about being ashamed of the past (didn't Lukashenko himself change the name of Skaryna Avenue?), but Skaryna died around 1550, while Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703. One hundred and fifty years here or there, but as long as Saint Petersburg is the birthplace of Vladimir Putin, the cheerleader-in-chief of Lukashenko's re-election, the trick is worth it.

Letting such slips go un-ridiculed can be very costly for the Belarusian opposition. Instead, they should advocate laughter and derision as a way of life for anybody who realizes the absurdity of Lukashenko's regime. Thus, they can also restore confidence and faith in what Lukashenko would rather prefer to forget.

Take the 2006 presidential elections campaign. In almost every Belarusian town local authorities try to obstruct public addresses from the opposition. Since those meetings are allowed by law, local administrations fill most of the seats in the audience with their own subordinates, thus preventing those who genuinely came to see the candidate from entering extremely crowded halls. How more subtle can it get: authorities themselves deliver those who need to be persuaded and force them to listen to a two-hour speech by one of Lukashenko's challengers. However, instead of deriding this absurdity in their speeches, the opposition candidates conduct those meetings with their permanently serious faces.

Or take the recent coup-revelation scandal, in which the chief of the KGB (some things in Belarus do preserve their old names) proudly reported to have uncovered more than 70 quasi-secret non-profit organizations getting ready to undermine Lukashenko's regime. In reality, their secrecy can't get worse-almost all of them are listed on the "Supporters" page of the Web site of the main opposition candidate. But instead of pointing to the absurdity of KGB's claims and offering its officials a paid job placement into any of those NGOs, the opposition mounted a rational self-defense, justifying their very existence and activities.

The opposition's strategy to attack Lukashenko with numbers and hard data is also ineffective. For every number and fact that the opposition produces but never airs, Lukashenko produces five other numbers, announcing them from the front covers of top newspapers, not to mention TV. A public argument against Lukashenko can never be won, since he is always the only one talking. Humor and irony are ideal for toppling him; there is nothing to refute in a good joke. Belarusians still remember how anecdotes about the Armenian radio crumbled the Soviet Empire; doesn't the Armenian radio have a stance on Lukashenko?

As opposed to politicians, civil society does mock Lukashenko's regime-and quite effectively. In 2004 a group of college students initiated a series of Flash-animated cartoons about it, which they branded "People's TV". The cartoons resonated in the online community. At the peak of their popularity they attracted more than 50,000 hits per day. In the summer of 2005 the authorities said they were not going to tolerate that any further, and three of the cartoons' authors emigrated. Those who stayed now face up to five years in jail. Even by Belarusian standards, this seems too harsh for a piece of Internet animation. But who can now stop "People's TV" broadcasting from abroad? Maybe, it is time to revive the tradition of underground publishing.

Central European nations, afresh with the memories of their own struggle against tyranny 20 years ago, know all of this. Thus, on February 27, four major dailies in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia published a series of cartoons about Lukashenko, encouraging a pan-European attack on the repressive regime. An excellent strategy - if only the Belarusian opposition can do its job too and display the cartoons even to the staunchest supporters of the regime. Such cartoons will be more effective than leaflets that talk about GDP per capita and the share of exports in the Belarusian economy, terms that alienate an average Lukashenko supporter.

More and more people start talking, if not joking, about the regime in their daily lives. Thus, places like local markets, which are part of the Zeitgeist of today's Belarus, have been rightfully marked by the opposition to deliver their messages. But talking facts to people that have been brainwashed by Lukashenko's media empire yields few results. The day the opposition appeals to good humor rather than good judgment, it will be poised to win. Not laughing at today's regime grants Lukashenko the opportunity to remain the only one laughing.