Letter from Warsaw: Belarussians hoping to rock toward change

By Judy Dempsey International Herald Tribune

WARSAW On a warm, balmy night in Warsaw this week, the Polish Radio Orchestra gave an outdoor concert to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity trade union movement.

Under clear skies, the orchestra played works by Polish composers and actors read verses by two of Poland's greatest 20th-century poets, Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz.

Behind the orchestra was a big screen that showed video clips of the many tumultuous episodes of Poland's uprisings against Soviet domination. And of course, there was a long video showing the life of the late Polish-born pope, John Paul II.

In an effort to make the concert inclusive of all generations and cultural tastes, the organizers had invited Polish punk and rock bands. The audience, packed with dignitaries and presidential candidates, gave the bands polite applause.

But then something happened to change its response. N.R.M., a band from neighboring Belarus, took the stage.

As the band went through its songs about freedom and people's power, the audience's attention turned to the back of the crowd. A young Belarussian had started to unravel the red and white flag of his country and was waving it high in the air. When N.R.M. had finished, the audience roared, some calling for freedom for Belarus.

The sense of this solidarity with Poland's eastern neighbors continued when Greenjolly, a Ukrainian band whose songs rallied support for President Viktor Yushchenko's election campaign in December, came on stage.

The audience immediately stood up, starting to clap and join in the singing. Many knew the words.

Nine months after Ukraine's Orange Revolution and a quarter of a century after Solidarity helped change the map of Europe, Belarussians said their time for freedom would soon come.

"Outsiders cannot force change, nor do we want them to do so," Pavlov Pete, a member of N.R.M., said after the concert. "We need their support. But we have to do it ourselves."

Pete, 38, and the other band members said it was impossible to underestimate Solidarity. For them, the movement remains a powerful symbol for opposition movements and independent civil organizations in Belarus.

"The Poles did it themselves," Pete said. "We can too."

But using music to rock Belarus toward change is an awesome challenge.

Lawon Wolski, a poet and musician who is one of N.R.M.'s founding members, said the band was prevented from playing on state-controlled radio and television and from performing publicly. (Private stations are few and censored).

Sometimes the band changes its name so as to be heard on the state channels. Otherwise, it plays in private homes.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power in Belarus since 1994 and who recently changed the constitution so that he can run for election a third time early next year, has done everything possible to squash any independent expressions of opposition, including music.

One method favored by the regime is administrative. All organizations are required to have a fixed legal address in order to be recognized by the authorities. Increasingly, the authorities refuse to register the addresses.

Last week, for example, the Reformed Evangelical Church, which has been in Belarus for more than 400 years, was banned. Agata Wierzbowska-Miazga, an analyst at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, said the church "was outlawed because the community had no legal address, nor could it have registered one, because the authorities had previously evicted it from all of its prayer houses." It now celebrates services in homes.

Web sites of independent political parties have been blocked and the opposition is under even more pressure.

Mikola Statkevich, the veteran leader of the Social Democratic Party, who is serving a three-year prison term for organizing a demonstration, was accused three weeks ago of organizing from behind bars an illegal gathering after a dozen people gathered in front of the prison to express support for him.

Curiously, the authorities in Belarus have not prevented N.R.M. and other bands from traveling to Lithuania or Poland, where independent groups can freely meet.

"For the authorities back home, we are safer playing outside than inside the country," Pete said. "They don't seem to care what we sing outside Belarus as long as our music is not heard inside the country."

In the former Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party had long tried to suppress the Plastic People of the Universe, a group of musicians who defied the ban by playing in woods, fields and barns. But the more the group's members were arrested on trumped-up charges, the more support they won from a younger generation desperate to break the party's monopoly over cultural life.

But rocking for change in Belarus is a much more different venture than what the Plastic People of the Universe were trying to do.

The opposition in Belarus has immense support from Poland, one of the biggest of the eight former Soviet bloc nations that joined the European Union in May 2004.

Poland's entry to the EU was the end of its long road started 25 years ago by Solidarity. Energized by the chance for the first time to influence EU foreign policy, Poland has taken every opportunity to shake Brussels into looking at its new eastern borders with Belarus and Ukraine and its longer border with Russia in a new light.

This was evident in December during Ukraine's Orange Revolution when the presidents of Poland and Lithuania went to Kiev to help mediate.

Of course, neither Russia nor Belarus likes what Poland is doing. Relations between Poland and Russia and Poland and Belarus have deteriorated.

Fearing the contagion of Polish democracy into Belarus, Lukashenko has begun repressing the Polish ethnic minority that makes up 4 percent of the country's 10 million people. In March, the Union of Poles in Belarus elected a new leadership independent of the regime, and the authorities recently cracked down on the movement, arresting several of its leaders.

Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Poland's former defense minister and vice president of the European Parliament, said this week, "We want to Europeanize our foreign policy."

"This was the case with Ukraine," he added. "We really hope it will be the same with Belarus. The aim is to bring an end to this anomaly, the dictatorship in Belarus. The EU cannot have a country like Belarus on its doorstep."

EU diplomats in Brussels are still uncomfortable when they hear this kind of talk. But the Poles are not prepared to remain quiet. They intend to muster international support for monitoring next year's elections in Belarus and for helping the opposition.

"It's a matter of time before Belarus changes," Pete said. "Maybe one day the state radio will play our songs."


Tomorrow: Roger Cohen on the German election.