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How a photo of a park pissed off the authorities in Europe's last dictatorship

In Belarus, government forces, including the former Soviet bloc's last remaining KGB, regularly crack down on protesters and independent journalists.

by Katie Engelhart
Jul 6 2016, 4:40pm

Dzianis Dashkevich toma fotografías en el parque de Rogachev, Bielorusia. (Imagen por Ali Duncan/VICE News)

In BLACKOUT, a series made possible by Jigsaw, VICE News takes viewers across the globe, from Pakistan to Belarus, to examine technology's role in the ongoing fight for free expression. Watch the rest of the series here.

Ten years ago, the leaders of Rogachev, a humdrum city of 35,000 in eastern Belarus, hatched a plan. To encourage tourism and beautify the city, they would build a public park in the center of town. Manicured lawns would be dotted with elegant fountains. Children would play on a new playground. A deep, man-made lake would be constructed — and then populated with a flock of imported swans. The swans would draw tourists from far and wide: even, some residents hoped, from as far afield as France.

Today, Rogachev's grand park is a dirty wasteland. There are no playgrounds, no tourists, no lakes, and certainly no swans. The only signs of life during a recent visit by VICE News were a few empty vodka bottles, collecting dust by a muddy pond.

"According to official data, about $600,000 was allocated for the park's reconstruction," said local journalist Dzianis Dashkevich as he walked through the wilds, taking photographs for his blog. "It's really crazy, they allocated billions of Belarusian roubles. Where did it go?"

Dennis crouched low, the bottoms of his thin polyester suit pants riding up toward his knees. His ears were red in the chill of the early Belarusian spring.

"They ate and drank it away!" said an old man in a brown fur hat walking the perimeter of the park with his grandson. A few years back, the man told Dashkevich, local officials unloaded truckloads of construction materials — wood planks, bags of cement — in the center of the park, as if in advance of starting work. But then the supplies simply disappeared.

"They say the material is in storage somewhere," said the man with a shrug. Shortly after it all disappeared, Dashkevich added, the former mayor of the town was arrested and taken away in handcuffs.

It was at this point that the bureaucrats approached us. As Dashkevich and the man spoke, a convoy of cars drove into the park and stopped. Seven city official stepped out. "Who are you?" one asked. "What are you filming?"

"These aren't your average locals," Dashkevich murmured. "I guess they've been following us.... There's nothing surprising about that."

When Dashkevich started his blog in 2011, journalism was just an after-hours hobby for him; during the day, he ran an event-planning organization with his wife. In Rogachev at the time, there were no independent news sources, only state-owned newspapers that churned out admiring accounts of local politicians and their purported achievements.

Watch VICE News' Blackout: Inside Belarus, Europe's Last Dictatorship.

Soon, Dashkevich's investigations of goings-on in Rogachev grew more substantial. He started receiving up to 15 or 20 tips from the public each day. Sometimes, they were just photos of troublesome potholes, but other times they were leaked government documents. The blog now draws close to 5,000 unique visitors a day. Dashkevich says that 10,000 people — the equivalent of almost 1 in 3 people in Rogachev — follow it on social media channels.

Since he started the site, Dashkevich has had his house searched, his computer confiscated, and his business shuttered. He says he's also been detained several times and roughed up by local officials — like the men who stopped us in the park.

Such are the hazards of curiosity in Europe's so-called "Last Dictatorship," a moniker bestowed on Belarus by then–US President George W. Bush in 2005. According to Reporters Without Borders, freedom of the press in Belarus is the lowest in Europe, worse even than press freedom in neighboring Russia. Journalists who work outside the all-encompassing state media have been beaten, blacklisted, charged with hooliganism or extremism, jailed, and temporarily disappeared.

This is all well-known to Eurocrats in Brussels who in 2010 slapped Belarus with a slew of economic sanctions after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko won his fourth rigged national election (he has since won a fifth) and state security forces arrested seven of the candidates who had run against him.

Lukashenko has won every election since Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.

"We must stand up to tyranny on our doorstep," wrote Nick Clegg, leader of Britain's Liberal Democrat party, in 2011. "It could be North Korea, or Zimbabwe, or Iran. But, actually, it's much closer to home: Belarus, right here in Europe."

This sense of indignation appears to have dissipated. Earlier this year, EU foreign ministers scrapped most of their sanctions on Belarus, including asset freezes against Lukashenko, citing "improving EU-Belarus relations." The move was seen as a nod to Minsk's role in convening four-party peace talks on the Ukraine crisis.

Political dissidents inside Belarus have accused Brussels of abandoning them — or sacrificing human rights to a more abstract geopolitical strategy, which sees Belarus as a tactical battleground between the European Union and Russia. Just a week before EU sanctions were lifted, the UN's special rapporteur on Belarus described the country's human rights record as "dismal."

Lukashenko has recently asked the International Monetary Fund for a $3 billion loan, and he no doubt knows that, as a result, he's under particularly intense scrutiny. His government has lately avoided flagrant human rights violations, and around Minsk, dissidents speak of a "liberalization period" — though journalists say uncensored political reporting is as hard to produce as ever.

At a recent protest outside the Russian embassy in Minsk, police largely kept their hands to themselves, but they still recorded the names and addresses of attendees. An apparent KGB officer wound through the crowd with a small video camera. (Belarus is the only post-Soviet country whose security service is still known by its Soviet-era moniker.) KGB officers are supposedly covert, but they are easy to spot. Their attempt at at plain-clothes attire — dark coats, black caps, and stiff blue jeans — has become an identifying uniform at opposition events.

A police officer takes down the names and addresses of attendees at a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk. (Photo by Ali Duncan/VICE News)

The rest of the afternoon with Dashkevich played out as farce. As he got ready to leave the park, yet another car approached. Out of it stepped a heavily made-up woman in a black leather coat, black leather gloves, black felt hat, and silk scarf. She identified herself as Tamara Vorobiev, Rogachev's "head of ideology."

"Why are you showing such a part of the town," Vorobiev asked, gesturing toward me. "Can't you show prettier places?"

"Can't you let us leave?" Dashkevich replied. "We're about to go to lunch."

"You've already had your coffee," Vorobiev said. Evidently, officials had taken notice when I'd met Dashkevich for an early morning coffee at his apartment.

Dashkevich speaks to Tamara Vorobiev, Rogachev's "head of ideology." (Photo by Ali Duncan/VICE News)

Dr. Galina Mizhevich, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, says it's not surprising that an official "ideologist" was dispatched to sniff out the scene. "Belarus has a ministry concerned with ideological matters," she said. "It is a sort of replication of the Soviet system. There are books in all the bookstores explaining what this ideology is about."

Yet that ideology, Mizhevich says, is malleable. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Mizhevich "noticed an effort to co-opt national ideas, of Belarusianess, into the mainstream — to create a sense of an independent nation that is different from Russia." After World War II, by contrast, state narratives emphasized a common Soviet suffering.

Later in the day, after a lunch of boiled potatoes and pork chops covered in melted cheese, Dashkevich's car was stopped several times, ostensibly by traffic cops. When he went to photograph a long-abandoned factory that once produced canned vegetables, a cheery woman appeared out of nowhere to say that the factory had recently been sold and would be up and running in no time.

Of the dozens of state-owned media outlets and state-financed journalists who I contacted, only one was willing to speak with me.

I met Egor Khrustalev at a seedy basement bar in Minsk. The place was half-full but deafeningly loud; local singers in tight dresses sang Russian pop songs on a central stage.

A man whose appearance activists say marks him as a Belarusian KGB officer films protesters in Minsk. (Photo by Ali Duncan/VICE News)

Khrustalev is the former vice president of Channel 2, one of Belarus's large national outlets. He's also a talk show host, and that evening, he was filming a televised trivia show. When I entered, Khrustalev was pacing the floor in a maroon velvet jacket, gripping a half-smoked cigar and rehearsing his lines.

Today, all major TV channels in Belarus are state-controlled. In recent years, Belarusian TV has been subsumed by the razzle-dazzle of Russian state media, with their cinematographic news reports that, as writer Peter Pomerantsev has argued, don't insist on a single news narrative so much as they put forward the hypothesis that objective truth in reporting is itself illusive, and thus anything can be true.

More than 90 per cent of Belarusians watch Russian TV, according to Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This may help explain why a majority in Belarus reportedly backs Russian actions in Ukraine.

"Journalism as the fourth estate doesn't exist, and I have no illusions about that," Khrustalev said during a filming break. "Historically, it happened so that television on post-Soviet territory didn't have commercial functions. It had political functions.... These are traditions left after the Soviet Union." But every public has an editorial bias, he said. "When I was a student, the BBC was presented as an example of fresh, independent reporting. But later, we saw the BBC using the same ideological tricks and clichés that are used, say, in the propaganda channels of Russia and Ukraine."

Recently, Khrustalev says he ran back-to-back TV segments on Russia and Ukraine. In one, a Russian politician talked about how Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are effectively one and the same. In another, a Ukrainian musician argued that Ukraine and Russia lack common historical roots. Khrustalev let those seemingly conflicting arguments stand.

Related: Canada Follows the World's Lead by Lifting Sanctions on Authoritarian Belarus

"But when one started talking about Russia attacking Ukraine, or the other talked about Ukrainians being Nazis," he said, "I cut those parts out of the edit."

Before I left the bar, I asked Khrustalev if he enjoyed his work.

"I had a chance to work in some amazing times, during the rise of Soviet television," he said, leaning back into a pleather couch in the corner of the bar. "Well, everything good comes to an end."

Additional Reporting by Ali Duncan

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart