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Journalism, Journalists, and the 2010 Presidential Elections

31.01.2012 Natalia Koulinka 10634

Several reasons, which are not however the purpose of this discussion, created a new public situation on the eve of the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus. One of the main outcomes of it was the restored “publicness” of an alternative political discourse.

Overall political climate in the country is well-known: for 16 years the opposition as a respected and alternative source of power has been destroyed. The alternative discourse has been marginalized and pushed on the periphery of the public sphere where it was practically invisible for the most of the population. The 2010 presidential campaign, however, changed the pattern. Although within a limited airtime, the alternative candidates had an access to the state TV and radio channels; government-run newspapers published their programs.

On the other hand, the opportunity to manifest the opposite view attracted many journalists who for professional and personal reasons were interested in reporting and telling stories about the alternative candidates. Those stories, interviews, and news composed a significant part of the alternative discourse. The following is an analysis of home-story interviews published in a national, Belarusian-language newspaper Nasha Niva.

A close reading of the interviews and some other published in the newspaper texts showed that the discourse has been developed in a dialogue with the existing in a Belarusian society public myths and fears. A second important source for the dialogue became a Western culture in general, and a political culture of democracy, in particular.

I will start with the results produced by a dialogue with the West. A good example is an article by Pavel Mazeika “Padtrymaushy Kastuseva, Milinkevich zgurtue natsyianal’nyia sily” (Nasha Niva, September 22, 2010) who provides readers of Nasha Niva with an explanation of why Aleksandr Milinkevich, a presidential candidate of the 2006 elections, decided not to run for the 2010 elections. To justify Milinkevich’s decision, the journalist writes: “If Milinkevich does not run for the elections, it will be very bad. It means that the right-wing Belarusian parties, national-democrats, will not be adequately presented” [translated from Belarusian into English by NK]. And then he concludes: “Milinkevich will be consistent if he, with all of his national consciousness, with his great international credentials, supports somebody who is absolutely inexperienced in politics - Rygor Kastuseu.” What in this phrase attracts attention is that Belarus looks like as if it was a Western country with a well-developed and long-established democratic tradition where people merely have to choose between “the good” and “the better” if to employ the language of the socialist realism. From my point of view, such argumentation is a result of a dialogue with a Western political culture. The development of the alternative discourse in a dialogue with a Belarusian political context would produce other argumentation. The failure to engage with the local – Belarusian – context contributed to the perception of the alternative discourse as marginal due to its falseness and inability to express local and at the same time central for the country issues.

Another example of the same phenomenon is vocabulary used by some candidates to address the Belarusian electorate. Thus, candidate Yaraslau Ramanchuk mentions a “demographic trend.” There is nothing unusual in the word “trend” for the English-speaking world. But in Belarus, where people usually use its exact equivalent – the word “тенденция” [“tendentsiia”] – “trend” looks really unnecessary. Its meaning, as well as meaning of many other words which were unreasonably brought from English, remain unclear for many people in Belarus. For this reason, when used in public speeches, they make these speeches ineffective.

Meanwhile, localness influenced a process of the discourse formation, too. As another source of a dialogue, localness took form of social myths, fears, and prejudices wide-spread in a Belarusian society and aggressively promoted by the main state-run newspaper Belarus Segodnia, mostly in the essays by its editor-in-chief Pavel Yakubovich (December 3, 2010). He was very explicit in articulating those fears and myths by pointing that, for instance, candidate Yaroslau Ramanchuk cannot teach people how to raise their children because he himself, being 40 years old, does not have a single child and has never been married. The latter remark is an undoubted reference to a belief in Yaroslau’s non-traditional sexual orientation that a Belarusian society cannot tolerate, especially in regard to a possible country’s leader.

In response to these and other prejudices, fears, and myths the alternative discourse built itself up. The most clearly the result of this can be seen on the pages of Nasha Niva in home-stories interviews accompanied by the candidates’ photos. The very choice of the genre, a home-story interview, employed by journalists to tell the electorate about the alternative candidates, can be seen as a result of a dialogue with one of the most powerful social myths. The essence of the myth is illustrated by the phrase from a book Sluchainuy President (Random President) by Belarusian journalists Pavel Sheremet and Svetlana Kalinkina. Looking for factors that facilitated the election of Lukashenko in 1994, the journalists claim: “The secret was entirely simple: he could speak with people in the language they could understand.” The reference to the language can be also understood as a metaphor of Lukashenko’s closeness to common Belarusians. For a long time the Belarusian opposition has made fun of him and labeled people who voted for him, as Elena Gapova points, “crazy babushkas” and “uneducated province.” With time passing, Lukashenko’s alleged proximity to ordinary Belarusians became perceived as one of the powerful factors that help him to hold power. It is possible to suggest that the genre of home-story interviews was employed by the journalists from Nasha Niva in order to show closeness of the alternative candidates to people. The genre itself facilitates this task due to its “genetic” predisposition to reveal a “true” personality of the interviewee.

But the most vivid results of the dialogue are journalist’s texts and the photos they made. Candidate Vladimir Nekliayev, for instance, is presented playing guitar, exercising with a hula hoop, drinking tea with his wife, and petting his cat (http://nn.by/?c=ar&i=43890). There is another story behind his obsessive focus on the cat: in one of his on-line interviews Nekliayev admitted that the boy who brutally killed a cat and whom he described in his novel is actually the author himself. The public reaction to this confession was so strong that Nekliayev had to sign the “declaration” with the cat that happily lives in a Nekliayev’s apartment and upload the video showing the act of signing to YouTube.

Candidate from the Belarusian Christian-Democratic Party Vital’ Rimasheuski on photos lifts a dumbbell and demonstrates his affection to his daughter and determination to family values (http://nn.by/?c=ar&i=42597). It should be noticed that in 2009 there was a sex-scandal related to one of the party’s regional leaders. The case of his alleged involvement with prostitutes was discussed in the mass media. Although the scandal was not directly related to Vital’ Rimashevski, party’s reputation was compromised. Thus, one of the leading non-government newspapers, Belgazeta, published an interview and commentary about the case with the following subtitle: “A sex-scandal with Christian democrats” (http://belgazeta.by/20091207.48/320104881/)

Candidate from the Belarusian Popular Front, Rygor Kastuseu, shows his affection to the Belarusian village where he was born and treats the journalists with mushrooms from the local forest and apples from his garden (http://nn.by/?c=ar&i=43316). Finally, candidate Yaraslau Ramanchuk combating the myth mentioned earlier reads “Kama Sutra” with a female-journalist while the journalist reports on herself comforting on Ramanchuk’s king-size bed (http://nn.by/?c=ar&i=42188).

These stories could have been perceived as the banal PR techniques employed to counteract the social myths and prejudices. But there is one aspect which passed unnoticed. The restored “publicness” of the alternative discourse created a situation when each (or almost each) candidate was perceived by the electorate as a possible future president, regardless of what the candidates themselves said about their chances to win. But what is more, the electorate made sense of the home-story interviews, as well as other articles about the alternative candidates, in the comparison with what and how the government-run newspapers, first of all Belarus Segodnia, published about the current  president. In Belarus Segodnia, for instance, he never was showed in a private life environment, doing something what common Belarusians usually do. On the contrary, Aleksandr Lukashenko was always depicted in a perfectly-fitted suit among the leaders of other countries (http://sb.by/post/109519/). And it is perfectly understandable because such presentation directly responded another powerful social myth which postulates that there is no other person in Belarus who has ability and experience to govern the country.

To conclude, it can be argued that the main electorate’s expectation from the alternative candidates was to demonstrate their ability to replace the current president. While the restored “publicness” of the discourse made this expectation even stronger, the discourse itself failed to meet it. In a process of formation, the discourse not only did not improve the status of alternative candidates, but worsen the situation and marginalized them even more.