Press Club Belarus

“'Lukashenka's Belarus is a grotesque Soviet parody”

The Belgian journalist Christophe Brackx was in Belarus during the 2020 presidential election. He had visited the country before, but 2020 was the first time he witnessed large-scale protests and brutal state terror. His experiences led to the book "Europe's Last Dictator. Rebellion against Lukashenko" (De laatste dictator in Europa. De opstand tegen Loekasjenko).

In his book, Brackx combines political analysis, current affairs reporting, and historical insights. He helps the reader understand the tragedy in Belarus, a country much closer to the West than is commonly thought. It is an example of long-form explanatory journalism, used both outside and inside the country.

Christophe Brackx studied film and philosophy in Brussels and began his journalistic career in 1992 with the Belgian newspaper De Morgen. Later, he moved to television, working as a director, editor-in-chief, and creative director.

Having directed and produced more than 200  TV shows and documentaries, Christophe currently works for Paprika Studio’s Eastern European division and the European branch of the American film and television conglomerate, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He remains a staff writer for De Morgen.

Christophe, when did you first visit Belarus, and what do you remember from that trip?

I first visited Belarus around 2015. I had met many Belarusians on my travels, some of whom became friends and told me about the country. The countries of the post-Soviet bloc have always fascinated me. I was born in 1969 and clearly remember the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. I had already ventured behind the “iron curtain” at that point, visiting the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. But after 1989, the Soviet Union crumbled; fell apart into independent post-Soviet states. I wanted to visit all of them too. Even as a youth, while most guys wanted to go to America, I wanted to go to Russia, the Soviet and then Post Soviet states – such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus, of course.

‘BelExpo’ Pavilion of International Exhibitions (Leonard Moskalevich, 1988). Minsk, Belarus.

In Portugal, where there is quite a large expatriate Belarusian community, I got to know some Belarusians in 2014-2015, and they invited me to visit Belarus. I cannot reveal their real names for safety reasons; they are among the heroes of my book.

In 2015 I took up their invitation and came to Minsk. On my second visit, we attended the Vuliza Brasil Festival. I was amazed to see such a spectacle in a place like Oktyabrskaya Street. A festival of free spirits in a so-called dictatorship! My interest in Minsk and the country grew. I also have an interest in brutalist architecture, like the Sports Palace etc. Although many people hate the style. I have an affinity for architecture.

You mention in your book and articles that you often visited Belarus. Were you only drawn by the architecture and the people?

People have always attracted me, but Belarus is also a largely unknown place for West Europeans. I thought I would discover an identity more than a country, but to start with it was difficult to define true Belarusian identity. I have been to Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and many other places. At first, I thought Minsk looked like a big shopping mall. But then I met people who later formed the opposition to Lukashenka and whose mothers and fathers played the same roles in 1994-95. I became interested because I discovered the true Belarusian soul, Belarusian cuisine (I love eating and restaurants), and the Belarusian language.

Belarus is a fusion of Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic states, which I found very interesting and intellectually challenging.

Why did you decide to write a book about Belarus?

I was already planning to write articles about Belarus. At the beginning of last year, I was working in Budapest when the pandemic struck. I got sick, very sick. I was in bed for a month and unable to do anything but write. I have been a writer for 30 years, so I was looking for subjects to write about. Belarus came to mind because I already had a large number of vignettes and anecdotes in my memory and notebook

Valentina – a central character of the book – called me every day and said, “I am in Minsk, helping with the elections, come over here” She invited me to go visit her. For my 7th or 8th trip to Belarus, I went to see the elections. I gradually noticed that Belarus’s dictatorship, which I was at first led to believe was soft and benevolent, has hard edges. This was a development of my perspective. My friends were saying, “We are going to win the election and end the dictatorship”. As a journalist, I have been to some troubled Middle Eastern countries and Bosnia. I thought, “Okay, Christophe, do some good. Do something you value and write about it.” So, that was my plan, and I went there.

Photo provided by Christophe Brackx

What I witnessed was so horrible that, to start with, I was writing articles for Belgian magazines and newspapers under a pen name to protect my friends within Belarus.

Then I got the phone call from a publisher who was reading these articles saying, “Hey Christophe, why not write a book about this?” I agreed. I was already writing my articles much like a script, so that encouraged me. I decided to include my experiences from previous years in my sketchbook. This is where many of the anecdotes in the book come from; such as visiting a village destroyed by both the Nazis and the Soviets. I had to disguise many things; I gave people other identities to ensure that nobody could deduce to whom I had been speaking and where. I did not want to betray opposition voices to the Belarusian authorities, so at some pont I made a collage of events from the past and placed them in the context of the two weeks I was there for the election.

So the idea - to answer your question briefly – came after what I witnessed after election night. I found it so horrible. I saw the same things in Bosnia in the 1990s, and I decided to write something about it – like a book.

Also, not much has been written about Belarus. It’s really an unknown country. We don’t know what is happening on the fringes of Europe. It was time to write about it.

The book is based on events in Belarus in August 2020. However, you also devoted significant space to analysing Lukashenka’s personality, the Chernobyl disaster, the metro explosion in 2011, riot police, and Belarusian identity. In addition, you are documenting quite incriminating facts. Do you fear persecution by the regime? Are you taking precautions for your own safety?

Publishing the book was the first time I used my own name. Just before travelling to Belarus for the elections, I phoned my editor-in-chief to say: “I’ll do this, but could you send me a press card to guarantee my safety?” He replied, “I’ll speak to state security”. Then he called me back and said, “Sorry, we can’t do that. Belarus is off-limits; the guys there are crazy; Lukashenka is crazy; we cannot guarantee your safety.” So I went there as a private citizen rather than as a journalist. I think this was not suspicious for the authorities because I had visited many times. They asked me the purpose of my visit, and I replied that I was visiting my girlfriend, as I always did, which was not true.

After I came back and the book was published, I had some conversations with state security. They advised me that there is a list of countries that I should avoid because I would be at high risk. Belarus, Russia, and China are included, along with post-Soviet states like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan etc.

Do I feel threatened? No. There is a sizeable Belarusian community in Portugal, and we gather pretty often. I know that there have been reports of KGB agents taking photographs. At first, I left the house where my family lives for three months, just to make sure there was no danger, but I don’t feel in danger right now. I think the key issue is that I’m not Belarusian. He [Lukashenka] will go after Belarusians, but not so casually after Western Europeans. At least, I hope so. I know that there is always an element of danger.

The book is a somewhat subjective interpretation of your conversations with Belarusian people. You note yourself that there are might be factual errors in the book…

There may be some factual errors. I have been making television programmes in Belgium, and one of the most successful was based on interviewing people about a single topic. For example, I made a programme about people that were newly released from prison. I was literally waiting for them at the gates to talk to them and record their impressions of their first day of freedom, the first day of their new life.  

It was a successful show. I interviewed thousands of people, and I made a conscious decision not to fact check everything. What they were telling me was a subjective truth, not the objective truth.

Photo provided by Christophe Brackx

There may be minor errors. What I didn’t want to do was act like a journalist, querying, “Is this true?” and then going to the authorities and asking, “What is your comment on this?” Firstly, I knew I would be deported. Secondly, it would be professional suicide for a Western journalist to ask them [the authorities] if some of the events really happened.

I was not interested in that; I wanted to hear the stories of the people.

Some stories I left out because I thought them too grotesque, and I could not justify including them, but that was only a tiny percentage of the stories I heard.

There is a statement in the book that there is no independent press in Belarus. On what basis did you come to this conclusion?

I spoke to many [Belarusian] journalists because I felt the need to locate free media in Belarus and free Belarusian journalists. An editor-in-chief, whose name I cannot reveal, told me how Lukashenka decides who will be the head of Belarusian TV or in control of various newspapers. I researched this and confirmed it; there are multiple lines of evidence demonstrating that he [Lukashenka] names of heads of communication and media organisations.

My statement is not an indictment of free journalism in Belarus. It is almost impossible to be an independent journalist and write freely within the country. Many editorial offices are closed, and many journalists are now in custody. I can say that there is no freedom at all in Belarus. Every article is first self-censored by the author, then censored by the sub-editors, and then it might be censored by the editor-in-chief.

I could not believe my eyes when I was watching TV on the night of the election. It was a grotesque Soviet parody. There is no free press in Belarus. Only tolerated state media.

What about the Belarusian digital independent media? TUT.BY, Nasha Niva and so on?

Yes, I know them, but they are now closed or operating outside the country. In Belarus, these journalists will either be arrested or censored.

You also write that despite the numerous reports of international organisations, and a considerable media resonance, the West still looks the other way, as if Belarus is not a part of Europe but rather some remote exotic island. Why do you think this is?

The primary reason is Belarus’ geostrategic position. It is a buffer state between Western Europe and the Putin regime, and there have been many conflicts in the region, between Ukraine and Russia, and Georgia and Russia. Consequently, Russia and Putin now have a lot of influence in Belarus.

I think it is illusory to believe that Belarus will be free. I hate to say this because I love Belarus and want it to be free – that’s why I wrote this book. However, it is an illusion because Belarus is in a way still a Stalinist Soviet state, and Putin will not give it up.

If he did, he would face internal revolution himself. Secondly, Belarus is a buffer in the line of attack in case of war an alleged war with the West.

Unfortunately, from a strategic standpoint, Belarus is ideal for containing both Eastern and Western aggression. Then you have the fact that Belarus is sponsored as much by China as by Russia. I wrote a chapter about this in the book. The West needs to consider the implications of both. Belarus is the last mile of the Chinese “New Silk Road” - an entry gate for Chinese goods into Western Europe. I was shocked to see so many Chinese signs in Belarus, sometimes more prominent than in English. I was also surprised to see something similar in Africa and even in Portugal; Chinese signs everywhere.

Due to proximity to Russia and Chinese investment, Belarus has strategic importance. I am afraid they will continue to support Lukashenka, and we, in the West, are going to stand aside because we are an intellectually civilised rather than aggressive society.

We will not go to war over Belarus as we did in the 1990s in Sarajevo when ethnic cleansing exterminated Bosnian Muslims. Such things are not happening in Belarus. Western Europe has an extreme energy crisis, prices are rising, and. Germany and France are looking towards Russia for a solution. They will not push Putin very hard about Lukashenka because it is not in their economic interest, and they know that strategically it is an impossible mission. This is the unpalatable truth.

In this situation, what should we do? I mean the Belarusian media, NGOs, and activists. What should we say or write about Belarus?

For Western media, only today’s news matters. A revolution somewhere today will rapidly be displaced by a similar story from somewhere else tomorrow. There is a new revolution every day, and we forget about the previous one, much like Snapchat.

It is not about history or journalism anymore; it is all a question of ratings. Even with a subject like Belarus, all the channels, the broadcasters, and the newspapers are trying to deliver the most content. Information has unfortunately become a kind of fuel for a sales machine. August 2020 occurred in the middle of a pandemic that had seized the news agenda worldwide. After a week, the media got needed something new. It sounds horrible, but it is how things are. There was a crisis in Haiti, and the media switched to this topic.

I know the newscasters; they phoned me and said, “Hey Cristophe, can you come to the studio tonight to talk about Belarus? But if something happens in Haiti, don’t bother.” That actually happened, and I understand why. Belarus is not the zeitgeist of the moment. Yes, you have photogenic leadership, such as Masha Kolesnikova. I think the triumvirate of women, Tikhanouskaya, Kolesnikova, and Tsepkalo, attracted attention. However, Kolesnikova is in jail because of her political activities, while Tikhanouskaya travels the world. There is no unity of leadership anymore. Nothing to stand against Lukashenka.

It is tough to attract attention; to register on the news agenda. It is all about the ratings. I am doing my best, trying often to bring Belarussian problems to the media’s attention, on TV, in the newspapers because I also have a lot of Belarusian friends here in Belgium. It is difficult. The world media looks for drama. Honestly, I don’t know what to do. I think the one thing we can do is to report, report, report, and hope that Putin gets heartily sick of Lukashenka. Lukashenka will only step down if Putin wants him to. I am rather pessimistic about the future.

What kind of feedback did you get after the book was published in Belgium?

The feedback I get highlights the difficulty of the subject. This is “far from our bed”, as we say. “What? What? Is this happening in Europe? No, this can not be possible!” When you write a book like this, only a handful of intellectuals have a clear idea of the subject. Most people don’t know what is going on. Most Belgians, if you mention Belarus, will say, “Where is it?” Only when you say “White Russia” is there any recognition, but usually just as a stereotype. People don’t go beyond that. If you ask today’s Belgians, half of them will not even know Belarus is an independent country.

For the last 15 years, it has been more of a philosophical topic. It was an encapsulated society. But for me, it was always intriguing because it was forbidden, I mean the Eastern block behind the Iron curtain. It intrigued me. I wanted to know more about it.

There will always be a readership for books of this kind amongst people who already know something about the situation. We now are trying to promote the book in the UK and the US, where they have a greater tradition of non-fiction books. I do not imagine this will change anything, but it might have more of an impact than the sales in Western Europe.

I hope the book will be translated into as many languages as possible because the world should know.

In my view, Belarus is a conflict zone, but the conflict is still hidden, and people will say: “It won’t be that terrible.”

To be honest, for the first few years that I visited Belarus, between 2015-2018, I was thinking the same. “There is the Svobody bar, restaurant “Simple”, there are so many bars and places to go, you have terrific brutalist architecture, you have Vulica Brasil. It can’t be as terrible as they tell me”. Only in the last two years did it become clear how terrible it really is, especially after the elections. Everyone against the regime, with the opposition, is now outside the country or in jail. The bars are closed, the shops are closed, almost all media channels are closed. It is a horrible dictatorship. Then there will be amnesties. We know in the West that he jailed so many people to use them as bargaining chips later because his money will soon be gone. Then he will ask Western countries for a reward for the release of political prisoners. He will say: “You give me a reward, and I will free Babariko and Kolesnikova”. This is his game and the prisoners are currency. This much is clear to Western audiences.

I have a Lithuanian translation now, and perhaps soon a Polish one. They are the countries that are most affected by the problem. Lukashenko has build a huge nuclear installation on the border. Naturally, Lithuania is concerned about this. Lukashenka is a problem that touches all of Europe but only 3 or 4 countries are directly experiencing this: Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine. The rest of Western Europe just sees him as a crazy dictator, much like an African warlord. But he is not in Africa, he is in Europe. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this yet.

Should the book be translated into Russian? Do you think it would be useful for people living in post-Soviet countries?

Yes, of course the book should be translated into Russian because what is happening in Belarus is is also happening in Azerbajdzan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and several other places. I have visited many post-Soviet countries and have seen dictatorship alive and well. Lukashenka is not the longest serving dictator. There are other dictators in some post-Soviet countries who have been in power longer than Lukashenko.

The book can help the post-Soviet generation to understand what is really going, that the Cold War is not over yet, that the Kremlin still has a lot influence in their own countries. I think it may provide useful insight into how we in the West view events in all post-Soviet states.

Have you considered a movie or a documentary adaptation of your book? Maybe that would reach more people? People read less and watch more these days.

They asked me, “Do you want you go back with the camera team?” while I was writing the book. But after what I’ve seen, I had to decline. It is too dangerous. I have reported on wars before, but this is not an open conflict, it is even more dangerous. I will not go back there now, especially with the camera team.

Of course, a documentary could be based on the book. I have spoken to people in Belgium about this already. Someone will make a documentary about these events. I heard that Svetlana Aleksievich is also writing such a book, and I assume other people are already working on such documentaries. It’s no so difficult now because most of opposition leaders are in exile and are free to give interviews.