15 July 2009

Belarus sets up morals council

Here's something that's interesting and has the potential to be very scary: a Public Council on Morals was established in Minsk on 8 July. Its members include official representatives of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, as well as Jewish and Islamic organisations, along with writers, artists and academics. According to Metropolitan Filaret, the chief cleric of the Belarusian Exarchate, President Alaksandar Łukašenka (Aliaksandr Lukashenka) "has expressed his understanding of the church's concern about the moral state of society". Once again, we have the Orthodox Church happily playing second fiddle to Łukašenka in exchange for government favours.

Mikałaj Čarhiniec (Mikalay Charhinets), the head of the government-sponsored Union of Writers of Belarus, is to serve as the first head of the Council.

Hieorhij Marčuk (Heorhiy Marchuk), a member of the Union of Writers and the new Council on Morals, said that the Council would gauge public opinion on "controversial" books and art, and would advise the government on how to deal with books and art that "contradict society's traditional values". He denied that the Council would be in the business of censorship, however.

According to Marčuk, the Council is planning to combat the "profanation of the biblical commandments, history and patriotic feelings." So patriotism, then, is equivalent to the commandments of the Bible? Plus, I do wonder what Marčuk understands by the profanation of history. More than likely, he's referring to the Soviet view of WWII, which has acquired the status of gospel under Łukašenka. I guess if you write a novel questioning the official view as presented in what seems to be a new Belarusian WWII movie every year, I guess you'd better watch out.

Marčuk also added that the Council was planning to organise discussions on things like "the role of Christianity in the artist's work" and "relations between religion and secular morals", which certainly sound like reasonable and interesting topics to discuss. Another one of the Council's planned discussion topics, though, is "certain subjects connected with the place of the good character in modern Belarusian literature". Huh? OK, so there we have it: if you write about "good characters" defending the native land with Orthodox-Christian-patriotic zeal, you're fine. Other types of literature and art, it seems, are going to be made unwelcome in Łukašenka's Belarus.

Here's the thing: a council of this sort, were it a true civil society initiative, would have been a welcome development. If it were actually a forum where writers, artists and religious figures could freely discuss art, religion, the public role of the artist, the role of morality in life, and so on, that would be fine; it would even have the potential to produce some sort of synthesis that would contribute to our everlasting quest for meaning. This Public Council on Morals, though, is a creature of the government, and it shows every sign of being one of two undesirable things. Either it is an effort to scare independent Belarusian writers and artists into towing the government line, or it is simply a bone thrown by Łukašenka to the religious bodies, especially the Orthodox Church, in a further attempt to legitimise his regime through religion. I think the latter is actually more likely to be true. Either way, this just goes to show how much needs to change in Belarus.

[This post was written in Istanbul.]

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