Thursday, April 20, 2006

Belarus and naval strategy

Free media and naval strategy in Belarus

When I used to work in the BBC's religious broadcasting department some 20 years ago, we sometimes teased our slightly dim presenter by telling him that the next item concerned a conference of Catholic bishops' wives (or Muslim brewers, or a Mormon coffee-morning: in those happy days, you could still make jokes about religion).

He usually fell for it. So when I received an e-mail apparently from the Belarus Embassy in London, inviting me to a government-sponsored media conference in Minsk, my immediate reaction was that some friend of mine was playing a practical joke.
Admittedly, any official invitation from that quarter is about as likely my spending New Year's Eve at Vladimir and Lyudmila Putin's dacha. I can't at the moment get a visa for either Russia or Belarus. That's a pity: I have been covering both countries for nearly 20 years, and my affection for their language, culture and people is matched only by dislike (doubtless mutual) for the creeps in charge, and the bullies and sycophants around them.
But the subject of the conference was so unlikely that it couldn't be a joke: the "10th International Special Exhibition: Mass Media in Belarus". Even my most ingenious friends would not think that one up. A conference on mass media in Belarus is as implausible as that landlocked country debating naval strategy, or a meeting of Icelandic trainspotters.
For those unfamiliar with the benighted politics of Belarus, it may be worth pointing out that the mass media there do not fulfil the functions of their counterparts in other countries, of raising issues of public concern, holding officials and politicians to account, and so forth. In Belarus, the media's task is to operate in the Leninist sense, of a transmission belt bringing the political wisdom of the country's leadership to the masses. The deeds of the president are the main, sometimes the only, item in the news. Misdeeds (such as the ruination of the country's education system, relations with rogue states, state-sponsored criminality, the murder of political opponents, and the blatant rigging of elections) don't feature.
A bit of Googling reveals that the previous nine conferences really did take place. From the accounts posted on official Belarussian websites, these seem to have been ghastly Soviet-style affairs, awash with toasts and endless maudlin self-congratulation.
For anyone who doesn't remember the Soviet Union, these sort of conferences were the staple diet of public life in those days. Delegations would arrive armed with wordy communiqués of staggering blandness and banality. There would be lengthy speeches, punctuated with lethargic applause. The main business, of course, was shopping and socialising (rather like American business conventions, now I come to think about it, but with secret police, instead of corporate PR departments, checking that everyone stays on message).
But such conferences are valuable for a different reason. However boring the official sessions, the bits between are a rare chance to get alongside top goons, drink them senseless, and try to get them to spill a bean or two. So I phoned the embassy and pleaded for confirmation that I would actually get a visa. The theme of the conference, after all, is the "integration of Belarus into the world media landscape", and surely the participation of The Economist, one of the few big international publications to cover Belarus solidly, would speed that noble goal? "We'll get back to you," said the embassy official smoothly.
Perhaps it would have improved my chances if I had asked for advice on how to arrive by sea.
# Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist


Edward Hugh said...

Hello Edward

And welcome to blogland. You raise some interesting and important questions in this post. Clearly the EU 8 are moving reasonably quickly towards the institutional and technological frontier at a fair speed (although not as fast, in general, as say Turkey). There are clearly huge differences between cases though, and aggregated averages tend to have the same dubious value in Eastern Europe as they do in, say, the eurozone.

The key issue is going to be the demographic one. I was alerted to your blog by Danish blogger Claus Vistesen, who seems to have been following you:

We have a group blog - Demography Matters - where we follow the demography/economics interface.

I am writing a book on all of this:

I have the outline for some sort of rough and ready model in these theses:

Anyway, as I said, welcome aboard.

Edward Hugh said...

Just to clarify, the hard questions will be the labour force one of stocks and flows, as you exhaust the existing stock at its current level of education and formation, how do you secure sufficient future supply to move up the value chain? This is the difficulty I see.