Back in August, we wrote an explainer on the situation in Belarus after pro-democracy protests occurred. Several past Eurovision artists participated in them and actively discussed the situation with their fans. About six months have passed since the protests first started, but the situation has not changed much for Belarusian artists.
With the recent appointment of Galasy ZMesta as the Belarusian representatives for Rotterdam, some fans have wondered how the current situation is affecting Belarus’ music industry. In this article, we aim to summarise how the political situation created rifts in the country’s music scene, as artists who speak out against repression and in favour of political freedom risk being muzzled and silenced.
How the situation in Belarus is impacting its artists
Artists are among the most affected groups in the long-term aftermath of the Belarusian protests. After all, expression is at the heart of music. The political situation in the country has led to a large divide in Belarus’ music industry between those who support the pro-democracy movement and those who support the current regime.
For an artist and being a public figure, it is hard to stay neutral and to not be confronted with this divide. However, choosing one of the sides also has large consequences for the artist’s career and their future. And not only their future but also the future of their partner, their children or other people close to them.
Belarusian artists have faced consequences for their actions
We’ve seen the consequences from speaking about the protests most clearly with VAL — who chose to take the streets pretty quickly. After speaking their minds to an independent publication, the group were told by broadcaster BTRC that they were “unsuitable” to go to Eurovision 2021.
Belarusian group NAVIBAND — who represented their country at Eurovision 2017 — have also experienced the consequences of speaking up. After releasing their protest songs “Girl in White” and “Milliony bol’skhikh serdets”, the group revealed on Instagram that young singers were banned from using NAVIBAND songs at singing contests. Next to that, NAVIBAND singer Arciom later revealed that his physical mail had been opened before he received them on several occasions since speaking up.
Belarus’ Eurovision commentator Evgeny Perlin left BTRC as a result of their coverage on the protests this Summer, after earlier being a government supporter. Not long after leaving BTRC, Perlin found his car to be vandalised. The music video for “Ya nauchu tebya” seems to have a dig at the former BTRC employee too — the furniture set used in the music video seems to be taken directly from the furniture set of his former talk show Makayonka, 9.
However, already even before the larger protests erupted, pop-rock group and Eurovision 2012 contestants Litesound had not been welcome anymore at several concerts for supporting the opposition.
Several artists have tried to abstain from choosing a side, some scared of the consequences it might have for their family. One of the most notable of them is Eurovision 2007 contestant Dmitry Koldun, who also is a husband and a father of two, besides a singer. In August 2020, Dmitry told Super.ru:
“As a Belarusian, my relationship to the situation is straightforward. It is very unpleasant, alarming and scary that this is happening in my country, which I am used to seeing as peaceful and living calmly. My family and I left the capital, the streets were very noisy, my daughter was waking up at night. I myself spend a lot of time in Russia, but my family is here. I do not know what needs to be done to end the violence, this is a question for politicians. But first of all, it is necessary to stop breaking each other’s bones, to sit down and talk. Then, perhaps, this conflict will be resolved peacefully.”
In an interview with Frederik Skavlan, the only Belarusian-born Eurovision winner Alexander Rybak spoke a familiar language. When asked about the situation, Rybak said:
“I have family [in Belarus]. (…) I think my grandmothers are very aware that I am an artist. And the more I know, the more exposed I am [to potentially harmful things].”
Performers don’t want to sing at government-sponsored events
Another problem the current Belarusian music industry has to deal with is the disappearance of certain platforms for young musical talent.
Many performers have abstained from appearing on any of BTRC and ONT — Belarus’ two largest television stations — blaming the broadcasters’ coverage of the domestic events.
Belarus’ only talk show Makayonka, 9 was axed on 12 August 2020 as host and Eurovision commentator Evgeny Perlin decided to leave BTRC. Until its cancellation, Makayonka, 9 had grown to be the show where young Belarusian singers and projects were promoted. In fact, VAL’s first appearance as a duet was made on that very show.
Next to that, with the current situation, some young performers will think twice about entering the local selection for the governmentally-funded Slavianski Bazar in Vitebsk. Since 1991, the Slavianski Bazar has given young Belarusian talent the opportunity to showcase themselves on one of the largest stages in Eastern Europe.
Of the 16 acts that have selected to sing for Belarus at Eurovision, only a handful have not made their breakthrough on that stage.
How did this all influence this year’s Eurovision effort?
The above issues have also seeped through to the country’s Eurovision selection of this year. Many artists that have participated year after year instead skipped the selection this year. Among them was NAPOLI, whose producer posted a statement on VKontakte and Facebook, explaining their decision.
Belarusian Eurovision contestants NAVIBAND and Angelica Agurbash supported a call for Belarus to be removed as participants of this year’s contest.
As a result, this year, state broadcaster BTRC chose pro-governmental rock group Galasy ZMesta to the contest with the song “Ya nauchu tebya”.
How have Belarusian Eurovision contestants reacted to Galasy ZMesta’s selection?
Back in January, NAVIBAND told Deutsche Welle that it was hard for them to imagine that anyone from the Belarusian music industry would want to be representing BTRC.
Last year’s act VAL also replied to the choice of Galasy ZMesta as the Belarusian representatives at Eurovision 2021. The duo of Vlad and Lera wrote on Instagram:
“Dear friends, thank you for your incredible support! The candidate which was picked yesterday to represent Belarus at Eurovision shocked everybody. Once again we all have seen that being «loyal» is much more important than being talented and having high quality music.
We wish everyone to dance only to your own tune! Be free, let your love shine a light! The best is yet to come!”
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The situation in Belarus
Since August 2020, there has been an ongoing crackdown of peaceful demonstrators who continue to speak out against police brutality and President Alexander Lukashenko. You’ll remember that he was re-elected in elections that have been widely condemned by the international community, including by the European Union.
Since October 2020, the EU has progressively imposed restrictions on Belarus and levelled sanctions against people it says are “responsible for repression and intimidation” against protestors. The Council of the European Union says: “The measures were adopted in response to the Belarusian authorities’ unacceptable violence against peaceful protesters, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detentions, following the August 2020 presidential elections.” “The EU does not recognise results of the Belarus elections, condemning them as neither free, nor fair.”