By Ryhor Astapenya
Seventy years ago, on 4 October 1942 German authorities organised Dazhynki festival in Minsk. It was the first time the festival took place in Belarus with the highest level of state support.
On 21 September 2012 Aleksandr Lukashenka was opening a Dazhynki festival in Gorki, a small town in Eastern Belarus. Dazhynki is a traditional Eastern European celebration of completion of the harvest season. The Thanksgiving Day or Harvest festivals can be regarded as Western equivalents to Belarusian Dazhynki.
But today only Belarusian authorities celebrate it with such pomp. For Lukashenka, it is not just a holiday but also an important political show.
Lukashenka uses Dazhynki to demonstrate how much he supports agriculture. Belarusian towns compete for the right to host the holiday, as Dazhynki remains the best opportunity to improve their wellbeing.
Huge Costs for The Budget
State-level celebration of Dazhynki takes place in a new town every year. The state provides huge financial subsidies for urban reconstruction in the framework of the holiday. Comprehensive reparation works start a year before Dazhynki. The authorities build new roads, remove old and place new tiles, renovate residential buildings. Thus, it is not just an honour for local officials and residents to host Dazhynki, but also an opportunity to improve the welfare of their area.
The 2012 host of the festival is Gorki. The town with the population of 34 thousand people received around $110 mln for reconstruction. The money went mostly to refurbishment of roads and railway stations, construction of a 3D cinema and an amphitheatre.
Also, the local authorities refurbished Gotki Agricultural Academy, where Lukashenka used to study. They also built an Ice Hockey Palace, which has become an important element of Lukashenka's Belarus.
Of course, there was not enough money for a proper refurbishment for everyone. The authorities promised several town residents to repair their houses before Dazhynki. The houses looked as if they went through a war – there were holes in the floor and cracks in the walls.
The residents of the houses complained that there was an urgent need to change water pipes and sewers. The authorities really got down repairing, but they did not conduct the work they promised inside of the houses. Instead of that, the workers painted the houses from the outside, replaced the windows and cleaned the area.It was more important that the building looked nice from outside.
Struggle for the Right to Host Dazhynki
Belarusian towns compete for the right to host the holiday to receive additional funding. Each year a real “war” for the right to host the festival starts among the Belarusian officials class. Traditionally, the festival takes place in small towns, but now, after the financial crisis, big cities are also trying to get funding.
Previously, government appointed Rahachou as the host of the festival in the upcoming year. Today Rahachou remains a rather neglected town even by modest Belarusian standards. However, the Homel Regional Executive Committee was able to negotiate with Lukashenka to ensure that the following Dazhynki would be held in Homel.
Rahachou civil society activists community collected 2,500 signatures for returning the right to be Dazhynki host town. The attempts were in vain, but the authorities promised that they would fix Rahachou the following year anyway.
How the Regime and the Opposition Perceive Dazhynki
Dazhynki in Belarus is not simply an agricultural festival, but also a political one. On the one hand, the Belarusian regime is trying to show how much it cares about the Belarusian village. On the other hand, independent media often mock the rural grandiosity of the event. Interestingly, both sides are right here.
Lukashenka really loves Belarusian village. As a former director of a state-owned agricultural farm, he believes that the Belarusian village can be successful and he helps it. However, Lukashenka appeared to be stuck in his own past and simply refuses to see a reform path in the agricultural sector.
Independent media notice that just pro-regime musicians sing at Dazhynki in Belarus and the main aim of the event is to promote Lukashenka. The festival itself looks more like a drunken orgy for ordinary people and has little in common with Western festivals.
This year’s Dazhynki was held on September 21-23, during the parliamentary election. In order to settle the guests of the festival, the authorities decided to expel students from the dormitories for a few days.
University authorities "strongly encouraged" students to vote on the first day of early voting and go home. The result looked amazing - 71% of voters in the area where dormitories were located voted 6 days before the primary election day.
The Untold Story of Failing Belarusian Agriculture
Certainly, it is good that the authorities reconstruct cities, care about the prestige of agriculture and keep Belarusian traditional holidays. However, the grand pomp of the festival amid backwardness and poverty of Belarusian village looks out of place.
During 2001-2011 the Belarusian authorities spent $40 billion on agriculture. Despite massive subsidies, even the subsidised Belarusian export production often remains more expensive than in Western Europe. Weak material and technical base and high energy consumption do not allow Belarusian agricultural workers to make cheap products of high quality.
Although the state may provide free housing, people in villages have to struggle surviving on low salaries and suffering from alcoholism. A monthly salary lower than $190 is not rarity in Belarusian villages.
The main problem of agriculture is the lack of reforms and nearly complete dominance of state management. Today the Belarusian village has not improved much in comparison with the village of the former Soviet Union. Private investor still remains a rarity in Belarusian villages.
Rather than seriously dealing with these problems Belarusian authorities prefer to organise expensive political shows to create an appearance of wellbeing.