This article is originally published in Political Critique.
By Tania Arcimovič
On April 2, 2015, Belarusian President Aliaksander Lukashenka signed Decree No. three, “On the prevention of social dependency.” The decree states that, starting from the beginning of 2015, every working-age Belarusian should work at least 183 days a year. Those who fail to do so will have to pay a special tax, equaling about $220 annually.
This decree references the notorious Soviet tradition of referring to people who were not in employment as parasites (or in Russian, “тунеядец”), some of whom were even prosecuted. A famous example is Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, who was charged with social parasitism in 1964 and sentenced to five years of hard labor, serving 18 months on a farm in the village of Norenskaya.
This addition to the decree becomes yet another tool to control an artistic community that for a long time remained invisible to the authorities and was, for this reason, out of their control.
Already in August, tax inspectors were sending special letters to those identified as parasites. Minors, seniors, the disabled, and the incapacitated are exempt from the tax. Likewise unaffected by the decree are employees, entrepreneurs, and craftsmen who are registered, working, and paying taxes (minimum $220 per year, if less they should pay the difference). Full-time students won’t pay taxes, unlike correspondence students who are not employed. Even housewives (without valid reasons) are now official parasites. “If her husband has enough money, he should pay for his wife,” tax inspectors say. People who cannot pay, or will not pay, should work for free for the state to cover the debt. Those people who confessed their social dependency of their own accord before May 31 receive a discount of about 10 percent. According to official statistics, more than 2,000 Belarusians have received this discount.
And what about artists, as they earn money sporadically, moving from one project to another and rarely having a permanent position? After the arts community publicly raised this question, the government subsequently added tax exemption for members of creative unions, as there are still plenty of these in Belarus, even if their function is mostly formal. At the same time, many artists in Belarus never join any official organizations—be it for political reasons or because it does not make sense for them. Does it mean they are not artists? The extension to the decree clarifies further that in such cases, an artist can be certified by the Ministry of Culture as a cultural worker.
It may seem that the state is trying to make the decree more flexible by allowing a special status for cultural workers. But this only seems to be the case. On the one hand, having failed to sustain economic growth and a healthy labor market, Belarusian authorities are trying to shift the blame for their failures onto the population. On the other hand, this addition to the decree becomes yet another tool to control an artistic community that for a long time remained invisible to the authorities and was, for this reason, out of their control. Thus, the status of “artist” that was once a question of self-definition is now becoming part of the Belarusian legal system. As Belarusian philosopher Almira Ousamanova puts it, “You can be an artist but lose your freedom. Or you can be free not as an artist, but as somebody else.” To put it bluntly, you can now buy your freedom in Belarus.
So what does the certification process look like and what is needed for it? First, one has to apply to the Ministry of Culture by sending his or her artistic portfolio; the second step is a personal interview, and after that the artist will be informed about the decision of the committee. The certification is valid for five years and after that should be renewed via the same application process. The procedure seems absurd and humiliating, and since July last year, about 50 people have applied, with only half of them receiving a positive answer.
The problem, however, is not the procedure itself. For example, to receive a special artist visa in Germany (which gives certain benefits, including social insurance) one has to prove to the commission that he or she actually works and earns money as an artist. The commission in Belarus judges if “a work of art is a piece of art, if it is new, authentic, and a part of intellectual activity” that is performed with “a high level of professional skill.” It is obvious that these criteria are very vague and will reflect the subjective decision of a committee that includes representatives of state unions, the Academy of Sciences, and various art institutions. The head of the commission is Deputy Minister of Culture Iryna Dryga, who is frequently at odds with the independent artistic community. Apart from being part of state structures that have to represent state policies, most of the experts are belong to an older generation with no understanding of modern art or modern culture. For example, it’s important for them that an applicant has professional artistic education; if, for example, a musician isn’t professionally educated, he or she must present their works in musical notation. Thus, electronic musician Natallya Kunickaya, who failed to have her status as artist accepted, explains that while she works with a foreign label and it is not necessary nowadays to score music, especially electronic music, that was not deemed adequate by the committee. “Today’s advanced technology allows any plumber to press a button and become Bach, Mozart, or somebody else. We try to prevent speculation, that’s why we demand musical notations,” say committee members.
As examples of independent institutions such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists or the Belarusian Writers’ Union demonstrate, a way out might be to found an independent association of cultural workers.
Artists who have neither plans to apply nor a place of work are just waiting to see what will happen next. “It’s interesting to see how they will find me. I will not pay, but if I must work it off, I’ll try to turn it to my advantage, for example, to make an artistic project,” says young artist Bazinato. Lavon Volski, the legendary rock musician, this year’s winner of the International Freemuse Award, also isn’t going to pay. “They banned me from the public sphere, I haven’t been able to perform concerts for about 10 years now (Lavon Volski has been unofficially blacklisted). Should I ask them about this certificate? So they can judge me?”
From today’s perspective, this draconian situation seems absurd, and is not to the advantage of the Belarusian government, which recently tried to initiate democratic changes and take more pro-European steps. The decree reveals the essence of current changes in Belarus. What can Belarusian artists do to resist when they lack legal tools as well as any possibility of direct political gestures? Unfortunately, the Belarusian Artists’ Union, which ought to protect the rights of artists, is completely pro-government. But as examples of independent institutions such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists or the Belarusian Writers’ Union demonstrate, a way out might be to found an independent association of cultural workers. And last but not least, this deadlock may spark debate about solidarity in artistic circles, as it is, regardless, important to talk about.
Tania Arcimovič is an art critic, curator, and editor of pARTisan media project.
[Photo courtesy of FreeUsername1313]