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Belarus in focus: comments from Chair of Judges' Panel

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This year’s competition brought a very broad variety of entries. In general, journalists both within and outside Belarus seem to be slowly recognizing that there are many facets to the country beyond the realm of politics.

Thus we had articles on unemployment and homelessness, underground music, collective farms, and Belarusians living in exile. The quality of some of the articles was superlative, and it was quite difficult, especially in the professional sphere, to choose outright winners.

An underlying theme of several articles was the concept of Belarus as a quasi-Soviet or post-Soviet state. Writers are accustomed to taking certain things for granted in Belarusian towns: cleanliness of streets, law and order, and a seamless public image that often conceals authentic and growing problems. Increasingly the country has become an urban environment - fewer and fewer people reside in villages - and therefore many writers focus on different aspects of city life. It would be interesting and helpful though to have more articles examine rural communities. Only a century ago, the vast majority of Belarusians were village dwellers. Thus urbanization has been the prevalent trend of the past fifty years, and it has signified the forthcoming “death of the village.” For me as an outsider it is one of the most striking developments in the country, but it was almost omitted entirely from the contributions submitted (the article on the collective farm excepted).

Finalists of 'Belarus in Focus 2013': International Journalism Competition. Photo - www.facebook.com/SolidarityBY

Traditionally - if one can use such an adverb with regard to a state in existence for less than twenty-five years - when outsiders hear the word Belarus they think of politics and the president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In the past the phrase “last dictatorship of Europe” has been used with irritating regularity to describe the republic. It is true that Belarus remains one of the most authoritarian regimes in Europe and that the human rights situation has not improved in recent years, but it is not the only story in this republic. This year we received a few articles that used the same approach, though less than in 2012. It seems to me that the phrase has outlived its usefulness. One can examine both society and politics from different angles. One can also examine the presidency, but it would be helpful to use more refined themes-comparative ones with other states, for example. There are a lot of things about Belarus that would be useful for Europeans, and even people worldwide, to know. For example, is it possible to learn more about life at the local level, how regions are run? Or what about the daily life of workers in factories?

Other potential themes might be linked to technology or sports, which arouse tremendous interest in Belarusian society. With regard to the latter, perhaps one could make the analogy with former Soviet or socialist regimes in which sports become a substitute for the lack of political freedom. Yet Belarusian sportsmen and women have been remarkably successful in world and Olympic competitions for a nation of 9.4 million. Another topic that would interest me personally is education and the school system. Though the Belarusian language is lamentably neglected, the standard of education in areas like language, or music, or mathematics, is quite outstanding. All of these might be subjects to consider in future competitions. And none of this is to say that we should neglect politics and-especially-my own subject of history. But new approaches are always healthy.

Overall I am encouraged by the current year’s contest and the quality of the articles. I wish to congratulate this year’s winners and participants, and encourage everyone to think about this year’s contest and developing more new themes.

David R. Marples

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta, Canada

Chair of Judges’ Panel, 2013 Belarus in Focus competition

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This year’s competition brought a very broad variety of entries. In general, journalists both within and outside Belarus seem to be slowly recognizing that there are many facets to the country beyond the realm of politics.

Thus we had articles on unemployment and homelessness, underground music, collective farms, and Belarusians living in exile. The quality of some of the articles was superlative, and it was quite difficult, especially in the professional sphere, to choose outright winners.

An underlying theme of several articles was the concept of Belarus as a quasi-Soviet or post-Soviet state. Writers are accustomed to taking certain things for granted in Belarusian towns: cleanliness of streets, law and order, and a seamless public image that often conceals authentic and growing problems. Increasingly the country has become an urban environment - fewer and fewer people reside in villages - and therefore many writers focus on different aspects of city life. It would be interesting and helpful though to have more articles examine rural communities. Only a century ago, the vast majority of Belarusians were village dwellers. Thus urbanization has been the prevalent trend of the past fifty years, and it has signified the forthcoming “death of the village.” For me as an outsider it is one of the most striking developments in the country, but it was almost omitted entirely from the contributions submitted (the article on the collective farm excepted).

Finalists of 'Belarus in Focus 2013': International Journalism Competition. Photo - www.facebook.com/SolidarityBY

Traditionally - if one can use such an adverb with regard to a state in existence for less than twenty-five years - when outsiders hear the word Belarus they think of politics and the president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In the past the phrase “last dictatorship of Europe” has been used with irritating regularity to describe the republic. It is true that Belarus remains one of the most authoritarian regimes in Europe and that the human rights situation has not improved in recent years, but it is not the only story in this republic. This year we received a few articles that used the same approach, though less than in 2012. It seems to me that the phrase has outlived its usefulness. One can examine both society and politics from different angles. One can also examine the presidency, but it would be helpful to use more refined themes-comparative ones with other states, for example. There are a lot of things about Belarus that would be useful for Europeans, and even people worldwide, to know. For example, is it possible to learn more about life at the local level, how regions are run? Or what about the daily life of workers in factories?

Other potential themes might be linked to technology or sports, which arouse tremendous interest in Belarusian society. With regard to the latter, perhaps one could make the analogy with former Soviet or socialist regimes in which sports become a substitute for the lack of political freedom. Yet Belarusian sportsmen and women have been remarkably successful in world and Olympic competitions for a nation of 9.4 million. Another topic that would interest me personally is education and the school system. Though the Belarusian language is lamentably neglected, the standard of education in areas like language, or music, or mathematics, is quite outstanding. All of these might be subjects to consider in future competitions. And none of this is to say that we should neglect politics and-especially-my own subject of history. But new approaches are always healthy.

Overall I am encouraged by the current year’s contest and the quality of the articles. I wish to congratulate this year’s winners and participants, and encourage everyone to think about this year’s contest and developing more new themes.

David R. Marples

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta, Canada

Chair of Judges’ Panel, 2013 Belarus in Focus competition

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