While I was in Minsk helping out on a media rights survey last week, the actual source of the problems in that area, Belarus president Alaksandr Lukashenka, was in Vilnius on a state visit, reportedly excusing the absence of his wife to the local press by praising the beauty of Lithuania’s ladies.
Unreconstructed East European male he may be, he nevertheless left the shop at home – and the responsibility of dealing with me and my colleagues – in the care of his imperious and elegant first deputy head of administration, Natalia Petkevich.
Not for nothing is Petkevich regarded as a real power behind the throne. She is the official that heads the nationwide network of ‘Ideological Departments’ – an un-ironic recreation of a Soviet-style system instituted a few years ago by the Lukashenka administration to institutionalise state control over every corner of daily life.
For the opposition and independent media she is quite an object of fascination. Our press conference to present the survey’s initial findings began instead with an immediate flurry of questions about our meeting with her.
Thirty-seven year old Petkevich wields considerable power through her network of Ideological Departments, operating on informal rules, more or less made up as they need. Requests to see a printed copy of their operational code of conduct triggered snickering amongst Petkevich’s accompanying staff.
But when I pressed the point about the unfairness of a system of regulation without written rules she exploded into a tirade against ill-informed foreigners hunting imagined “white bears in the woods”.
Smartly suited, briskly mannered and playing with a solid gold pen throughout our meeting, she deserves the ‘Iron Lady’ nickname she has picked up here. Petkevich shares much of how I remember former British premier Margaret Thatcher’s style while working as a journalist in her North London constituency in the 1980s.
It was classic Thatcherite media relations: just blasting her way past an uncomfortable question.
But the problem remains. The departments are designed as dead-ends into which anything the state doesn’t like is directed. For the independent Belarus media that covers any kind of request for information the state doesn’t want to share, or applications to sell their papers through the state-run distribution and sales networks.
Without the Ideological Department stamp on a list of politically approved publications (here’s one) the papers go nowhere. The departments have been instituted across the country, not just to stymie the media, but everywhere, from business to schools, even hospitals.
Independent journalist Andrej Dynko was an unexpected beneficiary of one of Piatkevich’s changes of position. The ban on sales of his famous Nasha Niva weekly through the state-run networks was lifted earlier this year, partly to placate the EU’s complaints to Piatkevich about the distribution restrictions.
Dynko laughingly recalls the almost magical effect. Officials from the state distribution networks rang up from all over the country immediately. “Where have you been?” they asked him. “We were waiting for you to call.” Circulation trebled almost immediately.
Former French president Francois Mitterand famously said of Lady Margaret that she had the ‘eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe’. You could almost make the same comparison with Lady Natalia.
Petkevich shares another personality trait with Thatcher, that habit of suddenly lurching into over-solitiousness, trying too hard, as they say, to be nice, so soon after being nasty. She gave us more time than we expected, but drawing to a close she asked us if we were going to the weekend’s Miss Intercontinental beauty contest in Minsk.
We weren’t at all, even without thinking of the chances of pitching up on the front page of the state daily Narodnaya Gazeta if we did. (Pictured swathed in languid blondes and swilling Bollinger; captioned “Investigation mission into media free expression in the framework of the EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue”.)
Perhaps mindful of Lukashenka’s off colour comments in Vilnius, she persevered. “I can get you tickets. All the beautiful women are in Belarus these days.” I could have sworn she winked at me, but I’m sure I imagined it.
Dynko jokes that should Petkevich decide to, she could easily turn the Ideological Departments from Lukashenka’s to Brussels’ way of thinking and transform Belarus into a EU-friendly state. “It’ll take about five days,” he smiles.
I’d say that with less than a year and a half to go to the next presidential elections, Lukashenka should spend less time thinking of Lithuanian ladies when leaving his own queen at home in charge…