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Michael Andersen Political scientist and journalist

'Belarus is a difficult place to understand'

Michael, what path first led you to Belarus?

About 17-18 years ago when I lived in Ukraine, I knew a lot of Belarusian students and journalists, and they all said to me that you need to go to Belarus to have a look at this crazy president we’ve got. This was in the late nineties. And what’s fascinating, at least with hindsight, is that they all said he won’t last long, he’s undereducated, he’s a brute, and we’ll get him out pretty quick. These were critical journalists and members of the opposition. Here we are 15 years later and Lukashenko is still in power. And these people I’m talking about are still in opposition.

What’s your connection with Belarus today?

I make documentary films  and radio from the former Soviet Union, Central Asia, Caucasus and also Belarus and Ukraine, and I also run a big Danish media project, as you know, called My Media, which involves media NGOs and independent critical media in Belarus. This project is run by the DANIDA Danish foreign ministry and it works in Belarus, Ukraine the Caucasus and Turkey.

You’ve done dozens of radio and TV pieces on Belarus since the late nineties. What issues or events have interested you the most?

To be honest, I find Belarusian politics fairly boring as it hasn’t moved for more than 15 years. On the one hand, you have this very corrupt brutal, primitive president - he doesn’t change much, and on the other side you have a pretty useless opposition which also hasn’t changed much. When I go to Belarus, I often have to report on politics, but usually I try to report on youth, or health, or get away from Minsk which is a pretty stale place to report from. I also enjoy reporting on cultural issues such as art, I’ve done a lot on this crazy painter called Ales Pushkin, he seems to me to be to be interesting, he changes and comes up with new things, it would be quite a bit more interesting to report from Belarus if more people were as innovative as Ales is.

Have you noticed any stereotypes being used in international media regarding Belarus, and, if so, do you ever catch yourself falling into this trap?

[Michael laughs]. The biggest stereotype, of course, is the bald man with the moustache and the comb-over. It is impossible to write about Belarus these days without writing about Lukashenko, and it is impossible to write about Lukashenko in any serious way when you’re a foreigner. No disrespect, I understand that it’s pretty rough and potentially terrible to live to under this rule, but when you report on it [from the outside], it’s very difficult to report seriously. Any time I do this in the West, particularly on radio, people say that you need to tone down your irony, your satire, and I say no, he really did say this, he really does look like this, I’m not exaggerating. So the biggest stereotype is the so-called president Lukashenko. And when you have a character like this in charge of the country - everything else becomes a stereotype because the opposition is reacting with the same words, the same lame arguments and activities and events as they have for the last 15-17 years and that’s also a stereotype. So I can say for sure that I’m guilty, and that probably other people who know the country a lot less than I do are even guiltier, because the first thing that they are grabbed by is Mr Lukashenko with his crazy statements and weird behaviour.

Do you think that there are any blanket stereotypes which are frequently used when reporting about former Soviet Union countries in general?

People who are as old as I am - and I catch myself at this every day - we still can’t get over the fact that this is not the Soviet Union anymore, that there isn’t a cold war, and that Europe is no longer divided. When a new leader pops up in one of these countries, which does happen once in a while, I always check back and see what they did 20 years ago, were they a member of the communist party, did they have a role there, and so on. I would say that younger people who don’t bear that memory do the opposite - they even forget about these old-boys networks. But look at who the current presidents are in former Soviet countries– most of these leaders were already quite close to the top in Soviet times.

I think that younger and older journalists share the same problem - I probably take the past too seriously, but I also sometimes think that my younger colleagues don’t quite understand and appreciate the weight of the Soviet past in a place like Belarus, and pretty much anywhere in the former Soviet Union.

You are on the judging panel of ‘Belarus in Focus 2013’, an international journalism competition. Articles will be about various topics and present different points of view. What qualities will you be looking for?

 I will be looking for materials which either try to avoid using these stereotypes in a too rigid or primitive way, or perhaps the opposite, someone who actually looks at these stereotypes and plays around with them in a new and interesting manner. When you look at the reporting on Belarus, it is very weak, it’s a very difficult place to understand. If you walk up and down Minsk high street you get a very poor sense of what is happening there because so little is said and it’s not related to what is really happening - that applies to both the political and societal level. So I’m looking for reporting that can bring us something new, new knowledge.

Sum Belarus up in three words

Europe. Potential. Lethargy.