(BBC) In this episode, Ben Zand travels to Belarus to experience the sinister and at times bizarre side to living in a dictatorship.
Ben begins his journey in Belarus by heading to President Lukashenko’s home town. He sees a small shrine to the president before setting off to find a mysterious spring in the woods which Lukashenko apparently drank from as a child, and to which he attributes some of his dictatorial manliness and prowess. Ben then heads to Belarus’s capital city, Minsk. This is a country that most Brits only hear of once a year, during the Eurovision Song Contest. And so Ben gets an introduction to the place from Belarus’s 2011 Eurovision entrant, Anastasia. She sang a song called I Love Belarus, and from Ben’s conversation with her it doesn’t sound like she was lying. She insists that people in the country are content with the leadership.
But, Ben wonders, perhaps that is because of the infamous KGB. Belarus is the only former Soviet Union country that hasn’t bothered to rebrand its secret service, and still calls it the KGB.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising – this is a country in which the president apparently isn’t worried about PR. When accused of being a dictator by the German foreign minister – who is homosexual – President Alexander Lukashenko responded by saying that he would rather be a dictator than be gay.
Given which, Ben wants to know more about what life is like for gay people in the country. So he heads to one of the most testosterone-fuelled environments he can find – an ice hockey stadium – to talk to a journalist who covers LGBT rights for a channel that’s illegal in Belarus and has to broadcast from neighbouring Poland.
Having had a taste of dissent in Belarus, Ben goes to visit Pavel, a serial protester who at only 28 years old has already been to prison 19 times. Ben hears about his most famous protest, which saw him place teddy bears with pro-democracy slogans outside government buildings. Pavel was arrested, and when a Swedish organisation heard about the stunt, it decided to go even bigger: it flew a plane over Belarus and threw 1,000 teddies out of the window, with more slogans attached. Lukashenko was so terrified of the teddy bear invasion that he fired the head of his air force and expelled the Swedish ambassador.
But Ben also hears from Pavel how Lukashenko seems to be softening up a bit, in a bid to cosy up with Europe. Pavel hasn’t been to prison for over a year. And there is even a protest happening in Minsk, which Ben decides to go to. Though the protest is a promising sign of increasing freedoms in the country, Ben still comes face to face with the KGB, who are busy filming all the protesters – including Ben. It’s a surprising and uncomfortable end to a journey through a country that seems to be trying to change, slowly.
Programme website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08n…
Presenter Ben Zand Series
Producer Olly Bootle
Executive Producer Mike Radford