Authors in 22 Nations Issue Statement for Colleagues: #FreeWordsBelarus

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Writers in 33 unions and associations are represented in a new statement of support of Belarusian writers, amid the ongoing, four-month protests of the Lukashenko regime.

Readers of Barys Pjatrovitj’s ‘The Border’ in the new #FreeWordsBelarus presentation. Their red and white clothing honors the colors of the Belarusian opposition movement. Image: #FreeWordsBelarus

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘They Are Not Alone’
As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the European Writers’ Council has led a sustained campaign of concern about writers and other cultural workers reportedly targeted by the administration of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

The European Writers’ Council’s newest effort, launched on Thursday (November 26), is called #FreeWordsBelarus (#Свабодныясловыбеларусь) and brings together a coordinated effort of 33 writers’ and translators’ organizations from 22 nations.

The choice of Thursday recognizes the 90th anniversary of the birth date of the influential Belarusian poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist Uladzimir Karatkievich (1930-1984). By coincidence, it was also the day after a late-afternoon article appeared from the editorial board of the Washington Post. The Post, on the eve of the American Thanksgiving holiday, called on US president-elect Joe Biden to invite the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to his inauguration and meet with her at the White House “to show the world that the United States once again supports democracy.”

“For nearly 16 weeks,” the Post’s editorial reads, “the streets of Belarus have been testament to the sacrifice of its citizens and their determination to recover their stolen election. Thousands have been detained. Many have been beaten, threatened, and cautioned against marching; fired from jobs; expelled from university—and yet they keep coming to protest president Alexander Lukashenko’s brazen theft of the August 9 ballot, which the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya clearly won.”

The Post’s editorial board is hardly alone in being impressed with the courage and tenacity of the Belarusian protesters.

On Sunday (November 29), the author of Twilight of Democracy (Penguin Random House/Doubleday) and The Atlantic columnist Anne Applebaum—who is a juror for this year’s Cundill History Prize involved in its winner’s announcement this week—highlighted the resilience of the Belarusians:

‘The Inviolability of Democracy’

The campaign’s participating organizations represent a combined membership of some 120,000 and is centered on a newly produced video that features readings by 36 organization presidents; chairwomen and -men; and board members.

The readings are from a poem titled “The Border” from Frescoes by Barys Piatroviti, chair of the Union of Belarusian Writers.

The English edition used in the new video is by a translator who has asked not to be named for her or his safety.

A part of “The Border” assails the doublespeak essential to many authoritarian contexts:

“i do not like questions that ostensibly give you the right to choose without actually giving it to you, I always think: why ‘or/or’ instead of ‘and/and’ – it would be more fair for the hungry and the full, for supporters and oppositionists, for those who have been drawn near and those who have fallen into disfavor, for you yourself who should learn from others’ mistakes and not be offended if you forget your own ones, and they repeat with a terrifying consistency.”

The European Writers’ Council has collaborated with the European Council of Literary Translators in this production, operating at the initiative of the Swedish Writers’ Union and in coordination with the Union of Belarus Writers.

Here is the resulting video.

‘Europe Will Not Look Away’

Our readership may see a parallel here between the advent of this new effort in international solidarity with literary workers in Belarus and the transatlantic pressure campaign levied on Audible recently by leading writers’ organizations of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

“Dictators have always threatened authors and artists first because that is where the most intrepid resistance can be expected. “Nina George, European Writers' Council

The comparison lies in the tactic, not the two targets. In the earlier case, the target is a commercial audiobook producer, Audible’s ACX program, and in the other, the effort takes aim at governmental repression. but in both instances, authors, translators, journalists, and other writers are making common cause across frontiers in the increasingly globalized framework of the publishing industry and its sister creative disciplines—as well as in issues of policy and geopolitics.

“Taking an immediate stand for the Belarusian people is crucial and decisive,” says Grethe Rottböll, president of the Swedish Writers Union, “not only as an act of solidarity with the people of Belarus, but also in a broader sense for the inviolability of democracy and freedom of speech in the whole of Europe.”

Nina George, president of the European Writers’ Council, says in her statement, “It is with horror that we, the writers and translators of Europe, follow the current situation in Belarus.

“Dictators have always threatened authors and artists first, because that’s where the most intrepid resistance can be expected. Our colleagues stand on the front line to defend the values of democracy.”

“But they are not alone,” Morten Visby is quoted in tandem with George, in his capacity as president of the European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations.

“Europe is watching and will not look away,” Visby says.

“We see the regime’s violence and oppression, we see the attacks on freedom of expression, but we also hear the brave voices from Belarus refusing to be silenced. We stand by you, and raise our voices for the Belarusian democracy movement.”

Speakers in the #FreeWordsBelarus Video

English-language readers may recognize several of the speakers seen and heard in the new video, including authors Philip Pullman and Joanne Harris and translators Charlotte Collins and Hilde Lyng.

  • Bel Olid, Associació D’escriptors En Llengua Catalana AELC, president, Spain
  • Joanne Harris, Society of Authors, chair, United Kingdom
  • Eystein Hanssen, Forfatterforbundet, chair, Norway
  • Morten Visby, Danish Writers’ Association, CEATL, chair/president, Denmark
  • Teodora Tzankova, Bulgarian Translators’ Union, vice-president, Bulgaria
  • Manuel Rico Rego, Asociación Colegial de Escritores ACE, president, Spain
  • Jens J. Kramer, Syndikat, chair, Germany
  • Eva Valvo, Strade, board member, Italy
  • Philip Pullman, Society of Authors, president, United Kingdom
  • Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo, The Society of Swedish Authors in Finland, president, Finland
  • Justyna Czechowska, Polish Literary Translators Association, board member, Poland
  • Leonidas Galazis , Literature and Criticism Association, president, Cyprus
  • Arno Jundze, Latvian Writers’ Union, chair, Latvia
  • Gertrud Maes, Auteursbond, delegate CEATL, Netherlands
  • Tanja Petrič, Slovenian Association of Literary Translators, president, Slovenia
  • Viveka Sjögren Bangoura, The Swedish Writers’ Union, chair of the International Council, Sweden
  • Charlotte Collins, Translators’ Association , co-chair, United Kingdom
  • Daniel Cristea-Enache, Writers’ Union of Romania / European Writers’ Council, director of communication, vice-president, Romania
  • Juliane Wammen, Danish Translators’ Association, chair, Denmark
  • Nina George, European Writers’ Council, president, Europe
  • Hilde Lyng, The Norwegian Association of Literary Translators, chair , Norway
  • Werner Richter, IG Übersetzerinnen Übersetzer, chair, Austria
  • Endre Szkarosi, Society of Hungarian Authors, president, Hungary
  • Jeroen Thijssen, Auteursbond, Secretary, Netherlands
  • Lena Falkenhagen, Verband deutscher Schriftstellerinnen und Schriftsteller (VS), chair, Germany
  • Ondřej Lipár, Czech Writers’ Association, chair, Czech Republic
  • Yiorgos Chouliaras, Hellenic Authors’ Society, president, Greece
  • Lissa Oliver, Irish Writers’ Union, chair, Ireland
  • Daiva Daugirdiene, The Lithuanian Association of Literary Translators, chair, Lithuania
  • Francesca Novajra, Associazione italiana traduttori e interpreti, delegate CEATL, Italy
  • Grethe Rottböll, Swedish Writers’ Union, president, Sweden
  • Thomas Weiler, German Literary Translators’ Association (VdÜ), member, Germany
  • Nicola Solomon , Society of Authors, chief executive, United Kingdom
  • Jaakko Kankaanpää, KAOS, chair , Finland
  • Geir Hønneland, Norwegian Non-Fiction Writers and Translators Association, chair, Norway
  • Barys Pjatrovitj, Union of Belarusian Writers, president, Belarus
In Belarus: More Than 300 Arrested Sunday

Media accounts from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Sunday (November 29) tell of more than 300 protesters arrested in Minsk, Brest, Hrodno, Barauliany, and other municipalities, during demonstrations in light snow against the state-defined outcome of the August 9 presidential election. Operating now under the phrase “March of Neighbors,” the opposition has begun staging smaller, scattered actions, a strategy intended to make police intervention more difficult.

In the Radio Free Europe report: “Law enforcement used tear gas and stun grenades against some demonstrators. Mobile Internet services were not available in Minsk and the central metro stations were closed. Demonstrations were reported in almost all districts of the capital.” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a part of the United States Agency for Global Media, an agency funded by a grant from the US Congress with its editorial independence protected by law.)

Nina George. Image: Helmut Henkensiefken

George, the European Writers’ Council president, tells Publishing Perspectives, “More and more writers and artists are detained. The phone calls are a horror, too: authorities threaten people and writers in particular in these calls, blaming them for putting [protest] signs on the walls, and for a thousand other absurd things.

“Only relatives now can bring the traditional ‘care package’ into the prisons” for detainees, “where the situation is getting worse and worse: no sleep, no water, wounds, blood, and the deepening, freezing cold.”

There are, however, also reports of potential change, newly appearing in the last several days.

Reuters, reflecting similar accounts from other international news services, describes what seems to be Moscow’s pressure on the 26-year strongman Lukashenko relative to the development of a constitutional reform.

In what may signal a coming stepdown, Lukashenko reportedly has been told by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to honor the reform and adhere to, as Reuters puts it, “unspecified agreements made with Russian president Vladimir Putin at a summit in September.”

During a hospital visit to coronavirus patients in Minsk on Friday (November 27), Lukashenko was quoted by the Belta news agency saying, “I will not work as president with you under the new constitution.”

While Reuters notes that the opposition and its demonstrators dismiss the promises of reform as a stall, its report reads, “Lukashenko’s actions are being closed watched for clues to what Russia, whose political support is vital for him to stay in power, is pushing him to do.”

Saphora Smith and Tatyana Chistikova for NBC News echo the Reuters report and translate Lukashenko’s comment as, “I am not going to be the president once the new constitution is in place.”

Smith and Chistikova also, however, go on to write, “It remained unclear whether Lukashenko’s comments were sincere or whether he was just paying lip service to the prospect of him stepping aside. In any case, it is the first time he has publicly reflected on how the country will be governed when he is no longer president.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on freedom of expression is here and more from us on the freedom to publish is here. Our coverage of Belarus is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.