David Bowie’s second album, released in 1969, has one his most known hits: Space Oddity. It tells us the story of Major Tom, an astronaut hoisted to fame due to his space flight. The lyrics start with the last instructions to the traveller followed by a launching countdown. From this point onwards the communication between Ground Control and Major Tom is growingly dysfunctional, like if the latter is embarking in a dream of his own. The already disrupted dialogue ends with Ground Control stating that “your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong”, and with a repeating “can you hear me Major Tom?” that is totally overlapped by the report that a no longer present space traveller makes of his trip. Major Tom just gets lost inside his own world.
This schizophrenic dialog in Bowie’s classic is terribly similar to what goes on in today’s Belarus. The presidential campaign seems to be at full steam. As full steam as any presidential campaign has ever been in Belarus. The emergence of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the favourite opposition presidential candidate was as much the result of the popular disgruntlement as it was of Lukashenko’s wrong moves. The arrest and/or dismissals as candidates of the three strong men of the opposition worked as a catalyser instead of a deterrent. And so, it seems to have been the outcome of many other actions taken by the last dictator of Europe in order to break the rising tension in the country.
Back to Bowie’s theme, the most fabulous feature in it, and almost unknown, is that, in its stereo version, the left and right channels play two completely distinct songs. Like if to totally disconnected realities coexisting in the same space and time. In Belarus one of the channels “broadcasts” Lukashenko’s attempts to curb down the wave of tension that is visibly rising in the country, while the other channel is the civil society that as gained a life of its own. The two realities condition and influence each other, as they advance to one same rhythm that is the approaching of August 9th.
Last week we were greeted with the new on the arrest of 33 Wagner PMC mercenaries just outside the city of Minsk. Were they arrested in some secret location or improvised military base? No. They were arrested in on hotel where they had quietly checked in. Belarus authorities claimed to have noticed them since the entered the country, on a group 200-strong. So, the arrest was the result of active surveillance? Also, not. As the story goes, the mercenaries aroused the attention of the hotel staff because they presented a very strange behaviour: did not drink, kept for themselves, did not visit night entertainment facilities, and wandered around in military style clothing. According to those in charge of the country’s safety, it all screamed “sabotage mission”. The idea, it seems, was to increase the level of security in the country. But the threat perceived by the population was so big that the following day nearly 70 thousand people gathered in Tikhanovskaya’s rally – on what was one of the biggest political demonstrations ever in Belarus. The dangers for public safety that 170 mercenaries would, according to Lukashenko, pose and the lack of perception of any danger by the public, albeit coexisting in one same space and time could not be more distant than the two channels of Bowie’s song.
In his 1980 album Scary Monsters, David Bowie comes back to Major Tom. Without the glamour of space trip but on a far more insightful way. Ground Control has news for us: “We know Major Tom’s a junkie, strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low”. Despite ever-growing feelings of grandeur, Major Tom was as low as he could ever be. It is said that power tends to corrupt, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This corruption is not only on a moral but also, and maybe more, on a perception level. Lukashenko, lost in his addiction, no longer perceives the reality surrounding him.
With an election approaching Lukashenko’s strong point is not rhetoric. His biggest resource is the ability to adapt the rules of the game while playing it – like a junkie coming up with yet another con so he can assure his next fix. After smoothly handling the moral obligation of inviting international observers to the electoral process some of the opposition candidates started to appeal the civil society to mobilize itself. This appeal has had an impact relevant enough for the Central Electoral Commission to limit, pandemic situation obliges, the number of observers at the pooling stations. It was announced that the places would be filled on a first come first served basis. All the places were taken by those nominated by regime-aligned organisation whose outstanding civic consciousness led to register even before the period for that purpose was open. There are now “official” observers sometimes napping inside the polling stations and the others standing guard outside the buildings or looking through the windows – some of them now being covered with paper from the inside. The detentions continue, as do the summary processes that always result in fines or administrative arrests.
The most recent manoeuvre took form as was what probably is the biggest campaign of repair and reconstruction of post-Soviet Belarus. Bursting pipes seem to be the main reason for this frenzy of repairs that has been hitting the places where rallies were scheduled. Dmitriev (the only other candidate touring the country) has even apologized himself for his share of guilt on the risk to cause a general flood in the country.
The evening of August 6th should have seen another rally by Tikhanovskaya in the same place as the one amassing 70 thousand people. But all the places available for political rallies have been invaded by a frenzy of summer festivals in the city. Unable to follow her agenda the candidate announced that she and her 2 route companions would be visiting one the events, in Kyiv Square, as any simple citizen of Belarus. After this announcement paddy wagons t and riot police were moved into the vicinity of the even. Nonetheless several thousand people gathered and at 7PM, the hour where usually the “window protest”, where residents tap on pots or play the growing list of “revolutionary” songs, the event took an unexpected turn. The two DJs in charge of animating the event, Vladislav Sokolovsky and Kirill Golanov, decided to play the soviet contestation hymn “Changes”. The head of the administration of Central District of Minsk, present at the scene, rushed to switch off the sound – but the damaged was done.
Big proclamations are always more likely to be hit in the face by a contradicting reality, but the events at Kyiv Square may as well be the last step into converting Belarusian opposition movement into something that intrinsically becomes part of society. The fact that Tikhanovskaya, nor Tsepkala or Kalesnikava, ever made it to Kyiv Square seems now irrelevant.
In the end of his career Bowie returns once more to his Major Tom character. Somewhat like the Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Patriarch, Major Tom’s remains are found in some outer space scenario in the beginning of Blackstar video clip – David Bowie’s self-epitaph.