Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko has been called Europe's last dictatorship. While the country is far from being a democracy, its cultural scene is beginning to instigate change.
In Belarus, the most productive kind of political protest these days has less to do with flag-waving an chanting in public squares than with hoarse voices, heavy chords, and a dance-friendly rhythm.
The songs of the band N.R.M. touch on aspects of life as it's really lived in Belarus - and that has upset the government more than many of the opposition politicians have.
"Since there was no political opposition for years, we musicians took over the role of the opposition," said singer and band leader Lavron Volski.
For a long time, N.R.M. wasn't allowed to perform publically. There was never an official ban, but whenever they had a concert lined up, the organizer would get a call from an official and the show would be cancelled.
Now, the Belarusian authorities have agreed to allow the group to perform twice this fall. It's part of what the government is calling liberalization and might be related to the naming of a new culture minister, Pavel Latushko. However, it's not yet clear whether the development will mean lasting change in this country often referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship."
Support from Germany
Unlike in Western Europe, culture in Belarus receives very little funding from the state. A few foreign organizations, like the Goethe Institut in the capital Minsk, financially support cooperative projects or let artists use their facilities.
For the first time in 17 years, the Goethe Institut has a room where people can organize events and opinions can be shared openly, said Director Kathrin Oswald-Richter. "Here, everyone can say what they want, and we're wildly determined to try that out," she added.
The Goethe Institut recently moved from a crumbling constructivist building from the 1920s to a high-rise in downtown Minsk with glass facades.
At the building's inauguration, the Hamburg-based rock group Fotos was flown in to perform. In this relatively isolated city visited by few foreign acts, audiences are quick to jump to their feet and start dancing once a show by an international group begins.
Cultural exchange projects
German language and culture are popular in Minsk, with about 30,000 people learning German at universities and other institutions. There's also a fan club for the German soccer team FC Bayern.
Foreign organizations in Minsk also try to build ties between Belarus and western European countries.
The Goethe Institut trains Belarusian cultural managers in democratic principles and the organization European Borderlands, funded by the Literary Colloquium Berlin and the Allianz Cultural Foundation, brings German authors to Belarus for readings.
Still, Belarus' cultural scene is relatively isolated, like the country itself. The nation has not been represented at the Venice Biennale in many years, which led several artists to organize a Belarusian pavilion full of provocative, political art - if not in Venice, then at least in a private gallery in Minsk.
Belarus itself, however, is internally divided by the politics of language. President Lukashenko speaks mainly Russian, while the opposition speaks Belarusian, the language of the intellectuals and the rural population.
"We no longer live under Stalin, but not everything's perfect yet," said Belarusian poet Volha Hapeyeva. And the country has a long, slow road ahead, if it's going to improve its democratic credentials."
Author: Werner Bloch (kjb)
Editor: Kyle James