31.10.2007 / 20:07

Press under Pressure

Austrian-owned bank puts pressure on disseminators of free press in Baranavichy

The Malashchanka family is running a small business in Baranavichy. They rent a room in a building of a local branch of “Priorbank”, where they sell tap water filters. In addition to this business, they also disseminate Belarusian-language books, newspapers and magazines. Unexpectedly, “Priorbank” refused to prolong the contract with the Malashchankas. Allegedly, the bank plans to locate a new department in the room, which is now occupied by the shop. Tatsyana Malashchanka, however, believes that the actual reason is their being eyesore of Baranavichy officials as disseminators of the independent press.

Zhanna Karachun, the engineer of the “Priorbank” branch, has long since paid special interest to the “suspicious” assortment of the shop. She is also the person, who is empowered to sign (or not sign) the contracts with the tenants of “Priorbank” building. Anatol Hladyshchuk, Director of Baranavichy branch of “Priorbank”, told Tatsyana that he can’t do anything about it – this is Mrs. Karachun, who decides. According to him, the engineer is directly subordinate to the central Minsk office of “Priorbank”. Mr. Hladyshchuk has confirmed that the shop will not be allowed to rent the room. He said that he is a patriot of his motherland too, but tries to keep the work and his views separate. As a farewell, he wished the businesswoman to do the same – “then all the problems will stop”.

The dissemination of the independent press in Baranavichy is strictly controlled by local authorities. The Malashchanka family are members of the Uniat (Greek-catholic) church. The Uniat community has no church in Baranavichy, that is why they visit the local Roman catholic church of the Holy Trinity. They always take some issues of “Nasha Niva” along, in order to pass them to other members of their community. This enraged a local ideological official, who strictly warned the priest Yauhen Malinouski and fined the Malashchankas.

“No matter what happens, we will continue to what we did before”, says Tatsiana Malashchanka. “Our language will not survive without books and independent press”.

The vigilance of the local authorities in Baranavichy is nothing new. However, the “Priorbank” involvement in stifling the free press and its distributors is surprising. “Priorbank” is a major private bank in Belarus, owned by an Austrian banking group RZB. It is not clear, though, whether the conflict in Baranavichy is caused by the general policy of the bank, or if it is merely a local initiative of one of its branches. In any case, it is obvious that the foreign investment in Belarus often works in most mysterious ways.

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