VILNIUS - Among a sea of colorful tents, several nations' flags wave high in the sky against a backdrop of lush woodlands. A group of young Belarusians is laughing and singing near a small campfire, sharing smoked sausages, cheese and bread.
It's Saturday afternoon (Aug. 25) at the Be2Gether festival in Norviliskes, 80 kilometers south of Vilnius, and these students are relaxing under the summer sun, eagerly waiting for their most-prized Belarusian rock band, Lyapis Trubetskoy, to take center stage.
Just 50 meters away lies the border that separates Lithuania and Belarus. On its other side the students have experienced a political, economic and social life unlike that of any other former Soviet republic. It's a life characterized by autocratic rule and backed by a government whose relationship with its neighbors is strained at best. Suspicion and distrust flow freely across the border in both directions.
"Our slogan is 'Music opens borders,'" organizer Darius Ivanauskas told journalists before the event. "It has a broader meaning 's opening borders between human beings, in the broadest sense possible, meaning destroying the walls that exist in the human soul, opening minds."
But can a music festival really make any headway in bridging the border between two countries, or is that hope merely an idealistic pipe dream?
Anna Jahorova, a student from Minsk, said she believes music festivals like Be2Gether can be effective in drawing attention to countries that are on the international community's watch lists.
"You can see the Belarus border from here, and you can feel Belarus territory, but we are in Lithuania," Jahorova said. "[Here] you can feel freedom."
She and the other students at the campground said that where they live, rock bands don't enjoy the same creative privileges as elsewhere.
"For more than three years, our rock groups can't release new albums and they are blacklisted," Jahorova said.
Jahorova also fully backed the festival's theme, in a very literal sense. "In our opinion, we don't want any borders at all. This festival is to show that borders are not important," she said.
Lithuanians also expressed support for the idea that music festivals can unite nations.
"After the performance, I think it could cause people to go back to their countries, share their stories and connect countries together," said Kristina Baird, a festival goer from Vilnius.
Her friend Dragas, who was clad in Che Guevara patch, aviator glasses and had a symbol of Lithuanian independence tattooed on his wrist.
"Belarus and Lithuania are neighbors," he said, adding his belief that Belarus should be in the EU.
The warm sentiments of togetherness surrounding the festival didn't seem to penetrate Belarusian officialdom, however. Despite the organizers' statements that the festival was completely non-political in nature and only promoting "free communication among Belarusians and Lithuanians," the government's reaction was far less than supportive.
According to many of the young Belarusians who made it to the party, the weeks leading up to Be2Gether sparked fear, political pressure and protest in Belarus. There was little to no radio promotion; most of them said they received information about the event only through Internet resources and word-of-mouth.
On Aug. 10, the Foreign Ministry of Belarus distributed an appeal for Lithuania to not let "propagandistic, unfriendly, anti-Belarusian actions" occur at the festival.
For most Belarusians who came here though, getting a Lithuanian visa was a bigger concern. To facilitate the process, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission and other international organizations arranged a special 5-euro visa fee, something to help take the edge off the festival's 45-euro ticket price.
Still, the border itself was a powerful presence at the event. Low-flying helicopters zoomed over the fields, officers roamed around with guard dogs on leases, and bags were inspected at nearby fences. In the concert booklet, one page stated, "We insistently ask you to regard the Lithuanian border and not to cross it! Trespassers may get fined and imprisoned."
Cross-border relations are likely to become more complicated in coming months. When the Baltics join the Schengen zone in early 2008, countries like Belarus will find themselves on the outside of a tighter EU border. At the same time, however, international efforts to foster stronger relations with Belarus are ongoing, and a generation of Belarusian students is forming grassroots links with their European Union neighbors by studying abroad. There is hope that the status quo will change eventually.
Back at the festival, these political complexities were far less visible.
"I came to the festival to relax, not for politics. I just want to listen to some good music with my friends," said Sergey, another music fan from Minsk.
When it was time for Lyapis Trubetskoy band to blast their trumpets, drums and electric guitars, hundreds of attendees jumped up and down shaking their Belarusian and Lithuanian flags closely together in the air.
At the end of their performance, the band's leader Sergey Mihalok said he was glad to see happy Belarusians in the crowd.
His die-hard fans were happy to see him, too, all together in Lithuania.