Belarus, yesterday and today

Impressions from Minsk

In mid-April this year the working group of the European Left (EL) for the Central and Eastern Europe had a meeting in Minsk. At the same time the meeting’s participants attended a parallel conference prepared by a local sister party of the EL – Belarusian United Left Party “Fair World”. Both events were informative and interesting concentrating primarily on the events in the region that is being commonly overlooked by the European Left. These meetings and their results will certainly deserve a special review in a future article. This time, however, I would like to share my impressions and perceptions regarding the conferences’ host country – Belarus, more precisely its capital Minsk.  At the moment this is a somewhat exotic destination even for the dwellers of Central Europe. It is a land that is known and visited on a far lesser scale than a usual tourist or business destinations. My current visit has provided me with an opportunity to compare the present perception with my own impressions from the first visit that took place three years ago.

Preparing for the trip was this time much easier. Last time an entry visa was needed to be obtained. Despite that, one EL representative with a valid visa was denied an entry and had to fly back. Since recently Belarusian government allows short-term (up to five days) visa-free visit via Minsk International Airport for citizen from around 80 countries, EU member states included. The permission to entry is issued right at the airport’s border crossing point. This policy is, however, unilateral; citizens of Belarus are always required to obtain a visa for their entry in a country belonging to of the so-called Shengen agreement. This year the entry of all conference members was flawless, with a polite and professional treatment by border control.

Today’s Belarus is a country of 9.5 million, predominately Slavic inhabitants, living on a territory that is almost three times larger than the Czech Republic. Slavs settled in this region at the beginning of previous millennium merging with the original population made primarily by Baltic tribes. Several principalities like Polotsk and Turov had emerged and later taken over by an early feudal state known as Kiev Rus.  Another important milestone of the region’s history was the emergence, rise and fall of the principality of Great Lithuania – a country that extended in its heyday from the shores of Baltic Sea to the steppes of Black Sea region.  Although created and ruled by Lithuanian (Samogitian, to be more precise) clan of Gediminovichy this state is considered by several researchers to be a Belarusian one, since its administrative and legal systems were based on the use of the ancient Belarusian language and its religious life was dominated by Christian Orthodox Church. The first printed Slavic book was actually a Bible published in Prague by Frantisek Skaryna in the ancient Belarusian language. The strong expansionist pressures from German Catholic Orders on the West and Moscow Russia on the East lead to the unification of the Lithuanian state with the Polish Kingdom on the subordinate position. Several Lithuanian nobles converted to Catholic faith and adopted the Polish language. At the same time Greek-Catholic united church became dominant on these territories among small landlords and peasants. 

The gradual decline of the Polish Kingdom and its three consequent divisions, had left Belarusian territories a part of the Russian Empire. This, among other things, led to the return of dominance of Christian Orthodox religion (an official religion of Russian Empire) over the Greek-Catholic and Catholic faith. Russian language became lingua franca to the degree of complete dominance that extends up to nowadays. Currently Belarus has two state languages –Russian and Belarusian, the former being used in much greater scale by country’s population in its everyday life while the use of latter for many years was a either a hobby of nationally-consent intellectuals or a mandatory prescription for the state TV, radio, few newspapers, street nameplates and announcement of  stations in Minsk subway . I have a feeling, however, that compared to the situation of 3 years ago the Belarusian language is receiving a somewhat wider use, at least at the official level.

It may be worth mentioning that there Belarusian territories for centuries possessed a large Jewish community living primarily in towns.  Jews were not allowed to own the agricultural land so they mainly earned their living with craft and trade. In the 19th century Jews made up more than 40% of region’s urban population, while the countryside remained primarily Belarusian and Polish. One of the most widely known personalities of this community was Marc Chagall, a Jewish Belarusian-French artist who was born and started his painting career in Belarusian town of Vitebsk.  Several Israeli co-founders – Golda Meier and Simon Peres to name few – have been born in Belarusian towns.

A turning point in modern Belarusian history was the World War I and the subsequent collapses of Russian Empire in 1917. Upon the occupation of the region by Germany in 1918 as the result of Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty and the subsequent collapse of German Empire, Belorussian Bolsheviks proclaimed the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on 1st January 1919.  The Soviet-Polish war of 1920-1921 has resulted in the takeover of Belarus’ western regions (Brest, Grodno and Vilno) by Poland and the merger of the eastern regions of the republic into the Soviet Union.  The regions of Brest and Grodno were taken back into USSR as the result of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (while Vilno was given to Soviet Lithuania). The resulting western border of the region was consequently confirmed with minor changes by Yalta and Potsdam agreements and USSR-Poland treaties.   

The Second World War has brought both an immortal glory and enormous amount of damage and suffering to all inhabitants of Belarus. The country’s population together with remnants of in-circled Red Army units put a stiff resistance to Nazi occupation; numerous partisan units controlled large areas of territory (usually forested rural areas) and wreaked havoc on Wehrmacht communication lines.  But the price for resistance was enormously high- the country has lost a quarter of its population, cities were ruined, more than 800 villages were burned by Nazis, 262 out of them with inhabitants.

Post-war period was characterized by the rapid industrial growth, urbanization and the significant rise of population’s well-being- new factories and cities have been built, electrical grids and decent roads were brought to the villages. The children of Belarusian subsistence farmers and poor Jewish craftsmen within one generation period became well-paid factory and construction workers, teachers, doctors and engineers – reaching previously unimaginable level of quality of life.  Those who remained in villages had also the possibility to do really well through decent pay from collective farms and possibility to sell privately produced agricultural products. Petr Masherov – a former partisan commander who led the republic in 60-70’s s to prosperity is still remembered by many Belarusians with respect and adoration. A collapse of the USSR in 1991 resulted with an unexpected and, perhaps, not aspired by the majority of population independence. This very brief historical review is indispensable in comprehending factors and traditions that predetermine contemporary Belarusian reality and politics.

Belarus is located in an area that is geopolitically vital to many countries, neighbors included. The country’s ability to cope with it and to convert them into the gains is vital for its survival, since its territory is rather poor in mineral wealth, especially in energy resources. To its honor it has to be said that lately Belarus shows an ability to maintain rather decent relationship with all its neighbors, including the ones that conflict with each other. Hence it can play and actually plays an important role in the attempt to stem conflicts, including the civil war in Donbass region.

 Till very recently a "normal" (i.e. Western) European had a minimal understanding of Belarus and its political system. The country usually was associated with the term "the last dictator of Europe" – a widespread media propaganda cliché used for longtime President of Belarus A. Lukashenko. Lately, however, the information flow about Belarus is even more meagre since even a criticism is lacking. We can ask ourselves what has changed "there, in the East"? I do not think there were some radical changes within the country; the circumstances have, however, changed. It turned out that Minsk suddenly has started to feel the need have the EU to play a positive role in resolving Ukrainian crisis or at least preventing it from being escalated; and to maintain communicating between military and political players. On the other hand, my Belarusian friends privately say that upon the introduction of Russian counter- sanctions (ban on import of agricultural products from EU) their country suddenly became a large scale ‘producer’ of various types of food commodities (including the exotic ones) that are exported with all relevant certificates and documents to the Russian Federation. In other words, EU sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions seem to be a sort of blessing for the Belarusian economy as well.

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) is maintaining close ties with its sister Belarusian Communist Party. Although possessing just 8% of seats in Parliament this party actually has the highest representation there. This is due to the fact that most Belarusian parliamentarians are so-called independent MPs who campaigned on the slogan of explicit loyalty to the President Lukashenko (almost 85% of seats). Another left-wing Czech party maintaining contacts with its partners in Belarus is the Party of Democratic Socialism (SDS), which closely cooperates with the above-mentioned EL party "Fair World". It is worth noting that the European “establishment" continuously defines Belarusian elections as "undemocratic".

Naturally, our Belarusian partners from the "Fair World" keep pointing to a series of numerous inconsistencies making Belarusian elections not fully compliant to the western concept of liberal democracy.  But on the other hand the EU and its ‘elites’ are known to be able to turn a blind eye  practically to all sorts electoral discrepancies in countries considered to be of interest of the EU as long as they seem to be in favor of preferred candidates. Hence this sort of ‘double standard’ criticism shall not be taken seriously. Indeed, Belarus is a country with a dominating presidential system and a certainly non-liberal (illiberal) type democracy. Today, however, this rather authoritative regime is making much less concerns to the EU and its leaders than some Union’s members like Poland and Hungary. Maybe, therefore, the political contacts between Belarus and the individual EU countries are gradually growing, mostly without much of publicity.

Belarus seems to be eager to cajole Europe through preparing a referendum that is supposed among other things to abolish the death penalty (Belarus is the only European country that still practice this sort of punishment). It is true that our Belarusian left-wing partners have a number of major claims against numerous matters on internal policies, but on the other hand they tend support in general current Belarusian foreign policy. Their criticism is primarily focused on the tendencies towards nepotism in Belarusian politics, on the  widespread practices of "managed democracy"  such as non-transparent processes of selection of candidates for the local and regional councils as well as dubious practices of ballot-counting, and, of course, on a most common problem of the post-socialist Europe – on corruption.

Another claim is an alleged lack of realistic possibilities for citizens to exercise their right to influence their lots that are impeded through purposefully adaption of laws to the "political necessities". Belarusian left-wing politicians tend to believe that there is still significant chance to politically ’awake’ Belarusian citizens and pull them out of long-term apathy.  On a positive side they note the government’s recent retreat from the heavy-hand practices of previous years, and the emergence of a space for a political debate. Certain criticism focuses on the state of Belarusian economy. However, despite numerous problems like negative balance of trade or low rate of growth the positive trends like significant reduction of the inflation (from 18% in recent years to the current 6%) and long term stability of the national currency have to be recognized. By the way, the composition of the Belarusian currency peg basket gives a sort of a hint about the economic orientation of the country – USD 30%, EUR 20%, and RUR 50%.

In recent times, however, there has been a certain decline in the real income throughout the society primarily affecting the retirees and low-skilled workers. Our hosts told us that while costs of living in Belarus are approximately 33 % lower than in Czech Republic the amount of average pension is 48.4% lower. According to them about 6% of Belarusians live below the poverty line (set at 87 € per month) and 10% of those who work have income of less than 120 € per month. The current average wage is around 350 €. However, one shall be aware that the structure of living costs in Belarus is somewhat different comparing to Czech one. For example, housing costs (rent or purchase) account in Belarus for a smaller share of family budgets comparing to Czech ones. Similar is true for utilities due to the direct state-ownership of utility companies, substantial state subsidies (primarily for heating) and deliveries of gas and oil from Russia at special prices. Russia does not impose duties for the export of oil and gas thus selling them to Belarus at approximately 50-60% of the world price.

 The unemployment does not seem to be a huge problem, at least in Minsk (job advertisements are visible), but generally it is not easy to get a relatively well-paid job. At the periphery the problem is reported to be more acute.  We have not observed an evidence of a striking gap between rich and poor; it seems to be that the prosperous people and oligarchs tend not to emphasize publicly their wealth. The major economic criticism from opposition actually focuses primarily on future trends that tend to display rather negative dynamic and raise fears about the future uncertainty.  Despite the relatively closeness of its economic system Belarus cannot fully avoid the economic turmoil that periodically take place in the globalized world.  Belarus for many years exercises a policy that is called "market socialism" partly financed through the revenues from reselling products made from Russian duty-free oil and gas. Hence the country heavily depends on the dynamic of oil and gas prices in the world market as well as yearly quota’s for the import of commodities from Russia. The major and imminent danger to this status quo is a declared intention of Russian government to gradually bring the internal prices of energies to the word market’s level- a policy that Russian government actually carries out step by step through so called ‘tax maneuver’ when export duty for oil and gas is gradually replaced by mineral resources extraction tax. For Belarus this will eventually mean a major fall in government’s hard currency revenues.  Perhaps that is why Belarusian government lately started to focus on greater geographical diversification of country’s economic activities.

It cannot be said that the Belarusian industry is not be generally competitive. There are numerous examples of relatively positive results from machine-building and electronics (primarily military one) sectors. The Belarusian IT industry has earned a solid reputation both in outsourced coding as well as in bringing its own products to the market (famous ‘World of Tanks’ was created by a team of Belarusian IT entrepreneurs). It is also a source of numerous well-paid employment opportunities for educated youth. The state-owned modern petroleum refineries (processing Russian oil) and the fertilizers’ manufacturing plants are the major contributors of state revenues.  Apart supplying the subsidized energy resources Russia also provides to Belarusian factories and farms a relatively free access to its vast market within the framework of a free-trade agreement. Belarusian citizens have also a possibility of a non-restricted employment in Russia- a privilege no other country currently enjoys.

Belarus is also fully dependent on Russia in power generation – an economic and social backbone of any modern country. It has neither coal nor gas nor substantial hydro-energy potential. Approximately 80 % of its electricity is generated by two gas-firing plants, with some electricity imported from Russian and Ukraine nuclear power stations. This dependence on gas is going to change in the near future when two 1200 MW reactors of Belarusian Nuclear Station will come into operation. The dependence upon Russia will, however, stay.  The station is built by Rosatom, Russian nuclear giant, it is built to use nuclear fuel from Russia, and its construction is financed on favorable terms by a long-term loan provided by Russian government.

Despite the historic heavy reliance on the Russian markets and Russian supplies of energy Belarusian leadership has recently started to look for reasonable opportunities for economic and political cooperation with the EU countries. It is worth to be noted that Belarusian government has neither recognized in 2008 the self-declared breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia nor acknowledged the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014; both to the high and clearly manifested displeasure of Russian government. Belarus also maintains close cooperation ties with Ukraine supplying it with critical, for military activities, materials in Donbass  like diesel fuel, trucks and armaments. This is a rather risky game due to the existence of several influential groups of players (both inside and outside of Belarus) that want to break Belarus away from Russia, especially for geostrategic reasons.

Most of Belarusians (about 70%), however, believe that a reasonable balance is needed to be maintained in terms of cooperation with both Russia and the EU. They have in general no adversities towards their neighbors and support all sorts of cooperation with all of them.

This time I have noticed a rather peculiar change comparing to the past of 3 years ago.   Already at the airport one can notice the trilingual direction signs – made in Russian, English and Chinese (!).

In recent years cooperation with the PRC has accelerated, and China’s direct investment started to pour in the country. There is talk of many forms of cooperation, including those in third markets, understood Russia and the EU.  Starting this month Belarus has agreed a reciprocal visa-free travel regime with China- as the first country in Europe.  These activities have certain logic.  If Czech-Chinese cooperation is regarded as an opportunity for China to penetrate into "Europe" through a EU member country, especially at the institutional level, then Belarus could be utilized as a logistical  and, perhaps, banking ‘backdoor’ to Russian and European markets.  Apart decent transport corridors both to China via Russia and to Europe Belarus possess large and not so densely populated territory.

Taking into consideration this reality, a program of our Belarusian partner party "Fair World" named “A path to the better Belarus" sounds somewhat of a daydreaming from the point of view of "realists" from the EU. Unfortunately, the formation of a "fair society" based on the application of social welfare principles and a synthesis of socialism and a "fair" market with a comprehensive redistribution of the created wealth is not realistic at least for now neither in Belarus nor in other countries.

What is common life in Minsk could be? It rather does not seem to be unpleasant. The city center is clean and generally well-kept; its development is observable, many new buildings are being built in rather interesting architectural ways. Minsk has 1.2 million inhabitants and, as in all other countries, the living standards there are quite higher than in the rest of the country. This is evident by looking at daily car traffic that streams on Minsk’s wide streets and avenues. The car park does not seem to be old or outdated, with an overwhelming majority of cars being of Western European or Asian origin.

I can say that for the last three years Minsk seems to look more ‘westernized’. Although global banks offices do not line up yet its main streets (allegedly due to the strict Belarusian regulations and banking controls),  the shops windows are full of "western" goods, and the billboards of worldwide brands can be seen everywhere. The newly opened modern shopping center is indistinguishable from similar ones in Prague or Brno. And on Sunday afternoon it is crowded with local teenagers who seem to have fun there the very same way our teenagers do. There are probably more imported products in the big grocery stores then in Czech supermarkets, possibly at the expense of local manufacturers. However, in a segment of strong alcohol the local offer is very wide and, at the same time, is rather affordably priced.

The last point is related to the newly opened Museum of the Great Patriotic War. The architectural design of the building resembles the dome of the Berlin’s Reichstag. For a historically ignorant European it may be somewhat difficult to comprehend a need to build a new large museum that is consecrated to the war that was finished 70 years ago. However, it will feel very differently if we realize that this war has taken lives of country’s 2.2 million inhabitants- a quarter of its population. The war and German occupation brought enormous suffering to virtually every family and left country’ villages burnt and cities in ruins.  Upon the liberation of Minsk in July 1944 there were just few half-destructed streets left among complete ruins, an area that currently makes up a historic core of the city. The museum’s exhibition is modern and informative. It may be appealing both to those interested in military technology as well as to those who want to study the historical context of things.  Taking into consideration a generally negative attitude towards J.V. Stalin in our part of Europe it’s interesting to see the reflection of his war effort’s leadership in the exposition. I think this aspect is well thought and balanced –the exposition neither downplays nor disproportionately glorifies Stalin’s role in the Victory of the Soviet Union. I was very pleased when our guide indicated to us on the Wall of Honor the name of Jan Nálepka, a Czechoslovak Hero of the USSR.

Belarus is an interesting country that does not deserve to be overlooked, and we all wish it to develop according to the dreams and aspirations of its citizens and for their good.