Coronavirus travel blog: Minsk, Republic of Belarus
A small European country is going against the grain of coercive lockdown measures to restrain dissemination of the Covid-19 virus. But it is not alone.
This diary is written while visiting Minsk, the remarkably beautiful capital of the Republic of Belarus, in the midst of the 2020 Coronavirus lockdown. At the time of writing only two European nations have elected not to follow the pan-European consensus of total lockdown as a response to the pandemic: Sweden and Belarus. Each for their own reasons, they have decided upon a far more relaxed and moderate policy than a total ban upon people leaving their homes.
The approach in Minsk is one of cautious openness. In a thriving mixed economy, estimated to the author by one knowledgeable businessman as 70 per cent state-owned and 30 per cent private, the Belarussian authorities have urged the population to remain vigilant about Coronavirus but have not imposed restrictive measures regulating day to day activities. Shops, government buildings, restaurants, cafes and bars are mostly open. For those that are closed, the government has permitted the decision to close to be made by the proprietors on economic grounds based upon demand. A substantial proportion of the population is staying at home more than they would, but most people are going about their daily business as normal. The result is that while some restaurants and bars close early, life goes on much as before.
Unlike in the rest of Europe, there is no substantial sense of fear. Both Orthodox and Catholic places of worship remain open, and the writer has attended religious services in both. In the Orthodox Church he visited, the authorities were considerate enough to place squares on the floor to indicate prudent distancing of the Congregation during Mass. Nevertheless Eucharist continues to be celebrated. The churches are full. The shops have their daily footfall. Economic activity continues: diminished to a degree, because tourism numbers are down and some people are staying away from enclosed public spaces; but life here feels quite normal.
Minsk was left in ruins at the end of World War II, and in the years following the city centre was entirely rebuilt in strikingly impressive architectural terms with ornate buildings and broad tree-lined avenues. The standard to which it was reconstructed was undeniably very high, and ever since then it has been maintained with the most elevated levels of cleanliness and order. Belarus suffered much less from the pandemic of political instability that infected the Soviet Union's constituent states upon its dissolution in the early 1990's. Privatisation was not managed as dysfunctionally as it was in Russia or Ukraine, and high standards of law and order were maintained. Although Belarus has been criticised for its post-communist line of political development, viewed from a contemporary lens it is hard to deny that the country's political course since 1990 has led it in a direction of stability and sustainable development. It stands on a par with the Baltic States in terms of its orderliness, although far less well known in the West.
Belarus has been open for business since 2014, as the country's political perspective reorientated from the Russian orbit to a more global outlook. Nevertheless it is a small country, inevitably weaving between the competing demands of Great Power politics. As one of Europe's few open countries amidst an economically crucifying pan-European lockdown, the future as seen from Minsk appears one of colossal potential.
Transport keeps working. The national airline carrier, Belavia, keeps Minsk Airport open with a substantial array of flights as this once relatively unknown air terminal now serves as a European transport hub for people who need to travel internationally notwithstanding the Coronavirus pandemic. Relations with Russia have deteriorated, because Russia is short of money with oil prices dipping to USD20 a barrel. Therefore Russia is trying to squeeze Belarus for funds derived from the historical hydrocarbon subsidies she has provided to her small neighbours. Nevertheless, so far Belarus is hanging on. She has fixed her course upon a distinctive response to the Coronavirus crisis, and she is unlikely to change direction having gotten this far keeping the country substantially open. Only time will tell whether Sweden and Belarus were right and the rest of Europe was wrong, but observing normal life go by in Minsk one wonders what the fuss elsewhere in the world is about. Is it just a crisis of fear, that Belarus has managed to avoid?
Minsk is rich with cultural heritage. Its people are free and encouraged to interact with foreign visitors, and they are friendly almost to a fault. People exhibit entrepreneurialism. They want to make money, they want to attract foreign investment, they yearn for better diplomatic relations with the wider world and doors here open remarkably easily with a little patience. The country is rich with historical and cultural sights, sufficient to satisfy the foreign visitor for a week or two. Restaurants serve hearty domestic and international cuisine.
The city is blessed with a metro system not just efficient but as beautiful as that in Moscow. Belarus is a delight for buffs for Soviet nostalgia, yet without the crippling bureaucracy for which the Soviet Union was known. Most routine interactions with the government can be undertaken on the internet and in English, as the country has embraced e-Government. Corruption is viewed dimly, and in the experience of this author is unheard of as regards foreigners. Taxi drivers meticulously count out every last kopek of change. Law and order is maintained by a police presence that, while firm, has not so far been perceived as in any way intimidating.
Minsk has the potential to emerge from the Coronavirus crisis in a strong position. Much of the online news material condemning Belarus for failing to manage Coronavirus is of Russian origin, and therefore of questionable reliability given the countries' currently discordant relations. While Belarus undoubtedly faces economic challenges to rebuild lost tourism and consumer revenues once the Coronavirus crisis has drawn to a conclusion, the country's political stability may render it in substantially stronger a position to whether those storms than many of its European partners who have reacted with coercive measures to the pandemic the economic consequences of which will surely be devastating.
Although the following observation might sound strange, in light of what is happening elsewhere in Europe Belarus currently feels like one of the freest countries on the continent. The author is free to walk down the street, go shopping, meet people to discuss business, enjoy good meals in fine restaurants, interact with normal people and travel about at will. This surely tells us a lot about the damage coercive measures have caused to so many countries in the West.