Coronavirus Travel Diary (#2): Belarus, Five Weeks On
Some reflections upon an extended stay in an intriguing and welcoming, but little-known, Eastern European country.
This author never imagined himself to be writing these words, any more than a reader of his words might have imagined that they have barely left their homes in the last two months. Nevertheless the second quarter of 2020 has revealed itself as particularly unusual for virtually everyone, and therefore it should come as no surprise that the author remains in Minsk after two cancelled flights and multiple other attempts at overland travel to get back home. One might say that he sealed his own coffin by travelling here in the first place; but that would be far too negative. Belarus remains a remarkably friendly, welcoming port in a storm, if very different in truth from the society whose image one finds projected elsewhere in the world.
Belarus is a landlocked country with a distinctive culture between the European Union (and NATO) member states on her north and west sides, Russia to her east and Ukraine to her south. Contrary to some popular beliefs, the culture is not a variant upon Russian culture. Nor is it akin to the culture in Ukraine. If anything, the cultural feel in Minsk and elsewhere in the country is more akin to the Baltic States, although the political development of Belarus over the last thirty years has been quite different and this has contributed towards the country’s distinctive feel.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to say about contemporary Belarus is that it is multi-ethnic. The country’s two largest ethnic groups are Belarussians, who speak Belarussian, a language with some similarity with Polish; and Russians, who speak Russian. There is an unusual debate about which group predominates, depending on how you count. In the words of one well-connected commentator “we all hate each other”, but it is far from clear that this is really so. Modern Belarus is a buffer state that emerged from the so-called 19th century “Polish question” (whether there ought to exist a Polish state, and if so then along what boundaries). The country manages the competing national interests of her two principal ethnic groups remarkably well by reference to an appeal to twentieth century history of common endeavour against the Nazi enemy in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). By concentrating upon this relatively recent history, rather than the changes in borders endemic to the Eastern European plateau over the prior centuries, contemporary Belarus finds common cause to be a proud small nation albeit one in which many internal differences are intentionally overlooked in the name of national solidarity.
Because so much of the national identity is focused upon the Soviet era, the country has been slow to divert its attention from Soviet cultural symbols, institutions and lifestyles. There is a Karl Marx Street and an Engels Street. A statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, sits proudly just a few metres away from the KGB building; unlike in other post-Soviet countries, the KGB has not changed its name. The country is now increasingly open to western tourists, although Belarus does not market itself much and therefore little is known about it and far fewer foreigners come here than might do so to meet the country’s voluminous supply of good hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. Westerners can now for the most part travel without visas, as can Russians. The country sits at a crossroads of cultures and indeed no small amount of intrigue, in a Europe increasingly polarised by divisions between Moscow and the West. Minsk is a new perch in which all manner of foreigners may freely mix.
The country is perceived as dependent upon Russian subsidies. Oil and gas are subsidised by the Russian government, to the point of being vey cheap indeed. This gives Russia effective foreign policy leverage over Belarus, as does the fact that Belarus is not in the World Trade Organization and therefore Russia is the principal source of its limited imports. This aside, the Belarussian economy remains largely an autarchy in which most daily products are produced locally. The country is undoubtedly not enormously wealthy but neither is it very poor. People live reasonably well, and the quality of life may on average be higher than is typical for the post-Soviet region. The country’s economy has been estimated as 70% state-owned.
Those who work in the government have moderate salaries, and they are generally unstained by corruption which in Belarus is low as rule of law is high. A class of IT service workers employed for the most part by foreign IT outsourcing companies has motivated the development of a moderate domestic catering and hospitality industry catering to the needs of the youth, which is now suffering by reason of the Coronavirus lockdown. While life during Covid-19 goes on in Belarus much as before, the recent principal driver of such modest economic growth as one sees in Minsk is suffering because the global IT economy is waning. Hence young English-speaking Belarussian IT experts are no longer making the money they were just a few months ago.
If one wants to understand why there was no Coronavirus lockdown in Belarus, the best answer may be because the Minsk hospitality industry did not want it. Moreover because so many businesses are state-owned in Belarus, the country’s government has something of the structure of a corporate state: businesses (albeit state ones) are strongly represented in its workings. Businesses did not want such a comprehensive lockdown, and that is why Belarus remains comparatively open. People remain frightened of Covid-19, as they do everywhere: the disease is dangerous and in a substantial minority of cases fatal. Therefore Belarussians have elected in large proportions to stay at home more than they ordinarily would do. Nevertheless the damage done to the economy as a whole is surely less than in other countries of a similar size where there has been economic coercion to close down the economy. Although Belarus will surely suffer economically as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic it will suffer substantially less so in relative terms.
Political discourse in Belarus outside the halls of government is negligible. There are some opposition parties and movements, but they have not coalesced around a single common message and they do not seem to understand the need to cooperate with one-another. For the most part there are little more than interest groups that vie for the attention of the monolithic bureaucracy that administers the country. Nevertheless Belarus is not a Stalinist state, even if busts of Stalin are ubiquitous in the country’s gift stores. Belarussian society feels akin to that in the late Soviet Union, before total societal collapse. Belarus is a pleasantly old-fashioned society, in which the worst excesses of Russian or Ukrainian crony capitalism have not taken hold.
People are polite in the street, and welcoming and indeed inquisitive towards foreigners. They can be a touch paranoid; but paranoia was a pervasive cultural trait in the late Soviet Union, the result of genuine Stalinist rule (which modern Belarus is not). Their paranoia is, in the view of this author, for the most part misplaced. The KGB is not everywhere and is not watching everything you are doing. Nevertheless Belarussian society is gossipy, as is common with a number of small countries. The waiting staff in one local restaurant were pleased to inform this author of the date to which his immigration permission had been extended by the national authorities a couple of days previously. That was not the work of the KGB. It was frivolous local gossip.
Nor is it oppression for the Belarussian Police to arrest a person demonstrating inside a courtroom, as they have recently been criticised for doing; the same would happen in any western country. There are some heavy-handed legal rules, to be sure. This is a conservative society. Demonstrating in the streets without permission as a general principle is forbidden, and this is enforced somewhat more onerously than it would be in the West. Yet despite everyone telling you they are being watched, the actual level of government scrutiny over everyday life is not absurd. The author feels comfortable writing these words while remaining in Belarus, which is arguably testament to his relative confidence in freedom of expression here. Foreign journalists are not apparently very welcome, however.
The author has noticed police officials who have come to speak to people in public places who might be associated with the singing of songs related to the opposition (for example about freedom), but he has not observed arrests or harassment. Generally the authorities are restrained in the face of a lot of young people who want to take part in expressions of political opposition but do not quite seem to know how to do so. The government system is undoubtedly not as responsive to public concerns as it might be, but that is true in many countries. The system is dominated by the office of the President and his Cabinet, and it is not easy to lobby such a top-heavy system.
Belarus has become much more open to foreign influence since 2014. Young educated Belarussian professionals have learned English and they can work as IT outsourcers. Nevertheless there is no investment climate for foreign investments. The government is insufficiently transparent and the private sector is too small. The banking sector is modest because it is over-regulated. The political climate is stunted because those arguing for change in Belarus can think only in terms of their tax bills. They have few broader ideas for change.
Nobody really seems to want a change at the top of government - not even the opposition candidates to be President genuinely want such a change, afraid of what it might mean. Everyone seems to accept that the current political orthodoxy is the price to pay for the political and legal stability with which Belarus is blessed and her neighbours to the east and south are not. Crime and corruption are endemic in Ukraine and have compounded her poverty, whereas Russia exists upon a delicate political axis between an autocratic head of state and a series of oligarchs who emerged from the ill-conceived privatisation schemes of state assets in the 1990’s. Belarus surely wishes to avoid that perilous course at all costs.
Russia’s principal interest in Belarus is to maintain the country as a buffer state and not to suffer the continued expansion of NATO eastwards. The price of subsidising Belarus to maintain sufficient foreign policy leverage over Minsk so as to preserve Belarussian neutrality, or Russian influence, is presumably a relatively small price to pay for Moscow compared with the costs of large-scale intervention in Ukraine with a view to attempting the same thing. It is hard to see the European Union or the United States displacing Russian subsidies and hence influence in Belarus in the short to medium term, particularly given that they are aware of Moscow’s sensitivity as to NATO’s increasing encroachment and therefore nervous of adopting an active Belarussian policy that awakes the beast. Moscow’s perspective towards the existing limited western intervention in Belarus may be based upon much the same premise.
In other words, a stable political standoff has been reached in Belarus between Russia and the West, in which the country remains a soft and stable buffer. Russia continues to have a military influence in Belarus, but it is of a size and presence tolerable to the West. Buffer zones must be drawn somewhere, and in drawing the current buffer through Minsk a reasonably wise decision seems to have been made by both sides. This would imply that radical change is unlikely in Minsk for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless stepwise changes to open up Belarussian society, always taken consonant with the likely reaction in store in Moscow, might be achieved. Facilitating Belarus’s trading relationships with the wider world might be one initial priority, something that may be achieved at relatively low cost and with the possibility of catalysing more fundamental underlying reforms. Assisting the government with a foreign public relations strategy, as unusual a form of aid as this might sound, could also be genuinely useful in drawing foreign crowds to this most pleasant yet surprising of countries and facilitating a transformation in her international public image.
Radical change might transpire when Russia's President Vladimir Putin departs office, one way or the other, and Moscow's policy towards Minsk might then suddenly vary dramatically. But until then, it seems unhelpful to speculate upon such scenarios. Gradual, steady steps to assist Belarus in taking the direction she wants to proceed with seem more likely to achieve a desirable outcome.