Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999

Belarusians are struggling P O S T - S O V I E T   O R P H A N:
Belarusian Paradoxes

Peter Szyszlo

Belarusians are struggling to rebuild their post-Soviet economy, define their nation's identity and develop and understanding of their country's place in history all at the same time. To fully comprehend this society, one must also understand how its members operate in this unique community.

Present political and economic facts reveal a disturbing trend.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko maintains Soviet-style rule over the former Soviet republic of ten million. He has preserved a centrally planned economy while tinkering with "market socialism." The results have been mixed; grafting old-guard values and cowboy capitalism has caused much friction with the West, and conflict has erupted over the Belarusian government's definitions of market reform, private enterprise, democracy and human rights.

On 25 December 1998, Belarus and Russia transformed the Commonwealth of these two countries into a Union that may result in the future loss of Belarusian state independence. Despite the fanfare over the deepening of pan-Slavic "brotherhood", Russia remains weary of Belarus's poor performance, both on the international and national scenes.

The general feeling is that these are two largely incompatible countries: Russia (its own economic crisis notwithstanding) is well on the democratic reform track, while Belarus has long been criticised as an authoritarian regime. The "Union of Belarus and Russia" has yet to define its raison d'etre; Russia does not seem to want to be saddled with the burden of Belarus.

Ripe for a revolution?

Rapidly growing inflation and a shortage of hard currency, combined with a severe budget deficit, a lack of foreign investment and emerging external debt have decimated the Belarusian economy.

Belarusian consumer prices went up 181.7 percent in 1998, and estimates peg inflation to rise by another 150 percent in 1999. The US dollar has become one of the few insurance policies against the Belarusian rouble's habitual free-fall, and speculation has only fuelled the thriving black market. This is why there are more US dollars in circulation in the CIS republics than in the United States.

Outside help is unlikely to alleviate this crisis, as the self-imposed isolationism of the authoritarian regime has caused Belarus to lose its membership in the most influential international political and economic organisations. Recently, IMF-sponsored development projects worth over USD 100 million have been frozen, and support for joining the Council of Europe has been withdrawn.

Now, in an attempt to raise desperately needed hard currency, the government has imposed a tax on donations to the country's many Chernobyl victims - to be paid for by the donor. This has effectively cut off most Chernobyl aid, or resulted in non-cash and non-equipment donations or travel for Chernobyl victims.

The smallest element of any the above would be reason enough for mass protests or even a revolt in the West, but Belarus is still very tolerant and remains rather quiet. The Belarusians are often referred to as "the most patient Slavs."

In fact, no real anti-totalitarian revolution has ever taken place in Belarus, and the traditional nomenklatura holds the only keys of political and economic strength. Since the disintegration of the USSR, these elites have consolidated more power in the hands of fewer individuals than during Soviet times.

Doing the business

Belarus was the most highly Sovietised and conservative republic in the USSR, and, as in Soviet times, there is largely no incentive for any kind of Western selling or profit making as the West knows it. State employees understand they will eventually be paid, regardless of whether or not they sell a product, improve its quality or provide good and reliable service to a customer. It remains very difficult to fire a person without high-level government approval. The newest practice is simply not to pay a disloyal employee, give said employee degrading work or to harass him or her with the aid of a tax committee or other types of inspection.

Also, Belarusian business law remains highly restrictive, and the level of taxes is unrealistically high (up to 70 percent of gross income). According to the regulations of the National Bank of Belarus, all local and foreign companies doing business in the republic must sell 30 percent of their profit in foreign currency to the National Bank within five days of receiving it.

Belarusian entrepreneurs normally attempt to evade unfavourable laws and regulations without violating them. They make foreign deals mostly in cash, and they often ask their foreign exporters to provide two contracts: one contract with real prices is used with the foreign partner, and another with reduced prices is used in Belarus for payment of customs fees and state taxes.

It is almost impossible to resolve most matters without having the appropriate connections and/or outright bribe.

Not as revolting as others

Winston Churchill called Russia "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," reflecting a common lack of Western understanding of the Russian psyche. Ever more unknown to the West is Belarus, and the Belarusian psyche, while largely derived from the Russian, is unique in several ways. Presently, one can find three main trends of thought in Belarus:

The first group (perhaps about one third of the population) mostly consists of people over 50 who miss the "good old Soviet times" and strongly support the policies of President Lukashenko. With deep nostalgia, they wax lyrical about the reasonable assortment of goods and services at affordable prices, free education and medical services, guaranteed employment, as well as the regular payment of wages and pensions.

In their view, the economy's continued dismal performance and the possibility of social unrest have nothing to do with the Leader's policies but are the perceived work of external and internal enemies. Their logic remains "we don't care for things to get better - we just hope they don't get worse." They do not want to be personally responsible or make any decisions, they prefer the President to decide and take care of life from cradle to grave.

The second group would like to create a democratic and independent Belarusian state with a strong economy and unique national culture and develop mutually beneficial co-operation with other countries of the world. These people of various ages support the political opposition (which remains very effectively muted). It seems that this could be as much as half of the population.

The third group includes people of different ages who support neither the President nor the impotent opposition. They are dissatisfied with their present life and do not believe in any possible change for the better. According to the results of recent polling held by several independent organisations, about 16 percent of those polled would like to emmigrate abroad and forget about Belarus. The most preferred countries for immigration are the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Italy.

Old habits

Several years have passed since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but many Soviet traditions are still alive. Belarus is the only republic of the former USSR that still celebrates all Soviet holidays. Presidential decrees have replaced the orders of the Communist Party, and all the important decisions are made exclusively by the President. Belarusians jokingly refer to Alexander Lukashenko as bat'ka - Belarusian for "papa."

On 4 June 1998, the Belarusian legislature approved a bill, which made insulting Lukashenko a criminal offence. The bill states that public insults directed against the President may be punished by up to four years in prison, two years in a labour camp or a fine. Since the definition of "public insult" is not clarified by the legislation, the passage of this bill leaves much open to interpretation - adding significantly to the President's power.

One of the latest presidential decrees will see enterprises with more than 300 workers and collective farms with over 100 hands introduce the post of "Deputy Director for Information and Public Relations." The motive behind the position is intended to promote government policy among ordinary Belarusians as the country battles an economic crisis. This is comparable to the Soviet era, when every factory and farm had a so-called "ideological'' worker to provide pep talks to the workers.

Another Soviet inheritance, the largest Russian-language daily newspaper never took the trouble to change its name or its practices. Sovietskaya Belorussiya remains a dependable mouthpiece of the government.

As in Soviet times, common dwellings and public property are neglected. Belarusian apartment buildings are deplorable on the outside but tellingly immaculate inside the individual apartments. The feeling is clearly: "If I don't own it, let the state or someone else take care of it."

One thing that is certainly the domain - indeed the kingdom - of the individual is the garden plot. From late spring to early autumn, many Belarusians spend their weekends working at their dachas (country houses) growing fruits and vegetables. Trying to leave any large city by bus, train or by car on a Friday evening in summer is a challenge in itself; every road is jammed with urban peasants on their way to their dachas. The mass media present this as people returning to their peasant roots, but most Belarusians see it as safeguarding one's family through necessary self-sufficiency during an economic crisis.

Pandora's leftovers

The economic and political situation in Belarus is getting more critical with each passing month. Protest actions of the opposition forces have mounted since Lukashenko extended his rule to 2001 by granting himself sweeping powers after a rigged referendum in 1996. The state-controlled press has dismissed these protest actions as acts of "hooliganism," and a number of opposition figures have been detained or imprisoned - or have simply disappeared.

protecting the regime

Belarus boasts one of the highest ratios of police per capita in the world. At last count, the number of police was estimated to be approximately 140,000 - twice that of the armed forces, and, presently, a police officer (militsia) earns roughly three times an engineer's salary.

With the fear of violence and intimidation, it is hardly surprising that the majority of Belarusians prefer not to participate in any protest actions. Actually, Belarusians do not regard the state as something to even deal with, much less confront; instead, it is an entity of terror and, based on bitter personal experience, one that should be avoided at all costs.

At present, Belarusians are surviving in hard economic and political conditions and trying not to lose hope for a better life. Some of them see it in the restoration a Soviet past and others have given up. But the majority of the population is waiting for a new leader who will unite them and show the way to democracy and economic well-being.

This hope, most often expressed in private, has yet to be realised, but that it can exist at all in the context of the harsh reality people have to struggle through every day is a paradox indeed.

Peter Szyszlo, 6 August 1999




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