Belarus was of little interest to the western media until 2005, when both the U.S. and the EU dubbed it the “last dictatorship in Europe”. And even then our knowledge about Belarus was in large part acquired through repo
There are many liberals in the world who can’t forgive Lukashenko the batons and rubber bullets used against opposition protesters in the mid-nineties. They also point to some cases of brutality in 2004 and 2006 (years of parliamentary and presidential elections), when the police did not walk past especially troublesome groups of activists.
However, those who believe that “dictators” never change would be surprised to hear the latest news. Opposition activists who gathered at an unauthorised demonstration in the centre of Minsk on the day of the recent parliamentary elections could not carve out even a mild reaction from the police. Without trouble they began marching along Independence Avenue and blocked the traffic area on the city’s central street. They chanted anti-Lukashenko slogans at the steps of Belorusian KGB office and climbed the statue of Lenin in front of the building where the lower chamber of the Parliament and the Government sit. But there was no response from the police. Protesters were no less disappointed than the journalists who had to follow the march for three long hours into the night.
That is a myth for those who do not believe Lukashenko and his attempts to establish a better standing with the EU and the U.S. In fact, Lukashenko has been as much Russia’s friend as the West’s. In other words, he has always been a no-nonsense politician.
Until 2007 Belarus had been getting Russian oil duty-free and imposing tariffs for reselling it to other customers. The margin went to Belarus, of course, not to Russia. The issue was raised by Vladimir Putin in 2001, but it took six years and two gas rows to settle the matter.
That doesn’t mean that there are no positive moments in Russia-Belarus relations. Since 1999 they have been building the so-called Union State and at the moment the draft of the Constitutional Act is ready for adoption. In the near future the two countries will create the United Air Defence System with its command centre in Moscow. By the way, in Belarus nobody sees it as an obstacle for developing relations with the EU or the U.S.
Those who say this remember how in 2005 the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, called Belarus “the last dictatorship in Europe”. They also refer to sanctions that Washington imposed on the Belorusian oil refinery “Belneftekhim” in 2007. In response Belarus deported almost all American diplomats. Only six men now headed by Charge d’Affaires, Jonathan Moore, survived the purge.
These have been the dark years of Belarus-US relations, but recently the hopes for a better future have emerged. After “almost democratic” parliamentary elections in Belarus we can clearly see American readiness to forget all disagreements. The U.S. have even eased sanctions and promised more if Belarus does something democratic again.
But for people the most significant proof of U.S.-Belarus friendship are the four McDonalds in Minsk that work non-stop. While Belarusians keep going to this stronghold of American values right in their capital they remain friends of Uncle Sam. Opened in the 1990s, McDonalds in Minsk have never closed, and so be it.
One walk down the street is enough to make sure that the people in Belarus are clothed not worse than people in any other European city. The only problem here is the prices on imported clothes (they are sometimes even higher than in Moscow). However, Belarus has its own textile industry and a state-funded programme “Buy Belarusian”. As another option you have numerous markets where you can always get Chinese-made jeans for $US 20.
Food in Belarus is much cheaper than one could imagine (and that includes on restaurant bills, too). Belarus produces everything it needs and even exports a substantial part of its food products to Russia. For a foreigner a must-do while in Belarus is to taste Belarusian bread. There can be difficulty with the choice, though, because there are some 30 sorts of bread here and all of them are delicious.
The average salary in Belarus is around $US 500. Not much, you may think. However, with 2,100 roubles to the US dollar, $476 makes you a Belarusian roubles millionaire.
Actually, it used to be called so thanks to a rabbit printed on the one-rouble banknote. There were also squirrels, bison, elk, wolves etc. However, they did not survive the devaluation in 2000. One-rouble banknotes also disappeared then. Nowadays the currency used in Belarus is called simply the “Belarusian rouble”.
Actually, when you first come to Belarus you wonder how a country that lived under sanctions for almost 12 years can have such an astonishing range of cars. I have seen almost all the latest models of economy and business-class cars. But I was lost for words when I saw such luxury items as Hummers and Bentleys. Sanctions have had no effect, apparently.
But the thing that amazes most of all is that the drivers seem to know that there are such people as pedestrians. It is the type of country where you can cross the road without fear of becoming a victim of some brute who believes that the roads are made only for vehicles.
Indeed, Belarus is called “the country of potatoes” and Belorusians – “bulbashi” (with the last syllable stressed) after the word “bulba” which is Belarusian for “potato”. This is the basic ingredient in the country’s cuisine. However, that does not mean agriculture is the only source of living in the country.
In fact, Belarus is an industrialised country with developed machinery. It supplies 30% of the world’s heavy-duty dump trucks and 10% of theworld’s tractors. Belarus is also one of the world’s largest exporters of potash fertilisers and refined products. It produces the world’s best optics for military purposes and even NATO is listed among its clients. Also you can find Belarus-made metal-cutting machine tools, motorcycles, television sets, chemical fibres, textiles, radios and refrigerators.
Very soon Belarus will be very busy building its own atomic power station and launching a satellite into space. By the way, Belarusian scientists took part in constructing the Large Hadron Collider in CERN (there are jokes here that it was the Belarusian factor that made the collider go out of order in the first days of work).
Indeed, there are things that remind you of the Soviet Union when you visit Minsk, like the Soviet-style architecture of the city centre (most of the buildings were constructed under Josef Stalin after WW2). The Soviet atmosphere is also bolstered by the personality of the country’s president (very much like Soviet leaders of old times) and the presence of the country’s KGB office. However, these are rare examples that support the myth.
In fact, you will find Minsk an absolutely European-style capital. There’s everything here: five-star hotels, elite restaurants, casinos (actually, many of them), boutiques of European designers (like MaxMara), tourist agencies, McDonalds etc. The same effects of globalisation as there are everywhere. Here, like in other European cities you can go to a concert of the world-famous pop-stars. You can go to the cinema and watch Hollywood movies or go to nightclubs to dance to the latest hits. And even the stores here are mostly American-type supermarkets. Like in almost all modern cities you can find graffiti on the walls of the greyest buildings and fences, which makes you feel at home. You can turn on the TV set and watch satellite channels without restrictions or search the Internet freely (not like in China), and you will never have problems with travelling abroad. In fact, many Belarusian students are studying in foreign universities or do seasonal work in the EU or the U.S. I myself know a Belarusian girl who got her Master’s degree in the Netherlands and another one who is studying in Tokyo University.
It is definitely not so. Belarusian girls prefer to marry Belarusians. Russians are in the second place. There are not many examples of them marrying Americans or Englishmen. Maybe, they don’t believe in fairy tales? However, there are local Cinderellas. A story of a Belarusian waitress, Natasha, who married a Dubai Sheikh has been in the headlines of the local tabloids for a long time.
That’s definitely not true, especially in Minsk. Here you can hear English, Italian, Spanish, German and many other languages from native speakers who work, travel or have business in Belarus. There is also a café next to Lukashenko’s Residence where foreign speech is as natural as if it were a linguistic university. It is usually inhabited by foreign diplomats who work in Belarus.
But we have to admit that Russian is the language most often heard across Belarus. While Belarusian is most often seen: the lion’s share of street-signs are in Belarusian. But both are state languages and exist on equal terms. So, if you are lucky enough you can hear even Belarusian. Some good advice to help in your search: either wait long hours in some crowded place or just take a trip on public transport – all stops are always announced in Belarusian.
Darya Sologub for RT