Life in Belarus. People and government.
I haven't been to Belarus for almost 15 years. My granny was from Belarus and I spent every summer of my childhood there. In 1990 the Soviet Union was broken apart and Belarus which was one of the Soviet republics became an independent country. My granny died and I had no chance and necessity to visit this country again until this summer.
I came to Belarus by car and the first big difference with Ukraine were the roads. All roads in Belarus regardless national or rural are in a perfect condition. Of course they are not so good as the roads in the Netherlands or Germany but they are kept in a very good condition. Ukraine and Russia are lagging behind Belorus at this competition. So the first impression was definitely positive.
First I visited a small district town – Chechersk. This is a small town. In Ukraine “small” means not having a big local budget. Still I was surprised to see absolute cleanliness of streets, numerous flower compositions and new fences near old houses. I found out that the state builds a fence if the people can not afford it so that the image of the town was good. I was also surprised to see the new roofs looking alike on many houses. As locals told me Lukashenko (the president of Belarus) takes care of veterans of WW2 and houses of veterans are renovated and get a new roof for free. It seems to be strange and absolutely non-profitable. Clean roads, no garbage along the streets make a huge impression on somebody like me from a big city. I used to another reality and what I saw in a little district town was beyond my understanding. How a country without support from abroad, a country in political isolation manages to fill their budget to get enough money for better roads? By the way it was not a demonstrative town build for foreigners. Just an ordinary town.
Minsk was the next destination point and my feeling of surprise did not fade. The picture was the same. Clean, washed and a little bit an old-fashioned city. There are not so many new buildings of glass and steel, but all old buildings are carefully refurbished and repainted regularly.
It looks like Moscow in the 60th. Painted houses of soviet architects and almost no new office buildings. Just a couple of multistoried buildings over 9 floors in the whole city with several million inhabitants. Wandering along the central streets of Minsk I had a strange feeling that the history has stopped here somewhere in 1970 -1980 and I am back in the USSR.
There is no private property on land in Belarus. You can use land but you pay for renting it. Probably it is the main reason why big companies from abroad with big money do not massively come there . Why invest money in construction if the land is not yours? I was told a story about McDonads opposite the central railway station. It existed just a couple of years, then the government of Belarus decided to build there some official building and McDonalds had to remove their restaurant. I do not know the details but the very fact is pretty much informative.
The shops in Belarus are not overfilled with a variety of products but all necessary foodstuffs and consumer goods are present. All foodstuffs are produced in Belarus and are of a very good quality. Food often tastes much better than the same products in Ukraine.
The policy of the government is: we must buy only “made in Belarus”. This is a national campaign held by the president in support of a national producer. What the enterprises in Belarus are afraid – the Committee of State Control. This state structure is to control the priority of national goods for all kinds of enterprises, public catering service and hotels. They check everything and if the fridge in a hotel room is “Samsung” instead of “Atlant”, this enterprise will be fined. Therefore you will not have excessive luxury in a simple hotel. Everything must be “made in Belarus” and that is the law. As a result the state provides an incredible support to a national industry. Belarus is one of rare ex-Soviet republics which have the majority of enterprises in a state property. All of them are working and all of them produce according to the state order of goods, parts, equipment, necessary for the country.
The streets of the towns and cities almost do not have big advertising boards. Why multinational corporations should advertise if their goods are banned for Belarus companies? Why to advertise goods made in Belarus if people earlier or later come to the conclusion to buy “made in Belarus”?
Lukashenko made his way to be independent from other countries and he managed to win in this difficult fight. Not all that you see in Belarus is about good design, but all is of a good quality. Of course people should have a choice and they have it (at least what to buy). If you are not a hotel or another enterprise but just a citizen you can buy “Sony” instead of “Horizont” but you pay an excise duty fee included in a price.
A small business in Belarus is relatively young and is not so well developed like it is for instance in Ukraine. People do not want to leave their state enterprises and to be self employed businessman. Why should they if they have a stable work and socially defended by a state? The younger generation often starts own business and try to make some money as independent entrepreneurs. But the Belarus people say themselves that Ukraine is good for business while Belorus is good for people. That is a terrific difference in the approach of the government to the people. The government is working for the people and defends their interests. It is strange taking into account numerous publications about “fierce Lukashenko rule”. Anyway people in Belarus are well defended socially and have FREE MEDICAl SERVICE. Just an example: my mother had a cancer and our doctors in Ukraine could not help her. Lucky she was to have a relative working in a hospital in Belarus. Some connection helped and she had her treatment there. In Ukraine you will not make even x-ray for free (while the Constitution of Ukraine says that we have a free medical treatment!!!) On the contrary in Belarus a chocolate bar to the personal may be evaluated as a bribe and that person can be fired. I can not say about all people and I am not sure that all illnesses are treated free because I do not have the info, but what I have seen was vivid enough to get a feeling of a good social policy.
After the fall of the USSR each soviet republic inherited something from it. Belarus inherited a huge problem – big territories poisoned by Chernobyl radiation. Comparing to the Ukraine and Russia, the number of people in Belarus suffering of cancer is much higher. But they all have a free medical service. This is just another sample of caring for their citizens.
Teachers and retired people have wages/retirements higher than those in Ukraine. Comparing the prices and variety of choice of goods in Ukraine and Belarus I must admit that their prices are higher in general in 10-15% but their quality is better. We have a wider variety of goods but they are mostly imported which does not make our economy healthier. Belarus has less goods, and most of them are own brands. Everything which is produced outside of the country has excise duty. So the budget of the country covers losses from import.
Businessman in Belarus do not widely show their incomes. They mostly do not buy Lexus and seldom have a Mercedes 600. They are totally different (in the general mass of course) from the “new Russians”. Probably they are afraid of the controlling authorities which are very strict.
A very interesting fact is a social advertising everywhere. The photo on the right shows a poster on a bus stop saying “Refurbishing is possible when the taxes are paid”.
Now some words about the political situation in Belarus. Yes, Lukashenko is not an angel. But the majority of people DO support him and will support him as long as he is their president. People used to stability and as a rule do not want to change their stability on the “politically free”, yet unknown life. Yes, the opposition in Belarus is prosecuted and Lukashenko will do it regardless if it is admired by Europe or the whole world or not. He makes his own policy and controls every sphere of society. “Rigid but fair” tell people about him. I also heard negative comments of those who does not like Lukashenko. The opposition wants more freedom and demands that people had an ability to make their own choice. As an opened strike is a great danger and could lead to a prison, people made “silent strikes” and were often arrested even for that! These arrests have no excuse, but I am afraid their protests at present are good for nothing. They can only attract attention of other countries to their problem but they will never change Lukashenko.
Leaving the country I had a strange feeling that I still do not understand many things in there. The overall glimpse on the society was very positive, but many organizations defending civil rights will never agree with the way Lukashenko deals with an opposition. I just wonder what happens in the country if some day Lukashenko retires. Just difficult to imagine.