I find Belarus a fascinating place primarily because it is close to where I live (perhaps 4 hours drive to the border), possibly dangerous and yet I know almost nothing about it. There is so little news about the place that it’s like living next door to a black hole. This is very unusual for me as the UK has essentially no neighbours and those countries that are close are very transparent and well understood. Poland on the other hand has the black hole of Belarus AND the equally weird Russian island of Kaliningrad sharing most of its north-eastern land borders.
I’ve met perhaps three people from Belarus and I would describe them as ‘shifty’. I got the feeling that were I to check their papers I might find they were not all in order or that they were involved in less than kosher enterprises. I’m sure the other 9,648,530 people are very nice. The CIA World Factbook says things like:
Since his election in July 1994 as the country’s first president, Alexandr LUKASHENKO has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian means. Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, and religion remain in place.
Government type: republic in name, although in fact a dictatorship.
Elections: last held 28 September and 3 October 2008 (next to be held fall of 2012); international observers determined that despite minor improvements the election ultimately fell short of democratic standards;
Belarus has seen little structural reform since 1995, when President LUKASHENKO launched the country on the path of “market socialism.” In keeping with this policy, LUKASHENKO reimposed administrative controls over prices and currency exchange rates and expanded the state’s right to intervene in the management of private enterprises. Since 2005, the government has re-nationalized a number of private companies. In addition, businesses have been subject to pressure by central and local governments, e.g., arbitrary changes in regulations, numerous rigorous inspections, retroactive application of new business regulations, and arrests of “disruptive” businessmen and factory owners.
We had some friends in Warsaw who have now moved to Washington DC, she was Canadian and he was Polish. Her career, as best we could tell, involved bringing democracy to places that didn’t have it and she’d spent a lot of time sneaking around in Belarus. The administration over there disliked the idea of democracy so much that she’d been banned from entering the country numerous times and was at the point where trying to enter again might well be too much of a risk, so she didn’t. Needless to say, she didn’t have a good word for the place but you have to believe that the majority of Belorussians are nice folk who are unfortunate enough to be dictated to by the guy in the picture below and to share the Russian’s lethargic attitude to changing the system.
Finding news about Belarus is not easy and finding news that is not “Russia is nice to Belarus” or “Belarus is nice to Russia” is even harder. Although, reading between the lines it may be that this economic crisis could be a factor in forcing Belarus to reform and become a more acceptable state in the eyes of everyone other than Russia. Russia is having a hard time and has been gradually increasing its charges to Belarus. For example, the Belorussians are used to making a reasonable income in selling on at market prices oil it has obtained from Russia at a discount rate. The margin Russia is looking for from such sales have been gradually increasing. In the situation of less “aid” from Russia, the Belorussian economy is in trouble to the point of getting in the queue for a bail-out from the IMF. It seems strange to me that aid might be given to a somewhat secretive dictatorship such as Belarus, I mean what atrocities might be found when the place opens up a little or when Lukashenko is finally driven out? Would it be like giving aid to Saddam Hussein or Nicolae Ceauşescu or am I being a big drama queen about this?
Belarus is in a good strategic position in terms of the flow of fuel from Russia to the west with both oil and gas pipelines passing through and this is perhaps one of the reasons the EU is interested in forging closer links with it and other fringe countries. All this cooperation though will surely depend on the behaviour of Lukashenko?
Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, on the Eastern Partnership scheme: “The summit on the Eastern Partnership should be in Prague. On the matter of (Belarus President Aleksander) Lukashenko, that would depend on the behaviour of Mr Lukashenko and the Belarus government. But Belarus should be in the Eastern Partnership.”
I get the feeling that Lukashenko’s life is getting a bit more complicated these days. With reducing flow of funds from his best friends the Russians on one side and possible aid from the IMF and promises from an EU Eastern Partnership on the other, he must be wondering which way to turn. I hope the outcome is a good one for the people of Belarus and perhaps one day we can all go visit the place (avoiding the Chernobyl infected parts in the south of course!).