All my ancestors on my mother’s side are from Belarus. Growing up in Moscow, Russia, I used to visit my family in the Belarusiancapital Minsk, making my rst trip to Belarus in the 1950s at the age of three. My grandparents and uncles made up the extended family that were still living in Belarus. Beginning in the early 1960s, my parents would put me on the nighttime Moscow-Minsk train to spend the two-week long winter break in the capital. Overall, I have visited Belarus on 30+ occasions, usually spending weeks at a time. Nine of my Belarus trips were made from my new home base in Radford, Virginia, U.S.A which I settled into in 1990.
When I came to America, the Seinfeld show was in its first season, and it soon became my English tutor. In one of the episodes of season four, by which time I thought I was able to comprehend most New York City humor, a movie Rochelle Rochelle was first brought up. “A young girl’s strange erotic journey from Milan to Minsk,” was that fictional movie’s tagline, and its ending, “from Milan to Minsk,” captivated me. Quite possibly, all there was to it was the consonance of two Mi’s, but I was inclined to read more into its spell on me. e tagline, I reasoned, implicitly singled me out against the backdrop of the general public. Many Americans had at least heard something about Milan but nothing about Minsk, whereas I had visited Minsk many times; shouldn’t I share what I had learned with those who would be willing to listen?
Some ten years later, in a 2004 issue of The Economist magazine, I read an article that referenced Stanislav Shushkevich, the first post-Soviet leader of Belarus, telling “a wry anecdote that encapsulates how his country of 10 million people . . . has been neglected by the West. ‘I’ve always liked your country,’ an American congressman once told him, ‘especially since you got rid of that Ceausescu fellow (Romanian politician).’”
A lot of water has own under the bridge, but Belarus’s name recognition in America remains low. My own immersion in Belarusian culture continues. In 2011, I interviewed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for seven hours; in 2014, I published a book about him. In that same year, I executed a real-life flight from Milan to Minsk. My journey proved neither strange nor erotic, but retracing the route first laid out in the legendary Seinfeld show made an eerie impression on me. e cabin was full of Belarusians returning home, as on previous occasions when I ew to Minsk via Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Paris. In fact, Belarusians are avid travelers. In addition to journeying to Russia, Belarusians o en enjoy excursions around Europe.
In 2012, Belarusians made 1.6 million trips to Poland and 688,800 trips to Lithuania; fewer Belarusians visited Latvia (72,000), Germany (16,500), Italy (16,500), Austria (12,700), the Czech Republic (6,100), and other countries. Note that the population of Belarus is only 9.5 million people. In 2014, Belarusians received 880,000 Schengen visas in order to travel within many European countries. is number does not include long-term visas issued by the Polish consulates to those in possession of the Cards of the Pole, a document stating adherence to the Polish nation. is number also does not include visas issued by EU, but non-Schengen
Belarusians are avid travelers. In addition to journeying to Russia, Belarusians often enjoy excursions around Europe. …from 2010 to 2014, no country in the entire world received more Schengen visas per 1000 people than Belarus!
countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Great Britain. e only countries to whom a larger number of Schengen visas were issued were the vastly more populous Russia, Ukraine, and China. But from 2010 to 2014, no country in the entire world received more Schengen visas per 1000 people than Belarus! These statistics are impressive and dificult to reconcile with the image of Belarus being a closed society or “Europe’s last dictatorship.” After all, Belarus is not a particularly wealthy country, and Belarusians are still required to pay more for Western visas than Russians or Ukrainians.
Apparently when in the West, most Belarusians keep a low profile and do not enlighten Westerners about their home country, so all too o en the visitors come across to their hosts as Russians. An odd combination of low name recognition and a cliché-ridden image remains one of the key problems for Belarus. In America and in Western Europe, few people know about Belarus’s existence; those who do “has ruled the country’s 9.5 million people with cudgel and knout. e country’s political culture is that of intimidation, censor- ship, and marked ballots; the police recently imprisoned a man for publishing a photo of a teddy bear holding a sign supporting free speech.” Yet by the third paragraph, the article changed its tune. It appeared that “upon arrival in Minsk… foreign visitors might find themselves surprised. The streets aren’t cluttered with food wrappers or prostitutes. A charming modesty permeates the population. The place has an efficiency so infrequently seen in this part of the world that it feels liberating.
What’s most unexpected is that Belarus has become a promising place to do business and the home of one of the hottest apps in the world.” e same source also reports that, from 2005 – 2011, Belarusian so ware exports increased by 2000 percent to $270 million (by 2014, growth reached $585 million), and that U.S. companies buy half of the country’s so ware products. Apparently, the article’s author was torn between his immediate impressions (which were positive) and the negative qualities he felt were expected to be penned.
New expectations for Belarus can be very high, especially when economic interests are involved. In June 2015, for example, a Republican congressman, Steve Pearce, from New Mexico paid a visit to Minsk. Pearce was received well; he spoke to the Belarusian parliament about the Bible and God, and he pledged to facilitate closer relations between the two countries. Upon returning home, Pearce sent letters of gratitude to his Belarusian hosts. Just weeks later, Pearce introduced a bill to impose sanctions on Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest producers of potash. e formal grounds for the bill were that this manufacturer had withdrawn from a larger conglomerate (Belneftekhim), a company under sanctions due to human rights violations in Belarus. The sanctions were set in 2007. By withdrawing from the larger rm, Belaruskali dodged the injunction. is would all sound commendable if not for the fact that 75% of American potassium is produced in New Mexico, Pearce’s state. us, Pearce’s bill smacks of a below-the-belt assault on a competitor under the smokescreen of lo y pro-democracy rhetoric. Also, the bill introduced a cooling to the Belarusian-American relationship, which had noticeably warmed since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.
What to make out of all these incongruities is a tough question. While Belarus is a European country, culturally speaking, Belarus cannot be counted as part of the collective West. If one’s thinking about Belarus remains slotted into ideological templates of Western making, one will not be able to keep an open mind to the country’s substance. Belarus ought to be understood on its own terms, which means within the context of its location, history, and identity. Indeed, the country has an authoritarian president, who nevertheless remains the country’s most popular politician. Moreover, neither in Belarus, nor in Russia, is there a demand for a non-authoritarian leader. When probed by national surveys funded by Western agencies, most Belarusians state they do not believe their human rights are violated, nor that this issue is nearly as important to them as economic security and material well-being. When outsiders, like some Americans, evince a more ardent desire to install their kind of democracy in Belarus than Belarusians themselves, it is unlikely that such outsiders will ever succeed.
In his recent interview with the Washington Post, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei acknowledged that, “in the past, [Belarusians] lived all too long in the shadow of other people” and that “our Belarusian identity has not yet crystallized.” is is an accurate observation. Additionally, Belarus displays renewed commitment to the retention of its statehood and sovereignty.
America and other Western countries would be best advised to help Belarus remain independent. Belarus is a fascinating country with pristine, temperate forests and picturesque rivers, marshes, and lakes. It has both Orthodox and Catholic churches. Before the Holocaust, Belarus had a significant Jewish minority. In fact, in no other modern-day country, with the exception of Israel, have Jews historically made up a larger percentage of the overall population than in Belarus. For example, in 1897, Jews comprised 14.2 percent of the residents of Belarusian territory. Three presidents of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, Zalman Shazar and Shimon Peres; Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir; the pioneer of the revival of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda; as well as the artist Marc Chagall, were all born in Belarus. According to the Soviet census of 1926, Jews accounted for more than 40 percent of the population of Minsk. e legacy of Belarusian Jews during World War II, not to mention their centuries-long history of co-existence with ethnic Belarusians, endures for both parties. A growing number of tourists visit Belarus each year to pay homage to resident Jewish cemeteries and other landmarks of Jewish life. e Belarusian government openly welcomes these visitors.
Belarus stands out from other European countries in terms of casualty rates suffered during World War II; close to one-third of the entire population of Belarus perished in the war. During World War II, Belarusians carried out an underground partisan movement upon Nazi Germany’s military occupation, which began in June 1941 and ended in August 1944. e impressive degree of participation by local inhabitants in implementing this exercise remains prominent in the historical memory of Belarusians.
Today, Belarusians should feel proud of their country’s achievements. In 2014, Belarus was ranked 53rd in the world on the Human Development Index, the world’s most reputable measure of wealth and prosperity. Russia was 57th and Ukraine 83rd. Note that both Russia and Ukraine are much more resource-rich than Belarus, which does not have any God-given largesse other than potassium. Belarus maintains good roads and manicured fields. Belarusian cities and towns, not just the national capital, are kept in good order, in striking contrast with provincial Russia and much of Ukraine. e contrast with Ukraine is of particular importance. Belarus and Ukraine are culturally close, both are East Slavic countries situated within the same geopolitical niche – between Russia and the European Union. At the time the Soviet Union dissolved, Belarus and Ukraine had achieved a similar level of socio-economic development. Yet, by the time the war in Ukraine broke out, Belarus’s gross domestic product per capita had already reached 2.5 times that of Ukraine – something to be credited to Belarus’s leadership.
Belarus retained and modernized much of its Soviet-era industry, mostly manufacturing. A country without exceptional soil, Belarus manages to export more than $6 billion worth of food.
Two powerful external actors, Russia and the collective West, have applied a zero-sum game approach to both Ukraine and Belarus; the message they send to these countries has been “either you are entirely with ‘us’ or entirely with ‘them.’” Belarus tries its best to maintain a friendly relationship with both sides, at the same time that Ukraine finds itself at a political disadvantage. Minsk offered a venue for the armistice talks between the warring parties in Ukraine and gained recognition for its balanced policy vis-à-vis that country. Belarus maintains close ties with Russia, yet upholds Ukraine’s territorial integrity. For Belarus, having a multi-directional foreign policy is not an article or at the President’s whim, but rather an objective necessity, an asset, and even a national survival strategy. Surprisingly, few people realize that.
In his recent interview to Euroradio, the Charge D’a aires of the European Union’s delegation in Belarus, Rodolphe Richard, made the following observation regarding Belarus’s willingness to have good relations with both the East and the West:
“It is good to be at a crossroads, but sometimes it is uncomfortable to sit on the splits for too long.”
In light of the bloody conflict in Ukraine, Richard’s remark seemed bizarre because maintaining good relations with both sides of the growing divide in Europe is precisely what helps Belarus to avoid the conflict that befell Ukraine. Other antidotes have been national responsibility of the political elite and good governance.
Like Ukraine, Belarus remains dissimilar to Russia, and distinct from the collective West. Cultural distance from the West is also characteristic of Greece, a country with about the same population as Belarus. According to some influential pundits, Greece was incorporated into Western structures for purely geo-strategic reasons, i.e., as a crucial gateway to and from the West. e EU rescue of Greece centers on the country’s global placement, not because the EU believes Greece can soon mend its domestic politics and system of governance. Like- wise, it is probably futile to demand too much in terms of democratic standards and profound economic reform from Minsk, because denying much-needed aid to Belarus would only push this Eastern European country even deeper into Russia’s embrace. Geopolitics can indeed be more important than pushing democracy. Many policy makers are well aware of this, even though relatively few admit the fact openly. Belarus’s current economic troubles stem from cheap oil and Western sanctions imposed on Russia. Because of these factors, Belarus’s re ned oil export to the West lost value and, concurrently, Russia’s domestic demand for Belarusian industrial products shrank.
Due to the ensuing economic troubles, Belarus solicited and received aid from Russia. But just as signs appeared that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was considering a fresh loan program for Belarus, the government asked the EU for a $3.5 billion loan. In this regard, Belarus and Greece can be compared, on the grounds that both have an insatiable appetite for loans and live beyond their means. However, the magnitude of needed aid in Greece sets the two countries distinctly apart. Belarus’s needs are much more modest. If past dynamics of loan repayment and economic growth are an indication of future expectations, Belarus can be trusted. And “sitting on the splits” between Russia and the West may be the most beneficial position for Belarus for the ascertainable future.
By Grigory Ioffe
You can reach Grigory Ioffe at email@example.com