by Matt Thompson
Quirky and a bit mysterious, Belarus offers visitors a rich history, friendly people, and a complicated political situation.
The first thing you notice are the sidewalks. They are spotless. No cigarette butts. No candy wrappers. No plastic bags floating in the wind. The same goes for the underground walkways, mopped and swept to perfection, that stretch out below the wide boulevards in perfect symmetry looking like something from a Stanley Kubrick film.
I never really saw anyone sweeping the sidewalks during my three-week stay in Minsk. Every day the city magically appeared the same — clean, orderly, and quiet. This was just one of the many mysteries I encountered in Belarus, an often ignored eastern European country of nine million people that is located between Poland and Russia. None of my well-traveled friends and colleagues had ever been there, or certainly not in the last 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.
I had always wanted to travel to Belarus, so when the U.S. State Department offered me a temporary assignment to serve as the acting Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk this summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Unsure of what to expect from this unknown place, I found a beautiful, modern, and friendly country. However, that sentence should include an asterisk. Belarus is not a free country and political oppression has been the norm there for years. The state-controlled, Soviet-style economy is the least reformed in Europe and Belarusians are struggling to make ends meet under crippling inflation and stagnating wages.
The three-week visit gave me a brief, behind-the-curtains look at a country that few get a chance to see.
I flew to Belarus on a small Belavia Airlines flight from Riga, Latvia, where I currently live and serve as the Deputy Public Affairs Officer. The flight is only 45 minutes, but Minsk looks and feels nothing like Riga. The Minsk airport is situated 40 kilometers from the city in the middle of forests and rolling wheat fields. The highway into Minsk was recently paved and there were very few cars on the road. When we hit the outskirts of town, the familiar high-rise block apartments appeared just like in Moscow, but there was something different. All the buildings were freshly painted. The grass and shrubs around the buildings were trimmed.
Instead of the decaying, post-apocalyptic conditions found in some eastern European and Russian cities, Belarus looks as though the Soviet Union never collapsed. People still lunch at Stolovayas, old-style Soviet government cafeterias. A large statue of Lenin stands prominently in the main square. The Belarusian intelligence service is still called the KGB, and a statue of the infamous founder of the Cheka (the precursor to the Soviet KGB), Felix Dzerzhinsky, stares down pedestrians on the city’s main boulevard.
And yet, Belarus is modern. Glass towers rise across the skyline. There is a gigantic water park, a state-of-the-art indoor soccer stadium, and a brand new hockey arena. Young, fashionable people roam the downtown visiting pubs, shopping malls, and cafes. I’ve been to Russia and several other cities throughout eastern Europe, but nowhere does this juxtaposition of a bygone era and the present day smash into each other like in Minsk. For example, the local post office, which is housed in an intimidating, Stalinist-era concrete building, is like walking back in time. However, now there are touch screen computers to order postage and the employees smile a little more.
In case you know very little about Belarus, I should back up a bit. As a former Soviet republic, Belarus, known as “White Russia”, was one of the most productive industrial regions of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Belarus declared its independence, but unlike its Baltic neighbors, it never really broke ties from Russia. Today, more than 40 percent of its trade is done with Russia. The government receives Russian oil at a considerable discount, and recently it received a $760 million loan from the Russian Federation.
There are considerable cultural ties too, but the political and economic links remain because of current president Alexander Lukashenka, who recently won his fifth straight election by allegedly receiving more than 80 percent of the vote, according to the State Central Election Commission. A former director of a state-owned collective farm, Lukashenka was elected in 1994 and created a Soviet-style regime that some have called the last dictatorship in Europe. The state-owned media dominates public discourse, and freedom of speech and assembly are tightly controlled.
Lukashenka has been widely criticized for irregularities and a lack of transparency in elections. In 2010, two presidential candidates were beaten by police on election day and several others were arrested. When thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest, around 700 opposition activists were arrested and opposition websites were blocked or hacked as well as many social media sites. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called the 2010 elections “flawed” and noted that while there were improvements this year, they still fell seriously short of democratic standards.
This August the Belarusian ruble had lost much of its value (it traded at nearly 16,000 rubles to $1, compared to 10,000 rubles per dollar in December 2014) and real wages had plummeted. A Belarusian woman told me her husband’s pay had decreased over the past year from almost $2,000 US per month to $700. The economic struggles are a result of heavy external debt and close ties to Russia’s struggling economy.
Stability has been Lukashenka’s mantra, but with the economy in the tank and Russia’s recent activity in Crimea, he has had to change course a bit. Minsk became the focal point worldwide last year when it hosted talks between Russia and European leaders on the Ukraine situation. The Government of Belarus acknowledges it needs to diversify its economy, and the Foreign Minister says Belarus wants good relations with everybody.
This is a welcome change from years past. In 2008, the Belarusian government expelled nearly 30 American diplomats after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Belarus for human rights abuses. Today, the U.S. Embassy still does not have an ambassador and is allowed just six diplomats in country.
Belarus has a number of interesting historical sites throughout the country, but I was relegated to Minsk as American diplomats can’t travel more than 40 kilometers from the city center without special authorization from the foreign ministry. One Saturday I was able to get that authorization to travel to Khatyn, a memorial that pays tribute to the hundreds of villages that were burned to the ground by Nazi forces. There was an eerie quiet that afternoon. Visitors walked through the outdoor complex in silence. The only sound were bells, which rang every 30 seconds to represent the rate at which Belarusians were killed during World War II. Belarus lost at least 1.9 million people, almost a quarter of its population, during the war.
The next site we visited was near the highway on the edge of Minsk. It’s known as Kurapaty, the unofficial memorial to the victims of the Stalin-era purges. At least 30,000 people were killed and buried in this wooded area from 1937–41 by the Soviet secret police (NKVD). Today the forested area is covered with wooden crosses. The government plays no role in the protection or upkeep of this massive cemetery, but people keep coming to remember and pay tribute to those who suffered.
As if we hadn’t seen enough sad places that day, we continued into town to visit the Jewish ghetto and the infamous pit, better known as Yama. Minsk used to have a large Jewish population, but when the Nazis invaded in 1941, some 100,000 Jews were imprisoned in the ghetto. Few made it out alive. On March 2, 1942, around 5,000 Jews were shot in a single night. Five hundred of them were dumped in a pit near the city center. We visited this site, which now is a memorial.
The profound suffering and loss that Belarusians have endured over the last century is astounding. And despite this difficult history and now these tough financial times, the Belarusians I met were warm and kind. Most were polite, helpful, and even patient when listening to my Russian. Although I dislike regional generalities, it seemed right when I described to a friend that Belarus is like the Midwest of Europe. It’s a country of agriculture, hard-working people, and warm personalities. And despite all the hardships — both economic and political — the people trudge on and endure.
Matt Thompson currently is the Deputy Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Latvia. Previously he served on the U.S.-Mexico border at the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros, Mexico. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Matt was a Boren Fellow who studied in Bulgaria and graduated from the REECAS Program in 2009.