How to Survive on $200 Dollars a Month

A typical "dacha" in Belarus

Although prices in Belarus are as high as in any European country, salaries are very low. The average monthly income is around USD 200, but people still manage to buy food, flats and smart phones. How is it possible to make ends meet with such a low income? 

According to the State Statistics Committee Belstat, between January and October 2011 the average monthly salary in Belarus was roughly USD 208. After the second devaluation it even fell to USD 135 per month at some point. USD 200 is not a lot and it means that the economic situation of many families drastically deteriorated in 2011. Just before the presidential elections the average monthly salary was over USD 530, according to Belsat. But Belarusians still manage to survive. 

Living in Minsk is as expensive as it is in any city in the West - let’s say Germany - and some things are even more expensive. This is true not only for imported goods like canned vegetables, sweets, and fashionable clothing, but also for flats and even things manufactured in Belarus. For example, a pair of Belarusian shoes costs around USD 120 and a kilo of capsicum peppers USD 4.70.

Prices for goods such as milk (USD 0.70 per liter) and bread (USD 0.50 per loaf) and some other "essential products" are regulated by the state, so they remain cheap. Public transportation in Belarus is also very cheap - an underground ride will cost you around USD 0.20. But most other things are disproportionately expensive compared to salaries. 

University teachers earn less than shop assistants

Job advertisements hanging in the metro and on the entrance doors of shops say they are looking for janitors, shop assistants or checkout operators, promising salaries of between USD 150-220. This is not even regarded as a low salary in Belarus. University lecturers working full time earn less than shop assistants: around USD 197 per month. 

The pension of a retired university teacher is around USD 130 per month. Because of low pensions, many people continue to work after they have reached the retirement age (60 for men, 55 for women). The pension of a retired army officer and veteran of the Afghanistan war is now around USD 315. Former military personnel and war veterans have long had the highest pensions in Belarus.

“We only live from one salary to the next”, one university teachers explains. “Wages are paid twice a month and when I get paid I go to the market immediately and buy food. So we can only afford plenty of meat and fresh vegetables on payday. It is really frustrating.”  

For a Western observer, it has always been stunning that in Belarus, those people who have the most responsible jobs in society are badly paid: doctors and teachers earn ridiculously little.

It is de facto impossible to live only on a Belarusian pension in Minsk and even in the countryside. This means that older people cannot survive without the support of their children. However, for the young generation, these are hard times as well. This is especially true for those working in the state service (and in Belarus, even some TV journalists are employed by the state).

Impossible to feed a family with those incomes

A customs officer, for example, earns USD 265 per month. You cannot even afford to rent a flat with this kind of income. A one bedroom flat rent on the outskirts of Minsk costs around USD 220, so young people cannot move out and have their own place. They continue to live at home with their parents and try to make ends meet. Many young families have to give up living on their own and move back in with their parents. 

Strangely enough, you would not think that the situation is as described when walking around Minsk. Young people wear expensive clothes and shoes, and a large number of them have smartphones. So, how do they manage?

First of all, people in Belarus mainly own their flats. After the break up of the Soviet Union, many of the formerly state-owned flats were "privatized". They could buy them for a symbolic sum in the 1990s. So, most people do not pay rent; they only have to pay for communal services. Those are subsidized by the state, so it is not a very big sum (around USD 30 for a family of five).

Autarchy is the way out

Most people also have summer houses (“dachas”) in the countryside where they like to spend the summer months. Here, they can grow everything they need during the winter: potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers and pumpkins. Potato remains a huge portion of the average Belarusians' diet - Belarus has one the world's highest per capita potato consumption rates. 

Some also like to collect berries and mushrooms in the forests, and pick apples and pears. They then cook jams, marinate cucumbers, cabbage, mushrooms and everything else. They usually store a significant supply of potatoes, and sometimes beets and pumpkins. They also freeze berries and beans. Many people refrain from buying fresh vegetables or fruits in winter because they are expensive. Moreover, some Belarusians firmly believe that there are a lot of vitamins in jam so they feel that they do not miss out by not buying expensive imported fruits.

While it is fashionable in the West to grow 'organic' food in your own garden, it is a necessity for many in Belarus. People work hard because they know that they will not be able to afford to buy groceries in winter. Instead of going on holiday or relaxing at the weekend, they go to “the village” where they work from dusk till dawn in their gardens.

So, most people own their flats and they grow food themselves. To afford clothes or electronic devices or even a trip to visit their emigrated children in the West, they have to take out a loan. And many people in Belarus do so. It is possible to buy nearly anything you want in installments: kitchens, cars, school uniforms. So, many people accumulate debts while their real income is decreasing.

A lot changed in 2011, the year of the big crisis. Even families that used to be relatively well-off have become poor. If people are not starving it is because they have got used to looking after themselves. During Soviet times and during the 1990s the economic crises were even worse than now. Belarusians are wise enough not to rely on anybody but themselves and their own soil and families for their survival. But Minsk still looks well-maintained, full of expensive foreign cars and has plenty of good restaurants. Where Belarus's wealthy get their money is a topic for another article. 

It will be interesting to see how the country develops as the more consumption-oriented generation grows up. It might be that they will not deal with a crisis in the same matter-of-fact way as their parents do. Instead of going to the dacha to grow vegetables, they may start to protest the economic mismanagement that deprives them of the luxury they certainly deserve for their daily hard work.

Nadine Lashuk is a German political scientist, currently working on the first German-Belarusian binational PhD thesis.

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