Minsk Hopes to Become Las Vegas for Russians
The Russian government severely restricted gambling in Russia in 2009, and the Belarusian authorities quickly spotted an opportunity.
Gambling supplemented by other services became a source of high profit for local authorities and businesses, which are often the same in Belarus. Since then, wealthy Russians have started their pilgrimage to Minsk to squander their fortunes.
For less rich and venturesome Russians, Belarus became attractive for other reasons. Some of them were looking for the Soviet spirit of their youth, others like the calmness and order of local life. For them, Belarus presents an example of how Russia could develop if the situation had developed differently after the USSR's collapse.
Good Old USSR with European Tinge
When Russians speak about travelling to Belarus, they usually tell very similar stories which all involve positive feelings. When Russians cross the border, the good quality of Belarusian roads is the first impression. As the famous phrase goes, there are two disasters in Russia: fools and roads.
Belarusian roads really seem better than Russian roads. "Just try to drive the road between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, let alone any road in provinces, and you will feel the difference", Russians say to their sceptical Belarusian colleagues.
Belarus traffic police present another road-related issue that Russians cannot understand in a positive sense. They are amazed by the fact that Belarusian police usually do not take bribes, while in Russia being a traffic policeman became a sort of business enterprise. Read more
The second nice thing in Belarus is the state of cultivated lands and small settlements and villages. In Russia, the government dissolved most kolhozes (communist collective agricultural enterprises), and much land remains abandoned because peasants simply do not want to work it.
In Belarus, state enterprises remained, and have to cultivate all land regardless of their quality. This creates the picture of total diligence of Belarusians that contrasts with that of disorganised Russians. Furthermore, villages simply look better: houses and fences are fixed, and the area around them groomed well. This picture creates a somewhat more “European” image of Belarus compared to Russia.
“The Last Slavic Country”
Practically all Russian visitors admire the omnipresent cleanliness of the streets, something that Belarusians spitefully call “sterility”. For elder people, Belarusian cities are a reminder of the good old Soviet past, with its confidence in one’s own future. People feel calm and relief after bustling life in Russian megalopolises.
However, for younger visitors, this creates the opposite impression. They look for night life, cultural events and shopping, and this type of entertainment for young people Belarus cannot offer. Belarusians themselves prefer to go to neighbouring Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine for these purposes.
Somewhat surprisingly to Belarusians, visitors from Russia often note and particularly like the absence of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia in Belarus. This category of migrants have flooded Russian cities in search of income and have become a crucial feature in Russian society, which often causes tension on nationalist grounds.
The underdeveloped Belarusian state capitalism does not attract migrants on such a scale. Belarus, in the eyes of many Russians, remains “the last white Slavic country”.
Post-Soviet Las Vegas
In 2009, Russia introduced restrictions on the gambling industry. Apart from four special zones, the government ordered the closure of all gambling houses on Russian territory. The Belarusian authorities decided to exploit this important gap for enrichment and enhanced the development of their own gambling sector.
Some Russian companies that own gambling businesses decided to move their assets to Belarus. Around 30 casinos operate in Minsk and there are a lot more places with slot machines.
Minsk is becoming an entertainment centre for rich Russians, predominantly from Moscow. A poll in 2012 showed that Russians spent $3,000-5,000 in casinos during one weekend in Minsk. Their average bill at a restaurant amounts to $200, roughly half of the salary of a typical Belarusian.
The flight from Moscow takes only one hour, and many firms now offer gambling tours. When you drive the Moscow-Minsk highway, you can see more and more billboards advertising gambling as you approach Minsk. Likewise, a lot of of gambling ads are displayed on the road from Minsk international airport.
During holidays and weekends, Russians book numerous places in the hotels and restaurants of Minsk. The luxury service industry receives huge profits from such visitors, and in fact works mostly for Russians. Most Belarusians simply cannot afford such costly entertainment.
Although prostitution remains invisible on the streets of Belarus, the sex industry surely accompanies such cash-rich enterprise as gambling tourism. Inside hotels, it has become common, although from the outside one might think that Belarus remains prostitution-free.
Gambling has become one of the reasons for an increase in elite real estate sales in the capital. To feel more comfortable, gamblers simply buy the best flats in Minsk for prices that seem insignificant compared to prices in Moscow.
The New Landlords
Of course, gambling is not the only reason for Russians buying property in Belarus. After the 2011 economic crisis and devaluation of the Belarusian rouble, the property market fell and rich Russians started to buy elite flats in Minsk centre in order to sell them profitably when the crises ended.
Further, Russians eagerly buy houses in the regions with pleasant natural conditions – like the Braslaŭ region with its famous lakes in the north-western corner of the republic. They either use them for personal recreation or start tourist businesses there.
Another group of Russians that tend to buy property are ethnic Belarusians who return to the motherland after retiring from difficult work in the Russian north or noisy and stressful Moscow. They also have enough money to buy the best pieces of property, but do not aim to make profits. They seek a quiet life in the land of their grandfathers.
Some Russians even buy estates of the Belarusian gentry that locals abandoned either before the Russian revolution of 1917 or Soviet intervention in Poland in 1939. The estates are municipal property and local authorities sell them for ridiculous prices, because the investor has to pour in huge funds to renovate them. However, some Russians or ethnic Belarusians from Russia have enough courage to invest in them: apart from the building, the estates have beautiful lands around them with old parks and gardens.
In such a situation, many Belarusians worry about become servants of rich Russian bosses on their own land. On the other hand, Russians present a desirable source of income for local business and authorities. Russia will always be here and Belarusians need to learn how to take advantage of that.
Belarusian Civil Society Is Turning into a Sport Society? – Digest of Analytics
In 2012 the majority of all NGOs registered in Belarus were sport-related. State-funded Belarusian Dumka discussed options for political modernization. Belarus is among top countries in EU visas refusal – fresh BISS study reveals.
According to a Belsat study, Belarusians are increasingly willing to donate to historical monuments preservation. Analysts took also a closer look on the Minsk-Brussels relations. Some of the experts notice the Northern Dimension as an instrument for improvement of the relations with the West.
Belarusian Civil Society is Turning into a Sport Society – Lawtrend analysed the non-governmental organisations registered in 2012. Of the 111 new NGOs 56 sports organisations were registered, while there was not a single NGO of gender, human rights orientation or promoting democratic reforms. Lawtrend sees this trend as the displacement of a real civil society.
"Shut up, woman! Your Day is March 8"– Tatiana Shchurko refers to the history of celebrating of International Women's Day and finds that the original meaning of the holiday is to fight against discrimination against women, against the social systems, institutions and practises that emphasise gender differences and produce inequality of rights and opportunities. In Belarus, the holiday is used to consolidate the subordinate position of women in the gender hierarchy, strengthen and emphasise gender differences. The expert concludes that that this "holiday" requires substantial changes.
Public Opinion and Hi-Tech Startups in ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’ – Grigory Ioffe summarises the comments regarding the recent polls' results and the IT data. In particular, the author reminds that Belarusians believe that the most important aspects of Belarus’s modernization are the development of new technologies and improvement of the infrastructure. In this sense, apparently the hi-tech sector is yet another area where “Europe’s last dictatorship” has been doing something right.
On Slutsk Belts, Palaces and Churches: How Much Belarusians Donate for Monuments? – the Warsaw-based TV channel Belsat studied an issue whether people are willing to pay money for the restoration of historical monuments. The study's results are quite optimistic: so, during a month Br 45 million (about $5,230) were collected for the restoration of the castle in Bykhov; about $120,000 were collected to return Slutsk belts.
Fairytales and Myths About Police – Belarus National Security Blog reacts to recent publications on the announced reform of the Interior Ministry and launches a series of publications to analyse myths, that have been created around Belarusian police. The first publication is dedicated to the discussion of Belarusian interior troops, and whether such militarised police units are used in democratic countries. The author concludes that there is no direct relationship between the type and number of law-enforcement agencies and the level of democracy in a state.
FIDH Comments for EBRD Country Strategy for Belarus – FIDH makes some recommendations on the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) draft revised strategy on Belarus. While the EBRD’s proposed strategy stresses the importance of human rights and democracy, FIDH fears that in the present context of severe and recurrent human rights violations the strategy’s failure to address the concrete means by which to secure rights realisation risks rendering such references ineffectual.
Modernization Etudes – editor in chief of a state-run magazine Belaruskaya Dumka, Vadim Gigin considers different ways of political modernization in Belarus. The author outlines the directions of changes: public administration, political parties, non-governmental organisations. The article also addresses the topic of raising the prestige of civil service and reforms of the administrative-territorial division of Belarus.
The Belarus-European Union Relations
Belarus-EU: Reasons for Refusals of Entry to Belarusian Nationals at the External EU Border in 2006-2011 – Andrei Yeliseyeu, BISS, continues studying the visa's topic. This time the expert appeals to the analysis of the denials of entry into the EU to Belarusians in 2006-2011. By the total number of refusals, Belarus is very high on the list, fifth only to Albania, Ukraine, Russia and Serbia. One of the conclusions is that No valid visa or residence permit and insufficient means of subsistence in relation to the period and form of stay account for about 80% of all refusals of entry to Belarusian nationals.
How Can the Involvement of Belarus in the Northern Dimension Be Used to Improve Relations with the European Union and Poland? – the February PISM Bulletin raises the issue that giving Belarus observer status in the Northern Dimension makes it possible to implement projects in the fields of regional and energy cooperation, and to transfer good practise. Poland should support the wider inclusion of Belarus in the work of the Northern Dimension, which in the long term can contribute to improving Belarusian relations with the EU and its active participation in the Eastern Partnership.
The EU has No One to Talk to in the Dialogue on Belarusian Modernization – Andrei Yahorau, the coordinator of the first working group of the European dialogue on modernization “Political dialogue and political reforms”, Director of the Centre for European transformation, shares the results of the recent meetings in Brussels. In particular, Yahorau notes that one of the main problems for the EU is that the Belarus' state isn’t ready for an adequate dialogue, as well as independent civil structures cannot step out with a common opinion.
Good Cop or Bad Cop? Sanctioning Belarus – Ondrej Ditrych, Briefs, raises the topic of sanctions which seem to have become one of the EU’s weapons of choice to effect change beyond its borders and the case of Belarus testifies in particular to the Union’s ambition to conduct coercive diplomacy. Yet, despite the various steps taken by the EU over the past years, little lasting success has been achieved so far in enforcing meaningful change in Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’.
The Belarusian Opposition
Critical situation for political prisoners in Belarus and freedom for 40 activists considerably restricted – FIDH and Human Rights Center Viasna present an executive summary graphically demonstrating the systematic repression directed at individuals who are serving or have already served sentences for their political or human rights activities. This document was submitted to corresponding UN and OSCE agencies, and other international human rights protection mechanisms.
Klaskovsky: Elections 2015 May Not be the Victory for the Opposition – "but can raise a leader with whom the authorities have to conduct a dialogue ", – Alexander Klaskovsky believes. The political analyst answers the questions of Belarusian Partisan regarding a need for a single presidential candidate of the opposition and opposition's capacity to attract the "new majority".
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.