Top 10 Stories on Belarus Digest in 2012
Topics ranging from Belarus travel topics for foreigners to economic sanctions and the Orthodox Church in Belarus drew the attention of Belarus Digest readers in 2012. Here are our top 10 most popular stories.
"We do not cultivate the idea of sex tourism in Belarus. But if [a foreign tourist] has an interest, let him look for it, meet girls and marry". This is how the Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism Cheslau Shulha recently answered a question about the growing sex industry in Belarus on a state TV channel.
While the Belarusian authorities are talking about the prospects of sex tourism, the inflow of foreign tourists in general remains low. Belarus mostly attracts Russian citizens who come to rest at health resorts or gamble in casinos. Western tourists are still very rare. They do not want to pay for expensive visas only to find the lack of appropriate tourist infrastructure.
Although prices in Belarus are as high as in any European country, salaries are very low. The average monthly income is around $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 $208.
After the second devaluation it fell as low as $135 per month at some point. $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 $530, according to Belsat. But Belarusians still manage to survive.
On 23 January Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronis Ažubalis stated that the EU should be more open towards ordinary Belarusians and increase pressure on the Belarusian regime. A year ago EU Commissioner Štefan Füle announced a “balanced approach” to overcome the harsh consequences of the 2010 post-election opposition crackdown in Belarus. However, in practice the EU imposes additional sanctions against Belarusian officials, but fails to offer new positive incentives to bring Belarusians significantly closer to the rest of Europe.
Alexander Rumak from the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection declared that the Belarusian labour market would not deteriorate this year. According to official figures, the unemployment rate in Belarus is merely 0.6 per cent of the economically active population. The reality, however, is different from the rosy picture the government is trying to paint. Thousands of young Belarusians migrate to Russia to escape unemployment and low wages. While Russia awaits Belarusian migrants who benefit its economy with open hands, the European Union keeps its doors shut, maintaining the highest visa fees in the region for Belarusian citizens.
Last week, leading independent Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva announced that in Minsk there will be signposts put up in English and in Russian. This reveals several facts about contemporary Minsk. There are no signposts in English. Putting them up is so extraordinary that they publish an article about it... If you have travelled around Minsk without speaking Russian and reading Cyrillic, you will understand why. Apart from one road sign in the Western suburb of Minsk announcing the way to “Inturist”, there are no street names or metro stations in Latin script. Only in the newly renovated park around Komsomolskae ozero will you find signs indicating the way to "Youth Island" and other promising places in English.
At the beginning of the new year, Belarus made headlines in the Western press once again. Reporting on the new internet law showed that Belarus is a white stain on the European map for most people. This week the Toronto Star published an article called "Belarus: The North Korea of Europe". It’s those often misleading descriptions that most Westerners have in mind when going to Belarus for the first time ... Based on Western media reports, it is impossible to imagine what Belarus is actually like and how people live here.
Last Friday the Library of Congress website published an article called 'Belarus: Browsing Foreign Websites a Misdemeanor'. The story authored by Peter Roudik raised a huge wave of attention first in the blogosphere and then in the mainstream media. The titles were truly sensational. 'Belarus Breaks the Internet, Raises the Digital Iron Curtain' wrote Forbes yesterday. 'Belarus Makes it a Crime to Visit Foreign Websites' was another title. Even the BBC repeated the story.
Last week Gunnar Wiegand from the European Commission announced that the EU was going to extend sanctions against Belarus. 135 more people may be added to the existing list of 208 Belarusian officials who are prohibited to visit the EU. Diplomatic sources also suggest that one or several Belarusian enterprises may be added to the ban list. Europe wants to show that it cares about the situation in Belarus.
Some even hope that Belarusians will soon revolt. But this 'tough love' approach is counterproductive. Despite the worst economic crisis in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of those who are willing to protest diminishes. Ironically, the highest number of protesters in this century was in December 2010 when Belarusians were much richer than they are today and Europe pursued the policy of engagement.
Belarus is turning away from the Orthodox Church. That is what statistics presented last week by Lieanid Huliaka, the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities suggests. Belarusian protestants are the most active churchgoers, while Orthodox Christians are the least active. Only state support allows the Orthodox Church to keep up the appearance that it dominates religious life in Belarus. According to the official statistics 59 percent of Belarusian citizens are Orthodox Christians, while just 12 percent are considered Catholics.
But while only 18 percent of Orthodox believers attend mass regularly - every second Catholic does. Indeed, during Christmas 2011, only 254,000 Orthodox Christians attended mass, just 14,000 more than the total number of Catholics who attended. And despite state repression and restrictions, the Protestant communities remain vigorous and numerous in Belarus.
As Russia is finalizing the terms of its accession to the World Trade Organization, Belarus struggles to understand what this accession will mean to it. The question is difficult and important because Belarus closely cooperates with Russia as member of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Area.
On 16 December, 2011 the WTO trade ministers accepted Russia’s bid to join the WTO. Even under the most optimistic forecast Belarus will only follow its larger neighbor in 2-3 years. The idea of accession of the Customs Union to the World Trade Organization as a single entity had been popular for a while but has now sunk into oblivion.