What Life is Like in Belarus' Small Towns

Few people in the West know that provincial Salihorsk, not Minsk, is the wealthiest town in Belarus.

Belaruskali, responsible for around 10% of Belarusian exports annually, makes Salihorsk the most economically important town in Belarus, outside of Minsk.

Despite its wealth, the town shares similar problems with many other smaller towns in Belarus. Salihorsk remains overly dependent on just one enterprise.

The flow of patients going into hospitals surpasses their holding capacities threefold, corruption thrives in the region. The young generation is leaving as they see no prospects for their own future in town.

The West should support mass media and NGOs in small towns to make local reforms possible in the future.

Belaruskali and Monotown

Salihorsk remains one of the most important cities in Belarus. Salihorsk-based Belaruskali is perhaps the most profitable state-run company. The average salary in Salihorsk is about $840 per month, one and a half times more than Belarus' national average. As a result, a new supermarket opens in Salihorsk every six months.

Despite all of this, the town remains a prime example of a typical Belarusian province. According to the People’s Program, an analytical project of the oppositional Movement for Freedom chaired by Aliaksandr Milinkievič, about 50 settlements in Belarus are so-called 'monotowns'.

This means that more than 25% of the economically active population work at one and the same enterprise. Belaruskali and Salihorsk fit the pattern, with about 20,000 of its 100,000 inhabitants working at Belaruskali.

Monotowns have their roots in the Soviet Union, which created cities to serve a single enterprise, be it a heavy machinery production or mineral extraction. As a result, Salihorsk became much too dependent on its only major enterprise.

When the Belarusian authorities kicked off an economic war with Russia's Uralkali, who had long been a partner, Belaruskali laid off many of its employees. This incident worsened the overall situation of the whole city.

Medicine as a Sensitive Topic

Each city has its own specific problems, but problems with healthcare remain common to most Belarusian towns. The quality of the medical equipment and treatment are themselves not an issue.

Last year, a clinic in Salihorsk received $100,000 from Japan under the Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Project to purchase of the new equipment.

The issues lie elsewhere. People wait half a day in line to simply make a medical appointment. In early September, Internet users published a photo of women waiting in front of a gynaecologist's office in a line that reached out into the street.

The low salaries paid to medical staff make people reluctant to become doctors, as, on average, a doctor in Salihorsk earns about $ 550 per month. Comparatively, an electrician after three-months of a vocational education can make the same amount of money while working at a hospital in Salihorsk.

Aliaksiej Valabujeŭ, the editor of the independent Saligorsk.org web-site, explained to Belarus Digest the other problem is that "the current medical facilities were designed for 680 visits every day, but in fact they receive three times as much." The authorities mention plans to build a new clinic, but so far their statements lack any concrete details or firm plans.

Many young people leave Salihorsk after graduating from school, as the 100,000-people town has no university. Salihorsk's high-school graduates usually attend universities in Minsk and after five years of study they rarely return to their hometown. Salaries in Minsk and Salihorsk are comparable, but the young choose Minsk because Salihorsk lacks career opportunities.

Local Authorities: Loyal to Lukashenka and Corrupt

Belarus’ political system works in a way that the head of the state appoints the head of the regional executive committee, who then goes on to appoint the heads of district committees. Therefore, the local authorities remain loyal primarily to their superiors and do not have any sense of accountability to local citizens.

Several stories demonstrate this point. Local politician Uladzimir Šyla has long been fighting against the destruction of a forest park. The local authorities essentially increased the city's density by cutting down the forest. Salihorsk's population density reaches 11,000 people per square kilometre. This is four times more than Brussels or three times more than Paris.

At the grassroots level, corruption flourishes in Salihorsk. Former Deputy Minister of Forestry Fiodar Lisica, who previously worked in Salihorsk, used state money to build several large houses and is awaiting trial for abuse of power after the authorities decided to act.

Viktar Maločka, an activist from the United Civil Party, explains the corruption schemes using the example of a pharmacy boom in Salihorsk:

The central streets of the town are full of multifunctional pharmacies. According to the law, the state provides land for these kinds of facilities for free, but in fact a pharmacy in these multi-storey buildings occupies only one tenth of the space. The remaining areas serve commercial purposes, such as banks, offices or shops.

How to Make Small Towns Sustainable

Currently Salihorsk is run by Aliaksandr​ Rymašeŭski, a rather traditional local leader for Belarus. He worked at a state collective farm and remains rather unpopular among residents of the town. People say, that he has recently won a car at a raffle organised by a local businessman.

Local elections have little to do with ruling a town in Belarus. People elect members of the Town Council, but they lack any real competence and elections remain untransparent. If Belarusians want to help their towns develop, they should elect local officials to carry out the work.

Although a mayoral election does not automatically result in improvements, it can increase transparency and accountability of officials. Countries in transition like Poland started to elect the heads of cities in the 1990s and do not intend to return to the previous practise.

Small towns should promote the development of small and medium-sized businesses to become less dependent on one industry. The rise of the private medical centres could provide a solution for the current scarcity of doctors, and the opening of private universities would help keep young people in their hometown.

Proper local elections should be a long-term goal, even if it sounds like a dream at this point. To make it real local anti-corruption activists, independent mass media and grassroots initiatives need serious support. That would make make small towns more transparent and closer to ordinary people.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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