Belarusian Roads: Good Quality, Bad Service
At the end of July the Minister of Transport Anatol Sivak reported to Lukashenka on important road projects in Belarus, including a second ring road around Minsk and a road toll system.
Belarusian roads have became a brand in post-Soviet countries and even the EU because of their high quality.
Yet the road service remains poor despite attempts by the government to develop it. Due to confusing rules on toll roads problems have led to outrage among both transportation companies and foreign visitors.
While the roads provide some economic benefits, due to the heavy road traffic they bring environmental problems, particularly in Minsk. The authorities launched the construction of a second ring road to keep lorry traffic away from central Minsk. However, this project will not help to resolve the high number of cars in Minsk. This is in part due to Minsk's enormous role in the Belarusian economy.
The Best Roads in the Region?
According to a Gallup poll of 2012, 52% of Belarusian respondents showed satisfaction with the quality of their country's roads. This was also the highest rate in the region including Belarus's EU neighbours, Poland and Lithuania.
Lorry drivers say Belarusian roads are better than in Poland and Lithuania, and, moreover, they are safer Read more
Belarusian roads have become a Belarusian brand in Russia and other post-Soviet countries along with Belarusian food and cleanliness. Even the former Head of the EU delegation to Belarus, Maira Mora praised the quality of Belarusian roads in an interview with a Belarusian TV channel. Lorry drivers say Belarusian roads are better than in Poland and Lithuania, and, moreover, they are safer. “You can stay there alone at night, while in some EU countries you risk losing your fuel and even tyres while you sleep”, they say.
However, most drivers also note that the quality of services on the roads remain poor. Parking places, motels, cafes, showers and toilets are concentrated near large cities and major highways, while in the regions one can travel upto 100 km before reaching any service.
In 2008 Lukashenka issued a decree to support road service development through tax incentives and other measures. Despite this, Belarusian businessmen keep complaining that the government hardly provides any real help and the business of modernisation involves too much red tape.
But Belarusians also seem to lack the understanding of how to make money on the road. In neighbouring Poland every village near the road offers a bed for the night and lunch, while in Belarus this easy enterprise remains very rare, and there is not a clear reason for this.
Another problem foreigners have faced when driving through Belarus in recent years has come from Belarusian toll system.
Road Toll Problems in Belarus
Belarus currently has around 1,200 km of toll roads and the government plans to reach 2,000 km by 2020. In July 2013, the government introduced an electronic system called BelToll for charging road tolls, which replaced the older system of manual collection. In Belarus the toll is charged for cars registered outside the Customs Union and cars weighing over 3,5 tonnes.
A driver needs to buy and instal an on-board unit on his windshield. When a vehicle passes underneath the special terminals mounted over the toll roads, the system automatically withdraws money from the driver’s user account, so one does not need to stop anywhere to pay the toll. The convenience of the system, however, has proved to be far from promising.
A few months after the introduction of BelToll, it caused outrage among car owners and especially lorry companies. Around 5,000 car owners and firms in Belarus discovered that they have dozens of fines already, some reaching €80,000 in total. Moreover, Belarus's transport inspection can withdraw money from bank accounts without the owners' permission.
Although the authorities claim they carried out a vast information campaign in neighbouring countries, and set the toll in Belarus at the cheapest rates, numerous foreign drivers wrote angry reports about the Belarusian tolling system.
Actually, one cannot find much information about the system on entering Belarus, let alone any foreign language guide on it. Buying an onboard unit turns into a quest, as the operating company only has a few selling places throughout the country.
Some drivers have had to detour onto smaller roads and even rent Belarusian cars to reach one of the points to buy an onboard unit or pay a fine. Generally, the way the authorities implemented the system has made a highly negative impact on Belarus's image as a transit country and tourist destination. Today, before entering Belarus, drivers can check the toll system website, which has many language versions. It can be found at: http://www.beltoll.by/
Interestingly, this August a presidential decree removed the toll payment from cars registered in the Ukrainian separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Thousands of Ukraine citizens fled to Belarus as the conflict in eastern Ukraine was unfolding, and the Belarusian authorities have decided to support them in such a way.
2nd Minsk Ring Road Will Open in 2017
Despite the poor quality of the road service, Belarus remains a major transit country at a European crossroads, and experiences a growing impact of traffic on its environment. The project of the second ring road around Minsk has been launched to mitigate its negative consequences.
The construction of the first 56-kilometre ring road encircling Minsk started in 1956. Since that time it has transformed from two to a six-lane road in 2002 with a current daily traffic of 90,000 cars and 120,000 at peak hours. Today, it is overloaded with traffic, which heavily damages the city’s environment.
So the authorities decided to build a second ring road in 2010. According to Ministry of Transport officials, it will let all freight transport coming from EU and Kaliningrad pass through to Russia without entering Minsk. The road will stretch 158 km, including the 73 km of existing roads and 85 km of a new one.
Initially the authorities planned it as an asphalt road, but apparently they decided to employ the vast reserves of concrete which Belarusian producers failed to sell abroad. They, however, mention another reason. Concrete roads will serve longer than asphalt.
Despite its importance, the project has not not proceeded smoothly. In 2012 construction froze because of a shortage of funds, and resumed only in 2014. The road is financed largely from a loan from the Belarusian Development Bank, an institution which finances government projects, and national budget.
While the second ring road may reduce international freight traffic near Minsk, it will hardly impact private vehicles coming from other Belarusian regions. Minsk attracts economic migration from the whole country, so the reason for overloaded traffic goes deeper than another ring road. The government should address a complex of issues like economic development of other regions and Minsk's suburbs to reduce the inflow of cars heading for Minsk.
Presidential Elections in Belarus: Why the West Should Not Hold Its Breath
On 1 September the Central Elections Committee of Belarus announced that four presidential candidates had submitted enough signatures to run in elections scheduled for 11 October this year.
Although few question the outcome of this elections and the official victory of the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka, the elections take place in a very different geopolitical context.
In the 2010 presidential elections, the authorities saw the Belarusian opposition as the main threat and crushed protests, putting several presidential candidates in jail. After the recent events in Ukraine the authorities seem to view Russia as a more serious threat although they would not publicly admit it.
Elections as a Soviet Ritual
Belarus only had real elections during a brief period of competitive politics in the early 1990s, prior to the election of current President Alexander Lukashenka in 1994. This is why for many Belarusians, particularly older generations, elections are not an opportunity to change their leadership but something of an old ritual.
As in the Soviet times, on election day they would go to a local election polling station – usually located in a secondary school – to vote and enjoy heavily subsidised food, beer and vodka. In the 2014 local elections, one US dollar was enough to buy a shot of vodka and a sandwich with ham.
Another element of the tradition is that in Soviet times it did not matter how people voted because the authorities knew the result in advance.
it is hard to detect signs of an election campaign taking place in Belarus Read more
Although plenty of billboards remind citizens of the election date, beyond this it is hard to detect signs of an election campaign taking place in Belarus. State-owned media dominates the media landscape with the opposition almost unseen on TV. Independent information is available on the Internet, but the vast majority of people receive their news on television where the opposition is not welcome.
This year the authorities seem to be willing to register only one opposition candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich and the interest in elections will be lower than in 2010, when there were eight. However, the majority of Belarusians still seem willing to vote. According to a poll conducted in June 2015 by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, nearly 35 per cent of respondents said they would definitely participate in the elections and around 37 per cent said they would likely participate.
Independence Instead of Prosperity
In the 2010 presidential elections, Lukashenka’s main concern was the opposition. Then the authorities highlighted the economic success of Belarus, explained largely by Russian subsidies. Billboards with the motto “For a prosperous and strong Belarus” were all over the country.
This time, however, the authorities have focused on the independence of Belarus with the billboards changed to “For the Future of Independent Belarus”. Indeed, with the sharp decline in value of the Belarusian rouble and falling exports to Russia, independence despite economic hardship seems like a more attractive platform.
To show they are in control, the authorities have mobilised their resources from the early stages of the campaign. According to the Central Elections Committee, the incumbent President collected 1.7 million signatures over a one month period.
Belarus has around 7.4 million eligible voters, which officially means that nearly one quarter of voters supported Lukashenka even before the elections had started. Local authorities, managers of state enterprises, and directors of schools were obliged to collect signatures for Lukashenka to demonstrate their loyalty. This year the number of collected signatures exceeds the tally collected in 2010 by a third.
the authorities are firmly in control of the vote count Read more
The authorities also decided to add more than one pro-government candidates, beyond Lukashenka himself. They include a Cossack general, who is also a minor government official. Although none of the pro-government candidates even bothered to create a campaign website they curiously still managed to collect more than the 100 thousand signatures necessary for their registration. These candidates will use most of their airtime on Belarusian television to criticise the opposition rather than Lukashenka.
The election result will not bring any surprises because the authorities are firmly in control of the vote count. In 2010, Lukashenka got nearly 80% percent according to official figures. Giving a real number now may appear as a sign of weakness which the authorities cannot afford.
In 2010, the share of representatives of the opposition parties constituted only 0.25 per cent of the total number of election committees. Not surprisingly, this year the vast majority of the opposition’s nominees to election committees were rejected on technicalities. None of the opposition parties are represented in the Central Elections Committee.
The Russian Elephant in the Room
This year the main preoccupation for the authorities is not the opposition. Although Lukashenka often brags about swift punishment to hypothetical forces threatening Belarusian sovereignty and territorial integrity, in reality Belarus remains highly vulnerable to the repeat of the Crimea scenario.
The economy is tightly linked to Russian markets, where Belarusian goods can compete, often with the help of subsidies via Russia energy resources.
More worrisome for the authorities is that to get information about politics most Belarusians watch better funded and more professional Russian TV channels.
Given the aggressive propaganda on Russian television, it is unsurprising that the majority think the Crimean annexation was justified and that many view the events in Ukraine as an American conspiracy. Belarusians know much more about Russian history and Putin’s officials than about their own.
Ironically, Lukashenka supplying military equipment to Ukraine, speaking in favour of its territorial integrity and sending his foreign minister to meetings with Petro Poroshenko and Mikheil Saakashvili in Ukraine looks more pro-Western than the majority of his electorate.
The security services have excelled in monitoring the opposition but may prove completely ineffective against less soft targets Read more
The Belarusian army has been chronically underfunded, with Russia refusing to supply modern military equipment for Belarus, desiring instead its own bases in the country. The security services have excelled in monitoring the opposition and business people, but may prove completely ineffective against less soft targets.
More importantly, it is unclear with whom the loyalty of generals of the Belarusian army and security services lie. Many in the leadership were born and educated in Russia and since Soviet times have been used to taking orders from Moscow.
A Long-Term Strategy for Belarus
Falling energy prices and Russia’s economic downturn will inevitably result in less subsidies for the Belarusian authorities, who will be increasingly looking to the West for money and support. The release of political prisoners on 22 August is clearly a step in this direction.
However, western politicians should not hold their breath in hoping for a quick leadership change. Instead of just reacting to the actions of the country’s authorities, the West needs a pro-active long-term strategy focused on building links between the European Union and Belarus at all levels, while strengthening Belarusian statehood and civic identity.
It is important to engage not only the country’s civil society, but also the Belarusian bureaucracy, which in the absence of real elections remains the most powerful force in the country.
A version of this article appeared on EUROPP – European Politics and Policy is a multidisciplinary academic blog run by the London School of Economics and Political Science.