Closing the Gap Between Minsk and Belarus regions
In 2015, real wages declined everywhere in Belarus save Minsk, according to recently-published data from the Belarusian Statistical Committee. This easily explains why so many Belarusians are moving from the regions to the capital.
The role of Minsk in the demography and economy of Belarus keeps growing, while the periphery is falling into depression. People there live worse and for fewer years than in the capital.
The authorities recognise a third of districts of Belarus as depressed, but they can only reverse this trend on condition that they fix the economy in the whole country and adopt a pro-growth package deal for the regions.
The European Union is currently helping the Belarusian authorities to produce Strategies for sustainable development of the regions 2016-2025. So far, these documents remain vague, but with further revisions could serve many districts across the country well.
Growing Role of Minsk
Belarus has six regions: Minsk, Viciebsk, Hrodna, Homiel, Mahiliou and Brest. Each is divided into districts, of which Belarus has 118 in total. Minsk stands apart, and its role in the country is becoming even more significant.
According to the Belarusian Statistical Committee, 20 years ago 16.5 per cent of Belarusians lived in the capital, while in 2016 more than 20 per cent do. In practice, the number of people living in Minsk is probably even bigger, because official statistics do not properly take account of students and other visitors. Even while in 1996-2016 the population throughout the country fell by 678,000, in the Belarusian capital it grew by 290,000.
Minsk's share in the economy has also increased. In January 2016, the contribution of Minsk in the country's GDP was 26.1 per cent. This is four times higher than that of Mahiliou region in the east of the country. According to a 2014 study by CASE Belarus, an economic think tank, labour productivity in Minsk is three times higher than in the Belarusian regions.
Minsk attracts the most active and capable Belarusians as well as investments – around 70 per cent of all investments in the country come to the capital. The regions are meanwhile becoming a "poverty belt" made up of elderly populations.
Similar processes are occurring in many countries in Eastern Europe, but in Belarus the problem is that the economic crisis exacerbates the phenomenon. Now, for many people from the regions moving to Minsk has become almost the only chance for a decent life. If a resident of Minsk earned $565 a month on average in 2015, people outside the capital earned a third less.
Life in the Capital and Regions
According to the Belarusian Statistical Committee, in 2015 real wages in Belarus decreased by a few per cent in all regions of Belarus except Minsk. Growth there was about 0.1 per cent.
The quality of life in the capital remains much better in many respects. People in the regions live two or three years fewer than in the capital on average, according to the official data. The number of secondary schools is declining in the regions, and the biggest medical staff shortages are there too. According to the Minister of Health, in some cities the lack of medical personnel reaches a 40 per cent shortfall. The likelihood of living below the poverty line is five times higher if a person does not live in Minsk.
Smaller towns are becoming even smaller in Belarus. According to a Ministry of Economy forecast, the number of districts with an unsustainable number of residents (15,000-20,000 people) will grow from 51 in 2013 to 77 in 2032. According to the authorities, every region needs more than 20,000 inhabitants for sustainable development.
The regions lack any sign of political life. The Belarusian opposition has not held massive rallies outside the capital for several years. There has in the last few years been a boom in public lectures in Minsk, but in the regions they remain rare.
Furthermore, Belarus, as well as many countries of the former Soviet Union and in contrast to many Western countries, remains overly centralised. All ministries and agencies are governed from Minsk. It gives the impression that public activities exist only inside the Minsk ring road.
Dealing with the new reality
It seems that until 2012 the Belarusian authorities had never used the term "depressed region" – it denotes an area with high unemployment and a low standard of living. But since then they have done so several times.
According to Ministry of Economy estimates from August 2012, one-third of the Belarusian regions appeared depressed at that time. That means that 31 per cent of districts had reduced their income by more than 35 per cent. The National Bank conducted its own study on tax collection and got the same result – about a third of areas were depressed.
Because of the economic crisis things have only become worse. In 2015, the Ministry of Finance published data showing that now every fourth region earns only 20-40 per cent of its budget and central government subsidies supply the rest.
The authorities are trying to do at least something. They have freed entrepreneurs in small towns and rural areas from the obligation to pay some taxes. Under an EU-funded project, Belarus together with international experts has developed strategies of development for the regions. While these strategies mark a step forward, they remain vague.
Anton Radniankou, manager at the Interakcia local foundation, told Belarus Digest that the EU-funded documents mostly repeat the same strengths for all regions (geographical position, industry, nature, etc.). Moreover, the strategies sound unrealistic, proposing the creation of many innovative clusters while many Belarusian regions lack money to keep themselves afloat.
While EU-funded projects can serve as a backbone, they should be updated with the inclusion of as many stake-holders as possible, working out of specific, smart specialisations for districts and scenario-planning.
Many regions these days desperately need a robust pro-growth strategy with stable tax regulations and incentives for innovative enterprises. While the authorities promised not to introduce new taxes in 2015-2020, they keep breaking this promise. Currently many entrepreneurs lack access to bank loans and business incubators.
The state authorities should attract foreign investment to the regions on very preferential conditions and even move some headquarters of the ministries to the regions. Minsk will not notice it, but relocating the National Bank outside Minsk will create new jobs and improve the quality of life in the regions.
Moreover, in order to save the regions, the government should take more radical steps to reform the economy. The increase in the number of depressed regions of Belarus is not a result of failures at the local level, but above all the flaws in the whole economic model of Belarus.
Judaism in Belarus dates back to the 9th century. The Jewish community has made hugely significant contributions to every stratum of life in these lands.
But by the end of World War II (the Soviet Union’s ‘Great Patriotic War’), the country’s Jewish community had been virtually wiped out as part of Nazi Germany’s ‘final solution’.
Yet today, small communities that refused to die are beginning to grow and re-establish connections to a heritage and identity that was all but lost. Yiddish can be heard on the streets once more. And all over the country, locals and tourists alike are at last able to visit significant sites that are being actively promoted.
Minsk: re-birth from the ghetto
Between 1941 and 1943, the Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest in occupied Europe. More than 100,000 Jews lived within its confines in the most inhumane of circumstances. Today the Zaslaŭski Memorial marks the spot where, on a single day in March 1942, the Nazis murdered 5,000.
Around 500 of the bodies were dumped in the pit that was dug here, an act of barbarity commemorated by the bleak and doleful sculpture of a line of terrified men, women and children descending into the very pit itself. It never fails to profoundly move anyone who visits.
Frieda Wulfovna witnessed life in the ghetto at first hand. An escapee who lived to eventually tell her story, I interviewed her on a grey and snowy morning at the pit of death. Here is what she told me.
At the Holocaust Museum and Research Studio nearby, on the site of the old Jewish Quarter, Frieda and the handful of other survivors have made it their life’s work to educate and never to forget.
Located in a Jewish house over a hundred years old and opposite the site of a former cemetery, each room houses exhibits that include displays on the lives of individual families, a German military map of the city marking the ghetto boundaries, photographs of the Maly Trascianiec concentration camp on the eastern edge of the city and a memorial to the 33,000 Jews transported here by the Nazis from all over Europe.
Minsk also has a Museum of Jewish History and Culture situated on the Minsk Jewish Campus, where more than 10,000 artefacts have been collected for display.
At long last, the state appears to be acknowledging the significance of its Jewish heritage, though a cynic would say this has more to do with the exploitation of an opportunity to promote tourism abroad. Either way, plans are afoot to develop the memorial complex on the site of the former concentration camp at Maly Trostenyets, with government funds apparently committed to the project. The sculpture ‘Memory Gate’ on the site is both harrowing and deeply moving.
Brest: a race against time
In 1921 a relief programme initiated by American philanthropist Felix Warburg financed the construction of a new Brest suburb to accommodate homeless Jewish war veterans, their families and orphaned children following the privations of World War I, adjoining a Jewish cemetery established in the 1830s.
By the end of the Nazi occupation in 1944 only 19 Jews remained out of a pre-war community of around 26,000. First the Nazis then the Communists desecrated the cemetery, the gravestones either destroyed or used as hardcore in construction.
During significant building works in recent times, the remaining Warburg houses have been bulldozed one by one. Less than a handful remain. Meanwhile, the digging of foundations for a new supermarket has unearthed hundreds of gravestones.
The small Jewish community here is working tirelessly to preserve all that remains, but the clock is ticking. In Israel, urgent discussions have been held in the Knesset itself. And at present, over 1,200 headstones have been recovered from the building site and are presently stored for safe-keeping under the arches of Brest hero-fortress.
The city’s tiny but informative Holocaust Museum displays a model of the original Warburg suburb. Nearby stands the bust of Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, who was born in Brest in 1913.
Unexpectedly, one of the most poignant of the Jewish sites here lies within the curtilage of the Belarus cinema in the city centre, the location of the foundation stones of Brest’s original synagogue. The theatre was actually constructed around it, the shape of the original walls being clearly visible to this day. No plaque acknowledges the significance of the stones, but row upon row of them can still be inspected in the basement of the cinema.
Viciebsk: a favourite son
This charming and elegant city, renowned for its artistic heritage, has a special claim to fame, for ‘brilliant dreamer’ and surrealist painter Marc Chagall lived here for many years. The house of his birth (an archetypical eastern European red-brick Jewish home from the late 19th century) has been turned into a delightful museum, packed with artefacts telling the story of the artist’s life and of the community into which he was born.
Nearby stands the Chagall monument in the old market square of the Jewish quarter, while elsewhere in the city, the splendid Marc Chagall Museum and Art Centre hosts an impressive collection of 300 original works of art.
Provincial Jewish Belarus: ghosts and voices from the past
All over Belarus traces of Jewish heritage stand ready to be re-claimed, many in ordinary and forgotten locations.
While visiting the outstanding fortress in Mir, do not overlook the Jewish quarter behind the modest town square. Only part of the 19th century synagogue remains, though a new one is in the course of construction on an adjacent site. The nearby small but charming museum dedicated to the Jewish history of the town easily repays a visit.
The forests around Navagradak formed the backdrop to the heroic activities of partisans during World War II (notably the Bielski Brothers, whose exploits are well documented in film and literature). The museum in the town houses informative and moving exhibits relating to the fate of the Jewish community during the war and the engagements led by the partisans, which made a huge contribution to the Soviet war effort.
Vetka, a small and sleepy town just 22 kilometres from the country’s second city Gomel, hides dark secrets. Behind the locked gates of a farm enterprise on the edge of town stands the privately commissioned memorial to the Jewish dead of the district, 200 of whom were murdered in this very location. A mass grave was only discovered during works of excavation at the farm.
Even now, old wounds are being reopened in Vetka. Last year the local newspaper published the names of collaborators who it alleges were involved in the murders. And only recently, building works in the town uncovered the bodies of German soldiers killed in action and buried unacknowledged where they fell.
Behind a petrol station across town stands the overgrown and unkempt site of the old Jewish cemetery. Formerly the location of over a thousand graves, only a few broken stones and some rusted railings remain. School Number One has a superb museum devoted to the town’s Jewish community and its history.
To arrange tours, visits to museums or memorial sites with an English-speaking guide and to meet community members themselves, contact British charity The Together Plan, working with Belarusian NGO Dialog. Elsewhere, the objects of London-based foundation The Belarus Holocaust Memorials Project are dedicated to establishing memorials at each of the 400 known sites of Nazi massacres.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.