Getting to Know Belarus: An American’s Year in Minsk
A country where parachuting teddy bears and clapping in public are illegal? Where one in eight people is employed by the military or the police? Where nobody speaks English at all? Why would anyone want to go there? These were the questions that friends and family asked when I told them I was going to teach English in Belarus as a Fulbright scholar for the 2012-2013 school year.
I had maintained a positive outlook on going to Belarus from the beginning, when I first submitted my application to the Fulbright Commission. My Lithuanian roots combined with my study of Russian language made Belarus a perfect place to experience the crossroads of the Baltic and Slavic nations. Interest in the political situation sharpened my intrigue, as did the opportunity to impart my native knowledge of English as a teacher.
Boarding the plane in August 2012 was easy, but by the time my flight was landing, I had gotten apprehensive. As the plane descended into Minsk-2 International Airport, I wondered if all the rumours were true, if the country was as strange as colleagues and Internet articles had claimed. The answers were revealed over the course of my year in Minsk.
My first impression of Minsk was almost exactly as I imagined it. Partizanskii Prospekt was a wide avenue along which crawled giant, light green, caterpillar-like trolleybuses. A mix of high-rise concrete blocks and faded three-to-six story Stalin-era apartment rows stood on a grey-skied background. On my first day, I visited my university, paid for my accommodation in the sparse dormitory and bought simple groceries at the windowless Belarus department store. I heard English spoken only by Yuliya, a fourth-year university student who had been assigned to guide me around the city.
As I became acquainted with Minsk, I was fascinated by how things operated. The Metro was consistently on time; the streets, impeccably clean; the people, friendly enough and happy to become acquainted with an outsider.
I systematically walked around the city, visiting different parks, monuments and places of interest, trying to figure out what it was about the city that made it so much different from Vilnius, my second home, only three hours away. It could have been anything from the lack of history, to the linguistic identity crisis, to the charming, peeling pink paint on the Pobeda Cinema.
I struggled to answer when new acquaintances asked me, as they always did, “What do you think?”
To some degree, one of the things that initially attracted me to and intrigued me about Belarus was the rumor that the Soviet Union’s influence still echoed across much of the country. When I found my first hammer and sickle on the façade of GUM, the state-run universal department store, I felt conflicted. On one hand, I was witnessing an idiosyncratic lifestyle that had elsewhere faded over the course of the past 22 years. On the other, it was creepy to see the remnants of a bygone era.
The amount of bureaucratic red tape that I had to cut through turned out to be the most actual example of Soviet life. It had been hinted at before my arrival, when I was preparing my travel documents. A brief phone call to the Belarusian Consulate in New York to ask if my documents were received was answered by an irritable woman who could confirm nothing without a mysterious tracking number.
Upon arrival, I visited my district police station approximately five times in the registration and visa-extension process, bringing with me various translated, notarised, and stamped papers from the bank, my university, and the housing authority office, proving my residency and occupation.
Everyday examples of Soviet life were charming at first, but became tiresome. The most evident was the simple experience of grocery shopping. Every few days I went to Centralny supermarket to buy food, and found that the selection and supply varied on an hourly basis. Sometimes I would be able to find my favourite products; other times, not at all. Once, right around Christmas time, a row of jars of peanut butter, my favourite indulgence, lined one shelf of the store. Within twelve hours it was gone, only to reappear three months later.
Linguistically, I was in a unique place. Having studied Russian for three years prior to my arrival, I understood much of what was happening and was able to communicate my needs fairly clearly. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that many people, when they discovered that I was an American, were eager to practice their English with me, from my students to the door lady at the university dormitory!
living in Belarus was quite comfortable, if I directed my attention away from the dubious political situation and the national identity crisis Read more
It turned out that English was much more widely spoken than I expected. Despite their enthusiasm to speak, many of these people seemed nervous to become too close to me. Forming a solid social group was a challenge that lasted the whole year. Although the culture was fairly closed, I found that I fit in very well with the local population, which could have had something to do with my distinctly Baltic features.
I had been warned that the police officers who regularly patrolled our block would be inclined to check my documents if they suspected that I was a foreigner. Luckily, I never had any trouble with the many police officers I saw over the course of the year, and I found them mostly cordial in the few times when I did encounter them.
Living the Life
As time went on the city gained depth, and the country began to fulfil its promises to me. Working at the university and developing relationships with other organisations around Minsk, I found that living in Belarus was quite comfortable, if I directed my attention away from the dubious political situation and the national identity crisis that manifested itself in each individual.
The charm of the Soviet architecture and Lenin’s statue in the city centre never disappointed, and I developed a sort of affection for the ever-present Belarus tractors and the city’s pride in the newly historic Trinity Suburb and the jewel-like National Library.
I left Belarus at the eleventh hour, boarding a train to Vilnius in the evening on the day my visa expired on 15 June 2013. After nearly ten months of living in the country I felt that I had adapted to the unique lifestyle that such an isolated country offered to an American like myself. At first reflection, I have come to the conclusion that, like a good comrade, as long as you expect nothing from Belarus, Belarus will expect nothing from you in return.
Soon to come is a series of articles on Belarus Digest, in which I will further describe some of these experiences and topics and explore the life of an American in Belarus.
Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.
Russia Refuses To Supply Weapons To Belarus
On 20 August, Alexandr Lukashenka held a conference on the future priorities for Belarus’ armed forces.
He proclaimed that “while analysing recent conflicts and wars, we understood that the most important thing for us today is air defence and an air force. Hence, if that is the key component of our armed forces, priority attention should be paid to them.”
It sounded odd against the backdrop of a Belarusian military that for years has been decommissioning aircrafts and acquiring minimal amounts of armaments. Furthermore, Minsk is no longer able to get military equipment from Moscow on favourable terms. Last week, Belarusian Defence Minister Yury Zhadobin effectively admitted that Belarus did not have enough of its own aircrafts and hence hosts a Russian air base.
The first Russian flight would come to Belarus at the end of this year, said Zhadobin. Russian Defence Minister announced their plans to establish an air base in Belarus when meeting with the Belarusian leader in April. The rapid pace of the implementation of these agreements has no precedents in Belarusian-Russian relations. This time, Moscow imposed on Lukashenka its will.
Who Wanted the Russian Base in Belarus?
Belarus and Russia negotiated for years to form the Single Air Defence System aimed at guarding the common borders of the so called Union State of Belarus and Russia. The appropriate agreement had been signed in February 2009, and Russia ratified the document already in December 2009. Yet the Belarusian ruler confirmed it by an edict only three years later, in February 2012.
And that was not the end of the bargaining process, as the discussion about who should be the commander of the system soon followed. Minsk won and last month the commander of Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Aleh Dvihalyou has been appointed the commander of the Single Air Defence System.
The story around the Russian air base looked like it would turn out quite another other way originally. While the initial plans were still under discussion, the Russians articulated their intent to get a base. Lukashenka denied them, and Belarusian officials insisted that the negotiations concerned only supplying the Belarusian army with new aircraft. Soon thereafter, by late May, Minsk – without much enthusiasm – confirmed the original Russian designs.
The Russian air base still lacks a legislative and normative framework for its existence, as Zhadobin admitted and added that this framework had to be prepared in 2013 and 2014. A full-fledged base shall be in place by 2015. Only Moscow’s dictate could provide a plausible explanation for such a smooth implementation on the part of Belarusian government this time around.
Old Russian Dream?
A Russian airbase will be located in Lida, not far from the border with Lithuania and Poland, and initially Moscow is going to deploy there its most modern Su-30 fighter aircrafts. Ultimately, a whole regiment will come to Lida. At this point, Belarusian-Russian military cooperation will take on a completely new character.
For the first time, the Russian general staff articulated its designs to put, in the event of NATO enlargement, a major Russian military force on the borders of Poland and Lithuania in autumn 1995. Yet Lukashenka did not accept this option and the then defence minister Maltsau outrightly called the idea complicated. The Belarusian ruler, despite his vows to strengthen Belarusian-Russian alliance, only agreed to two Russian military bases which were already negotiated by previous Belarusian governments.
For almost the next two decades, Belarus developed its own army with ever more autonomy from Russia, even while sending its officers for advanced or specialised training to Russia. Belarus is building its small army and territorial defence forces along the lines which could not be more different from Russia with its grand military tradition.
Minsk also actively developed contacts with China and last year even obtained some military equipment from this country. Belarusian-Chinese military cooperation caused a rather negative reaction in the Russian media. This track-record of Belarusian military building in the past makes the new Russian air base even more extraordinary.
Lukashenka: The Emperor Has No Clothes?
Lukashenka resisted a larger Russian military presence. But he had to accept it and do it rapidly, even at risk of losing face. Russia does not want him as an ally, it wants him as an obedient vassal. It clamped down on Belarus’ lucrative schemes to re-export Russian oil after reprocessing it at Belarusian refineries and otherwise put pressure on Lukashenka.
Russia does not want Lukashenka as an ally, it wants him as an obedient vassal. Read more
Russia did not give Lukashenka new aircrafts either. One example of Russian reluctance to help out Belarusian government stands out in particular – a story concerning 18 Su-30K fighter jets which for two years have remained at the Belarusian Baranavichy Aircraft Repair Plant. Russia sold jets to India in late 1990s, and in 2008 Indians returned them to Russia in exchange for a newer type of Russian aircraft. Media and analysts surmised that the shipment of second-hand jets would be given to Minsk.
Yet Belarus could not find the necessary $270 million to pay for the jets. It tried to take a loan from the Russian Finance Ministry, yet to no avail. Finally, in June 2013, the Russian RIA Novosti news agency reported that the jets would probably go to Ethiopia.
No Free Or Cheap Arms Anymore
In the military sphere, the Belarusian government has little choice as it merely has no money for new equipment and Moscow gives less and less arms for free. Military analyst Aleksandr Alesin recently concluded after analysing on naviny.by the statements of the Russian defence minister that most probably Moscow has been persuaded to give new arms to Minsk. To get four divisions of the S-300 air defence system and finally upgrade the country’s air defence system to a minimally acceptable level, Minsk had to agree to a Russian air base.
The timetable seems perfect: both the Belarusian and Russian sides are going to exchange favours. Belarus is set to receive its first Russian fighter jets in 2013, and next year Moscow will give Minsk the S-300s, and in 2015, as a final stage of this deal, a full-fledged Russian base will begin to function in Belarus.
In 2011-2012, Belarus received from Russia two divisions of short-range surface-to-air missile system Tor M2E. Tor systems cover the S-300s which provide middle- and long range defence. Both systems are necessary to establish all levels’ the air defence system. Minsk apparently hoped that Moscow would take interest in the Belarusian air defence system.
After all, it is of real strategic importance for Russia as Belarusians are guarding hundreds of kilometres of air space adjacent to the Russian capital. The advent of Tors was publicised as a good omen by the Belarusian government. Yet what followed was little more than business being done on behalf of the Russian defence industry.
The Russian government is now treating Minsk harshly. Belarusian isolation in the West took away from Lukashenka a lot of leverage he previously had with Russia. So far pressure on the Belarusian regime from the West failed to democratise Belarus but resulted in Lukashenka accepting something it declined to do for twenty years, namely a new Russian military base on its territory. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of the Western pressure on Minsk is the growing presence of Russia in Belarus.