How to Survive on $200 Dollars a Month
Although prices in Belarus are as high as in any European country, salaries are very low. The average monthly income is around USD 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 USD 208. After the second devaluation it even fell to USD 135 per month at some point. USD 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 USD 530, according to Belsat. But Belarusians still manage to survive.
Living in Minsk is as expensive as it is in any city in the West – let’s say Germany – and some things are even more expensive. This is true not only for imported goods like canned vegetables, sweets, and fashionable clothing, but also for flats and even things manufactured in Belarus. For example, a pair of Belarusian shoes costs around USD 120 and a kilo of capsicum peppers USD 4.70.
Prices for goods such as milk (USD 0.70 per liter) and bread (USD 0.50 per loaf) and some other "essential products" are regulated by the state, so they remain cheap. Public transportation in Belarus is also very cheap – an underground ride will cost you around USD 0.20. But most other things are disproportionately expensive compared to salaries.
University teachers earn less than shop assistants
Job advertisements hanging in the metro and on the entrance doors of shops say they are looking for janitors, shop assistants or checkout operators, promising salaries of between USD 150-220. This is not even regarded as a low salary in Belarus. University lecturers working full time earn less than shop assistants: around USD 197 per month.
The pension of a retired university teacher is around USD 130 per month. Because of low pensions, many people continue to work after they have reached the retirement age (60 for men, 55 for women). The pension of a retired army officer and veteran of the Afghanistan war is now around USD 315. Former military personnel and war veterans have long had the highest pensions in Belarus.
“We only live from one salary to the next”, one university teachers explains. “Wages are paid twice a month and when I get paid I go to the market immediately and buy food. So we can only afford plenty of meat and fresh vegetables on payday. It is really frustrating.”
For a Western observer, it has always been stunning that in Belarus, those people who have the most responsible jobs in society are badly paid: doctors and teachers earn ridiculously little.
It is de facto impossible to live only on a Belarusian pension in Minsk and even in the countryside. This means that older people cannot survive without the support of their children. However, for the young generation, these are hard times as well. This is especially true for those working in the state service (and in Belarus, even some TV journalists are employed by the state).
Impossible to feed a family with those incomes
A customs officer, for example, earns USD 265 per month. You cannot even afford to rent a flat with this kind of income. A one bedroom flat rent on the outskirts of Minsk costs around USD 220, so young people cannot move out and have their own place. They continue to live at home with their parents and try to make ends meet. Many young families have to give up living on their own and move back in with their parents.
Strangely enough, you would not think that the situation is as described when walking around Minsk. Young people wear expensive clothes and shoes, and a large number of them have smartphones. So, how do they manage?
First of all, people in Belarus mainly own their flats. After the break up of the Soviet Union, many of the formerly state-owned flats were "privatized". They could buy them for a symbolic sum in the 1990s. So, most people do not pay rent; they only have to pay for communal services. Those are subsidized by the state, so it is not a very big sum (around USD 30 for a family of five).
Autarchy is the way out
Most people also have summer houses (“dachas”) in the countryside where they like to spend the summer months. Here, they can grow everything they need during the winter: potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers and pumpkins. Potato remains a huge portion of the average Belarusians' diet – Belarus has one the world's highest per capita potato consumption rates.
Some also like to collect berries and mushrooms in the forests, and pick apples and pears. They then cook jams, marinate cucumbers, cabbage, mushrooms and everything else. They usually store a significant supply of potatoes, and sometimes beets and pumpkins. They also freeze berries and beans. Many people refrain from buying fresh vegetables or fruits in winter because they are expensive. Moreover, some Belarusians firmly believe that there are a lot of vitamins in jam so they feel that they do not miss out by not buying expensive imported fruits.
While it is fashionable in the West to grow 'organic' food in your own garden, it is a necessity for many in Belarus. People work hard because they know that they will not be able to afford to buy groceries in winter. Instead of going on holiday or relaxing at the weekend, they go to “the village” where they work from dusk till dawn in their gardens.
So, most people own their flats and they grow food themselves. To afford clothes or electronic devices or even a trip to visit their emigrated children in the West, they have to take out a loan. And many people in Belarus do so. It is possible to buy nearly anything you want in installments: kitchens, cars, school uniforms. So, many people accumulate debts while their real income is decreasing.
A lot changed in 2011, the year of the big crisis. Even families that used to be relatively well-off have become poor. If people are not starving it is because they have got used to looking after themselves. During Soviet times and during the 1990s the economic crises were even worse than now. Belarusians are wise enough not to rely on anybody but themselves and their own soil and families for their survival. But Minsk still looks well-maintained, full of expensive foreign cars and has plenty of good restaurants. Where Belarus's wealthy get their money is a topic for another article.
It will be interesting to see how the country develops as the more consumption-oriented generation grows up. It might be that they will not deal with a crisis in the same matter-of-fact way as their parents do. Instead of going to the dacha to grow vegetables, they may start to protest the economic mismanagement that deprives them of the luxury they certainly deserve for their daily hard work.
Belarus is The World’s Schengen Visa Champion
On January 23 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.
Belarusian citizens have to undergo the most cumbersome and expensive procedure in Europe when they apply for EU visas. This is ironic because according to recently released data from the European Commission, in 2010 Belarus was the absolute world leader in the per capita number of Schengen visas. That would seem like a good reason to trust Belarusians in visa matters and to abolish the EU visa regime completely or at least to dramatically liberalize it.
Champion Despite Difficulties
The recently published data show that the EU countries issued 428,000 C-type short-term Schengen visas for Belarusian citizens in 2010. In comparative perspective, Indians, a population of 1 billion, received only 406,000 Schengen visas. Turkish nationals obtained 522,000 visas despite the population of Turkey being seven times greater than that of Belarus. Moreover, every third Schengen visa issued to Belarusians was for multiple entry. If the EU trusts Belarusians so much, what is the purpose of imposing on them the toughest and the most expensive visa regime in the whole of Europe?
In order to obtain a EU visa, Belarusians must pay a €60 non-refundable fee and prove that they have a good reason to visit the EU. In most cases they first need to obtain a special written invitation from an EU citizen or organization. Moreover, if the invitation does not contain information about the financial sources of the applicant, they must prepare official documents to show they have at least €40 per day for their stay in the EU. Not every family in Belarus is ready to confirm the availability of €240 in order to spend two days with a child in Vilnius,a city situated just 170 km from Minsk.
Belarusian applicants need to bring official documents showing that they have a stable job and good income. They also have to purchase health insurance, book and pay for tickets and accommodation in advance, and persuade visa officers that they plan to go back to Belarus. Many consider collecting such a huge pile of documents not only meaningless but also humiliating.
Submitting a visa application is still much more difficult than receiving a positive decision on the visa. New PACE President Jean-Claude Mignon recently stated that “for Europeans to obtain the Belarusian visa is as difficult as the flight on the Moon”. Many ordinary Belarusians have the same feelings about EU visas.
Given that the average monthly salary in Belarus is now about €190, the €60 fee and other conditions for obtaining a EU visa look truly draconian. In comparison, Russia and Ukraine finalized their negotiations with the EU on the facilitation of the visa regime in 2007-2008 and now their citizens pay only €35 for each visa, the number of documents they need to submit is much more reasonable and the percentage of multiple entry visas is much higher.
Free Visas = More Democracy?
Belarus refused to conduct negotiations with the EU on visa liberalization. They refer to misunderstandings on the conclusion of the readmission agreement as the main reason for that. On January 23 the Belarusian MFA spokesman Andrei Savinykh clarified the government’s position, saying that Belarus does not want to accept other countries’ illegal migrants which have come to the EU from the Belarusian territory.
Nevertheless, many experts doubt that this is the frank reason for refusal and say that the Belarusian authorities are just trying to isolate the country from western influence. Member of the Lithuanian Seym Foreign Committee Piatras Austriavicius shares this point of view. He thinks that the impact of an open Belarus-EU border on the democratization of the country would be far greater than the effect of hundreds of seminars organized for this purpose.
When Belarusians travel to European countries, they can see the real life of other Europeans and clear their minds of the TV propaganda that constantly brainwashes them about the alleged serious problems in the new EU countries such as Poland and Lithuania. Propagandists forget to inform Belarusians that the average monthly salary has reached €620 in Lithuania and €1300 in Poland, while the level of living costs is almost the same in these countries as in Belarus.
Lots of Discussions Without Concrete Improvements
Belarusian civil society campaigning and lobbying in Brussels and other European capitals started a widespread public discussion on the issue. Unfortunately, the visa regime has not yet been facilitated. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Germany began to issue no-fee national visas for Belarusians in accordance with Fule’s approach after the presidential election in 2010. But Belarusians only very rarely request this type of visas; this measure therefore looks like a symbolic gesture. Besides, other EU countries have not joined the pioneers.
Lithuania, Poland and Germany grant more than 99% of Belarusian applications for EU visas. Lithuania refuses only 0.17% of Belarusian applications – quite logical, given that residents of the 2 million Belarusian capital Minsk can travel to Vilnius in just 2 hours for $10 and shop in local supermarkets such as Akropolis. Belarus has nearly three times more consumers than Lithuania, Belarusian shoppers can significantly benefit the Lithuanian economy.
Towards Europe Undivided by Visa Barriers
Even if the European Union hesitates to unilaterally abolish visas for Belarusians, official Minsk's plans to allow visa-free entry for EU citizens in 2013 as an experiment before the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championship could be a good starting point for successful negotiations.
As a response, the EU could begin by reducing the visa fee for Belarusians to the same level as for Russians and Ukrainians (€35). Then it could accelerate visa proceedings (from 10 days to 5 days as in Russia) and simplify the procedure of applying for a visa. The next step could be to remove visas altogether.
Many citizens of non-democratic countries have a right to enter the Schengen area for 90 days without visas. Nationals of countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela benefit from this right. These countries are not particularly democratic and much more poor than Belarus. If nationals of Albania can travel visa-free in Europe, why can’t Belarusians?
By taking simple visa liberalization steps, the EU can assure Belarusians that they have a European alternative to the Eurasian Union. And the complete abolition of the EU visa regime with Belarus would more effectively facilitate openness and democracy in Belarus than another round of declarations and visa sanctions from Europe.