Lost in Translation in Minsk – The “Real Belarus” Travel Tips
Last week, leading Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva announced that in Minsk there will be signposts put up in English and in Russian. This reveals several facts about contemporary Minsk. There are no signposts in English. Putting them up is so extraordinary that they publish an article about it.
You Better Read Cyrillic
If you have traveled around Minsk without speaking Russian and reading Cyrillic, you will understand why. Apart from one road sign in the Western suburb of Minsk announcing the way to “Inturist”, there are no street names or metro stations in Latin script. Only in the newly renovated park around Komsomolskae ozero will you find signs indicating the way to "Youth Island" and other promising places in English.
For a Western visitor, it means that you will need either a photographic memory or a good interpreter to get around in Minsk. Upon arrival, you may buy an English-language map of Minsk. But it will not help much, as the names indicated in English on your map will be hard to compare with the Cyrillic writing on the road signs and metro stations.
Even if you can speak or read some Russian, you will notice that this is the language most people speak in the streets but not the one used for road signs. They are in Belarusian, and Belarusians think it is very funny if a foreigner does not understand that if he is supposed to meet somebody at “Oktyabrskaya” station he actually has to get out when “Kastrychnickaya” is announced in the metro. Both words mean the same, but one is Russian, the other is Belarusian.
Don’t Take Your Granny or Your Baby with You
You will be able to use your Russian in those shops that still have no self-service and where you need to ask the salesperson to give you what you want. A few years ago, there were many such shops in Minsk. Today, most shops in the city centre are supermarkets but you can still find the corner shops and they are pervasive in the countryside.
So do not be frustrated when shop assistants pretend not to understand the language you are speaking (even if you are quite sure it is Russian). They are not used to hearing foreign accents. And, of course, they do not speak English or any other Western language. Some will think that you are not speaking proper Russian in order to annoy them.
No matter what you are planning to do in Minsk, make sure you do not have a wheelchair or buggy with you. Minsk is absolutely not barrier-free. It is impossible to access most shops and almost all means of public transport. Even if you can get on the metro in Uruchie you cannot leave it in any other station because there are no lifts or even ramps. This shows that disabled or the elderly do not have wheelchairs or are not moving around in Minsk. Moreover, young mothers with babies in buggies are supposed to stay at home and should not go shopping or travel by metro.
Be Sure to Check Out Minsk Metro
The Minsk metro is quite impressive. Most people are amazed to see that the country reported to be on the edge of bankruptcy has large flat screens at many of its metro stations (and has had them for several years now). Every station is designed and decorated according to a specific theme: Lenin, Proletarian Revolution, Sports, etc. Minsk metro is clean, efficient and very speedy. When riding it for the first time make sure you have a seat or a stack to hold on to, otherwise you will fall down. With time, you will learn to keep your balance and “surf” like Minskers do.
But of course it's not this efficiency that put the metro on the front pages of the world media last year, but the bomb explosion . Although the two young men allegedly responsible for the blast that caused the death of 15 people on April 11 2011 have been sentenced to death, many in Belarus still believe that behind the bombing were the Belarusian security services.
Many people had a strange feeling when going by metro for the first time after the explosion, and the bored police agents that pretended to look into your bags and backpacks in order to prevent you from bringing more bombs to the metro did not make anyone feel safer.
But normality soon returned, and going by metro is now once again a usual part of everyday life; the only thing to remind you of what happened is that they have removed the benches on the platform so that no more bombs can be hidden below them (and no more people can have a rest when waiting for their train). Only at some stations were the benches back at the end of the last year.
If you get the impression that Minsk is a city for young, healthy russophones, you are right. So far, it is impossible to be lost in translation as there are no translations into English. The Minsk Tourist Information Center still has not decided whether to put up signs in Russian or Belarusian or English. Putting them up in English would bring Minsk a step closer to being an international capital and would make it seem a lot more welcoming to foreigners.
Three Survival Tips
So, our three survival hints for this week:
First, make sure you have a Belarusian friend or colleague to show you around. Treat him or her well, otherwise you might get really lost without reading Cyrillic.
Second, if you have to go by metro, count how many stations you have to go. Do not try to understand what the voice in the train announces unless you are a fluent Belarusian speaker.
Third, if you are hungry or thirsty and you do not speak Russian or Belarusian, stick to shops like Zentralny (next to McDonald’s in the centre) or Evropeiski (next to Porsche centre in the east of the city). There you can get what you want yourself and then pay for it without having to explain anything.
The Reverse Effect of EU Sanctions
Last week Gunnar Wiegand from the European Commission announced that the EU was going to extend sanctions against Belarus. 135 more people may be added to the existing list of 208 Belarusian officials who are prohibited to visit the EU. Diplomatic sources also suggest that one or several Belarusian enterprises may be added to the ban list.
Europe wants to show that it cares about the situation in Belarus. Some even hope that Belarusians will soon revolt. But this 'tough love' approach is counterproductive. Despite the worst economic crisis in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of those who are willing to protest diminishes. Ironically, the highest number of protesters in this century was in December 2010 when Belarusians were much richer than they are today and Europe pursued the policy of engagement.
The EU Council of Ministers may make its final decision on January 23. Instead of wasting their time and efforts on introducing yet another round of symbolic sanctions, the European Union should come up with fresh ideas how to empower and integrate Belarusian society. The EU should invest into making its presence in Belarus more effective to get enough political and economic leverage to influence the situation there.
The Reverse Effect of Sanctions
The EU imposed its first set of sanctions on 31 January 2011 after fraudulent presidential election and repression of opposition rallies. Then it extended them several times over the year in hope to free political prisoners, including former presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich who were sentenced to 5-6 years of imprisonment.
In 2011 American politicians supported the isolation policy and imposed economic sanctions against important state-owned enterprises JSC Naftan, JSC Grodno Azot, JSC Grodno Khimvolokno and JSC Belshina. On 3 January 2012 US President Barack Obama signed the Act on democracy and human rights in Belarus that is intended to provide additional support for Belarusian civil society. The Act extends existing visa and financial sanctions. It also appeals to the the organizers of the World Ice Hockey Championship 2014 to move it from Belarus to another country.
Nevertheless, all these actions hardly help Belarus become democratic. Quite the contrary, the human rights situation in Belarus has significantly deteriorated in comparison with that of the period between 2008-2010 when the EU and the USA pursued an engagement policy. For example, this week jailed Belarusian opposition activists were placed under even stricter conditions. Earlier Belarusian authorities restricted the freedom of assembly with the introduction of new legislation that requires permission for any street actions such as flash-mobs or 'silent' protests.
Many EU politicians and some people in Belarus claim that visa sanctions play a great symbolic role. In reality, however, some of those on the EU travel ban list travel to the EU without restrictions to attend events organized by intergovernmental organizations.
Look at the facts: the First Deputy Interior Minister Oleg Pekarsky traveled to Vienna to participate in the UN round table on 24 March 2011. Belarusian TV propagandist Alexey Mikhalchenko visited Lithuania to take part in the OSCE Council of Foreign Ministers summit in December 2011. Finally, Anatoly Kuleshov, Minister of Internal Affairs, made an official visit to the INTERPOL General Secretariat in Lyon earlier this month. Kuleshov is personally responsible for repression of the post-election opposition demonstration.
Economic sanctions are a key for change?
Some isolation policy advocates argue that the only way to change the situation in Belarus is to impose harsh economic sanctions to force the collapse of the Belarusian economy. For years the most radical representatives of the Belarusian opposition hoped for the revolution on economic grounds.
Last year, the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred in Belarus, but no revolution took place. The average salary in Belarus is now the lowest in the region. However, Narodny Skhod and other opposition rallies that had been specifically arranged to protest against deterioration of the economic situation gathered less than a thousand people. The numbers were much higher after the presidential elections in December 2010, when there were no sanctions, and people were earning much more and had fewer reasons to be unhappy than today.
Take the Moscow protests as another example. More than 100 000 people participated in December 2011 in the demonstration against the United Russia Party in Moscow, the richest city in the post-Soviet space. This happened because young Russians can easily travel to Europe, actively use the internet and many have a Western education.
Belarusians now have much more practical problems to resolve than changing the regime. There is no time to think about democracy when there is nothing to eat at home.
Sanctions Almost Never Work
Sanctions look like a good and morally correct response to what is happening in Belarus, but international experience shows that unfortunately they fail to bring the expected results. The Cuban regime has not changed, Iran and North Korea have not stopped in their development of their nuclear programs. The Soviet Union has been dismissed by Soviet leaders themselves, not due to the magical effect of the 1974 US Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are not very democratic countries today, but it did not impede Kazakhstan from heading the OSCE in 2010 and Azerbaijan to become a Council of Europe member.
What is more important, European and American sanctions just create favourable conditions for Russia to buy or privatize Belarusian enterprises and other assets for a lower price. Belarusian companies become less attractive to Western investors when they are included in the ban list. In such situation Belarusian authorities are forced to rely on Russian support for their survival. Consequently, it motivates Belarus to participate in the Eurasian Union project with Russia and Kazakhstan.
Isolation or engagement?
A new engagement policy intended to foster Belarus-EU ties on all levels could be a better alternative. The EU needs to develop contacts with Belarusian civil servants and businessmen that have a great influence over the situation in the country. At the same time, the EU should increase its support for civil society, reduce visa fees and make a large-scale expansion of employment, internship and education opportunities for Belarusians. Increased engagement would help more to release political prisoners than yet another round of good old sanctions.