Minsk Region – the Heart of Belarus
The Belarusian statistics agency has recently published the average salaries by region in June. Minsk city appeared as the leader with an average salary of $750. In second place was the Minsk region with an average of $580, and in Salihorsk it even reached as high as $840, higher than in the capital’s average.
Salihorsk is a city located south of Minsk, where the whole economy is built around a highly profitable potassium trade. The Minsk region is home to many industrial areas. The region, of course, has close relations with its centre, Minsk city, which absorbs both human and financial resources from its periphery. This kind of centralisation of the economy can indeed have negative consequences for the region.
The Minsk region remains divided in terms of its political orientation and attitude towards the Belarusian language. The western part shows more support for the democratic opposition and uses the Belarusian language. The east appears more pro-regime and less Belarusian-speaking. Generally speaking, no political activity exists here beyond the state.
Typically for Belarus, the Minsk region was a home for its world renowned Jewish emigrants. Some of America’s brightest media figures, such as Larry King, Louis Mayer and David Sarnoff have their roots here.
Not Only the Capital
The life of the Minsk region is determined to a great extent by its centre, Minsk city, which has more population than any of the other regions in Belarus (over 1.8 million people). As is true with many big cities in the world, Minsk draws commuters from nearby towns who can earn two or three times more there. However, this movement is not as massive as, for instance, in Moscow, and typically no major traffic jams occur here.
The Minsk region, however, is more than a periphery of the capital. The region has a few other big cities in which a considerable amount of the country’s economic resources are concentrated. Among them are Maladečna, Barysaŭ, Salihorsk and Žodzina, all of them big centres of industry.
The young Belarusian city of Salihorsk emerged with the establishment of its potassium extracting enterprise, Belaruskali. It alone is responsible around 10% of Belarusian export annually and presents perhaps the most profitable state company. Now that the Uralkali has halted its cooperation with Belarusian Potassium Company, the market prices are expected to go down and Belarusian export risk facing significant losses as a result. Such developments will necessitate a search of the other sources of income which Lukashenka is apparently trying to find in China.
Žodzina city is known for another Belarusian industrial brand, BelAZ, the largest manufacturer of haulage and earthmoving equipment. Its dump lorry, also called Belaz, has become a symbol of Belarusian industry.
Barysaŭ city, although also an industrial centre, is more famous for its BATE football team. BATE has proven to be the strongest team in Belarus for some time now and was the only team in Belarusian history to qualify for the group stage of the UEFA Champions league and UEFA Europa League.
Former Resistance and Current Silence
Today schoolchildren can hardly find mention of it in their history textbooks, but in 1920 a massive resistance against communist rule occurred in the Minsk region near Sluck, a town in the region, and received the name
“the Sluck Rebellion.” Two armed regiments declared support for the unrecognised Belarusian Popular Republic and resisted red army assaults for nearly a month, though eventually they eventually succumbed to the Bolsheviks.
The Minsk region historically appears as a region divided: the western part once belonged to the Polish Republic and the east to the BSSR. The Western part, and especially the northwest which borders the Vilnius region, showed the highest level of support for the democratic opposition during the presidential elections.
This mapping is also true for the persistance of the Belarusian language, as many western parts of Minsk region speak Belarusian, more so than in its eastern parts. Generally, the region has the largest overall population that speaks Belarusian at home.
Today, political activity not affiliated with the state has almost disappeared in the region. No independent local newspapers exist and once glorious regional organisations like Salihorsk Malady Front have stopped all their activity. The most recent protests in the region were related to the government’s plans to build a Chinese industrial park in the Smaliavičy district not far from Minsk, but hardly anything can prevent the regime’s idee fixe.
The governor of the region, Barys Batura, for his part, appears to be someone that the president can count on. As with all of Belarus’ governors, he constantly has to travel around the region and ensure that every fence on the road is fixed and every field harvested. Batura descends from the Hrodna region and served in the state bureaucracy since the Soviet era. He worked in the housing and communal services ministry, and then was appointed the governor of Mahilioŭ region in 2000 and governor of Minsk region in 2010. Like many officials in Belarus, he has not produced any extraordinary activity and quietly executes orders from above.
The Home of the US Media Tycoons
As Belarus in general, the Minsk region served a homeland to many Jewish emigrants who later gained world prominence and recognition.
Among them is Larry King (born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger), a famous american television and radio host. He is the son of Edward Zeiger, an immigrant from Austria, and Jenny Gitlitz, an immigrant from Belarus. King became perhaps the world’s most well-known face on TV, but few Belarusians realise his ancestors lived somewhere around Minsk.
Louis Burt Mayer, an american film producer known for successful running of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer company, was born in Minsk in 1884 as Lazar Meir. His family moved to Rhode Island in 1887. Subsequently Mayer made a career in the entertainment business and headed one of the most famous film companies in American history.
David Sarnoff, born in 1891 in Uzliany village in Minsk region, was an American businessman and a founder of both radio and television broadcasting. His family moved to New York City in 1900, where he made a career in telecommunications, leading the Radio Corporation of America and National Broadcasting Company (NBC), two american telecommunication empires.
Moving from the US to Europe, we find other famous descendants of Minsk region. Chaim Soutine, was born in Smilavičy settlement in 1893. After studying art in Russian Empire, he emigrated to France and significantly contributed to the French expressionism movement.
Interestingly, in 2012 a Belarusian bank Belgazprambank, owned by Russian gas empire Gazprom, bought one of his paintings at a Christie’s auction for $400,000 together with a Marc Chagall piece. The bank is sponsor the return of works of artists of Belarusian origin, since none of their works have remained in Belarus.
For the time being, the Minsk region will have to go on without, much as it has, these fine people. In their place, remain the many challenges and issues to be overcome. The region draws more investment due to its central location and therefore is likely to remain the core of the Belarusian economy. However, its central location puts it at risk of being overshadowed by the capital, Minsk city, which absorbs most of its human resources and drains the potential for local development. The over-centralisation of Belarus presents a serious challenge for the Belarusian government.
World Congress of Belarusians Discuss Challenges to Belarusian Identity
On 23-24 July Belarusian emigrants from 21 countries participated in the two-day Congress of Belarusians of the World in Minsk.
It was a rare occasion where top state and churches officials as well as opposition politicians attended the same event. Organisers of the Congress managed not only to gather people with different worldviews and political affiliations, but also representatives of the old and new wave of emigration.
Assimilation, the popularity of the Card of the Pole, and easier access to Russian citizenship remain the most serious challenges for Belarusians no matter where they live. The congress presented an opportunity to present initiatives – from mobile phone applications to serious academic journals. More importantly, it was an opportunity to see what problems Belarusians are facing abroad.
Belarusians of the World
Although today over 3.5 million Belarusians live outside Belarus, this year event attracted significantly less Belarusians than 20 years ago. The First Congress of Belarusians of the World took place in 1993 and has been held every four years since then. Around a thousand Belarusian emigrants came to the then nearly independent Belarus.
This time over 300 representatives of the communities stretching from North America to Russia’s Siberia took part in the Congress. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the organisers of the first congress. This year Barys Sviatlou from the Ministry of Culture represented the state authorities.
Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan host the largest Belarusian communities outside of Belarus. A historical Belarusian minority lives also in Podlasie, a region on the Poland-Belarus borderland. The participants of the Congress noticed, however, a drop in the number of people self-identifying as Belarusians. Concrete figures suggest that this is happening in Poland and also in Russia.
Challenges to Belarusian Identity
In the words of Alena Makouskaya, one of the organisers of the 6th Congress, the assimilation of Belarusians abroad poses a threat to both Belarusian society and its diaspora. The relatively small number of young Belarusians that participated in the Congress may be a sign of the ongoing assimilation of Belarusian youth abroad.
Another challenge, according to Makouskaya, is the Card of the Pole (“Karta Paliaka”). This document allows people from Belarus (and other post-Soviet republics) who claim Polish roots to apply for additional rights in Poland. The Card of the Pole simplifies travel, education and work in a neighbouring Poland. Provisions still attract many Belarusians to apply, however, many have spoken out about the harmful effect for Belarusian society in the long-term that this Polish policy can cause. Since its introduction in 2007, around 42 thousand Belarusians have received the Card, as data from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows.
Work migration remains another challenge for today’s Belarus. Due to the economic situation, more and more Belarusians have decided to leave the country and search for better job opportunities abroad. Since it has no visa requirements, Moscow attracts lots of Belarusians. The Russian parliament is considering the simplification of obtaining Russian citizenship for its compatriots abroad. In terms of demography, it may also be a blow to Belarusian society.
It seems that the problems of Belarusians in Belarus and abroad remain more or less the same. The diaspora sees no assistance from the state when it comes to financing community centres or supporting cultural events or the promotion of the Belarusian language, whose usage is shrinking even within the country.
Until now the state authorities have failed to adopt a law regulating relations with the Belarusian diaspora. Such a law exists already in the neighbouring Poland and Russia. The World Association of Belarusians “Baćkauščyna” over the last decade has been encouraging the authorities to draft such a law.
The Minister of Culture, Barys Sviatlou, confirmed at the Congress that the authorities together with diaspora representatives have already prepared a law and should introduce it soon. In his words, a new project would help the state to develop the positive relations with Belarusian living abroad and programmes supporting their cultural activities. But in practice, not much is being done.
Nearly all major organisations of Belarusians in Western Europe and North America are critical of the political regime of Alexander Lukashenka Read more
The authorities refrain from giving additional rights to Belarusians living abroad because they feel that the Belarusian diaspora from the West could engage in activities which they would consider unfavourable. Indeed, nearly all major organisations of Belarusians in Western Europe and North America are critical of the political regime of Alexander Lukashenka, his treatment of political prisoners and Belarusian culture.They are proud of the white-red-white flag and trace the Belarusian statehood back to the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Belarusian People’s Republic rather than from Soviet time.
Some Russia-based organisations, however, support the current Belarusian regime. One Moscow-based Belarusian finished his speech by banishing a Soviet flag saying that most people at the Congress were also citizens of the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
The delegates of the Congress called on Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners in a collective statement entitled “On an Act of Good Will” adopted at the Congress. A group of delegates, mainly from Ukraine and Russia argued that it was an internal affair Belarus. The issue caused a heated debate, but only eight people supported the removal of the statement from the Congress’ agenda.
Promoting Belarusian Culture
Language has traditionally been the core identity ingredient of the Belarusian diaspora. However, the number of Belarusian-speaking people in Belarus has been decreasing annually by 10-15 per cent over the past years. This means that fewer and fewer emigres speak Belarusian. Most of the speeches at the Congress were in Belarusian and many spoke up in favor of the need to protect and promote Belarusian culture and language.
The event gave a chance to present projects and initiatives that help to lessen the level of alienation among Belarusians abroad but also in Belarus from Belarusian culture. One of them, a mobile phone application “Belarus Land” promotes the most interesting places to visit in Belarus. Another application “ABC Belarus: Native Alphabet” (in Belarusian “Bukvar: Belaruskaja Azbuka”) helps children to learn Belarusian alphabet in an amusing way.
A representative from Bialystok, Poland presented an online project, kamunikat.org, which offers access to Belarusian literature and press in electronic versions free of charge. Belarusians from the United Kingdom presented The Journal of Belarusian Studies, an academic journal revived after a 25-year break in London. Even Belarusian official television reported on the Journal and the congress during prime time.
The congress presented a unique meeting point – the speakers included high level officials and opposition politicians, pro-government delegates and those who do not recognise the Belarusian authorities as legitimate. They all agreed that diaspora could play an important role for Belarus. However, without significant political changes in Belarus, the Belarusian diaspora will have to continue survive on its own, without much help from the Belarusian state.