No Belarusian Roubles Please
If you are in Belarus and only have Belarusian roubles to pay for your ticket – be prepared to stay in the country a bit longer. AirBaltic and some other companies operating in Belarus no longer accept Belarusian roubles. Instead they insist on payments in Euros – a currency which is nearly impossible to buy legally in Belarus. Today it became even more difficult as the National Bank of Belarus recommended commercial banks only to buy, but not to sell, foreign currency.
This is because local banks have to follow the official exchange rate established by the National Bank. Over the last months this rate has been nearly 40% lower than the market rate. No wonder that very few want to exchange money in banks and most people prefer the black market. "Don't exchange money in Belarusian banks" is the first tip given to those who visit Belarus these days.
No trust in Belarusian roubles
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Belarusians mistrust their currency. When millions lost their lifetime savings because of the devaluation of the Soviet rouble in the late 1980s – it was a lesson they learnt well. Nowadays Belarusians prefer to keep their earnings in a "hard" foreign currency rather than in "soft" Belarusian roubles.
Currency exchange offices used to boom in Belarus – all major supermarkets would have at least one. Until 2011 they were always busy. Now because of the difference between the official and the market rate hardly anyone uses their services. Sometimes you can see one or two people sticking around exchange offices, desperately hoping that someone new to Belarus might sell his dollars or Euros and give them a chance to buy them. Until recently banks were recommended to sell foreign currency which was sold to them by individuals.
People try to convert their salaries into a hard currency as soon as they can. But they cannot survive with no Belarusian roubles at all because most shops accept only Belarusian money. As a result consumers have to frequently convert their savings back into Belarusian roubles. Each conversion is a dilemma – to look for someone who can purchase their Euro or dollars at a market rate or to sell their hard currency to a bank with a nearly 40% discount. The first option is inconvenient and against the law. The second one means losing nearly half of your money. For Belarusians struggling with rising prices and declining income, the choice is obvious.
Sometimes they do not need to exchange money to pay for services. Many in the private sector set their prices in US dollars to avoid devaluation. For instance, they would quote the price of 300 US dollars to refurbish your kitchen. The payment can be made in dollars and it is usually the most desired option. But unlike the AirBaltic office in Minsk, they would also accept Belarusian roubles at the market rate. In practice, the market rate means black market rate.
How the black market works
Because currency exchange operations require a special license from the National Bank, most transactions between individuals breach Belarusian law. Determining the right market rate can be tricky. Parties may bargain to get a better deal using word of mouth or the internet.
If you do not to have a friend or relative who can sell you Belarusian roubles or hard currency, you can try using the internet. Prokopovi.ch is the most popular online currency exchange market in Belarus. The site is named after the former Chairman of the National Bank of Belarus Piotr Prokopovich. Currency exchange problems began under his reign, though are attributable to the populist economic methods of Belarus promoted by Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka rather than to Prokopovich himself.
Those using the prokopovi.ch web site have two options. One is to agree the exchange rate online and go to a currency exchange office where the seller sells the agreed sum at the official rate. Then the buyer buys the sum at the official rate. Finally, the buyer directly pays the seller the difference between the official rate and the agreed market rate. Becaue of today's recommendation by the National Bank not to sell hard currency to individuals, this option may no longer work.
The other option is to avoid going to an exchange office altogether and exchange the money without intermediates. In this case, one takes the risk of facing sanctions of illegal dealing in foreign currency. Although the authorities usually turn a blind eye to such transactions, in some cases they may confiscate the whole amount of the illegal transaction and impose a hefty fine.
So if you come to Belarus with foreign currency – be prepared to take risks not to lose your money. That is what Belarusians have to do every day.
The Bitter Smack of Belarusian Language
This month an advertising campaign that may puzzle foreign observers was launched in Minsk. Advertising company “Belzneshreklama” began to advertise the Belarusian language. Their posters show various berries and Belarusian names for them. And what is more unusual – they also decided to display the Russian translation.
The title of the campaign is: “The taste of the Belarusian language”. One would think that Belarusians would know how their language tastes and need no reminders about it. However, a population census in 2009 showed that only 30% of Belarusians speak Belarusian every day. Understanding the language situation in Belarus is difficult for foreigners.
Coming to Minsk for the first time, one might think that Russian is the only language spoken in the country. Until the newcomer gets lost when he wants to get out at “Oktjabrskaja" underground station and does not understand that he should have done so when “Kastrychnickaja” was announced. Stations are announced only in Belarusian on public transportation which may create difficulties for those who speak only Russian.
While Belarus has two official languages, Russian dominates in the capital. Belarusian TV is in mainly in Russian (except for a negligible number of programmes), the same is true for print media. Belarusian, or rather a mixture of Russian or Polish and Belarusian called “Trasianka,” is spoken mainly in the countryside, depending on the geographical situation of the village.
Belarusian was the only official language in the country until the referendum in 1995. Since then, the use of the Belarusian language has become a political issue. The pro-Russian government of Lukashenka stigmatized Belarusian-speakers as radical opposition activists. This policy has changed with the cooling down between Russia and Belarus. After the gas conflict in 2007, the authorities cautiously started promoting the Belarusian language as a characteristic of Belarusian national identity.
Still, it appears that in 2011 instead of putting up some posters, a broader approach is needed to foster the use of the Belarusian language. Generations of Belarusians have grown up in a Russian-speaking environment and have been socialized in a russophone educational system. There is only half a generation of young people that have gone to school between 1991 and 1995, when Belarusian was the first language.
However, there seems to be no serious intention to create a Belarusian-speaking environment. Most of the mass media continue to broadcast in Russian – with very few exceptions. It is very difficult to find literature for children in Belarusian. As a result, those few parents who want to raise Belarusian-speaking children buy books for children in Russian and translate them into Belarusian themselves. As a consequence, most children learn Belarusian as a foreign language when they go to school.
These days only 2% of children in Minsk attend a Belarusian-speaking school. In the whole country, only 19% of pupils are taught in Belarusian. These numbers have decreased significantly since 2001 and it reveals that there is no clear tendency towards promotion of the Belarusian language.
In order to prevent Belarusian from disappearing, more than a small number of activists are needed. A language lives through its speakers. It must come naturally to the Belarusians to speak their beautiful language. The more people speak it – the more often it will be heard in the streets. And one day, people will stop turning their heads in astonishment when they hear a foreigner speak Belarusian in the streets.