Opinion: stereotypes about Belarus: true or false?
Stereotypes involve an element of reflection from members of society about themselves and adjacent groups.
Often, stereotypes stem from a historical legacy, perceived cultural, religious or ethnic differences, or a lack of ability to perceive “the Other” in a new light . Stereotypical views about specific countries are no exception to this rule.
Recently, during a youth exchange seminar in Brussels (Brussels Laboratory, a seminar on social inclusion and anti-discrimination strategies), students were asked to share some stereotypes about their countries.
A participant from Belarus shared what her colleagues had been posting on her Facebook page in the form of little stickers. Although positive stereotypes, such as “beautiful women” may be appealing to Belarusians, a discussion of negative stereotypes might be much more interesting and useful.
“People drink a lot”
This stereotype remains widespread not only in relation to Belarusians, but about Slavic peoples in general. Films about James Bond or Hollywood action thrillers about the Russian Mafia perpetuate such images.
Moreover, the “unusual” public behaviour of such figures as former Russian president Boris Yeltsin or his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski often reinforce these stereotypes.
Although Alexander Lukashenka does not have such a reputation for bibulousness, it is nevertheless true that stereotypes surrounding alcohol consumption exist, especially in the eyes of Belarus’s western neighbours.
Nevertheless, in 2014 a report from the World Health Organisation came as an unpleasant surprise to the Belarusian public.
According to new data, the average Belarusian over the age of 15 consumes 17.5 litres of pure alcohol per year. Men drink more – about 27.5 litres a year, and women drink less – 9.1 litres. In terms of preference, 17.3% of alcohol consumers prefer beer, 5.2% prefer wine, 46.6 % prefer strong spirits, and 30.9% drink something else.
This data from 2016 shows that Belarus has become the second largest consumer of alcohol per capital after Estonia.
Given the low price of alcohol (compared to neighbouring countries) and its important role in every-day cultural and social life, it remains highly unlikely that the amount of alcohol consumed by the average Belarusian will decrease in the near future.
Due to the deterioration of the economic situation in Belarus in 2016 and the subsequent rise in unemployment, one can expect people to increasingly turn to alcohol in order to “drink away” their problems.
Stereotypes relating to the education and income level of Belarusians stem from a wide-spread negative perception of Eastern and Central European countries experiencing economic transition. But is the population of Belarus indeed as poor and uneducated as all that?
The CIA Factbook states that Belarus experienced GDP growth in both 2013 (1%) and 2014 (1.6%) despite the economic crisis of 2011. The year 2015 witnessed certain economic difficulties, with a negative growth of -3.9% of GDP. The "Still Doing Business" rating considers Belarus to have an upper middle income, ranking 44 out of 189 countries in ease of doing business.
Furthermore, Belarus has enjoyed stable GDP per capita growth since the 1990s. Nevertheless, the country has remained behind its neighbours, with the exception of Ukraine in 2015.
The Human Development Index, which measures important indicators such as gender development, life expectancy at birth, and expected years of schooling, places Belarus 50th out of 188 countries, with an index of 0.798. Currently, the expected amount of schooling in Belarus is 15.7 years, meaning that most Belarusians continue studying after high school. Primary and middle school education together takes 11 years (9 of which are compulsory).
According to World Bank data, Belarus has experienced a steady increase of people of both sexes enrolled in tertiary education; in 2014 it became the leader in this area among its neighbours. Moreover, Belarus has 58 universities and institutions providing higher education. This relatively high figure for a country with population of 9.5 million can be traced back to Soviet times, when specialists from all over the Soviet Union came to study in Belarus.
You can find a special collection of Belarus-related stereotypes on Belarus Digest.
Veranika is a Research Fellow at EAST Centre and a PhD Candidate at the Graduate School for Social Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Grand media barometer, foreign investment forum, civil society trends in 2016 – digest of Belarusian analytics
BISS releases Grand Political Media Barometer and a fresh Foreign Policy Index. Belarusian economy continues to show a fragile stability, according to Belarus Security Blog. National Agency of Investment and Privatisation sums up the results of Belarus forum “Broadening the Horizons: Investment, Finance, Development”.
Viasna presents fresh monthly monitoring of the human rights situation in Belarus. Experts formulate eight key trends in Belarusian civil society in 2016. BAJ monitoring group presents final conclusions on the coverage of the Parliamentary election in the Belarusian media.
Joerg Forbrig: parliamentary elections were invisible, but not trivial. Artiom Shraibman analyses why Lukashenka allowed opposition to Parliament.
This and more in the new digest of Belarusian analytics.
Grand political media barometer: report on communication of Belarus’ independent political forces (2012-2016) – BISS presents a report for 49-month monitoring (starting April 2012) on the media-appearances of the Belarusian opposition political forces. According to the Barometer, there is a clear explosion of politics during the electoral campaigns and the presidential elections were characterised by the unprecedented growth of communication.
Recommendations on the creation of foreign retraining programme for civil servants. Organisation of foreign educational programmes would improve civil service and competitiveness of Belarusian economy Read more
Authority pulls opposition in delicate game – Journalist Paŭliuk Bykoŭski believes that two oppositionists in the new parliament are an indirect signal of the situation in the ruling regime. He suggests that there are "doves" within the system that stand for cooperation with the West, with the expansion of freedom without any change in political realities. However, it is impossible to predict how long the "doves" are in favour.
Belarus Foreign Policy Index № 33 (July–August 2016) – BISS presents its regular issue of Belarus Foreign Policy Index, which explores Belarus’s foreign policy. In particular, in July and August, Belarus-Russia relations were developed in difficult conditions due to the emergency on NPP construction in Astraviec and difficult negotiations on gas and oil. The main topic in relations with the EU was parliamentary election campaign.
Belarus forum “Broadening the Horizons: Investment, Finance, Development” results – One of the recent Belarusian forum's organisers, the National Agency of Investment and Privatisation sums up the forum results. The forum is called as one of the most important events in the economic life of the country that allowed discussing strategies to attract foreign investments in Belarus. BISS independent think tank was among the organisers.
Moscow would not oppose. Will Minsk sign a new programme with the IMF? – Belarusian authorities started another round of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. One of the questions is how Russia would react to Belarus' cooperation with the IMF. According to BelaPAN, Russia's official position is that the Belarusian authorities should carry out the IMF recommendations.
Monitoring of the situation in the field of economic security of Belarus (August 2016) – In its monthly monitoring Belarus Security Blog notes that the Belarusian economy continues to show a fragile stability. The most serious risk to financial stability is the deterioration of the external sector. At the same time, a successful resolution of oil and gas conflict with Russia can be a significant factor in improving the foreign trade balance.
Human rights situation in Belarus: September 2016 – According to Viasna's monthly monitoring, September was not marked by any significant changes of a systemic nature that could contribute to qualitative changes in the human rights situation. The key negative trend were new cases of arbitrary detention of political activists that had not been applied by the Belarusian authorities since August 2015.
Foreign investment: only loans so far. Foreign loans remain the main source of investment and are used to refinance current debt and thus only increase the total volume of debt rather than lead to reform and increase of economic efficiency Read more
Civil society organisations in Belarus: eight trends of 2016 – During a discussion organised by ACT NGO on 26 September, the civil society experts name the key events and developments happened to Belarusian CSOs in 2016. Namely, such trends appeared visible as a cautious warming in relations between the state and civil society, increased activity of unaffiliated grassroots, crowdfunding boom, strengthening gender mainstreaming, etc.
What happens to Minsk from the point of Urban Studies? – Urbanist Dzmitry Bibikaŭ discusses new areas for evening entertainment that have emerged in Minsk and a process of gentrification, which is the core of the changes of deteriorated urban neighborhoods. In particular, the expert is sure that Minsk has a huge capacity in gentrification, and the future is for industrial zones.
Recommendations on the creation of foreign retraining programme for civil servants. Improving the competitiveness of Belarusian economy is impossible without creation of professional civil service. Civil servants in national and local bodies should have the ability to generate and implement non-standard management tasks, have a comprehensive view of the modern public administration in the world, global economy and international cooperation organisations. An essential component of this new approach can be a more active use of foreign educational programmes. This paper provides recommendations on the organisation of such a programme in Belarus.
Foreign investment: only loans so far. Trends in 2015 did were similar to previous years. Low demand for state-owned assets, as well as lack of flexibility and interest in speeding up the privatisation process remains the main factor of zero dynamics of sales of state assets. Foreign loans are the main source of investment and are used to refinance current debt and thus only increase the total volume of debt rather than lead to reform and increase of economic efficiency.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.