The European Myth of Belarusian Socialism
Last weekend, the Party of the European Left held a conference in Minsk. Some delegates were denied entry to Belarus although the party has frequently taken a moderate position on the European Parliament's resolutions on Belarus.
In the past, the European Left has also expressed solidarity with the Belarusian government on a national level in some European countries and in Germany. Many of them believe that the Belarusian regime shares their ideology.
Belarusian Social Democrat Anatol Sidarevic pointed out that “Lukashenka with his rhetoric has been and, may be still, considered almost a Socialist.” Belarusian journalists and activists express similar views. Some write about socialism in Belarus, and others call Lukashenka “a spontaneous socialist” or even a social democrat. But in fact the Soviet-looking facade of the Belarusian regime is deceptive.
Absolute Control is the Ultimate Goal
It is extremely hard to identify an ideological affiliation of the Belarusian ruler. He is known for contradictory statements such as "market socialism" and these do not help to understand much about the ideological underpinnings of the regime. Yet hard facts speak for themselves.
Belarus has the least employee-friendly employment system in Europe, which strips workers of any protection in their relations with employers. A 1999 presidential decree effectively made much of the Labour Code a dead letter and launched a massive compulsory introduction of temporary contracts to strengthen authoritarian consolidation in the country.
Now, almost all Belarusians work on short-term contracts – often concluded over a very short term. Read more
Now, almost all Belarusians work on short-term contracts – often concluded over a very short term. This allows the employer to fire them without explanation after the contract expires. No one can be certain of job security. According to statistics published by the state-controlled trade union FPB two years ago, 35 per cent of contracts were established for 3-5 years, 31 per cent – for 1-3 years and 30 per cent – for one year. Although another presidential decree allowed the employee to get a permanent contract after five years of work, the general picture remains very sad for employees.
Some independent trade unions exist but they are marginalised Read more
The trade unions are far from being independent or influential. They exist only as dispensers of welfare as in Soviet times. Only the volume of help provided has changed. They play almost no social or labour protection role. Some independent trade unions exist but they are marginalised.
In 2003, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) launched an investigation into the complaint of Belarusian independent trade unions concerning violations of their rights by the government. A special commission confirmed these violations of workers' rights. Later, the ILO repeatedly defined Belarus as a grave violator of trade unions' rights, but to no avail. The government ignores most of the ILO's recommendations.
This year, the ILO put Belarus on the “long” and “short” list of states violating rights of trade unions. The short list includes 25 states which violate the rights in the most grave and systematic manner and Belarus has belonged to this group for almost a decade. In 2007, the European Union suspended its trade preferences for Belarus for violations of trade unions' rights – effectively introducing economic sanctions for the first time.
This transforms the country into a kind of sweatshop, common in the developing world with cheap and docile labour force, minimal regulations and full freedom of action for employers Read more
The government may dictate any labour conditions it wishes. This transforms the country into a kind of sweatshop, common in the developing world with cheap and docile labour force, minimal regulations and full freedom of action for employers. With no significant strikes or other forms of industrial action, Belarus may be a paradise for any investor shrewd enough to cut a deal with Lukashenka.
Nothing Outside the State
There are some real signs which make the Belarusian regime look socialist. The health, education and welfare systems are probably the most positive aspects of the Belarusian state. But they exist as remnants of Soviet times and are gradually being dismantled as the government gradually cuts costs.
Although education is nominally free, in fact only a minority of all students do not have to pay for their studies. And even these students will have to work for two years for very small wages to compensate for their "free education". Similarly, more and more services in hospitals are no longer free. Moreover, the very fact that some services are still free does not make a country a socialist – otherwise most EU countries would be socialist.
The Soviet conservatism has its best reflection in the share of state ownership in Belarus. The Belarusian government declared many times its plans to privatise state-owned enterprises. Yet it is still improbable, since such a step will lead to radical changes in the economic model of the regime.
The Belarusian economy equals state. News portal Naviny.by recently noticed that the share of the state sector in total industrial output in 2011 made up more than 70 per cent of Belarus' total output. State-owned enterprises and enterprises partly owned by the government employed c. 1.75 million people, i.e. 50.8 per cent of all personnel of Belarusian enterprises except for those employed by small business. The same applies to the profits. In 2011, state-owned enterprises earned almost two-thirds of the profits.
the state production conglomerates let the government hide the losses of some enterprises among profits made by others Read more
Of course, not all of them were profitable. In a recent study, World Bank experts argue that the state production conglomerates let the government hide the losses of some enterprises among profits made by others. This system demonstrates merely that the regime only avoids the reforms to maintain control, not that Lukashenka is bringing the nation to socialism.
The same lack of ideological preoccupation shapes Belarus' foreign policy. Lukashenka exploits Russian Communists to get leverage in the Kremlin, supported Polish populist Lepper to take revenge on Poland for its support of the Belarusian opposition and befriended Hugo Chavez for good money. Yet, there was not a single serious ideological project undertaken by the Belarusian government abroad. Just business.
Lukashenka's Regime: Neither Left, Nor Right, and Nor Centre
opportunism is the only suitable term to denote the current Belarusian system Read more
In fact, opportunism is the only suitable term to denote the current Belarusian system. The ideology-free elite wishes to preserve its power without embarking on high-minded idealistic abstractions. The ruling elite inherited its power from the Soviet state and did not have to struggle for it. It has always needed to simply preserve the existing order. For that reason, it is pointless to talk about any kind of Socialism or even a left-wing ideology of the Belarusian regime.
None of the regime's key figures, such as Uladzimir Makey or Mikhail Myasnikovich, display any socialist sentiments. Seriously fanatical communists or hard-core adepts of socialist ideology find themselves in unimportant positions.
For example, even the nominally high-ranked Anatol Rubinau only heads the Council of the Republic, which serves no serious function in the state other than being a social club for officials. Although the ruling elite is not homogenous, disagreements between various factions inside the ruling regime usually do not happen along ideological lines.
The Belarusian regime is a self-interested opportunistic authoritarianism which has no stable ideological preferences. Lukashenka has much more in common with Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Asian despots than with Fidel Castro or leftist Latin American rulers.
Sex Tours Save the Belarusian Tourist Industry
"We do not cultivate the idea of sex tourism in Belarus. But if [a foreign tourist] has an interest, let him look for it, meet girls and marry".
This is how the deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism Cheslau Shulha recently answered a question about the growing sex industry in Belarus on a state TV channel.
While the Belarusian authorities are talking about the prospects of sex tourism, the inflow of foreign tourists in general remains low. Belarus mostly attracts Russian citizens who come to rest at health resorts or gamble in casinos. Western tourists are still very rare. They do not want to pay for expensive visas only to find the lack of appropriate tourist infrastructure.
In 2014 Belarus will host the ice hockey World Championship. This high-profile event can boost the country’s tourist industry, as the authorities promise visa-free travel for all Westerners. But without proper deregulation of this sector of the economy the boost will not be sustainable and nothing but sex industry will remain the country's tourist brand.
Why Westerners are Rare in Belarus
Belarus boasts a favourable geographical location. It lies on the crossroads of major international roots from Germany and Poland to Russia and from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. This location makes it a potentially convenient destination for tourists from neighbouring and far-away countries.
However, the statistics show that the country receives miserable numbers of visitors. Because of the uncontrolled border with Russia it is difficult to assess the exact number of tourists that come to Belarus, but the estimate for 2011 is around 750,000. To put it in a comparative perspective, the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius — a relatively small city with the population of 540,000 — alone annually attracts more than 1.5 million tourists.
According to the director of the tourist company BelarusTurService Hennadzi Leushyn, about 80 per cent of tourists come from Russia. This is not surprising, since Belarus has an open border with its eastern neighbour and even no passport control. Moreover, the Russians, unlike Westerners, have no language problems in Belarus, where the majority of the population speak Russian as their first language.
Many Russians come to Belarus to use its growing gambling industry Read more
After the Russian authorities outlawed casinos across almost the whole country, Belarus was quick to offer its service. Many Russians come to Belarus to use its growing gambling industry.
Only 20 per cent of tourists (about 150,000) came from the rest of the world in 2011. Even fewer come from western countries. According to the Belarusian Statistics Committee, in 2011 the highest numbers of western tourists were from Turkey, Lithuania, New Zealand and Poland. Their absolute numbers were very small, varying between 2,000 and 3,000.
Abundant Talk but Little Result
Tourism is a regular issue on the government’s agenda. Several years ago Alexander Lukashenka demanded that Belarus should become a popular destination for tourists from around the world who would bring in lots of hard currency. After that his ministers began to implement various state projects to boost the attractiveness of Belarus for incoming tourists.
The authorities were hoping that Belarusian villages with their rural traditions and beautiful nature would appeal to hundreds of thousands of foreigners Read more
One of them was the development of agro-ecotourism. The authorities were hoping that Belarusian villages, with their rural traditions and beautiful nature, would appeal to hundreds of thousands of foreigners who prefer quiet rest to city sightseeing. They provided tax and other incentives for those entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in agro-ecotourism.
As a result, in 2011 1576 so-called agro-manors stood ready to accommodate agro-tourists. But the data of the Belarusian Statistics Committee show that this project is not as successful as the authorities had expected. Only 15 per cent of visitors of all the agro-manors in 2011 were from abroad. In the majority of cases (85 per cent) Belarusians themselves use them for holding weddings or other celebrations.
Despite frequent declarations, the government have failed to create even basic tourist infrastructure in Belarus. For example, there are only 34 hotels in the whole country that are certified according to international standards. Only two of them have 5 stars (hotels Europe and Crowne Plaza in Minsk) and three have 4 stars (hotels Minsk and Victoria in Minsk and hotel Luchesa in Vitebsk). At the same time there are very few low-cost hostels anywherein the country (only in Minsk and Brest).
The command of foreign languages among employees of Belarusian hotels, resorts, agro-manors and transport (railway and coach) companies remains very poor. Their websites often do not have English language sections. Furthermore, there are almost no signs in English, even in the capital – all are in Cyrillic alphabet which most Westerners cannot read.
The Visa Wall
Another Achilles heel of the Belarusian tourist industry is the “visa wall”. Visa regimes considerably complicate both incoming and outgoing tourism. Interestingly, nationals of only 19 states can enter Belarus without visas (however, there are specific regulations for each state). These states are the following:
- 10 member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (excluding Turkmenistan);
For the rest of the world Belarusian visas are quite costly. For example, a single entry short-stay visa for an American citizen costs $160. A UK national will have to pay 75 pounds for the same type of Belarusian visa. And a German national €60.
on 31 May the government further complicated the visa procedure Read more
Moreover, on 31 May the government amended the national visa rules. They further complicated the visa procedure. Previously, all foreigners could get visas upon arrival at Minsk-2 airport. It was more expensive than receiving visas at Belarusian consulates abroad, but it saved lots of time. Now that the amendments are in force only residents of the countries with no Belarusian consulates can apply for visas after they arrive at Minsk-2 airport.
If the authorities really want to turn Belarus into a popular tourist destination the latest visa amendments look utterly strange.
Sex Tourism Develops Despite Anything
Perhaps the only sort of incoming tourism from western countries that is developping in Belarus despite any difficulties is sex tourism. Bad infrastructure and visa routine do not stop sex visitors.
Officially, the Belarusian legislation prohibits prostitution Read more
Officially, Belarusian legislation prohibits prostitution. And from time to time the police crackdown on networks of the sex business. However, the industry thrives. Everyone who has money and wishes for some sexual entertainment knows where to look for it. This kind of service is available for tourists in most hotels as well as in a number of special clubs. According to some insider sources, special sex tours to Belarus are regularly organised from certain Western European states and Turkey.
Sex tourism in Belarus is, of course, not as flourishing as in Ukraine. But it is definitely becoming a sizeable business. And it is not surprising, therefore, that even officials have started talking about this business in public, like a deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism did on state television a week ago.
World Cup Stimulus
In 2014 Belarus will host the World Ice Hockey Championship. It will be the most high-profile sporting event in the country’s sovereign history. No doubt, it will give a boost to the tourist industry. To benefit from this event the government should liberalise the tourist industry and free creativity of entrepreneurs from bureaucratic bondage. Otherwise Belarus will largely remain a sex sanctuary for westerners and a gambling destination for Russians.