Top 10 Stories on Belarus Digest in 2012
Topics ranging from Belarus travel topics for foreigners to economic sanctions and the Orthodox Church in Belarus drew the attention of Belarus Digest readers in 2012. Here are our top 10 most popular stories.
"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.
Although prices in Belarus are as high as in any European country, salaries are very low. The average monthly income is around $200, but people still manage to buy food, flats and smart phones. How is it possible to make ends meet with such a low income? According to the State Statistics Committee Belstat, between January and October 2011 the average monthly salary in Belarus was roughly $208.
After the second devaluation it fell as low as $135 per month at some point. $200 is not a lot and it means that the economic situation of many families drastically deteriorated in 2011. Just before the presidential elections, the average monthly salary was over $530, according to Belsat. But Belarusians still manage to survive.
On 23 January Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronis Ažubalis stated that the EU should be more open towards ordinary Belarusians and increase pressure on the Belarusian regime. A year ago EU Commissioner Štefan Füle announced a “balanced approach” to overcome the harsh consequences of the 2010 post-election opposition crackdown in Belarus. However, in practice the EU imposes additional sanctions against Belarusian officials, but fails to offer new positive incentives to bring Belarusians significantly closer to the rest of Europe.
Alexander Rumak from the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection declared that the Belarusian labour market would not deteriorate this year. According to official figures, the unemployment rate in Belarus is merely 0.6 per cent of the economically active population. The reality, however, is different from the rosy picture the government is trying to paint. Thousands of young Belarusians migrate to Russia to escape unemployment and low wages. While Russia awaits Belarusian migrants who benefit its economy with open hands, the European Union keeps its doors shut, maintaining the highest visa fees in the region for Belarusian citizens.
Last week, leading independent 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… If you have travelled 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.
At the beginning of the new year, Belarus made headlines in the Western press once again. Reporting on the new internet law showed that Belarus is a white stain on the European map for most people. This week the Toronto Star published an article called "Belarus: The North Korea of Europe". It’s those often misleading descriptions that most Westerners have in mind when going to Belarus for the first time … Based on Western media reports, it is impossible to imagine what Belarus is actually like and how people live here.
Last Friday the Library of Congress website published an article called 'Belarus: Browsing Foreign Websites a Misdemeanor'. The story authored by Peter Roudik raised a huge wave of attention first in the blogosphere and then in the mainstream media. The titles were truly sensational. 'Belarus Breaks the Internet, Raises the Digital Iron Curtain' wrote Forbes yesterday. 'Belarus Makes it a Crime to Visit Foreign Websites' was another title. Even the BBC repeated the story.
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.
Belarus is turning away from the Orthodox Church. That is what statistics presented last week by Lieanid Huliaka, the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities suggests. Belarusian protestants are the most active churchgoers, while Orthodox Christians are the least active. Only state support allows the Orthodox Church to keep up the appearance that it dominates religious life in Belarus. According to the official statistics 59 percent of Belarusian citizens are Orthodox Christians, while just 12 percent are considered Catholics.
But while only 18 percent of Orthodox believers attend mass regularly – every second Catholic does. Indeed, during Christmas 2011, only 254,000 Orthodox Christians attended mass, just 14,000 more than the total number of Catholics who attended. And despite state repression and restrictions, the Protestant communities remain vigorous and numerous in Belarus.
As Russia is finalizing the terms of its accession to the World Trade Organization, Belarus struggles to understand what this accession will mean to it. The question is difficult and important because Belarus closely cooperates with Russia as member of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Area.
On 16 December, 2011 the WTO trade ministers accepted Russia’s bid to join the WTO. Even under the most optimistic forecast Belarus will only follow its larger neighbor in 2-3 years. The idea of accession of the Customs Union to the World Trade Organization as a single entity had been popular for a while but has now sunk into oblivion.
Two Christmases in One Country
Belarus is a unique country when it comes to Christmas: it has one Christmas at the end of December and the other one in early January. Both are official days off.
The Belarusian state officially recognises two confessions – the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches – as the most legitimate and important. Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on 7 January by the Julian calendar, whereas Catholics celebrate Christmas on 25 December by the Gregorian calendar.
Through centuries of coexistence of many confessions, Belarusians have developed a distinct tolerance towards various religions. However, today these two main confessions have different positions and political backgrounds in relations with the Belarusian authorities. They also pursue different policies towards the use of the Belarusian language in church.
The Land of Many Religions
Orthodoxy was the first Christian confession that came to the territory of contemporary Belarus in the 10th century. The Catholic Church appeared here in the 14th century, when Belarus' territories constituted the core of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Grand Duchy presented a very interesting country religion-wise. Here, various Christian churches coexisted with each other and with Islam and Judaism, as well as with elements of paganism.
Throughout the country's history, no major conflict has happened between the two biggest churches of Belarus, despite the dominance of one or the other during various historical periods. One or another church's prevalence depended on the domination of either Russia or Poland in local affairs.
In towns and villages, Catholic and Orthodox churches often stood side by side. A family could celebrate Catholic Christmas on 25 December, and two weeks later join the celebration at their Orthodox friends or neighbours. In independent Belarus, the authorities decided to preserve this good tradition of religious coexistence and set both dates as official holidays.
According to official figures, around 60 per cent of Belarusians today claim to be believers. However, Orthodox Christians appear less religious than Catholics or Protestants. 18 per cent of Orthodox Christians report to be attending church regularly, while 50 per cent of Catholics do so. Most Catholics reside in the western part of Belarus, especially on the borders with Lithuania and Poland. They have a particular identity, more west-oriented, and often call themselves “Poles”, though hardly any of them can speak Polish.
A Chance for THE National Church
In Belarus, a national church like Catholicism in Poland or Orthodox Christianity in Russia never appeared. It has always been a land of many confessions. Perhaps this fact created unfavourable conditions for the development of national consciousness, as the church could not form solid ground for unification of the nation. Because of many periods of change in the country's religious situation, Belarusians remain generally unreligious people. However, Belarus had a chance to form a national religion, which was the Greek Catholic Church.
In the 16th century, the Orthodox hierarchy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania created the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church, which combined elements of both Churches. The church kept the Orthodox rites but was a part of the Catholic Church.
Subsequently, the Uniate Church started to dominate and had the potential to become a real national church at the time when modern nations were being formed. However, external factors impacted that process negatively, and Belarusian territory was annexed to Russia during the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century.
The Russians pursued a policy of transition from the Uniate to Orthodox Church, and soon the Russian Orthodox Church merged with the Uniate Church. In independent Belarus, enthusiasts attempted to restore the Greek-Catholic church, but the number of parishes remains insignificant today.
Politics of Religion in Belarus
When Belarus gained independence, the churches had to rethink the new conditions and form strategies in their relations with the state. While the Catholic Church took a more pro-independence position, the Belarusian Orthodox Church remains closely tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, which serves as a close friend of the Russian state. Unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians do not have an autocephaly and have to report to Moscow.
After Alexander Lukashenka came to power, the Catholic Church strived to remain as apolitical as possible. It chose not to interfere in politics rather than confront the regime and thus hinder its development.
The Orthodox Church appeared more politically active and supported the newly elected pro-Russian leader. Soon, it established very close relations with him. In exchange for loyalty, the Orthodox Church received various benefits, including a notorious licence to trade alcohol and tobacco.
Lukashenka himself has always tried to use religious organisations in his political games. Being persona non grata among the secular powers of Europe, he decided to make friends with the Holy See and thus raise his image in the West. In 2009, he surprised the world by visiting the Pope together with his younger son Mikalai.
Inspired by this diplomatic success, the authorities started to make further plans. Soon, unofficial information appeared stating that Lukashenka was trying to arrange a meeting between the Pope and the Moscow Patriarch. Such a meeting would definitely raise the wretched profile of the Belarusian leader, but unfortunately for him, this meeting is yet to happen.
Still, relations with the Holy See remain on the agenda of the Belarusian authorities. For example, Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti, who visited Belarus in autumn 2012, was the only person whom authorities allowed to meet political prisoners. The regime tries to maintain good relations with Rome simply because it does not put forward any political terms or conditions.
Church and Language Policy
During the independence period, the Catholic Church pursued a firm policy of Belarusianisation. All church services, including worship and books, were translated into Belarusian. Today, the Belarusian language is gradually replacing Polish across Belarus. It already dominates in all parts of Belarus except the Hrodna region, where the number of Poles is significant. Heads of the Catholic Church always address the public in Belarusian during major holidays, which are broadcast on TV and radio.
Heads of the Catholic Church always address the public in Belarusian during major holidays, which are broadcast on TV and radio.
In the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the situation developed differently. Structurally, the Belarusian Orthodox Church constitutes a part of the Russian Orthodox Church. Close ties with Moscow prevented the Belarusian Church from separating and creating an independent Orthodox Church, as did the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate.
Clearly, in such conditions the Orthodox Church has no desire to formulate any special policies concerning the Belarusian language. In Orthodox churches, Old Slavonic remains the most widespread language. The head of the Belarusian Orthodox church never uses Belarusian in his speeches. Although some priests are enthusiastic about the wider introduction of Belarusian into church services, the leadership remains silent on that issue – Russia is too close.