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Why Belarusians Emigrate

On 12 July, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich proposed the introduction of a tax on non-working Belarusians.

Although official statistics show that the unemployment rate stands at 0.5 per cent, the prime minister acknowledged that 445,000 Belarusians do not work - about...


On 12 July, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich proposed the introduction of a tax on non-working Belarusians.

Although official statistics show that the unemployment rate stands at 0.5 per cent, the prime minister acknowledged that 445,000 Belarusians do not work – about 9 per cent of the working-age population. The authorities avoid talking about it officially, but everyone in Belarus is aware that most of these people work abroad.

The majority of migrants from Belarus find jobs in Russia. Although most Belarusian workers perform low skilled work in Russia, the brain drain is becoming a threat to the country. People who are well-paid by Belarusian standards and have higher education and pro-European attitudes increasingly want to leave Belarus.

According to a recent study of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), 35.6 per cent of Belarusians think of emigrating. If all these people went away, the population of Belarus would be reduced from 9.5m to 6.1m, Belarus would lose its youth, business and public elites. 

Who Leaves Belarus?

The Belarusian authorities decided to deal with people informally employed abroad, as the state receives no taxes from them. At the same time, families of Belarusian migrant workers employed abroad enjoy some cheap social services in the Belarusian system. For example, the monthly payment for kindergarten is just $10, and a litre of A-95 petrol is $0.88. However, the Belarusian authorities prefer not to emphasise the fact that migrant workers sent home about $913mln last year. 

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced bigger figures than the Prime Minister Myasnikovich. IOM’s data shows that up to 1.2 million Belarusian citizens work abroad. Belarus keeps no official statistics or independent studies on how many Belarusians leave Belarus, where they go and whom they are working for.

However, many Belarusians privately know a few people who have gone to Russia and earn their bread through heavy physical labor. The Belarusian media often convey the deaths of Belarusian workers in Russia. In general, Belarus has the awkward prospect of becoming a “second Moldova” – a country that supplies a cheap labor force.

The research conducted by BISS shows that the typical Belarusian migrant-worker is a divorced man aged between 30 and 44. He has secondary or vocational education and lives in Minsk or in small towns in Mahiliou and Viciebsk regions.

Who Wants to Leave Belarus?

In addition to people in low-skilled jobs, young people leave Belarus en masse. According to BISS, only 13.7 per cent of young people want to stay in Belarus, either to study or to work, or for a permanent residence in another state.

The youth sees no economic prospects in today’s Belarus and no chances for political change. Although going to Russia is the easiest route, the West also became a considerable destination point. If you look at the Belarusian-Polish border crossing Brest-Terespol, a significant proportion of the travellers are young people going to study in Poland. According to the Polish educational foundation Perspectives, 2,397 Belarusians are studying in Poland. It is difficult to find concrete figures on how many Belarusians were studying in Poland five or ten years ago, but the figure was definitely lower.

The study mentioned above also demonstrates another dangerous trend. People with economic education and higher education in general, as well as Internet users, have expressed a strong desire to leave Belarus. 42.2 per cent of people with higher education want to leave Belarus. 

In fact, a significant number of mid-level managers want to leave Belarus. Those in the same positions in Moscow, for example, can earn much more. Although emigration for these people remains a heavy damping off, many of them wish to go through the changes to leave Belarus.

Average Wages in Moscow and Minsk (USD)
   Engineer Manager Driver
Minsk 790
675 900
Moscow 1575 1425

Data: yandex.ru

According to the BISS study, many businessmen also want to leave Belarus. Some of them recognise that Belarus remains a more corrupt country than even Russia. While in Russia, thanks to privatisation, corruption in business has decreased, in Belarus bureaucrats still manage large state-owned enterprises and prevent the development of Belarusian business. 

Although the authorities of Belarus have carried out administrative reforms, government employees still earn little. In such circumstances, state officials find themselves emigrating or working in Belarus for Russian businesses. Last year former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Siarhei Martynau was appointed a special representative of the Russian oil company Russneft in Belarus.

Many other officials leave for Russia. For example, two former foreign ministers (Ivan Antanovich and Ural Latypov) emigrated to Russia, and two former heads of the KGB (Leanid Yerin and Siarhei Matskievich) were among many other former ministers and senior officials to leave for Moscow. 

Turn Off the Lights at the Train Station

When a financial crisis exploded in Belarus back in 2011, many Belarusians joked that the last one to leave Belarus should turn off the lights at the train station.

Two years after the crisis, the flow of migration has decreased, but a lot of people still retain the mood of the émigré. According to BISS, every third person wants to emigrate. Moreover, 15 percent want to leave for permanent residence. The idea of “shovimg off” remains especially popular among young people, who have no particular social contracts with the state or deep attachments in society.

Belarusian business owners are still willing to leave, but they cannot. The Belarusian market remains familiar to them, and the competition there is not so high. For them, it is easier to stay in Belarus with Lukashenka and the bureaucrats rather than move to another country and build their business from scratch. 

However, Belarusian business managers, who do not own businesses, are ready to leave. For them, emigration remains a new challenge that has the potential to bring them salaries several times higher than in Belarus. The average salary in Moscow is about $1,500, while in Minsk it remains two times lower.

However, the Belarusian youth is growing like grass through asphalt. For example, a 22-year-old woman recently became the director Partisan football club, and another 20-year-old woman opened the third hostel in Minsk for the year. The only hope for Belarus is that not all young people leave.

The authorities should get the point that Belarus need economic reforms and to attract foreign investors. Without new innovative enterprises and new jobs, Belarusians themselves may become the main export of the country. 

Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia is the founder of the Centre for New Ideas and an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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