Why Belarusians Refuse to Work in Agriculture
Post-Soviet mass discourse often portrays Belarus as a country of villagers. A big deal of that comes from the image of president Lukashenka himself. He has been director of a farm in Eastern Belarus before going into high politics and is famous for his obsession with agricultural issues. This, however, did not help Belarus farming to turn into a thriving industry.
On 28 November, Belarus parliamentarians hosted deputy prime minister Michail Rusy. He presented plans for agricultural development and voiced some major problems of the sector. It becomes evident that the absence of reforms turned agriculture into a very unattractive place work destination.
An Everlasting Kalhas
Belarus agricultural sector remains largely unreformed since Soviet times. Collective farms, or kalhas (kolkhoz in Russian), is the main production unit in agriculture. Kalhas operates as a state-owned enterprise which usually employs workers from nearby villages.
In the Soviet Union, kalhas was not only the centre of rural economy, as practically all social life of rural community revolved around it. Belarus leadership chose to preservation the Soviet rural economy and community. However, it turned absolutely unattractive for Belarusians today.
Initially Lukashenka regime was not supporting private farming and today it makes less than 2% of Belarus agricultural production. The kalhas system, on the contrary, have been considerably subsidised despite significant losses. With the decline of Belarusian economic model, traditional support of Soviet-style collective farms becomes virtually impossible.
In recent years Belarus attempted to implement some regional policies to support rural development. The government launched a number of national programmes: State Complex Program for Development of Regions, Small and Medium Urban Settlements (2007-2010) and State Program for Revival and Development of Rural Areas (2005-2010). The programmes aimed at fostering economic development and attracting workers to the countryside.
Although some sound measures were introduced, like tax reductions for firms operating in rural areas, little hope for real changes. Two decades passed since the need for transformation became evident, and the current policy tools are unable to change deeply entrenched negative trends.
Growing Problems of the Sector
On 28 November, Belarus deputy prime minister Michail Rusy reported to the newly selected parliament. The subject of discussion was Belarus agricultural sector. Rusy presented ambitious plans for modernization of the sector by 2015.
Meanwhile, he admitted a number of serious problems that exist in agriculture today. Notably, he mentioned that “the problem of personnel able to implement large-scale transformations in agricultural sector has become crucial in recent years”.
Indeed, for Belarus youth agriculture seems the least desirable sector of employment. First, farming offers lowest salaries compared to other sectors of employment.
It makes only 65% of the average national salary, while in industry it averages 120%, finances – 190%, public administration – 125%, education and health – 75%. Of course, the rates depend on the economic condition of various kahas. While richer ones (which are not a common case) can afford paying higher wages, the poor kalhas practically keep their workers in poverty. A monthly salary lower than $200 is not rarity in Belarusian villages. People cope by managing small kitchen gardens of their own or raising a couple of pigs.
sometimes workers do not have day-offs, because they have to replace their drunk colleagues or simply because the staff is scarce Read more
Second, most kalhas have poor managerial capacity. Soviet-style management, rudeness, contempt for initiative keeps young graduates and specialists away from kalhas. Moreover, farms offer very unattractive labour conditions. For instance, sometimes workers do not have day-offs, because they have to replace their drunk colleagues or simply because the staff is scarce.
Third, rural settlements offer very poor infrastructure of culture and entertainment. Libraries with a dozen of old books present the sole element of cultural and social life. Village club serves as the only entertainment place for youth, where they can relax after a hard workday engaging in drinking and fighting. Often though, the culture exists only around the local store, where villagers buy cheap alcoholic beverages and usually consume them right on the spot.
No wonder the youth move to urban centres looking for education, employment and fun. A special policy of mandatory two-year employment in public sector for graduates does not work either. Most of them leave villages after finishing the period and often use various tricks to escape it altogether.
But the problem concerns not only the youth. As Rusy admitted, agricultural workers started to seek employment and migrate to neighbouring states, particularly to Russia.
Paradoxically, in many villages of Eastern Belarus most men work in Russia and not in the local economy. They come home for a while to see their families and provide them with money, and then head for another period of work in Russia. This mode of economy favours neither households nor Belarusian economy in general. The government, however, seems unable to resolve the problem and prefers not to raise it publicly.
Globalisation Pushes for Reform
Addressing the parliament last month, Michail Rusy announced a rather ambitious goal of the program of rural development till 2015. According to it, government is planning to invest $7.5 bn in modernization of agricultural sector till 2015.
The policy of financial support of collective farms will shift from general subsidies to loans by business-plans. Average salary in agriculture will rise to BYR 8 m (almost $1,000) by means of rapid increase in economic effectiveness of production. Today’s salary in the sector varies from $200 to $400 depending on profitability of klahas.
This modernization rhetoric comes from an obvious fact, which Belarus leadership tried to deter for so long. Belarus becomes more and more involved in global economy through integration projects and therefore has to engage in stronger competition. The situation turned especially nasty when Russia joined WTO this year, being in Customs Union with Belarus simultaneously. Belarus was not ready for such developments at all and now has to catch up fast.
Russia consumes more than 80% of Belarus farming production. While other Belarusian production loses traditional markets, food remains a stable due to enormous needs of Russian megalopolises. Now and then, farming products appear in the middle of trade scandals between Belarus and Russia (“milk and sugar wars” for example).
Such an export strategy advantages Belarus producers, as they export at prices several times higher than domestic market can offer. However, it is Belarus population who end up being disadvantaged, because better quality products are going abroad and what remains is sold locally.
The plans of government are costly and ambitious, officials operate with numbers and figures and promise unprecedented growth. Yet the thing is that without a complex regional policy which targets all aspects of human life people will not come to work on the land.
Kalinowski Scholarship: When Hopes Meet Reality
The Kalinowski scholarship for young Belarusians wishing to study in Poland is six years old but not not without controversy. While those who run it underline its success, the post-graduation reality sometimes raises serious questions.
In 2006 the Polish government launched the Kalinowski Fund to help the repressed youth who challenged the presidential elections results in 2005. It gives a chance to students who cannot enter universities in Belarus or continue their studies because of their pro-democracy activity.
Despite the good cause, the programme alumni face difficulties finding jobs in Belarus. The organisers should think not only about placing young Belarusians at Polish universities but also about helping them return to Belarus.
146 new participants joined the programme in 2011. The programme participants do not need to speak Polish and receive a grant of 1240 Polish zloty (around €300) per month and a one-time allowance. This is enough to cover living expenses in Poland. The programme covers a period of up to five years until students complete their studies.
Who are the Kalinowski Scholars?
The scholarship targets ambitious Belarusian activists with pro-democracy attitudes.
Apart from receiving education at Polish universities, these young Belarusians are also supposed to acquaint themselves with with European values and to gain knowledge of the state institutions within the democratic framework. Inna Kulej, coordinator of the scholarship, hopes that it can create new political elites for the future Belarus. At the same time, obtaining a diploma in Poland can be the first stepping stone to other European universities.
Each year the number of applicants varies. In the first round, after the repressions which followed the 2005 presidential elections, its number were at their highest. In 2006, 244 participants began their studies at Polish universities. In 2007, 71 Belarusians received the scholarship. In the aftermath of the repressions following the 2010 elections, the organisers increased the number of participants by 60. In 2011, 146 Belarusians joined the scholarship programme.
The KGB Keeps an Eye on the Scholars
From the beginning, the Polish initiative appeared controversial to the Belarusian regime. Jan Malicki, director of the programme, recalls the increased attention which the participants may face in Belarus. Some have been questioned by the KGB or had their laptops searched.
Pro-regime media in Belarus has attempted to undermine the programme in the eyes of the Belarusian public. According to Narodnaya Gazeta, the scholarship organisers abandon the students and do not support them during their studies. Moreover, the newspaper reported on the alleged preparation of the students for extremist activity in Belarus. From a long-term perspective, according to the newspaper, participants of the programme were to be used for spying and influencing Belarus.
On the other hand, the quality and honesty of some candidates is sometimes questionable. Allegations against them include buying the required documents to prove that they are pro-democracy activists. Furthermore, some of the successful candidates did not fulfil their academic obligations, including attending the obligatory classes. Certainly, such cases might have put a shadow on the whole community of ‘kalinoucy’.
Reasons for Departure
So far the Kalinowski scholarship and studying abroad experience appears to be popular among young Belarusians. The portal Generation.by reports on the Gallup survey’ results. According to the research, 32 per cent of Belarusians would like to study abroad or participate in a work-study programme.
Unfortunately, the Kalinowski programme shares similar drawbacks with the European Humanities University in Vilnius. Namely, neither provides support after graduation. Graduates have little opportunities to work in Belarus, despite having a diploma recognised in the European Union (but not in Belarus). The Kalinowski programme does not have mechanisms to encourage them to go back to Belarus and utilise their knowledge and skills there. Arguably this should be the main raison d'être of such programmes.
… and Return?
Certainly, it might be interesting for graduates to return to Belarus and take part in the future reforms. Nevertheless, today opportunities in Belarus do not look promising. Under the current regime those young people often face difficulties finding a job.
The economic situation in Belarus and high level of unemployment in addition to their anti-regime attitudes are not appealing. It is difficult to estimate how many Belarusians will decide to go back. According to Inna Kulej, the vast majority of the graduates return to Belarus. However, it is hard to find any data proving that.
The graduates have already reported on the problems with finding jobs in Belarus after their studies. The Euroradio presented a few stories about recent graduates who could not find employment in Belarus. Their Polish diplomas are not recognised in Belarus. The easiest way seems to be to stay in Poland or go further West.
More Solidarity in Support?
Good will to create opportunities to obtain a higher education degree in Poland does not seem enough to help Belarusian student activists. The organisers of the scholarship should think about widening the framework of the programme, rather than just increasing the number of recruits.
The organisers have already made one serious step in that direction. In 2011 the programme opened up to the PhD researchers and academic teachers. Its number may increase with time. It is important to target more academics who can then reach young Belarusians with new ideas and share their experience.
The Kalinowski Scholarship Fund could also become a joint initiative of more European universities. It could certainly benefit from financial support of other EU countries.
More can be done to help organise internship programmes for graduates in Belarus. The goal is to widen the range of involved institutions and thus the number of possible opportunities for young Belarusians.
Creating in advance employment opportunities and fellowships with Belarusian private companies, NGOs and academic institutions might be another option. This could help Kalinowski scholars to enter the job market and ease their return to Belarus.