Why Minsk is not Like Other Capitals
It jumps out at you right after you come back from a foreign land: Minsk is not like Vilnius, Warsaw or Prague. Indeed, it is not like anywhere else.
And obviously, this concerns not only its "deserted streets" or the...
It jumps out at you right after you come back from a foreign land: Minsk is not like Vilnius, Warsaw or Prague. Indeed, it is not like anywhere else.
And obviously, this concerns not only its "deserted streets" or the perception that there are "a lot of police." At least, it's not all that simple. Let's try and deduce the reasons that make our favourite city exceptional.
Almost no graffiti. Few areas with tags in underground walkways (e.g. on Kalvaryjskaja Str. near Itera's never-ending construction project) and in the car parking lot along the railway tracks painted with the consent of the Minsk City Hall — that's all there is of signs of Banksy's followers' presence in Minsk. Here, graffiti lasts but for a few days or sometimes even a few hours. We've got used to it already but it's a miracle! Look at what's happening to Paris!
No street food. If you are hungry in Brussels and don't want to spend 30 Euros on mussels, there will always be a kebab nearby. The Berliners joke that their national dish is now a döner, which completely pushed out currywurst. But the Berliners still had currywurst in the beginning and then döner; the residents of Minsk have neither döner nor currywurst. Unless you buy smazhanka [a Belarusian-style pizza] at the train station…
No good and bad areas. In any U.S. city they will tell you: here we have a "good area" and there we have a "bad area." You go here and you don't go there. Especially at night. In San Francisco, the neighbourhoods where you can get beat up by gangs from various ethnic minority groups share a border with exceptionally expensive districts.
In Minsk, there is no separation between neighbourhoods with the distinction of "good" or "bad" ones. In downtown area, it is as safe and as dangerous as in, say, Malinaūka. Especially as chaps from Malinaūka only sleep in Malinaūka and they hang out in the downtown because "there are more chicks there." Some fifteen years ago, it was common practice to scare children with Šabany and "Šaryki" but this is a thing of the the past: now even in Čyžoūka one can take a girl on a date without being a certified boxer.
Hence another interesting singularity. Prices in cafés in the downtown and "in the hood" are almost identical. There is a Pizza Planet almost next door to the City Hall and there are two Tempo joints at on Karl Marx street; these chains are in the budget price range. In any other capital city, the city centre is a bastion of idiotic prices for everything.
We do not put on airs any longer when we get a $7 bill for a cup of no-frills coffee in central Rome. You move two kilometres from the Coliseum towards the train station and coffee will cost you an honest one Euro. This is not at all true in Minsk where coffee costs almost the same in the restaurant of Vadzim Prakopjeu and in a run-down café where people booze it up without taking their hats off.
City history is hidden. In Prague, history has been commodified (i.e. transformed in a commodity). You do not even have to have a guidebook; special signs on the streets tell you the particularities of the city's buildings. The history of Minsk is hidden deep inside; you must have a friend among Minsk residents to have all the beauty and antiquity of this city be opened up to you.
You will never find a building where the Belarusian Democratic Republic was proclaimed. You will hover on the corner of Niezaliežnasci avenue and Engels street and never know that the Kruger's school of drawing, where famous Chaïm Soutine studied, stood at right there at the exact same place.
Genuine history has been replaced by ersatz. If you are not a shrewd European antiquity scholar you will end up hovering in the Trajeckaje pradmiescie in the full conviction that this is the oldest thing they have in Minsk. You will see Soviet history, take some pictures of Plošča Pieramohi and marvel at the Stalinist Empire style.
You may even have your picture taken against the background of one of these weird structures that were erected on Niamiha Str. over recent years, on the sites where a clumsy imitations of actual historical buildings were (buildings that were destroyed just to free up space for the new buildings). The copies forced out the originals. The Soviet spirit is indigenous.
And here is yet another singularity: no business hub in Minsk. Any capital city in the world has a district where skyscrapers cluster, harbouring headquarters of banks and national financial, industrial, insurance and other companies. Belarusbank's headquarters is on Dziaržynski Ave, almost in the middle of nowhere. We have skyscrapers in Minsk but they are not gathered in a uniform ensemble; they are scattered on the horizon as pines over a pasture. I am not going to make any mention of the Čyž's building. And forget Herostratus.
The first analogue of Starbucks has just opened in the city. At the same time, what kind of a city has no inhabitants running about with paper cups of coffee? Now, the Coffee Box chain is growing rapidly; Boxes regularly emerge in new downtown locations. But we still have only one chain of this kind for more than two million residents. Amazing!
And elaborating on the topic: no Burger King or KFC in Minsk (the latter will allegedly open soon but none have opened yet), or even a Sbarro. McDonalds is a monopolist in the lower price range and T.G.I. Friday in the medium price range. That's it. Experts say that it is all related to the difficulties in running any business in Belarus but we are not talking about the investment environment here. These all come impressions from the city. And these impressions become all the more extraordinary because of the utter absence of brands that are commonly found crammed in other capitals.
No affordable housing in Minsk. You should have seen the faces of some Europeans when I told them a while ago that there was only one hostel in the Belarusian megalopolis. All other visitors to the capital stay in either the hotel Europe or Crowne Plaza where you have to pay for a night the same amount that an average bargain traveller can expect to spend in Eastern Europe in a week.
No migrants. Despite the fact that in these latter days you see lovely Chinese faces in the downtown with an ever increasing frequency, these are still isolated incidents. What is happening in Moscow with migrants from the Caucasus or in Western Europe with Muslims from the Middle East is not happening in Minsk and is never expected to happen. It may be that we have too low of an income level or tough immigration laws or too many police.
No squatting — such as the abandoned buildings that are spontaneously colonised by homeless (such as the famous 12 Pushkinskaya Str. in Sankt-Petersburg or Tacheles in Berlin). Vagrants in the CIS have an anecdote: if you ended up in Minsk without a place to crash and some money, you should not look for old abandoned buildings (there are none) but rather for unfinished newly-built buildings (of which there are plenty).
And here is another very strange trifle: in any city of the world there is an "observation point", a place from where you can look over the city centre. Let's recall the "pendulum tower" in Vilnius, the Galata Tower in Istanbul, the television tower in Berlin, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
You won't see the centre from above in Minsk! Before, there was a sub-celestial restaurant in the hotel Belarus, but it was closed down together with the hotel. The sky deck on the National Library, first, is not that high and, second, it is not in the centre, to put it mildly. Though, it would be nice to understand what the "centre of Minsk" actually is, where it begins and where it ends (yet another particularity of our city).
I'd like to point out that all said is not about what’s wrong with Minsk? but about what’s so special about it? In a globalised world, to find a city that is not like the others is a great miracle. Let's be proud of living in it!
Originally published in Belarusian on budzma.by
New Eastern Europe Is Unmasking Belarus
The latest issue of New Eastern Europe, an English language magazine published in Poland, devoted nine articles to Belarus.
Are Belarusians pro-European? Do activists care about the language issue? Why trade unions in Belarus cannot play the same role as Solidarity movement in Poland? This volume offers an interesting discussion of these and other topics.
The editors of the journal hoped to offer a different look at Belarus, a country which is “probably the biggest victim of western misconceptions.” From this point onward, the issue does not question the more obvious issues surrounding Lukashenka's regime, but rather invites readers to analyse Belarus from different angles.
What gives the Belarusians strength
Alexander Milinkievich emphasises that although the state continuously peddles anti-Westernism, a significant segment of Belarusians remain pro-European. As statistics show, around 35-40% of Belarusians remain in a favour of integration with the Eurasian Union. He attributes it to the predominantly European identity that characterises Belarusians' perception of themselves. Milinkievich advocates for not rejecting Belarusians, because their history is “the legacy of a European people.”
Certainly, for all appearances this looks an appeal from a pro-European politician. He calls, however, for a reasonable approach: “There is too much talk about Lukashenka and too much of a defeatist attitude in Belarus.” Milinkievich proposes something different – let's talk (and do) more about society and work on its potential.
The numbness of the society?
Two authors, Dzmitri Hurnievich and Jedrzej Czerep, elaborate on the issues of identity and language.
Dzmitry Hurnievich, a Belarusian journalist, starts with a depiction of the linguistic landscape in Belarus. He explains the process of the marginalisation of Belarusian and the gradual Russification of the public space. As a matter of fact, today one is increasingly less likely to find Belarusian language appearing in educational settings, the state media, but even on the streets.
In his view, “The Belarusian nation is still in the process of defining itself. And this process will not be completed until the language is back.” Despite some civil society initiatives only campaigns at the state level can effectively popularise the language, Hurnievich notes.
Jedrzej Czerep, a Polish journalist, in his text “Redefining Identity” claims that many activists from the younger generation do not prioritise the linguistic issue. In his opinion, “the type of Belarusian identity that is being chosen by many young people today places different accents than that as promoted by the revivalist generation.” He introduces an interesting discussion of the approaches of two Belarusians, a journalist Jan Maksymiuk and a writer, Viktar Martynovich.
“In the early 1990s, attempts to impose Belarusian as the dominant language were unsuccessful,” he writes. He argues that through a referendum Belarusians voted “for reinstalling Russian as the second state language.” The author does not, however, mention the wide-spread view that the results of the referendum of 1995 had been falsified. Also the rejection of symbols of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and “revivalists' white-red-white flag” occurred in large part due to top-down ongoing policy of Russification rather than as a result any free choice made by Belarusians themselves.
According to Czerep, the main reason behind people turned away from a policy of top-down Belarusianisation was due to the heavy handed rhetoric of nationalists. No discussion, however, was offered on how the top-down ongoing Russification of the society since 1995 may have had an impact on the situation.
Why trade unions in Belarus do not play the same role as in the Solidarity movement in Poland?
In his intriguing contribution, Andrzej Poczobut observes that unlike the Polish Solidarity movement, the Belarusian trade unions have not turned into a body of social resistance in Belarus. Paradoxically, despite the economic crisis in the country, Belarusian workers neither protest nor openly express their demands. This is the result of the state-managed official unions’ leadership loyalty to the authorities. In reality, they tend to aid Lukashenka’s policies, Poczobut points out.
The journalist scrutinises the protests that took place at the state-run company “Granit” in 2011. Although a number of workers left the official trade union then, the protests failed materialise into a serious social force. Since they remain under the complete control of the authorities and thus cannot even truly represent the interests of the labour force.
In the text, “In Search of One Voice” Alena Zuikova argues that Belarusian civil society organisations should get more involved in the national decision-making process. ”Civil society needs to take an equal place in the development of Belarus along with the national authorities and external actors”, she claims.
Zuikova argues that to become an active player, civil society organisations need to overcome their own internal divisions and consolidate their strength. This would allow them to become a “respectable counterpart in the dialogue, [and] is the passport to success.”
Miroslav Kobasa in his text “Challenging Cooperation on the Local Level,” draws attention to the problems that civil society organisations face in Belarus. According to him, one of the main impeding factors is the standing negative attitude of the local authorities towards them.
40 per cent of NGOs registered in Belarus in 2012 fell into either the categories of sport and leisure, or in other words, they did not have any particular social or political component to their work. The authors indicated that the challenges that civil society faces come primarily from the centralisation of power in the country. Such a model imposes their own total dependence on the local authorities and subsequently on the centralised govermental apparatus.
Kobasa, a Belarusian social activist himself, notes, however, several cases of positive cooperation of the NGOs with the local authorities. It happens usually with projects regarding issues that are of a non-sensitive nature, he explains. “Interaction and cooperation give both parties extremely valuable experience, improve their mutual understanding,” he stresses.
At the EU and the Eurasian Union fronts
Two analysts, Anna Maria Dyner and Andrej Liakhovich, took a closer look respectively at the relations of Belarus with the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union.
Dyner shows that the economic crisis pushed Lukashenka into Russia's Eurasian integration project. Minsk was hoping that this large scale economic project would be a remedy for all of its economic problems.
"Belarus' economic situation and open borders with Russia have led to the mass emigration of the Belarusian labour force," the author emphasises.
The Polish analyst also explains that Minsk will have to pay for its own economic integration, and "the Eurasian Union may become a curse for the Belarusian government."
Liakhovich took a look at the foreign policy of Brussels towards Belarus. In his text “Rethinking EU Policy towards Belarus,” he argued that EU member states do not all share the same priorities with international relations. Minsk, like Kiev, is trying to do business both with Moscow and the West at the same time.
And the EU has, however, certain goals in regard to Belarus. They include the maintenance of formal independence from Russia, but also a reliable transit hub for goods and energy through the territory of Belarus. The analyst highlights that the EU had not worked out yet a strategy towards Belarus.
The recent issue of New Eastern became a platform for a discussion of Belarus. It also provides an opportunity to view Belarusian society from a variety of angles. On the whole, the publication seems to make good on its promise and managed to put forth many interesting points for discussion.
On 10 February this discussion about Belarus will continue. New Eastern Europe together with the Casimir Pulaski Foundation organise in Warsaw a panel on “Belarus: Prospects and Challenges”. One of the topics will be how Europe and Poland should engage with Belarus.