Why Viciebsk Region Lags behind
According to official statistics for April, Viciebsk region owes more money to public sector employees than the rest of Belarus combined. 133 enterprises from the region owe $3m to their workers. One employee even climbed on a crane to demand payment of his salary arrears.
Currently a quarter of enterprises are loss-making and some are even bankrupt. Even Naftan refinery, the major enterprise on which the whole region remains over-reliant, made 30 times less money in 2015 than in 2014.
The region is experiencing depopulation, and property prices in Viciebsk have dropped more than in other Belarusian towns. It seems that with the outflow of human capital and in the absence of moves to improve public administration and the economic system, the region has no future but further degradation.
Region of Lukashenka’s birth and Naftan refinery
Viciebsk region, located in the north west of the country, is the only Belarusian region which borders three other countries: Latvia and Lithuania to the north and Russia to the east.
A few well-known people have origins in the region, such as artist Marc Chagall, writer Vasil Bykau – probably Belarus' best – and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka.
The region has quite poor soil and a cold climate, so agriculture is not its strong point. However, Viciebsk region has a developed industrial sector, especially its oil and chemical industry. The Naftan refinery based in Navapolack is one of two Belarusian refineries, surviving on cheap Russian oil and significantly contributing to the state budget.
Like all other Belarusian regions except Minsk, Viciebsk has been facing depopulation for a long time. According to official data, between 1996 and 2016 the region's population decreased from 1.4 million to 1.2 million.
How life became worse in Viciebsk
All Belarusian regions are suffering from the economic crisis more than Minsk. According to official statistics, salaries dropped by several percentage points more in the regions than in the capital and migration is flushing out the human capital needed for regional development. But there are a few bits of evidence that show that Viciebsk region is experiencing these pressures more than other regions.
In April 2016, 167 Belarusian enterprises owed debts to employees, according to the Belarusian Statistical Committee (Belstat). 133 of them were based in Viciebsk region.
A number of workers have not received payment for several months and feel increasingly desperate. On 28 April, a Viciebsk resident climbed on a crane in Minsk demanding payment of the $4,000 that he was owned from his employees.
Companies are failing to pay wages because many of them remain heavily in debt. Naftan refinery traditionally provided salaries and contracts for the entire region. But in 2015 the enterprise earned only $4m, 30 times less than in 2014. The company has also been subject to several corruption investigations in recent years.
As Naftan's income has significantly reduced, many other companies have became loss-making. According to Mikalai Snapkou, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, more than a quarter of the region's enterprises worked at a loss in 2015. Several companies are undergoing bankruptcy or readjustment.
One story stands out here. On 10 June, a Belarusian court will announce its decision on Hanna Shareika, former member of the the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament. Previously, she chaired the Viciebsk broiler farm, which was then one of the most profitable enterprises in the region. But after Shareika’s arrest in 2014, the company became loss-making.
According to Shareika, the company lost around $12m in a year and a half. So far, the Court has dropped most charges against Shareika and the whole trial illustrates that law-enforcement agencies by their actions are contributing to weak economic development.
The entire region is losing hope for the economic future, so even the prices of apartments have fallen here more than in other regions. According to Realt.by, the major site for real estate in Belarus, prices for apartments in Viciebsk have fallen by 50 per cent over the past two years. At the same time, 1,100 fewer apartments were built in Viciebsk in 2015 compared to 2014.
How to break the pattern
Viciebsk's development strategy remains similar to other regions. The main difference is that low oil prices have made the problem obvious. And the public administration cannot recover economic growth, as the Belarusian economy remains over-dependent on a few state-run enterprises like Naftan. So there is no solution other than liberalising the economy and making it more diversified.
Apart from changes to the political economy, Viciebsk region needs new managers with better ideas. Currently, rulers of the region and central government lack good policy proposals for how to fix the problem.
Officials' statements only set different targets. According to the chairman of the Viciebsk Region Executive Committee Mikalai Sharstniou, "200 enterprises should be created in Viciebsk region in 2016". Meanwhile, according to deputy head of the Presidential Administration Mikalai Snapkou, "investments in the region should not be less than $2.5bn in 2016-2020".
It is no accident that these officials use the passive voice in their statements. No one is taking responsibility for creating these enterprises or bringing in investment. Free elections, or at least co-option of competent representatives from the opposition elite, would bring more accountability and transparency to public management.
But while such changes remain unrealistic, ordinary people have no choice but to leave the region. In just 15 years, the number of school children has dropped from 204,000 to only 111,000 in 2015/2016. There are several factors behind such dramatic depopulation, but one thing seems obvious – with the flight of human capital and without real changes, Viciebsk region will further deteriorate.
Invisible Minority: Surviving with Disability in Belarus
On 5 May 2016, Minsk hosted a rally of Belarusians on wheelchairs, who gathered to remind the society of continuing discrimination.
Neither the state nor the public noticed this desperate cry in the desert, ignoring the needs of about 500,000 people with disability.
In 2015, Belarus was the last state in Europe to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, yet disabled people here still remain a hidden minority.
Various forms of discrimination in education, employment, and everyday life limit the chances of the disabled for full social integration. They suffer from the lack of barrier-free access and persisting stereotypes, which deny them equal chances of realising their potential.
“Nobody sees or hears us here”
Any traveller to Belarus who strolls through the streets of its capital or any other cities for that matter, will not likely see disabled people, wondering if they indeed exist here. Yet according to Belstat, about 500,000 Belarusians suffer from various disabilities, making up 6 per cent of the population. Among them, around 20,000 are wheelchair users.
These people are often left on their own in the struggle for equal opportunities. Only a few dozes of disabled managed to attend the rally in Minsk on 5 May 2016. The organiser of the event, the Republican Association of the Wheelchair Users, wanted to highlight basic needs of the disabled, primarily creation of barrier-free environment and ending discrimination.
Unfortunately, the rally took place far from the city centre, on the Bangalor Square, invisible to the wider audiences. It is a traditional venue where Belarusian authorities allow the opposition to organise political protests, thus conveniently moving them away from public attention.
Same scenario applied to the protest of the disabled, only in their case authorities did not even care to send the police forces to secure order. Neither medical teams nor restrooms were available on site, indicating callous neglect from the side of the state.
The head of the Republican Association of Wheelchair Users, Jauhen Shauko, noted that not much has changed since the last similar rally of the disabled in 2012: “Yes, we have better food and clothes now, but our cages became tighter. Authorities try to force us into accepting the role of a burden, in need of constant supervision.”
Ordinary Belarusians often display similar attitudes, pitying disability or seeing it as a drawback. Belarusian model Angelina Uelskaja aka Angel of Wales demonstrated how disabled people can fight these stereotypes. She built her career and achieved professional success despite the diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
Barrier-free: quantity over quality?
On 28 September 2015, Belarus signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, committing to the creation of an inclusive community. Recently, it also funded a series of initiatives to introduce facilities for the disabled into urban spaces. One of them was the state program of barrier-free environment for 2011 – 2015 aimed to improve the quality of life of the disabled.
According to the representative of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, Anatol' Razhanec, the program turned out to be a success, overfulfilling its goals in the best traditions of the Soviet record-setting. Instead of initial re-equipment of 5,000 facilities to meet the needs of the disabled, the state constructed 9,000 barrier-free access points.
In Minsk alone, it has spent over $3.5 million, creating 2,107 barrier-free objects. Minsk subway invested over $150,000 into re-equipment of the stations: overall, 32 stations now have elevators, special platforms or ramps.
What this optimistic statistics does not reflect, is how many disabled people have benefited from the new barrier-free environment. Many of these new facilities are extremely difficult to use, while others are there just for a show-off or simply do not work.
In a recent incident at the train station in Puhavichy, Viktoryja Zhdanovich, suffering from cerebral palsy, wanted to use the elevator, installed on the bridge over the tracks. After failing to turn it on, she had to contact the station employees, who demanded to see a special ID, identifying her as a disabled person. In the end, Viktoryja still could not use the elevator – it did not work.
Campaigning for parking spots
According to Siarhej Drazdouski, who coordinates the Office on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, most problems of the disabled Belarusians stem in discrimination. Pointing out the chief responsibility of the state, he suggested amendments to the Law on Social Protection. New clauses should define discrimination of disability, provide for its prevention, and protect the rights of people with disability.
Currently, discriminative practises surround all aspects of everyday life of the disabled. Many stores, administrative and residential buildings often lack necessary ramps for barrier-free access. If a wheelchair user travels abroad by car, he or she is stuck in lines for hours at the border crossings, which usually lack adequate restrooms.
Parking spots for the disabled started to appear in Belarus only about five years ago. Yet drivers often ignore this innovation and feel free to park their cars in these stalls. In April 2016, activists of the Republican Association of the Wheelchair Users launched an awareness campaign, reporting parking violations to the police and the media.
However, some recent trends show more promise for people with disabilities. For instance, barrier-free tourism directly addresses people with disabilities, seniors, and families with young children. One of the initiatives in this sphere is a collaborative project of several Belarusian NGOs and Valozhyn administration in the Naliboki Forest. Using the grant from the EU, they plan to create a tourist itinerary and a hostel suitable for people with disabilities by 2018.
For such projects to succeed, Belarusian society still needs to change its mentality and overcome stereotypes. Most of them root in the Soviet practises of marginalising the disabled people and removing them from public spaces, as it happened with the disabled WW2 veterans on the eve of the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Equally important is the challenge for the contemporary Belarusian state, which should abandon indifference and take the lead in securing basic constitutional rights of its citizens with disability.