Why Young Belarusians Go to Russia, Not 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% of the economically active population. The reality, however, is different from the rosy picture the Government of Belarus is trying to paint.
Thousands of young Belarusians migrate to Russia to escape unemployment and low wages. While Russia is waiting for 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. To balance Russia's influence, the European Union should become more open and offer more education and work experience opportunities for the Belarusian youth if it wants to see Belarus democratic and pro-European in the future.
Economic Reasons for Migration
Belarusians paid dearly for Lukashenka's 2010 election campaign. Just before the presidential elections in December 2010, the average wage in Belarus was more than $500. In November 2011 it was just $280, according to official statistics. Outside Minsk the salaries are even lower. In 2011, Belarus suffered the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The policy of printing money just before the 2010 presidential election resulted in the inflation rate of 108% in 2011 and devaluation of the Belarusian rouble by more than 189%.
Most employees in Belarus receive practically equal salaries no matter how much or where they work because of the Soviet-era wage leveling. Even those who work in the prestigious banking sector, enterprise management or media feel they lack opportunities for professional development and cannot afford a good lifestyle. At the same time, low skill factory and farm workers feel more protected under the current regime. They are the main electorate of Lukashenka and he proclaims “social stability” in favour of them. The lack of career opportunities lead to a brain drain and massive migration of high-skilled workers and talented youth to Russia.
The National Statistical Committee of Belarus keeps insisting that the current unemployment rate in Belarus is just 0,6%. In reality the number is much higher because the Committee only counts the number of people who officially register at employment bureaus. According to some estimates, around 150,000, or 3%, of economically active people leave Belarus annually. This number significantly exceeds the official figures. However, the precise number is impossible to determine because it is difficult to monitor migration flows between Belarus and Russia in the absence of any visas or border control between the two countries.
What do Young Belarusians do in Russia?
Belarusians can work in Russia without visas or additional permissions. They also have the same rights to education as Russian citizens. Their education in Russia is free if they successfully pass entrance exams – where at small regional universities or reputable Moscow State University or the Higher School of Economics. One of the most prestigious Russian universities, Moscow State Institute of International Relations, has become Alma Mater for dozens of Belarusians: 41 of them studied there in 2011.
The majority of graduates of Russian universities do not return to Belarus because of lack of opportunities there. The income difference can be very significant. For example, the entry-level salary in the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is about $100 while in Russia young diplomats start with at least $650. Food, leisure and clothing costs are practically the same in Minsk and in Moscow. Such income disparity naturally motivates Belarusian graduates to stay in Moscow and search for high-paid jobs.
As a result these Belarusians contribute to the prosperity of Russia rather than of Belarus. The effectiveness of any modern economy depends on the level of added value in products and services. It is exactly highly skilled specialists and creative people who increase the added value through innovation. Russia is aware of that and stimulates migration to improve its difficult demographic situation. According to official Russian statistics, in 2009 immigrants almost completely compensated the natural population loss caused by the low birth rate in Russia. Because the Russian language is widely spoken by the urban population of Belarus, they assimilate in Russia much faster than other migrants from the former USSR.
How Can Europe Respond?
The European Union should match Russia's generosity by offering more education opportunities for young Belarusians. Certain steps have already been taken: the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme offered a significant number of scholarships for the education of Belarusians in leading European universities in 2012-2013. However, European policymakers could go further and enable Belarus to join the Bologna process. They should also foster academic exchanges and cooperation such as Erasmus programs to enable the young people of Belarus to live and travel beyond Russia.
The European Union could also increase the number of internships and visiting positions available for Belarusians in European political, economic and education institutions. This would allow more young Belarusian professionals in different fields to develop experience and connections in the European context. At some point, these young people will rule Belarus.
Direct support of Western-educated Belarusians who want to return to Belarus is also very important. It would prevent a brain drain and help them to adapt to Belarus after their studies. Graduates will be more interested in staying in their native country if there are more suitable employment opportunities inside the country at western companies, NGOs and other institutions. Unfortunately, per capita foreign direct investments in Belarus (which borders three EU countries) are almost three times lower than in Russia. Establishing research projects and other initiatives to be implemented in Belarus is also possible despite difficulties which might be created by the Belarusian government and bureaucracy.
To Distinguish Between People and the Regime
Therefore, the European Union should be more interested in creating favourable education and internship conditions for the Belarusian youth if it wants to play an active role in promoting democracy in Belarus. This kind of youth engagement policy also implies development of direct support schemes for European university graduates in Belarus.
The European Union should also increase its presence in Belarus and foster Belarusian-European contacts at all levels. It can be done without compromising on the issue of human rights, which should also remain part of the agenda. Today, increasing contacts with the Belarusian population is the only way to gain at least some political and economic leverage to influence the situation in Belarus. Ordinary Belarusians should not remain hostages of the Belarusian regime’s reckless policies and human rights abuses.
Broadcasting Democracy to Belarus
Many Belarusians who decided to greet the New Year watching Belsat TV channel were disappointed. In the last minutes of 2011, instead of entertainment or good wishes, Belsat exposed them to a cold shower of videos of the April Minsk terrorist attack, political prisoners and graphic images of police cracking down on post-election protests. This was not just an editorial mistake, but a typical weakness of an underfunded broadcasting project.
Belarusian exile media suffers from technical and professional weaknesses and lacks sufficient funding. Although recently Western funding has somewhat increased, the bulk of financial burden of broadcasting to Belarus is borne by the United States and Poland. Another Belarusian neighbor, Lithuania, apparently will not risk worsening relations with Lukashenka. For instance, the Baltic Waves radio station project broadcasting to Belarus from Lithuania between 1999-2001 with the help from the United States was short-lived.
Currently one TV channel (Belsat) and three radio stations (Euroradio, RFE/RL and Racyja) broadcast on a daily basis to Belarus from the West. However, their coverage and financing is incomparable to that of Belarusian state media propaganda. Starting this January, even the harmless Russian edition of the Euronews channel has been excluded from the standard cable TV package in Minsk. Entertainment programs produced by Russian TV channels almost completely dominate the Belarusian media landscape.
Belsat: Poland Doing EU's Work
Belsat TV, the only Belarusian-language TV channel, broadcasts from Poland and is undoubtedly the most important exile media. In June 2006, the Polish Foreign Ministry and Polish Public Television signed an agreement on the long-term development and financing of Belsat. The channel went on air in December 2007. In 2009, internal conflicts in Poland threatened its future when the Polish Public Television announced that it would not finance Belsat anymore. Fortunately, the channel is still alive, and its importance is growing.
The Belarusian authorities initially feared Belsat and even launched a wide-scale campaign in the country to register and effectively ban individual satellite dishes. Then they apparently decided that Belsat presented little danger for the regime and stopped prosecuting the owners of satellite dishes.
However, the regime continues to put pressure on Belsat journalists. Unlike other projects of foreign broadcasting to Belarus, Belsat has no official office in Minsk and its journalists cannot get official accreditation. That makes them an easy target for regular persecution by the Belarusian authorities.
Scarcity of funds is one of the main problems faced by Belsat. The channel had to build up its facilities and a network of correspondents from scratch and needs to do much more to train its staff. Currently Belsat is a heavy burden for Poland both in political and financial terms. Strengthening multilateral support for Belsat would reduce Polish dominance on the channel and improve its credibility among Belarusians who still remember old historical grievances between the two nations.
Belsat cannot afford to purchase enough good quality foreign movies and programs. As a result, old Polish movies constitute much of its content. This reduces its appeal to the average Belarusian. Perhaps the Western media and institutions could allow Belsat to use their products free of charge or for a symbolic fee. They would hardly lose profits were Belsat to dub some movies into Belarusian and broadcast them in a country where the copyrights are not implemented anyway.
European Radio for Belarus: Politics + Music
The other joint US-Poland project is European Radio for Belarus. It has been broadcasting since February 2006, mixing political, social, cultural and other information with extensive modern music and entertainment programs. At its inception, the project won a tender from the European Commission and that ensured its funding for two of its most difficult initial years.
Euroradio runs a lot of original stories and focuses on simplicity. Moreover, it avoids over-politicizing its content, offering social and life-style information interesting to regular Belarusians instead. Euroradio manages to cover its own unique themes because, besides Warsaw's central office, the radio has an office in Minsk and a considerable network of reporters. It also succeeded in using new media such as Twitter to broaden its audience base.
Radio Liberty (RFE/RL): The Good Old Cold War Style
The oldest broadcaster is Radio Liberty/Radio of Free Europe, financed by the United States. Its Belarusian program started in 1954 and became legendary in Soviet times. Headquartered in Prague, Radio Liberty broadcasts eight hours a day and is well known in Belarus. Today Its website is probably better known than its airwave programs. Radio Liberty is conservative in its work and format. It has certainly lost some of its audience by excessively focusing on negative, anti-regime content.
Radio Racyja Targets Western Regions of Belarus
In February 2006, another radio station on Polish territory – Radyjo Racyja – resumed work. Radyjo Racyja's ambitions are smaller than those of other projects due to limited funding. Initially, Radio Racyja targeted primarily the Western regions of Belarus. Now it attempts to reach all Belarusians. But because Racyja is located in the Polish city of Bialystok, a region with a traditionally large number of ethnic Belarusians, Western Belarusians remain its primary listeners.
The Short-Lived Deutsche Welle Belarus Program
In 2005, the European Commission granted German Deutsche Welle (DW) the symbolic sum of 138,000 euros to organize programs for Belarus for one year. The Belarusian project at DW failed, and only a tiny Belarusian section, a part of DW's Russian Service, continues to operate. DW's Belarusian programs were broadcast in Russian with short Belarusian fragments.
The DW content often had a pro-Russia bias, perhaps because the programs were made by people from Russia rather than Belarus. This is particularly evident in DW materials on relations between Belarus and Russia. The short-lived DW broadcasting for Belarus demonstrates the failure of attempts to consider Belarusian matters in the context of a Russian framework.
More Money, Better Connection with the Audience and Using New Media
The Belarusian exile broadcasters would benefit from better financial support, enhanced connection with their audience in Belarus and experimenting with new forms of Internet-based products.
Some of the current projects, in particular Belsat, appear to be chronically underfunded. Funds allocated to the democratization of Belarus could be redirected to the media sector.
At the same time, the media in exile should improve their interaction with the Belarusian audience. It is very important to ensure that the projects do not live in a foreign bubble. In 2008, Belsat established a Public Council consisting of prominent Belarusian intellectuals whose task was to supervise and consult the channel in order to improve its performance and appeal to Belarusians. Unfortunately, the council's activities are either kept secret or do not exist.
Finally, the exile media should seriously consider the newly available forms of Internet communication. For instance, Russian radio stations such as Ekho Moskvy broadcast their programs not only in radio format but also as videos on the Internet. Radio Liberty has already started a joint program with Belsat, but more should be done to respond to the growing number of Internet users in Belarus.