The real Belarus

A shorter version of this letter is published in this week’s New Statesman

I wish I could take Neil Clark on a trip around Belarus, to show him the country he failed to see. After that, I am sure, he could not bring himself to write that “Lukashenko wins elections not through fear, but because he has delivered social protection and rising standards of living.”

Either blinded by the longing to find the triumph of socialism in as many places as possible or simply having a very superficial knowledge of the country, Neil Clark, unfortunately, presents quite misleading view of Belarus as a stable, and even booming, economy in his article Immaterial pearl from the 10 January 2011 issue of New Statesman.

Many foreign journalists hop up on a plane for a few days’ trip to Minsk, and at the most make a quick tour around major regional centres, if they can be bothered to dig deeper into local opposition circles. Neil Clark, on the other hand, shies away from shocking scenes of police beating protesters, flashing in the headlines of other foreign media, and instead offers to weigh the government’s contribution to the life of common people.

Rather than interviewing political outcasts, the author chooses to attend a press conference at the “wonderfully retro ministry of economy” and a showcase of the country’s major plant, Belarusian Autoworks.

I am a native Belarusian, so it is hard for me to judge how much one could learn about my country during a short visit. But if I were to introduce Neil Clark to it, I would have taken him to Belarus via Poland on a midnight train through the border packed with Belarusian smugglers.

The smugglers are mostly women aged between 40 and 60 — unemployed or pensioners, many of them former schoolteachers, medical assistants, and bookkeepers, unable to sustain their families on state income. Some are working full time in their state jobs and make extra cash on weekends smuggling cigarettes and spirits into Poland and bringing back meat, clothes and household appliances — all of which, if they are available in Belarusian stores, are cheaper in Polish supermarkets.

And then, instead of checking into something like Minsk’s Inturist hotel, a network of hotels specifically designed in the former Soviet Union for international tourists, which I am sure brings a lot of sentimental feelings to those missing the high life of nomenklatura, I think Neil Clark should head to a kolkhoz, where “the old collectivist flame is kept alive”, to put it in his own words.

I would invite him to my native village Vasilishki, in the western part of Belarus — a typical settlement neither better nor worse than any other in the country, where a large part of the population is employed by a local collective farm. There is an alcoholic in every house there, and sometimes whole families are hooked on cheap wine-like drinks produced by state liquor plants, which in fact are more like coloured ethanol with psychotropic additives.

Alcohol is the only affordable form of entertainment for millions of Belarusians, because having a hundred dollar monthly salary can save you from starvation but does not offer much more than that. So they drink — to forget their miserable jobs and boring lives, to gain courage to face daily insults from local chiefs and abuses from police authorities, to kill the shame for not giving a better life to their children and not being able to provide care for their elderly parents. They drink to die — the sooner the happier.

On 20 December, a day after the presidential elections, I talked to my mom on the phone. And she cried. A shy provincial woman, who has never been actively engaged into politics, she cried because the opposition lost! She cried because she is tired of being scared to lose her modest income, tired of her helplessness at the hands of local bureaucrats, tired of lies fed to Belarusians from the state TV.

She is tired of unhappiness and this one time she hoped her life could change.

Your Immaterial pearl, Mr Clark, is a cruel mockery of millions of ordinary Belarusians, of whose well being you care, I hope, so much…