On September 26, Belarus released two of the 13 political prisoners listed in a resolution of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in July 2012 (Nasha Niva, September 27; tut.by, July 7). Sergei Kovalenko, the better known of the two, was imprisoned for affixing a white-red-white flag to the official Christmas tree in the city of Vitebsk. The flag in question was the official flag of Belarus from 1992 to 1995; it invokes the heritage of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. At the 1995 national referendum, 75.1 percent of the Belarusians voted for the replacement of that flag by a slightly modified flag of Soviet Belarus. Unlike the following referenda and elections, the results of the 1995 referendum have never been described as rigged. Still, the opposition regards the white-red-white flag as legitimate.
Kovalenko petitioned President Lukashenka for clemency and was pardoned. Some commentators suggest that the release of the prisoners two weeks before the foreign ministers of the EU countries convene to discuss the possible expansion of sanctions against Belarus’s officials was intended to placate the EU (navini.by, September 27). In a talk show on Radio Liberty, Svetlana Kalinkina, a feisty opposition journalist, expressed misgivings that the West is negotiating with official Minsk behind the scene (Radio Svaboda, September 24). According to blogger Ales Gorski, however, the West has no alternative to talking to official Minsk, because the Belarusian opposition is weak and divided (naviny.by, September 29).
The financial situation of Belarus may indeed be conducive to better cooperation with the West. In 2013, Belarus has to repay $3.1 billion to its creditors, almost twice the amount it was to pay in 2012. The best option for Belarus would be a new IMF loan, which would carry a 2–3 percent interest rate. Minsk is negotiating the resumption of the IMF lending program, but there is no certainty that it will actually restart. In the absence of an IMF loan, Belarus would issue a new Eurobond. However, the yield on Eurobond is not going to be below 8 percent—a much higher price of borrowing. Ironically, the allure of the Belarusian securities in the eyes of investors depends on the stability of Belarus–Russia relationships. If Moscow postpones remitting the third and fourth tranches of the anti-crisis loan to Belarus, due in October 2012 and February 2013 respectively, this may make borrowing for Belarus even more expensive (naviny.by, September 28). In the meantime, the government of Belarus seems to be facilitating a new devaluation of the ruble. Suffice it to say that from January to July 2012, the dollar value of the average monthly pay in Belarus increased by 36 percent. Just as before, this growth has not been sustained by a commensurate growth in labor productivity (IISEPS’ Infofocus, August 2012).
Against the backdrop of steadily discouraging news from Belarus, it is illuminating to learn from the essay by Yaroslaw Romanchuk, a 2010 presidential hopeful of neoliberal persuasion, that Belarusians tend to exaggerate their problems. Romanchuk paints a vivid picture of calamities befalling many parts of the world, from North Africa to the “post-Soviet space,” only to note that Belarus is spared all of those calamities. Instead, it “peacefully and with the approval of more than half of the population integrates itself into the economic community with Russia and Kazakhstan.” Alluding to the travel sanctions imposed on Mr. Lukashenka, Romanchuk, notes that Central Asian and Azeri dictators all “tour the world without limitations, and Kazakhstan is successfully conducting international forums and is ready to enter the Council of Europe.” According to Romanchuk, “it is very difficult to find unique, original, and acute problems pertaining just to Belarus. Authoritarianism? Almost half of the countries are not fully-fledged democracies. Poverty? More than one billion people are hungry. But Belarus cannot be assigned to the category of poor countries. We are used to goods and services that in genuinely poor countries are only available for the elites. Those include relatively good health care, access to drinking water, uninterrupted supply of electricity, quality hygiene in public places, universal secondary and almost universal higher education, good roads, and a relatively high level of public security. Poor countries can only dream about those,” Romanchuk wrote (naviny.by, September 19).
Regardless of Romanchuk’s intentions, his narrative challenges the way Belarus is described in the international media as an Armageddon, where the final battle between the forces of good and evil is played out on a daily basis. This challenge comes to mind when reading an August Businessweek’s article about the Viber, a mobile phone application developed in Belarus. Viber is a potentially successful competitor of Skype and it adds 10 million users worldwide on a monthly basis. The article devoted to this application begins with describing the horrors of Lukashenka’s dictatorship. Yet, already its third paragraph, claims that “upon arrival in Minsk . . . foreign visitors might find themselves surprised . . . The place has an efficiency so infrequently seen in this part of the world that it feels liberating. What’s most unexpected is that Belarus has become a promising place to do business and the home of one of the hottest apps in the world.”
The article points out that despite Belarus’s reputation as a phantom country self-exiled in the heart of Europe, it has turned itself into a high-tech hothouse. Since a free-economic zone opened in Minsk in 2006, providing tax breaks to resident firms and employees, Belarusian software exports have grown by more than 2,000 percent, to $270 million at the end of 2011. According to the article, “US companies buy half of the country’s software products and IT services. International clients include Coke, Google, Halliburton, Chevron, Citigroup, Sears, Colgate-Palmolive, Thomson Reuters, and Viacom, as well as Siemens, Mercedes-Benz, Bosch, Philips, Samsung, Barclays, and the London Stock Exchange. More than any other company, Viber has profited from the engineering know-how that Belarus offers” (Businessweek, August 23).
To be sure, selling high-tech products to Coca Cola and Halliburton does not make Mr. Lukashenka a democrat. And yet, the problem of setting a reasonable tone when writing about Belarus appears to be real.