Not only beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In the absence of attention-grabbing cataclysms, the most talked about issue related to Belarus depends on who you ask. Thus, ordinary Belarusians are mostly preoccupied with price hikes, the cost of utilities in particular, and with the menace of unemployment. According to a 2017 survey conducted in Mogilev, Belarus’s third-largest city and a regional capital, these three concerns are shared by 61.6, 45.5, and 42.6 percent of respondents, respectively. In contrast, only 7.4, 9.9, 10.8, and 12.8 percent of Belarusians are concerned about, respectively, delayed payments for work, crime, inter-ethnic relations, and the gap between rich and poor (Urbanistic.by, August 2017).
Prices and unemployment obsess people all over the world, so they hardly reflect national specificity. But the four latter indicators mentioned above do: They reveal Belarus’s orderliness. That is exactly what Russian travelers to Belarus emphasize the most as well. After crossing into Belarus in her own vehicle, Maria Kucherova, a Russian education expert, was stunned by the abundance of storks walking about, the lack of abandoned farmland, forests cleared from deadfall, and by non-existing thickets of hogweed along the local roads (Mel.fm/blog/mariya-kucherova, August 4). “To the people who can groom every piece of land and defeat hogweed on road shoulders, I would entrust my own children,” exclaimed Kucherova.
Orderliness notwithstanding, Belarusians continue to seek work in Russia, not the other way around, as wages in the latter are 35 percent higher than in the former: $522 versus $385 per month, without income tax. Based on the 2017 survey of foreign labor migrants in Russia, 676,000 Belarusians fall into that category, which is 7 percent of Belarus’s overall population. For comparison, 507,000 citizens of Armenia or 17 percent of its population, 430,000 Moldovans (10 percent), and 2.2 million Ukrainian citizens (5 percent) work in Russia. However, Belarusians’ earnings (on average $685 per month) top those of all migrant groups from post-Soviet countries. Slightly over one-third of labor migrants from Belarus would like to settle in Russia for good. Unlike record-high wages, this is a record low. The shares of labor migrants from Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan willing to settle in Russia are 72, 71, 68 and 66 percent, respectively (Kommersant, August 12).
Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty attributes this to Belarusians’ traditionally ambivalent attitude to Russia. To them, Russia is truly close, but they distinguish it from home. To clarify, Drakakhrust refers to a story shared by his Polish colleague. On visiting Minsk, she encountered a set of labels attached to musical CDs on sale: “foreign performers,” “Belarusian performers,” and “Russian performers.” “If Russian are separated from foreign,” she asked the salesman, “does that mean that Russia is not a foreign country?” “Sure,” retorted the man, “this is Russia, after all.” “I do not get it,” insisted the Polish visitor, “does that mean that Belarus is Russia?” “No, what are you talking about?” was his response. “Belarus is Belarus and Russia is Russia.” Apparently, the visitor could not understand this distinction, whereas the Belarusian did not even see a problem. To some extent, closeness to Russia explains the heightened earnings of Belarusian migrants. Most Belarusians speak Russian at home. According to the last (2009) census, 70.2 percent do so. In the Belarusian sub-sample of the surveyed foreign migrants, 77.3 percent do (Tut.by, August 17).
In his August 13 interview to a Russian TV channel, Alyaksandr Lukashenka described his “soulful” attitude toward the Russian language (YouTube, August 13). Lukashenka’s words elicited indignation on the part of some Belarusian pundits, and they talked about it obsessively for some time. Interestingly, Valer Karbalevich, the author of perhaps the most critical Lukashenka biography ever published, opined that on language, the Belarusian president acts as a normal politician who appeals to the majority preferences in order to win public support. Moreover, “Lukashenka builds a nation from what is available. He appeals to mythology that exists in public consciousness, and that is his forte” (Svaboda.org, August 14).
But apparently, this is not enough for some patriotic Russian pundits. A topic that had preoccupied them late last month was the assertion that Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei is a Nazi sympathizer because he praised the controversial book History of Latvia during a meeting at the Latvian embassy in Minsk. Two recent publications by Regnum are devoted to this topic (Regnum, August 22, 25). Whereas, this Russian paper’s third Belarus-related article published within that week demands that Belarus follow the recommendation of President Vladimir Putin and channel refined oil products it manufactures from Russian crude through Russian Baltic seaports, instead of Lithuanian and Latvian ones (Regnum, August 20). Putin’s directive worries Belarusian analysts (Tut.by, August 20). It remains to be seen how and whether Lukashenka will evade what is not cost-effective for Belarus and that would force the country to sacrifice its ties with Belarus’s Western neighbors. Kirill Koktysh, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations who has roots in Belarus, insists Minsk should advance its interests within the Eurasian Union. Yet, at the same time, he bemoans that the problem of harmonization of national interests in that political-economic bloc has not even been posed, much less reflected upon (Eurasia Expert, August 24).
Finally, in the West, Belarus’s appearance in the mainstream media is now more frequent. Thus, Euromoney called it “a minor miracle that in […] June [Belarus] was able to raise $1.4 billion of Eurobond funding at rates and in maturities that would have been unthinkable just two years ago” (Euromoney, August 1). CNN highlighted a difference between Belarus’s and Russia’s attitudes and goals regarding their upcoming joint Zapad 2017 military exercises (CNN, August 15). And The New York Times replicated the assumption of “most analysts” that “Mr. Lukashenko, if forced to choose, will throw his lot in with his patrons in Moscow” (The New York Times, August 13). While this assumption is not wrong, it reflects the usual deficiency of Western reporting on Belarus. Either it neglects area studies homework altogether or does it pro forma, not as a means to uncover and reflect on the ongoing trends. Just in the scope of three years, Belarus’s sovereignty has advanced noticeably and undeniably. This is what appears important. Especially if one considers the point of departure.