Friday, August 25, 2006

an essay about Belarusian tourism...

I read an article from Radio Liberty called Belarus: Minsk Not Seen As Popular Travel Destination" about how tourism was down in Belarus and thought I might like to say something about this. Firstly I think I agree that this is true and that there are far fewer ltourists here than there have been in the past. This is not to say that we are a desert here for visitors, but for sure there are less than last year. I also agree that Belarus might not be all set up for tourists but I think there are several larger reasons for there being a general lack of tourists and I would like to talk about them because in general I believe they have much more to do with politics than any fault on the part of Belarus. I also think many of these reasons are erroneous and flippant and I think that bypassing Belarus because of political sympathy or because of a trumped up fear created by western propaganda precludes people for seeing what is going on for themselves. Maybe this is what governments want, but for me this is a mistake which only leads to more fear and more misunderstandings and in the end is simply not the answer.

OK, I agree that on the one hand with what RFE/RL said in that Belarus does not really bother to make themselves a friendly point of arrival for the west. Though they do reciprocate with many CIS countries for payment free visas, for the EU and for the USA, they take at least $100 of your money to get in and depending on how spur of the moment you are about coming here; it can be a lot more. Certainly for the average backpacker out and about for their "year-of-living-dangerously" this hundred bucks makes this particular state much more difficult. In addition, I don't think there are any youth hostels at all out here and the hotels still insist (and perhaps rightly so) to charge a double standard for foreigners than they do for internal guests. And then of course there is the burdensome bureaucratic necessities of applying for the visa, providing photos, finding the visa or the invitations. And even after you are in the county you must register with the police, purchase insurance, make another payment to the bank for these bureaucratic necessities and sit in the passport office waiting to receive your registration card. If you are staying at a hotel, these things can be done for you (for a fee) but if you are visiting friends and family, you lose at least a day from all of this and, of course none of this is without stress as well.

Why Belarus does this is because of several reasons. Firstly it is because they can. As a sovereign independent country they have a right to deal with its borders as they like. Secondly they do it because they always have; tighter security and a higher degree of state control has been a trademark of the Soviet Union and this has never changed here in 15 years. Also there is the revenue derived from people traveling through, even in transit towards destinations such as Moscow or St. Petersburg which is a genuine asset to a country without very many means of making money. And then of course there are the political reasons. Belarus has philosophically rejected western life in favor of a rather stringent quasi-socialist approach where the government controls most service and trade industries and independent businesses are severely taxed. I am not going to argue the merits of this here though it should be said that there are many social services, medical and educational services that are available without payment because of this, but this is the case. And because they are holding to a different philosophy, they have no problem allowing things to be a bit more difficult for outsiders. And yes, they will pull you off the train for passport and visa irregularities and send you back to Minsk to do it all again.

But the main reason why tourism is down is because everyone decided to follow the leader and say that Belarus was a bad, bad place. During the elections back in March there was so much negative propaganda heaped on this little country and their big, bad tyrannical and evil dictator that you would think Belarusians had been typecast by Hollywood as the bad guy for every horror film ever made. They had college protests against Belarus, they took pictures of themselves holding placards in front of Belarusian embassies; membership in the 'I am against Belarus' fan club grew by leaps and bounds. I am not completely convinced that there was any other driving force for this other than slogans and the fleeting utopia of the word "freedom", which to me has yet to be defined in such a way to include both the losers and the winners, or in how it related to countries without massive natural recourses to exploit.

During the time of the elections Belarus was simply used as a scapegoat by the west. That constant barrage about how horrible, wrong, stupid and slow witted they were. The hysteria caused by all of that screaming and yelling did nothing but upset the country. I understand that this was the ideology of the protests and that the hope was that people would have been swept up in the hysteria and choose another way because of it, but Lukashenka understood this too and spoke about it often calling it nothing but destabilizing propaganda. And if anything, and this really deserves some thought, if there was one single reason for Belarus' voting 83% to allow the man to continue, it was because Belarus themselves became unified against this incredibly annoying assault from the west. Good job W.

Tent Protesters
But perhaps a better way to say this is to note that this noise and hysteria really is exactly the thing that Belarus doesn't want. Robert Mayer told me of a friend who had explained to him that if one was to ask an American what would be the number one value that was important to the have, they might say freedom. But if the same question was asked of someone from the former USSR, the answer would be stability. I have said this a hundred times about several different areas of life here in Belarus, but for people here in Belarus, stability is the truth and the bottom line. They understand the difficulties of life, they understand that they do not have the resources available to them, but they also understand that creating a shark hunt for those resources will not lead to the stability and normalcy that they crave.

Of course this does not work for everybody and the western media had a field day propping up people to say how bad it was and how the president was completely to blame. Ok, fair enough. There are many people who have gone abroad to try and play "the game". But if you think about it, any bias they may speak about is probably more a way of ingratiating themselves to their new hosts than it is a rational political revelation. And this is especially true if this is the sort of thing the host wants to hear. Rekindling animosity toward the Soviet Union is a favorite pastime of the once communist satellite states such as (ehem,) Poland, The Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary, etc. But then again, this is the same line that these states gave the EU. I mean, I am sure being told that yu are the good guy and that other one was the bad guy makes you feel all good about yourself, but really, can't we tell the difference already?

And this is really the key to all of this. This last election was a chance for many westerners to use this little country as a way to inflate their own egos. Being able to say that Belarus is bad and the west is good was "feel good" activity this last spring. I don't think anybody out at the embassies or on the web really had a clue as to what they were talking about or about what was going on in Belarus. In fact, if I used Milinkevich and his populist platform as an example of the most intelligent representation of the opposition, I could even say that the other side didn't have anything to say at all. And ironically, this sort of emotional thinking, this building strength via consensus is exactly the sort of thing that Belarus does. So how come what is good for the goose is bad for person who is trying to eat the goose?

But it all happened and the result of all of that screaming is that Belarus has been damaged socially. If before people would have come in for a while out of curiosity, now perhaps they feel that they know all about it and it is no longer necessary to pay the price of admission. Belarus now is obviously just a place where the psychotic cops will attack you out of the blue, where there is mass hysteria in the streets and the whole of the country is nothing but a writhing, boiling turmoil ready to explode into violence and chaos.

That this is all nothing but slander, liable; that all of the noise was nothing but a great big malicious scandal propagated by people who wished to get things to go as they wanted them to is ignored as being simply the way things are. That the west was sent home packing not just by the big, bad last dictator but also by the democratic voices of 8.3 million of his constituency was seen as irrelevant.

For me, I find it hard to understand where the west had any right to dictate policy here. In fact, really the west treated Belarus with no more respect during this time than one might have for a low priced whore on your sex tour vacation. The west attitude during this time was that it was omnipotent and untouchable, youthful and beautiful, rich and elegant and always, always a winner. Belarusians have nothing to say, we are right, they are wrong and why are they being so annoying about capitulating? Of course this is the American dream, but it is also so annoying to listen to.

The Blue Maiden
Here is a parable with some insight as to the situation from this side. I read a story from the Second World War about a German soldier in occupied France who while drunk, rapes a farm girl and then after, when he decides she is pretty and decent, makes advances towards her about making a relationship. And though her family was very impoverished, the girl refused under any circumstances to have anything to do with him. But of course, as he was on the side of the victor, the German soldier had access to better food and clothes and such and began to court the girl with gifts and food, hoping to show what a good provider he would be and how it would be a wise choice for her to agree to be his wife. The family was appreciative but the girl wouldn't budge. After some time it became obvious that the girl was pregnant. The German soldier, when he learned of this was ecstatic. He wrote home to mama, told them he was to be a farmer in France and that he now has a beautiful young wife to be. He proposes marriage but is again rejected, but in his heart he knows that he is working from strength and that it is only a matter of time before the girl capitulates. One day some time later, he met the girl's father on the road and was told that the girl has had a child and that it was a boy. Exalted that he was now a father, the soldier raced to the house only to find that just after the birth, the girl had gone down to the river and drowned the baby. In shock, he sped away from the farm and never returned. Apparently, the soldier never realized that the girl didn't appreciate how he treated her.

So what I am saying is, now that the elections are over and all of the activists have gone home, what happens next? Now that the damage has been done, the rape completed, why is it that the west is simply ignoring Belarus? Is it just that the west is simply tired of the game and ready for some new sport?

I think that this is all wrong. I for one would love to have more guests coming out. As you know, we had Robert Mayer of the Publius Pundit Blog out last week and though I am not 100% sure (I am waiting for the writing) it certainly seemed to me that he has lightened up on Belarus considerably. When he first arrived here he was quite paranoid about being harassed by the police or followed by the KGB and made a point of telling us that he had been really scared and actually felt that he was doing something heroic by being here. After he got here, he told us it was almost a letdown to find that people had lives and went about them just like anywhere else. It was even a letdown not have something horrible happen to him.

The man explained it to Belarus quite clearly
Why must this be? I mean, I have been here for four years already and if there is anyone to blame for the face that Belarus has right now, it is not the tyrannical Last Dictator of Europe; any wild media images you have seen were staged and organized by western propagandists. And just as it was for Robert Mayer, I am sure it would come as a great shock to find that people actually do live in Belarus. Sorry folks, you've been had! You've been duped by protesters who harassed the cops at the tent protest into action, by Kazulin's BEGGING TO BE ARRESTED, by opposition political leaders cow-towing to Europe rather than speaking to the citizens of Belarus, into believing there was chaos here when in reality, all of that noise was imported especially for the party. And, that most probably, trying to make a disco out of a place of business might have been an interesting idea for a TV show, but doing it to Belarus did nothing but help everyone here decide not to have it here on a regular basis.

So please, come on out. Now, I don't know how experienced a traveler you are. I have been on the hostel circuit, I have my stamps I have spent my day "looking at castles and shit' more times than I wanted to, but if you were to ask me what the most interesting place to visit would be, the one least corrupted by the travelers corridor, the place with the least amount of Euro-financed tourist traps it would be the one I am living in now. Maybe the most interesting thing about Belarus is that it never prostituted itself as a tourist destination. They also never said you couldn't come, they just asked that you came in an orderly fashion and to pay for your ticket. I think Belarus right now might be one of the most interesting places in the whole world to come to and what is more, I think that coming to Belarus would be probably the most healing and normalizing experience any politically free thinker could possibly have. Come to Belarus. Experience Belarus. Come meet Belarus face to face. And after you have been here, had a drink with us, met a few of our people; then you can tell folks what is really going on.

Need an invitation? I am inviting you. Come see for yourself. The door's open.

More soon…