Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Belarusian/Russian Union State…

There has been a lot of talk going around about the intended meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin this week. The intrigue has been that there is a possibility that the proposed Union State merger between Belarus and Russia is finally at hand. As usual there has been a lot of tongue wagging, accusations and denials about what the merger might actually mean and whether or not there are any political ramifications for either Putin or the last dictator. But from my position here in Pinsk all I can do is feel how the tides push and pull us because really, from the inside none of this is news; Belarus has been dealing with its connection to Russia since the beginning.

This Union State idea actually dates back to the early nineties and most probably from the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. At that time the decision was to allow all of the 15 countries which had been a part of the USSR to acquire the status of independent, sovereign nations. But from the earliest of times the debate about Belarus and its connection to Russia has been the most nebulous. From early on it was obvious that Belarus lacked the sorts of resources to "pull itself up by the bootstraps". Its factories were antiquated, its landscape offered very few opportunities for pleasure or tourism and frankly, its insistence on retaining social and communal values made it very difficult to assimilate in a similar way as Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. This is not to say that those countries really did throw their old values away, but Belarus has had its strong handed leadership and an openly anti-EU platform and this has led to tensions rather than absorption into the EU, a stance that Belarusians know as anti-exploitationism.

And of course Belarus has been made to suffer for these choices. Economic sanctions have made it harder to accesses markets for locally manufactured products and political antagonism from outside from unconnected political parties have disallowed for constructive dialogues or a respectable social position amongst the nations. The results have been that in addition to having had to suffer massive economic difficulties, even the recovery process itself has been twice as hard as it needed to be.

Despite massive economic problems however, whether or not Belarus has really wanted to be a part of Russia has always been a question. Culturally, Belarus and Russia are very similar. The country is officially bilingual but Russian is the main language of communication in all of the urban centers and is the language in which all students receive their lessons. Though having spent time under the rule of Lithuania, and for a very short and unhappy period with Poland, for the vast majority of its history White Russia has been either under the direction of the tsars or the politburo. Certainly any immigrant from Minsk (or Pinsk) from the turn of the 20th century understood that they had come from Russia. Even its name makes it clear who the people of the country are.

On the other hand, while it is true that Belarusians understand their connection to Russia, at least culturally, at the same time the truth has been that they never really liked them very much. During the time of the Soviet Union Belarus basically functioned as a manufacturing arm for Russia. For their efforts of actually doing Russia's work for them they received praise as been the best sort of people, the best communists. It has never really been clear to me whether Belarus took this to heart or whether they simply endured the comment, but in any case the country functioned because of its connection to Russian resources; in other words they knew they were being exploited but the thought it was for the common good.

In recent years Belarusian opinion about its relationship with Russia has changed back and forth several times depending upon the financial situation. 10 years ago, when the Russians wanted no part of Belarus, people here celebrated Belarusian culture and language as being special. The believed in a bright and independent future and looked forward to the challenge of creating it. Five years ago though, at the depth of a horrible depression all hopes seemed to come from the east and during this time all things Belarusian were seen as a waste of time. But then during the time of the elections and the "economic miracle", the idea of a potentially strong and independent Belarus fueled an 83% election result.

But what has always been true is that Belarus has always yearned to somehow find a way to feed itself without needing to bow to either western or eastern masters. Independence and self reliance is what parents teach their children. Even the president's television messages during the elections went that all here have their own work and therefore there is no need of outside agitators. Certainly a great part of this sentiment has to do with a socialist philosophy that says that the work of one's hands along with discipline, diligence and perseverance is all that is required to live and succeed. The last elections were clearly a statement that the country would rather remain in poverty, or at least were not afraid to do so, if only there remained a possibility to live under one's own guidance and leadership- and to do so in a manner they themselves could respect.

However, immediately after the elections western media was quick to point out that the money which had been financing that "economic miracle", the moderate stability which had been fueling all of that independent Belarus thought, had largely not come from worker diligence but rather from the ability to receive Russian gas and oil at a low cost and to resell it to European neighbors at a profit. Last New Year's Gazprom price hike therefore hit the country like a punch in the face. Had not Belarus and Russia been brothers all along? Or more importantly, how could Russia justify charging European prices to a country whose mean income was only a tenth or less of its European counterpart?

Since Gazprom's price hike last New Years, Russia has also made it very clear that regardless of hopes and expectations, there is no inherent connection to Belarus at all and has been constantly flexing its muscles to prove the point. The start of the year saw sugar backed up at weigh stations because Russia was simply refusing to allow it into the country. Allotments and price issues for oil threatened manufacturing shortages. A new pipeline around Belarus has been proposed. And worse, trying to deal with the Russian dept has had a spiraling effect on the Belarusian economy and fears of yet another crisis or even a general collapse swept through the country. This was not felt so much in the beginning when, along with government assurances that the change would not be as big as feared, there seemed to be only an additional few dollars to pay for the gas. Soon though, it became clear that everything was becoming more and more expensive. Prices for everything are going up, seemingly with the same sorts of velocities as during the times of the crashes. A bag of sour crème was just 1600 rubles a few months ago is now 2600. Rice or porridge is up 25%. The cost of cooking oil literally doubled over night. And of course the house payments all went up across the board and student and senior privileges disappeared. Even the cost of riding public transportation doubled.

"How can this be justified when the payroll standard has not risen accordingly?" people ask.

But what could be done? The government, though refusing to take any blame went code red for the year trying to keep things together and functioning. Cost cutting became the rule of thumb and finding new avenues of revenue became the norm. Even the president himself was not immune to responsibility and spent 2007 traveling around aggressively looking for potential investors and business partners.

Eventually though all of this has seemed as if Russia has been teaching Belarus a lesson about who is really the boss. And what is more, in a move obviously as much connected to Russia's desire to continue to service European gas needs as it was local fiscal necessity, Belarus has even been made to play ball with the Europeans. Or in other words, despite voting for and wanting to believe in the idea of an independent and self sufficient Belarus, according to the state the very manor in which this independence now needs to be carried out has ultimately led the country to a road going in the exact opposite direction from which it voted for.

Lately I have been asking people how they feel about the union (Is 'hostile takeover' a more appropriate term?) with Russia. At best people are grudgingly receptive to a Russian future but in general the mood is not positive. Yes, there are those who believe that the association could lead to higher incomes and a more agreeable lifestyle and many would follow Russia out of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. But it clearly seems that most people doubt if any Gazmoney would ever get into the hands of the average worker. Belarusian workers who have been in Moscow and Petersburg all agree that though a bit more money is possible, corruption and other pitfalls follow any even moderate success and workers coming back from the outlying territories show us that average Russian workers live just the same as here and in some cases with even less. Even for those who still follow the Euro-backed opposition, though seemingly getting what they wanted from Russia's insistence on Belarus opening its doors, it is well known that foreign companies will never pay foreign wages and that eventually any profit from such deals will eventually leave the country.

In the end, the philosophy here, even for adults, has always been that it is better to have 100 friends than 100 dollars. But what is there to do when the lives of all of your supposed friends have already been bought and sold? What is there to look forward to if you can't work for each other or for money? The harshest criticism is that all of these last political movements have just been the final nails in the coffin for any sort of communal soul. For pro-democracy lemmings and American Nashis this could be seen as a victory but for those on the inside it has all simply amounted to the removal of the motivation to work in general.

So such is the attitude going into this year's holiday season. Here in Pinsk we will all meet after midnight on New Years in the newly rebuilt Lenin Square to dance and drink and party the night away. I suppose that there will also be the same undercurrent of uncertainty that went along with last year's party; Belarus knows that it's going to get worse. The difference though is that last year Belarus still held out hope that the state might be able to some how pull off a last minute deal and get the Russians to allow just a little more time, a little more opportunity to get things together before taking it all for themselves. But of course that didn't happen. This year, everyone already knows that the cost of living will go up yet again, that there is little hope of wages rising accordingly and worse, that the landlord no longer even has a face, a name or a family. These days there is not really very much hope only the load to carry and what roads are available to walk on.

more soon...


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