Friday, January 12, 2007

The day after...

There have been thousands of stories about the Belarusian/Russian oil fiasco in the news over the last several days. Other than during last year's elections, I don't remember Belarus being a more popular subject. In general the stories are rather negative towards Belarus (as always); the media still refuses to say anything nice about Belarus, and of course, Russia is and has always been the bad guy- they did nothing during this last deal to dispel that. But despite all of the words and images, or perhaps because of them, I believe there is a tendency by people who do not live here to believe that the world has ended for Belarus because of the Russian oil deal. To me this is a mistake and an oversimplification. At least according to my mail, the foreign media has been trying to make this into a cut and dried, final nail in the coffin episode and many people seemed to have looked to this rather awful news to be a really satisfying and final thing for their lives. Sort of like: "If Belarus would go down the tubes, all of our lives would be better", or something like this. I could go into the psychology of this sort of scapegoating, but I don't think I will. But basically, and not meaning to pop anybodies soap bubbles, people have really seemed to simply miss the point: The truth is that life here will go on; Belarus is still on the map, Lukashenka is still the president and really, neither has any intentions of going away no matter how much a lot of you would like to hope that they would.

I don't like too much to make it sound as if people are blind followers out here in Belarus because this is not the case. Folks here are as cynical and disbelieving as anywhere. We also most defiantly have our share of people who, unlike the hyped media spectacles in Minsk, make their own, private rejections of authority. I have a friend for instance who simply refuses to watch BT, Belarus Television because he feels that it sucks up to the government too much and doesn't provide enough counter argument. He of course has a dish with three receivers on it, so perhaps having 120 other channels to choose from has a lot to do with this as well.

But we have only the standard issue five here in our house and I do look at BeleTela and what I have seen over the last couple of days is a lot of support for this thought that what has happened in the oil negotiations is not the end of the world. During all of the news programs for the last few days we have been told again and again that the actual mathematics are not as hard as would at first be believed. No, no one is saying that there has been any sort of victory here or that it is not going to cost us, but in general the thoughts are that we will handle it, it will not be as bad as you think it will be and, of course, that life will go on.

I like specifically the on-the-street interviews for this. The general question is how people think the gas and oil deals will affect the economy. The people who answer these questions in downtown Minsk are always well dressed, articulate and intelligent looking people. Their body language indicates they are in the middle of going on their way to somewhere important and they seem not to be really affected by the thought of either being on Television or expressing their opinions publicly. They are always calm and soft spoken in the best Belarusian manner, and of course, always have a nonchalant but serious opinion that all will be ok.

"No, of course it will be difficult," Opines one man, "but this is a more complex issue than can be understood in one sitting. There are always plusses and minuses in all deals. I am not going to say I am not disappointed in Russia's reactions, but they are speaking of market businesses."

"I don't think this will affect us in any real way," offers another, "I think our economy is reasonably diverse and I don't think having to pay a bit more for the gas will break things. Certainly we are going to have to have to be a bit more careful, a bit more accurate in how we handle things. But I don't think we are going to go back to the dark ages. I think we have come too far for this to be."

Now, life is not just television. In my own observations over the last two days I believe I have seen rather dour expressions on peoples faces in and around Pinsk. This is not to say that Belarusians are a happy lot to begin with; we are not hysterical circus types here and have never been; this is not Ukraine. But I am sure that looking at people on the street I see much more concern than usual. Everybody but the children seem to understand that we gained nothing by the gas deal and that we demonstrated no real power during the standoff. In fact, speaking about that part of it, it was interesting to note that several western writers seemed to be on Belarus' side and offered that Belarus actually had some leverage if they so chose to use it. Possibly this was more an anti-Russian sentiment though more than it was a root for the underdog. But in any case, we didn't really do anything but agree to let the oil go through for free.

But perhaps in the end the point of the stand down was exactly and nothing more than Belarus showing support for Russia. Maybe the issue of showing the world that it could not (or would not) stand up to the world's second largest oil producer was exactly the point of the last few days. Ok, ok; I know you are going to say that the back down was all about all of the other trade that Belarus does with Russia and that Russia is really the only one who buys food from Belarus. I understand this part of it too. And also the EU has their own bluster and control their media just as we do and maybe Russia simply made the point that a scandal was not wanted… come to think of it, maybe Belarus will come out of this ok after all. Who knows? What I am saying is there was a lot of talk about new energy sources or suppliers, everybody got into the show the last few days and so there are a lot of factors to be considered here.

In fact the only thing that we know for sure what has happened is two things: Oil is going through the pipeline and the sun came up again this morning. On TV, the news casts were there right on time as they always are. On the streets people went to work by foot, by bus, by car and by bike; just like they always do. And me, I was on my bike at 6:00 am and on my way around the town just like I do almost every day. And Tanya had coffee and blinnies on the table for us when we came in for breakfast; again, just like always. Yes, there is a hard feeling near my heart and I know for a fact that almost everybody here feels this. Yes, we are all worried about our economic futures and everybody is afraid of another economic catastrophe. Yes, the truth is life is going to get even a little harder than it already was. No, they don't yell and scream about it, I don't care whether or not you believe me about this, but making a big deal about things is simply not the Belarusian way. That's the EU talking, that's their media circuses. Belarus is about calm and about work. But you can see the pain on their faces just the same. You can see it in their hard Belarusian eyes.

However, this fact will not have the effect of sending people to Europe like scared little puppies. Not will it change people's minds or belief systems about what is right or wrong. It will just mean that life is going to hurt a little bit more than it did yesterday. Won't be the first time, won't be the last. All is normal otherwise.

Now you don't have to believe me. It's not like I have a gun to your head. But I say this is the truth. Don't believe me? Come out and see for yourself. You've got my number. I know how to do the paperwork. I am inviting you. The door is open. Come and see for yourself what "The Life" is really like. I'll think you will be surprised, cheap Russian gas or no.

More soon…