“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”
Shock therapy has produced the greatest peacetime man-made social and economic disaster since Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture in those ex-Communist countries which adopted the siren schemes proposed by Jeffrey Sachs et al. of the Harvard school. Yet, instead of rewarding Alexander Lukashenko’s instinctive revulsion for inflicting penury on his people to benefit a small class of nouveaux riches emerging from the Communist nomenklatura and their Western partners, the West has poured forth venom on the regime in Belarus which refused to rob its own pensioners and sell its daughters into prostitution or send its graduates to be plumbers in the West.
Visitors to Belarus find a rather different place from the official image of a Stalinist throwback. In fact, there is a massive gulf between the Western media portrait of a country of huddled, impoverished masses and the reality of a society which has seen steadily improving living standards since the last presidential elections in 2001.
The problem with Belarus from the shock therapists’ point of view is not that it isn’t a market economy but that it is the wrong kind of market economy. Goods and services are marketed to ordinary people; shops sell things people can buy. Unlike the empty, expensive boutiques which line the streets in nearby Vilnius, Minsk has shops filed with goods within a reasonable price range. Instead of Japanese sushi bars for the expense account types, Minsk hosts a wide variety of restaurants and pizzerias. Yet absurd claims are still disseminated such as the idea that the anti-Americanism of President Lukashenko’s regime is so all-embracing there are no McDonalds fast-food outlets in the country – a canard that can be exploded by a simple stroll down Minsk’s Lenin Street where the “big tasty” is advertised. But most readers of such claims will not visit Minsk and therefore probably take the media’s portrayal of the country at face value.
Outside Minsk, there is the huge Zhdanovichi market with well over 30 hectares of large pavilions selling everything from food to audio and computer equipment. It has an enormous car mart. Goods from domestic production as well as imports are available. Locals as well as traders from all over the ex-USSR and as far a-field as China and Vietnam compete to sell their wares to ordinary people. Fleets of commercial mini-buses hurry shoppers back and forth. In short, a real market economy is on display - but only to those who go to see it. Sit in the gloomy, over-heated headquarters of the opposition parties and all you hear is about the regime’s Soviet-style economics. That may satisfy Western pundits but it butters no electoral bread in a country where ordinary voters know they have a better life than before. One Belgian journalist with excellent Russian and experience all over the old Soviet Union admitted to hearing something unique in Belarus: People told him life is better now than it was in Soviet times! Only in Belarus have they stopped looking back nostalgically to Comrade Brezhnev – and that is intolerable to Western shock therapy fundamentalists who insist there can be no alternative to their one true path to capitalism.
Even former pro-Orange revolutionaries in Ukraine have a more realistic perspective on Belarus’s economic situation than Western transitologists. For instance, looking back to 2004 from Autumn, 2005, Serhiy Hrabovskyi explained (somewhat clumsily translated here) why Belarus’s relative prosperity left the Western-sponsored opposition with a mountain to climb by advocating the economic chaos of Ukraine or the penury of rose-tinted Georgia, “Byelorussian industry last year reached 130% out of 1990 level with 15,9% growth. It produces cars, busses, trolleybuses, tractors, television sets, radio sets, make optical and microelectronics devices up to the artificial heart valves. Certainly, this production cannot be compared with American or Japanese goods. But under price-and-quality ratio considerable part of Byelorussian products are quite competitive in foreign markets...The same situation is with MAZ [Minsk Automobile Works] buses, which are widely used all over Ukraine. Ukraine’s LAZ [Lviv Automobile Works]… cannot make good use of its potential abilities, whereas MAZ increased bus production by 44% in 2004. At that they become cheaper and 90% of MAZ production is exported to Russia. Striking fact: last year MAZ produced 20,500 tractors, tippers, timber carrying vessels, etc. (20% growth), whereas all Russia motor works put out only 13,700 machineries.”
Even though Hrabovskyi repeated the well-worn phrase that Lukashenko is a ‘dictator’ he contrasted the evident economic pragmatism and success of his regime with the kleptocratic and chaotic regimes of presidents Kuchma and Yushchenko: “ I would like to say that any economic system, even so sluggish as Soviet, is better, than the total state ownership division, which was carried out in Ukraine by Leonid Kuchma, and is going on until now. One more interesting detail: Ukraine’s economy has practically exhausted reserves of renewable growth that means it needs radical updating to resume the normal rates of GDP growth. Yet Belarus has partly modernized its facilities thanks to the dictator Lukashenko.”
Moving on to the social benefits of Lukashenko’s government, Hrabovski pointed out that: “government expenses of Belarus on the health protection make 4,8% of GDP, in Russia 3,7% of GDP, as for Ukraine it is better to keep mum. The average amount of old age pension in Ukraine has become equal to Belarusian in dollars only this year, but we should count that there [in Belarus] housing services charge is much less. Average wage in Byelorussia amounts to c. $ 250, the sum Ukrainians can earn only in Kyiv.” Elsewhere shock therapy has required privatised factories and other enterprises to scrap any welfare provision for their employees but “The majority of the Belarusian enterprises, unlike Russian, kept their hostels, sanatorium-preventoriums, aid posts, preschool institutions, gymnasiums and others like that”!
The Ukrainian dismissed the “illusory, theoretical chance” of the Belarussian opposition, “if not to succeed, then to conduct an effective presidential campaign” because the colour-coded revolutions had produced socio-economic implosion” meaning “I am afraid today’s chaos and absence of real economic success of Ukraine’s new power is supposed to be a good example for Belarusians...”
By rejecting a pseudo-Maoist “Great Leap Forward” to capitalism, Lukashenko saved his people from the tragic impoverishment and demeaning struggle for mere survival inflicted on their neighbours. In the weeks before the presidential election Belarusian State television’s documentary series “15” examined the grim economic history of the other post-Soviet republics and must have reinforced what ordinary Belarussians suspected when comparing the misery and rising mortality rates elsewhere with their own fate: There but for whom they elected in 1994 went them.
Precisely because Belarus’s population is not impoverished as in “successful” transition countries their society has a real chance of evolving into a genuine civil society, populated by a significant middle class of self-employed and white collar workers. Writing about Yeltsin’s Russia in 1999, Matt Biven and Jonas Bernstein noted how the economic shock therapy pushed by Western governments and advisers had the effect of crushing the very embryonic civil society which the transitologists and Open Society pundits claimed to be promoting: “Shock therapy had an important side effect. Rampant inflation was the blow that smacked down Russian civil society just as it was showing faint signs of trying to rise, tottering, out of Communism’s sickbed. Slowly and tentatively, ordinary Russians had been taking an interest in how their country was run. They had been debating the future and demanding changes. Then, suddenly, they were financially wiped out, their savings gone, their buying power shrinking by the hour. Any energy left over went into moonlighting at second jobs… [or] tending their own garden plots… Life expectancies plummeted, particularly for men, thanks mostly to an increase in violent or stress-related deaths: suicides, murders, heart failures, and alcohol-related incidents.”
Instead of denouncing the Belarussian economic model, civil society activists ought to be encouraging the neighbours to adopt it. But, sadly, there is no money in promoting a real civil society. Philosophic speculators don’t pay for people to become independently wealthy. The shock therapists want easy meat from sleazy deals not prosperity for all. After all they have had fifteen years to see what has gone wrong elsewhere.
Migration and Asylum: Who’s fleeing whom?
Unlike its neighbours in Eastern Europe, including the new EU members, Belarus has sent neither a significant number of asylum seekers nor migrants to Britain and other EU states. Whereas Poland, the most aggressive defender of human rights in Belarus in the EU has more than twenty times the number of exiles in Britain than similar would-be asylum seekers from Belarus! Unemployment and poverty in Poland have caused 300,000 Poles to seek economic refuge in the British Isles. Ireland, for instance, has seen growing tension between Irish low-paid workers and the wave of Baltic and Polish migrants. Irish employers are discarding native labour for these ultra-low wage and socially unprotected helots from poverty-stricken Latvia and Lithuania in particular. When British newspapers report greedily on the low property prices in the Baltic States urging speculators in this country to snap up bargains in Estonia, for instance, they do not explain why so many country cottages no longer have inhabitants!
Organisations which claim to be focussed on human rights in Belarus nonetheless advertise the export of labour from it. For instance, the Charter 97 website carries an advert for the US Green Card.
Belarus’s failure to facilitate the trade in children is also a recurrent charge against President Lukashenko’s government. Alarmed by reports of abuse of adopted children in Northern Europe and North America, Minsk stepped in to stop the unregulated transfer of Belarussian orphans and other adoptees. For instance, it demanded consular oversight until the age of sixteen. Even if some genuine adoptive parents felt that these measures were intrusive, given the cases of murder and abuse of children adopted from the CIS countries it can hardly be considered unreasonable that the Belarussian government felt an ongoing duty of care to its infant citizens taken abroad.
Instead of welcoming Minsk’s concern for the well-being of children adopted abroad, Washington and other West European net importers of children have added it to the list of President Lukashenko’s sins.
One of the North European human rights activists who is regularly in Belarus (despite the government’s alleged crackdown on foreign NGOs) and who is well-known to members of this Group is also a partner in an adoption agency back home. Scholars like Janine Wedel have illustrated on a grand scale the confusion of public policy and private interest which has been a hallmark of Western transition aid and democracy assistance in the post-Soviet space since 1991.
Anyone who compares the West’s treatment of post-Communist societies in Eastern Europe with America’s treatment of post-Nazi Western Europe after 1945 cannot help be struck by the stark contrast. After 1945 enlightened self-interest in Washington led to the Marshall Plan and the economic reconstruction of prostrate former enemies as well as allies. In the long run American society benefited as much as the West Europeans. However, after 1989, both North Americans and West Europeans treated the ex-Communist societies as objects of plunder rather than assistance. Shock therapy enabled Western companies to buy East European assets at knock down prices while a population left poor by Communism was impoverished further.
In practice since 1989 the West has treated the post-Communist East not as George C. Marshall treated Western Europe after 1948 but as the United Fruit Company treated Guatemala in the same period. Perhaps it is hardly surprising with so many Iran-Contra veterans shaping US foreign and intelligence policy from the Baltics to the Balkans over the last fifteen years that the West sees countries as diverse as Belarus, Latvia or Macedonia as the European equivalent of Latin America.
Just as wages are held down in the west and south of the USA by an influx of poverty-stricken Hispanics from puppet states south of the Colorado River so the old EU has acquired its own belt of poverty-stricken basket cases to the east of the old Iron Curtain.
At his post-election press conference on 20th March, President Lukashenko responded to a question about EU threats to impose sanctions on his country by saying that he would stop trying to prevent the 300,000 plus illegal migrants in Belarus heading to the fleshpots of Western Europe. He pointed out that if Poland wanted to sanction his country then opening the borders to let Chinese and other Asian would-be economic migrants pass through would relieve Belarus of a problem and give Poland a chance to fill some of the spaces left empty by the mass migration of young Poles to Western European countries like Britain.
Author: Mark Almond
Read continuation in the articles below...
 See Through the looking Glass.,
 For the alleged absence of McDonalds, see “Author: FainaAgain Date: 04/19/2004, 07:51 pm; Oh, and by the way there are no McDonalds in Belarus.” On the Fodor’s website http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=34491683,
 See http://184.108.40.206/search?q=cache:6yBApBxfbmcJ:www.ifc.org/ifcext/belarus.nsf/ AttachmentsByTitle/bulletinSMB7/%24FILE/bulletinSMB7.pdf+Belarus+market-traders&hl=en&ct =clnk&cd=13&ie=UTF-8.,
 See Serhiy Hrabovskyi, “The Belarusian opposition: condemned to death?” translated by Irena Yakovina in Ukrainsky Pravda (11th October, 2005) http://www.pravda.com.ua/en/news_print/2005/10/11/4826.htm,
 See ibid.,
 Quoted from Johnson’s Russia List (February, 1999) in Nick Holdsworth, Moscow, the Beautiful and the Damned. Life in Russia in Transition (Andre Deutsch: London, 2000), 72-73.,
 See Patrick Barkham “Eek! Baltic goldrush as Britons make Estonia Europe's property hotspot” in The Guardian (11th March, 2006): http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1728752,00.html.,
 See http://charter97.org/eng/news/2006/03/03/usa.,
 See http://bhtimes.blogspot.com/2006/02/lukashenka-defends-children-kgb.html.,
 For the trade in children, see http://www.jcics.org/Belarus.htm,
 See Janine Wedel:"Collision and Collusion", Palgrave, Macmillan, 1998.