Belarus is a country of contradictions. When the IPU delegation arrived in Belarus and we made our way to its capital, Minsk, I was surprised not to be greeted by a drab, dour and austere country, redolent of what I experienced in so many east European countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But this wasn’t the case. What I witnessed was an attractive country and a well maintained and occasionally picturesque capital city, with every civic building seemingly having had a fresh coat of paint. There was virtually no graffiti nor litter to be seen. The ambience of the city centre of Minsk was warm and welcoming and all the people that we met were friendly, extremely well-mannered and apparently quite well off. Undoubtedly impressive was the magnificent Opera House, which could easily grace any large Western city.
There is, however, another side to Belarus, which at first glance is not so apparent, but is very real. Below the ‘skin’ of Belarus, there is a country that is still a presidential dictatorship, with power firmly in the hands of Alexander Lukashenko, as it has been for the past 24 years. Elections are, to put it mildly, not free and fair and all tiers of government are firmly in the hands of individuals who are approved by the President.
As a consequence, the state apparatus and the ‘culture’ of the country which exist under Lukashenko are deeply reactionary; women’s rights are limited and the dominant attitudes are patriarchal and sexist (I was appalled to see on a state controlled TV station an attempted rape scene featuring in a comedy show on early morning television); gay rights are virtually non-existent; non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who “speak the truth” are frequently not registered and therefore find it difficult to operate; and although the EU has stated there are now no political prisoners in Belarus, this is questioned by NGOs, and the death penalty is still an active feature of the country’s judicial system.
Sadly, alcoholism is widespread, especially in the countryside, with nearly 2% of the population having alcohol related health problems. Corruption, including at the highest levels, is a continuing problem.
But it is encouraging that Belarus is not a country in aspic. Many believe that change will come, albeit in a gradual and piecemeal way. It was encouraging to meet, for example, young people and individuals from NGOs who showed both resolve and determination to bring about meaningful change. Compared with a few years ago, there are indications that change may indeed already be underway. For example, demonstrations and large rallies are now permitted and it seems that press controls are less restrictive than they once were.
Importantly, some progress is now being made to introduce elements of a market economy. During our visit to the truck manufacturer Belaz, which is part of a large state enterprise, we were told that it is planning an initial public offering (IPO) in the near future and there is the likelihood that other companies will also be taken out of total state control. At the same time, small and medium sized businesses, particularly in the high-tech sector, are increasing in number. These economic developments are encouraging the growth of a middle class, which, in turn, should help the development of a more liberal society.
If the appearance of Belarus belies the country’s somewhat negative reputation, similar can be said about its foreign policy. On the face of it, Belarus has a close, near-subordinate relationship with its large neighbour Russia. But there are signs that Belarus is trying to establish a more independent foreign policy stance. Witness for instance Belarus’ refusal to recognise the so-called independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia following the invasion of Georgia by Russia, and Belarus’ refusal to condone Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. At the same time, Belarus is keen to develop more positive relations with the West.
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that today Belarus is a country which defies neat categorisation. While the country lives under an authoritarian government, there are clear signs that the process of progressive change is gradually taking shape. In the years ahead, it should be our aim, as democrats and parliamentarians, to support and stand next to the people of Belarus on their journey of change. During this journey the IPU has an important role to play.