It's the economy? Stupid!

Tatjana Montik

Has it been brought to Jonathan Steele's attention yet that his recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian has caused quite a stir in Belarus ('Europe and the US decide the winner before the vote', March 10)? I wonder, has Mr Steele ever considered how quiet, safe and clean one can feel inside a coffin? If he bothered to visit Belarus, this alleged last outpost of post-communist contentment, not having been here for ten years, he would see a heck of lot that can simply not be experienced by telephone.

Mr Steele: you described this Belarusian economic miracle so nicely. Perhaps, however, you should consult not only WMF statistics but talk to living experts, who might enlighten you as to the source of this miracle. The certain measure of wealth that Belarusians enjoy is a result of an economic system that is anything but healthy and stable. Thanks to artificially cheap imports from Russia, the state is able to provide gas and oil, which are currently at record prices in the rest of the world, for tuppence. Has Mr Steele had a look at the banks in Belarus, which, so as to avoid closure at the hand of the state, find themselves forced to subsidise bankrupt agricultural and industrial enterprises? This system could collapse like a house of cards from one day to the next.

Lukashenko has smartly distributed the high rewards of these energy deals to the poor and needy, thanks to which there is indeed something of a relative wealth in the country today. But with the average Belarusian earning _180 a month, this has to be qualified. If you then consider that a modest two-room apartment in Minsk costs _300 a month, a quick calculation will show that making ends meet is a little trickier after all.

As for no unemployment: jobs that pay _60 per 45-hour week are easy enough to find. Perhaps Mr Steele should have talked to people who are forced to accept these jobs. Those who earn a hearty _1500 a month are to be found in the high positions of state or of the propaganda apparatus.

And as far as the famously generous and well-functioning pensions system is concerned: it would suffice to travel beyond Minsk to the countryside and to chat with the elderly rural population, the so-called die-hard lukashists. You will soon discover that these people live off _50-60 per month, maybe _100 in an extreme case-while goods are nearing Western prices. In these nostalgic Soviet backwaters, the people have been spared the pain of choice, for why confront them with what they cannot afford anyway? If you talk to these people, who will, on the face of it, defend and praise Lukashenko, you will hear boundless doubt and hopelessness in their voices. These people cannot even imagine an alternative to Lukashenko. They live in a vacuum; they will not admit their dissatisfaction to you, as they do not want to admit it to themselves. This is the instinct of the Belarusian people-an instinct that has grown with history. They were fearless resistance partisans during the Second World War.

Apropos of the war: if you recall, Mr Steele, a famous compatriot of yours said back in 1938 on his way back from Munich, "I bring you peace!" Is this the kind of peace you want conclude with Belarus and its rulers?

"How can you possibly compare the two?" you will ask. "Hitler's crimes are on a completely different scale from Lukashenko's." Can one conclude, then, that his regime poses no danger? Perhaps not to the West. After all, Belarus is a little country. Who actually cares about those ten million inhabitants, the odd journalist?

Have you ever asked yourself how different things would be if Lukashenko ruled not Belarus, but Russia? Wouldn't you agree that in Lukashenko's Russia more people would disappear, be arrested and killed? Would it not also pose a greater danger to the West?

"Lukashenko in Russia? He has no chance there!" Perhaps. But a kind of Lukashenko may well succeed Putin next year.

Have a look in any bookshop in Minsk. Without great difficulty you should be able to find a pamphlet entitled The Enemies of Russia and the Slavs against Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko-published in Moscow by the journal National Security and the Geopolitics of Russia. A brief citation: "Nearly the whole population of Belarus wants unification with Russia. Only the Jewish mafia and a handful of nationalists. [:] And yet there is hesitation, because it would be fatal for Belarus: our bandits would plunder and destroy everything as they have already done in Russia. Our two countries can only unify when Russia sheds itself of the shackles of the West and leads an independent interior and foreign policy."

Hurry, Mr Steele! Hurry up and visit Belarus! If you don't this week, then you won't have to bother. Half of the population will emigrate to Europe: educated youngsters are already on the brink of leaving their country if nothing changes after 19th March. They are not prepared to spend the better part of their life in a coffin.

Is it the economy? Stupid!

Tatjana Montik is a freelance journalist, montanja at voliacable dot com