Saturday, September 06, 2008
Peter Hitchens on Belarus
By contrast with every other ex-Communist capital, Minsk has not in general surrendered to the cult of Western brands. There are only two branches of McDonald’s. There are no billboards for Western cosmetics or clothes, no Starbucks. The gangsterism and boomtown raffishness of Russia are also absent.
In the ornate restaurant of the Hotel Minsk, stately, unruffled staff ponderously serve ice cream and coffee, sometimes long after customers have forgotten what they ordered. In this refreshing shelter from speed and urgency, a trio of musicians plays popular classical works in a continuing effort to raise the cultural standards of the masses. Workers in the banks will helpfully tell you (as they did in Soviet times) to go elsewhere to get a better exchange rate. Work is constantly ceasing for statutory breaks or audits (as it did in Soviet times). The terrifying gales of market capitalism have yet to come roaring down these placid streets. In the central bookshop, regiments of staff, whose equivalents would be unemployed in the West, stand about waiting for custom.
.......there is no personality cult, rather an air of distance and mystery. There are no biographies of Lukashenko to be found anywhere, not even sycophantic ones, and he has yet to pen any grandiose theoretical volume.
In the picturesque countryside, where storks still nest in chimneys, there are neatly modernized small towns—–the fruits of a serious effort to keep people on the land.
The strongest impression here is of having slightly sidestepped normal time.
Belarus, thanks to the constitutional accident that granted it independence, managed to avoid the dreadful mafia years of Boris Yeltsin. By re-selling cheap gas and oil from Russia at a generous profit—an arrangement that will soon end—it has paid for an old-fashioned subsidized economy and offers a sort of refuge from the frantic globalism that has swallowed everywhere else from the Atlantic to the Urals.
You can read the whole of Peter Hitchens' American Conservative essay on Belarus here. As you will see Peter has some critical words to say about Belarus too, but it's still one of the most nuanced pieces I have read in the western media about the European country that the neocons most love to hate.
And on the subject of the Eastern European country that didn't follow the IMF/World Bank/NATO neoliberal path, I can heartily recommend Stewart Parker's excellent book on Belarus, published last autumn.