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Entries in Belarus (3)


A bastion of tyranny in Europe

Belarus is the pariah of Europe for the authoritarian control of its leader, Alexander Lukashenko (the other leader of an authoritarian state, the Pope, is considered a moral leader). United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even labeled Belarus one of the six nations of the global “outposts of tyranny”. There is something to this – Belarus is a profoundly undemocratic state, and yet Belarus has challenged my concepts on the importance of democracy.

Despite not being a functional democracy, Belarus struck us as being a rather nice place to live. People on the street appeared happy, society is comparatively liberal (the authoritarian control of Lukashenko over the economy is not extended over the private life of its citizens) and our guides felt comfortable arguing politics with each other in our presence. Minsk was surprisingly clean and beautiful, with grand buildings, well manicured parks throughout the city and artistic statues along the main boulevards. Even  the Soviet Era apartment blocks ubiquitous in the outer suburbs of post-Soviet capitals were freshly painted and well maintained, rather than being in a crumbling and decrepit state as is common across the former USSR. Out in the small towns the housing was not as polished, but we did not see any third world hovels, and, indeed, the houses would not be out of place in any small town in Australia. The safety rating of Belarus on the Australian government website is the highest level – above that of Belgium!

So what is the purpose of democracy? George W. Bush had a naïve and simplistic view, that democracy was an end in and of itself, believing that the simple institution of democracy would bring about all the positive traits of civilization. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, had a much more cynical view, in that democracy was only desirable when it resulted in the election of people he liked, thus justifying the overthrow of democratically-elected left-wing governments in South America.

I can see two advantages of democracy. The first, and strongest, advantage is that democracy can increase the likelihood of a stable state that respects that rights of its citizens. The second advantage would be the less tangible benefit of allowing people to have control over the political aspect of their lives.


But how do these advantages stack up when unstable democracies like Iraq and Colombia are compared to non-democratic stable countries like Cuba, China or Belarus? Democracy is not the first step that inevitably leads to civilization. Other aspects of statehood are arguably more important – having a judiciary independent of the executive, the development of an independent and thoughtful media, consistent provision of state services in health and education, protection of individual rights through a Constitution (which is, in effect, profoundly undemocratic in that it prevents the rights of the minority to be infringed by the majority), and so forth. A state that succeeds in all or most of these aspects is going to provide its citizens with all the necessities for a civilized life – and it is hard to imagine these citizens turning to rebellion just because they don’t have the vote, as long as they have food, jobs and health and education for their children. After all, in many established democracies enormous effort is required by the government to get a bare majority of citizens to even turn up and vote. Perhaps democracies are like trade unions – victims of their own success. Trade union membership is greatest when conditions for workers are worst – and success in improving conditions decreases incentive to join a union. Likewise, the push for democracy is highest when conditions are worst, when the people change the state so that it meets most of their criteria they have less incentive to turn up. Thus, while democracy may aid the development of a civilized state, that is not to say that a civilized state cannot develop without democracy, and if an undemocratic state reaches this condition the drive for democracy may be weak.

How about the second advantage of democracy, allowing people to have control over the political aspect of their lives? At face value, the power of democracy is unarguable –  self-determination is an intrinsic right. But does democracy actually equate to self-determination? Democracy could equally be considered the giving up of individual self-control to that of the whole population. An individual voting in the US has around 0.000001% control over the government, if “control” is the right word when the two dominant parties are indistinguishable on many issues and the political media is superficial. Furthermore, not all votes are equal – a hand-full of voters in Ohio and Florida heavily swing outcome, while 100 million US residents have no right to vote, either due to age, criminal record, immigration status or due to living in a territory rather than a state. As an immigrant in the US, my voting power was identical to that I would have in Belarus – zero. The greatest power in a democracy is in fact not the vote, but having influence over the voting pattern of others. Perhaps it is being too dogmatic to assume that democracy is the only viable model to a civilized state. That said, a vote is a right that I treasure and always exercise.


The fabulously wealthy Radziwiłłs

There is wealthy, and then there is Radziwiłł wealthy. The Radziwiłłs owned half of Belarus for over 500 years, with 23 palaces, 426 towns, 2032 estates and 10,053 villages. This made them richer than the Royal family, and far more long-lived – as Belarus was conquored over and over, the only stability was the wealth of the Radziwiłł family. One story of the Radziwiłłs includes a fabulously decadent dinner party. The guests went to bed satisfied, but concluding that the excesses of the Radziwiłł family were merely legend. When they woke up, they looked outside onto the summer estate to find it seemingly covered with snow – actually it was a layer of salt, bought in at enormous expense from Poland – with the Radziwiłłs racing around the winter-land on carriages pulled by bears.

We came to Belarus to see two of the Radziwiłł’s estates, Nesvizh Castle and Mir Castle. They are called castles, but with the Radziwiłł’s habit of colluding with any conquorers in order to keep their wealth, they were rarely used for defence and both have been remodelled into decadent residential palaces. There appears to be remarkably little non-Russian tourism to Belarus. We made separate inquiries into getting a Belorussian visa, booking a tour and reserving a hotel, and in each case the same tourist information officer, Lyudmila, answered our inquires. When we booked an English-speaking tour around Belarus, we expected a large mini-bus full of people, instead we had a taxi driver and a personal guide, Natasha, who told us that she only gets non-Russian speakers 3-4 times a month.

Nesvizh Castle was owned by the Radziwiłłs from 1533. From 1582 Mikołaj Krzysztof "the Orphan" started to convert the castle into a renaissance-baroque palace, surrounded by gardens and lakes. The palace was sacked in 1706 during the Great Northern War, but the Radziwiłłs survived and built it up again, even larger and more decadent. In 1770, the Russians seized the castle, and the famous Radziwiłł library was moved to Saint Petersburg, but again the Radziwiłłs reclaimed the site and restored it, until they were finally expelled for good by the Red Army in 1939.

Mir Castle was built by Duke Ilinich around 1500, and in 1568 it fell into the hands of Mikołaj Krzysztof "the Orphan", who was “adopted” by the wealthy, and childless, owner of the Castle. The Orphan was less concerned with defence than the original builder, and finished off the castle in Renaissance style. A dark chapter in the Castle’s history was its use during WWII as a ghetto for the local Jewish population. As one of the most Jewish countries in the world before WWII (most cities in Belorus were around 50% Jewish), some of the most horrendous mass murders of the war occurred here.


Belorussian Roubles

The Belorussian Roubles is an amusingly devalued currency. Our flights from Brussels to Minsk cost us over one million Belorussian Roubles, the first time I have spent over a million of anything. Our dinner out at a great Japanese place – we dropped a 100,000 Rouble note. The lower denominations have so little value that coins have dropped entirely out of circulation. Walking along the gardens of the Svislach River we visited the Afghan War Memorial (1979-89 war) on the Island of Tears. A small fountain outside has a crying winged boy, the grieving and powerless guardian angle of Belarus. A local tradition appears to consist of rubbing the angle’s penis and throwing money into the pond at this feet. Of course, with the absence of coins, the wishing well is full of soggy 20 Belorussian Rouble notes, in various stages of decay.