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Minsk might give the impression of an idealized Soviet Union, but the recession has revealed cracks in Belarus' "market socialism."
MINSK, Belarus — Belarus, at first glance, appears a land that time forgot.
For those acquainted with the unique pleasures of the now-deceased Soviet Union, much in this country of 10 million on Europe’s eastern edge conjures an overwhelming sense of deja vu — sometimes even a frisson of nostalgia. The names of the major thoroughfares remain unchanged: “Marx Street,” “Revolution Avenue” and “Internationale Road.” Banners on the main squares proclaim the glories of the fatherland and the accomplishments of the proletariat. Nov. 7, the day celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution, is still a major holiday, replete with parades and speeches. Train and bus stations even retain the unmistakable Soviet smell of cheap sausage and boiled cabbage.
The similarities go much deeper. “Market socialism” is the term that Belarus authorities use to describe their system: a combination of Soviet-style planned economy, with a thin crust of free-market capitalism. More than two-thirds of the economy remains in government hands. Key foodstuffs are subjected to price caps, so that they remain accessible to the population. As in the Soviet Union, a “five-year plan” targets critical areas and dictates what percentage the gross domestic product will increase by.
But there are key differences with the Soviet Union. For one, President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government rules without major input from the Communist Party (though it is part of the pro-government camp). More importantly, Belarus today is not the bankrupt economy that the Soviet Union was just before its fall. Belarusians enjoy the highest living standards in the former Soviet Union, with annual growth rates in the last decade reaching 10 percent.
It is unclear, however, whether that growth and the system they support can be sustained given the recent changes in the global economy and the country's unsteady relationship with Russia.
Belarus sometimes seems like an updated and idealized version of the old USSR — communism with T.G.I. Fridays and Tommy Hilfiger, and without the Communist Party, for that matter. Belarusians can travel freely. Their poverty level is the lowest in the former Soviet sphere, as is the gap between the richest and the poorest. Soviet social protections remain largely intact, and the population is guaranteed almost 100 percent employment. Stores are well-stocked, if a bit limited in their choice. Downtown Minsk gleams under the constant scrubbing and grooming of a seeming inexhaustible army of cleaners.
“What is laudable is that they don’t want anyone to slip through the social safety net,” said one Western diplomat, who, like many interviewed in country for this article, asked to speak without attribution, due to the sensitivity of discussing the situation openly.
“If that’s what works for them, that’s fantastic,” the diplomat added.
All of this comes with a heavy political price, of course, just like the Soviet Union. Belarus is one of the world’s most repressive societies, called “Europe’s last dictatorship” by United States and European Union officials. Political dissent is persecuted and marginalized, and the government plays a cat-and-mouse game of occasionally registering, and then cracking down on opposition parties, NGOs and independent newspapers. Public demonstrations are rarely allowed — more often are broken up by the police and participants hauled off for temporary jail sentences. Recently, opposition figures claim to have been kidnapped; in the past they simply disappeared.