Cuba - More than old cars
Today we drive to Minsk in Bellarus – about 590kms. Our passports were returned to our tour director at 730 last night and to us this morning. There was noticeable relief by some that these were returned.
As we had a long drive our tour director had brought along the Dr Zhivago movie. Consensus among us was to play it and it lasted until we got to the border. Having paid anywhere from US$73 to US$136 pp for the visas and answered the 42 questions in the visa application form we thought there would be a lot of formality at the border. The only person that had to get off the bus was the driver and no one got on to check anything or even carry out a head count. Seems they just wanted the money.
For some reason the tour company thought only one night in Minsk was enough. A lot of the things that we were told, when considered collectively, led us to believe that this part of the tour was not going to be that great; for example – all meals in Belarus (breakfast, lunch and dinner) are included as part of the tour (not sure why); be careful changing money as cannot change it back anywhere; they may not take foreign currency; the country is being run by a dictator; the hotel would not provide any water in the rooms etc etc. We all enjoyed the visit here and, under their circumstances, we were surprised at how nice the people and city were. In fact a number of us suggested that an extra night be scheduled in Minsk for future tours.
Politically and economically Belarus is in dire straits. Belarus started privatising but in 1994 when Alexander Lukashenko was first voted in he declared that the market economy was a rubbish system and deciided to go back to the old ways. He has been voted back in for his 3rd
term however the consensus by the West and the population is that the elections were rigged. Apparently 95% of the population turned out to vote and 85% of them voted for him. The EU and USA voiced their displeasure over the rigged elections and imprisonment of the leaders of the opposition parties. Belarus responded by expelling their ambassadors and these countries reciprocated by sending home the Belarus ambassadors. While the Russians like having Belarus as a buffer between them and Nato countries they are finding Lukachenka to be an embarrasment to the point where they tried to discredit him on Utube before the most recent election. Russia has recently stopped funding Belarus through susidies. Consequently they have had to turn to the IMF for help. The Belarus currency has rapidly devalued this year having gone from USD1=3,000BR to USD1=5,000BR. The Belarus government has just this week imposed travel and currency restrictions on the population.
About 85% of Minsk had been levelled by the Germans during the war. It was rebuilt during the late 40s and early 50s with Soviet architecture.
There was recently an attempt in Minsk to organise a protest against Lukashenko but they could only get 2,000 people to turn up out of a population of 2m. The security forces sprayed the square with water which then froze making it difficult for the protestors to be effective.
The attitude summed up by the local guide on our driving trip around the city was “it is what it is”. They are resigned to the fact that they recovered from being under the Soviets and they will recover from their current predicament.
During our ride around the city we stopped at the Island of Tears which had a memorial to all those who died (on both sides) during the Russia/Afghanistan war. While they thought they knew how many Russians died during the conflict they did not know how many Afghanis died. Nearby that memorial was a bridge with marriage locks on it similar to Lithuania and Latvia. These are put on by married couples on their wedding day. Apparently the divorce rate in Belarus is 75%. This is likely to be the result of newly married people having to live with parents or inlaws as they are unable to afford to even rent apartments let alone buy them. While there was a lot of building going on in the city these were all being built by Russian companies for Russians. Russia does not allow gambling but Belarus does and Minsk had many small casinos dispersed throughout it.
During our drive around we also had Lee Harvey Oswald's apartment pointed out to us.
Walking around the streets and shopping malls one would not realise there was an economic problem. The people are all fashionably dressed, they appeared happy, the city was spotless, the cars were all modern and so on.
Tonight we had a tour sponsored dinner in the hotel. In the itinerary it was to be a champagne and vodka dinner. We had some very nice French wines for dinner and it turned out that our tour director had to search the city high and low to find the wine as the hotel had run out and there was a general shortage due to the state of the economy. She got us some fine wines and admitted later on that at least one of the bottles was very expensive. Based on what we had seen while wandering around the shopping mall earlier she would not have had the same problem finding vodka!