Belarus is a country that an average Western European knows nothing, or very little, about. Despite such global businesses as Viber, World of Tanks and MSQRD, the country remains surrounded by numerous stereotypes and fears.
Three experts were invited by Emerging Europe (EE) and TUT.BY, the largest news portal in Belarus, to investigate what foreigners who live and work in Belarus say about the country: Ian Fox, Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy, Minsk; Philipp Brunner, CEO of Stadler Belarus; Dr Klaus Baier, Team Leader, EU Most Programme, Goethe Institut and former Chairman of the German-Belarusian Economic Club.
Ian Fox has been in Belarus for about 6 weeks, Philipp Brunner has lived here around 4 years, while Klaus Baier has already spent over 20 years in the country.
Andrew Wrobel, EE: I think that Belarus is still suffering from not a very positive image. I remember my experience from lat year. I was speaking to a friend of mine who was visiting London, and I mentioned to him I was going to Belarus. The question he asked me was “Aren’t you afraid? You’re going to drive there? It’s quite scary, isn’t it?” And I asked why should I be afraid? And he didn’t know but the image that he had wasn’t quite positive.
What are the most awkward moments that you’ve ever heard about Belarus?
Klaus Baier: It’s the same what you have mentioned – being afraid to travel. And no one can explain why. You’re going to tease them and ask them: “Well, why are you afraid? What do you know about Belarus?” They know of some bad news in the mass media and what’s really missing is objective reports about the country in all mass media.
Philipp Brunner: I have a similar example that you told. Around three years ago after the construction of the factory [Stadler plant near Minsk – note], I needed a lot of support of foreign companies in order to educate people and start production here. We were talking about around 50 foreigners flying here and working together with 350 Belarusians.
And it was very difficult to find people. We have 6000 people in the group – you should think that a couple of them would be happy to travel.
So I went to Switzerland and held a presentation in front of all interested workers. I had a group in front of me and after the presentation they just questioned me with all kinds of random things you can not imagine. And some things came out clearly of the fear. They asked, for example,”How will we be protected? What army squad is guarding the hotel?” That’s the impression.
The most important thing was really to explain people that this is a civilized country where we live comparable in Switzerland – with similar working conditions.
Ian Fox: I think there’s a lack of knowledge and understanding of Belarus in the UK. There’s also a little bit of association with Russia, because of history and past. But the understanding and knowledge needs to be looked into in more details because a lot of people don’t know of Belarus as an independent country.
I think that it’s that lack of knowledge because, to me, Belarus hasn’t been able to find a way to promote itself abroad.
AW: There are often a country that doesn’t have a very good image but offers a lot of business opportunities. Do you this is the case here?
IF: Absolutely! Look at what is happening in Belarus at the moment. Support of the EBRD, recent policy changes, support of the EU, increased funding, new strategy of WB, IMF negotiations… It’s demonstrating that the country is open for business. And it’s up to countries like the UK to take advantage of that and work with Belarus. To increase opportunities on both sides of the house.
PB: Before we came in, we definitely saw opportunities in the Eurasian customs zone, in the union between Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus.
However, there’s still quite a big step to make from the government side. Regardless of how many investors would be willing and how many enabling and funding organizations would be coming to the place, the framework still needs to go another step. This is something we’re dealing with everyday – it does not block us, but it could help.
AW: Klaus mentioned the mass media. I have a feeling sometimes that there’s no proper research done before a journalist writes about Belarus. Some of the things are being repeated over and over again. Do you have the same view?
IF: Yes, I think you’re right. Belarus is a place where international journalists don’t generally come. They are based in Moscow, Warsaw or Vilnius, elsewhere. If there’s a story, they may pop-in. The UK would normally cover anything in Belarus from Moscow.
For us the work of Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel prize winner, that sort of journalism is extremely powerful. When it comes together with the support of the Nobel prize, that has a huge support in the UK. But I think there’s more that can be done, definitel.
KB: Well, my experience is a bit different. I’ve given endless interviews to local and foreign media in 20 years of work here. Especially with foreign journalists, they were well-informed and ready to produce column articles, tounching not only the critical points. But the problem they’ve openly mentioned is the editorials back home – they are not ready to publish such articles. Not yet.
Here’s one excellent example from a few weeks ago. A journalist from Süddeutsche Zeitung came here and made a perfect report on the life in the countryside. A really broad article that was published in the beginning of September. And that’s the info that the public abroad needs. They’re fed up of listening about elections, last dictatorship and so on. They want to have stories.
PB: I made the experience that sometimes the journalists, that interview us, are a little disappointed about how good it is running. And how well we are organized in Belarus, with good support for the project. Sometimes they would expect a tragedy. I feel this.
AW: Let’s come to everyday life here. Which place in Belarus would you recommend to foreigners?
KB: Oh, we should use the plural, which places. Well, everyone should travel Minsk city itself, it has developed drastically during the previous 10-15 years. If you’ve been here 20 years ago, you wouldn’t even recognize some of the quarters of Minsk.
Sometimes you may even feel you’re on holiday. Beautiful atmosphere in the street, open and friendly people. Very secure – this is a very important point of investment. You can see some very nicely decorated and well run restaurants, bars and cafes. In gerenal, just enjoy the life in Minsk, especially on a summer evening.
IF: Well, having been here for only 6 weeks, I am only learing. I am enjoying Minsk – history, culture, music, it’s a vibrant and hip city. I’ve traveled to Vitebsk, Mogilev abd Brest and a little bit outside the city. My experiences have been exceptionally positive.
I would recommend – because of where we are in the world, and the history of this place needs to be understood – visiting a place like Khatyn memorial. To get a feel of how this country has suffered in the past, how its population was treated, you need to visit some of these memorial sights.
AW: Just a quick question about the Belarusian themselves. I have had a lot of experiences with very hospitable and helpful people. What are your experiences?
IF: Absolutely fantastic, so friendly and open. When I was travelling around on election monitoring, we were very well welcomed everywhere, The people are very calm as well. I loved that people here just have a very calm purpose about themselves, which I find delightful.
PB: I have the same experience. I feel very welcome as a foreigner. Only thing is, of course, the language. By now I speak very flient Russian, but at first there was the language barrier.
KB: I may say I wouldn’t have been here for 20 years if not for the people. They really made me stay here. I mean not only my Belarusian wife!
And they are so close to us. But you have to come here and find that out.
Watch the full version of the interview: