By Jeffrey Cole
Belarus—strategically located between the European Union to the west, Russia to the east, and Ukraine to the south—is a country in transition. Since the fraudulent presidential election, Aug. 9, 2020, a longtime leader clings to power while the country’s increasingly dynamic population strives for democratic changes as never before in this century. The electrifying civic movement, led by a trio of women, in the presidential campaign has surprised and captured the imagination of much of the world, which had largely written off Belarus as a Soviet museum or never-to-change “last dictatorship in Europe.”
Today’s Belarus has a well-developed infrastructure, an unexpectedly high quality of life with rich cultural offerings, and low crime rates. High-speed Internet access is inexpensive, but the government is guilty of sometimes cutting it off. Despite Belarus having received significant radiation after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the air is clean, and many natural areas are pristine. Minsk is a great jumping-off point for weekend trips to regional capitals, such as Kyiv, Warsaw, and Vilnius, which are reachable by car (although COVID-19 restrictions have temporarily disrupted travel).
Virtually annihilated during World War II, the capital city, Minsk, now offers a trove of post-war architectural styles—from Stalinist “brutalist” buildings to the futuristic National Library, affectionately known amongst locals as “the Crystal.” Minsk occupies the very center of Belarus and features exceptionally broad boulevards, with names such as Karl Marx Street and Lenin Street that reflect its communist legacy. A few surviving pieces of pre-war architecture, such as the famous “Red Church,” dot the city. The Svislach River bisects the city and is a social focal point, with many residents walking, biking, chatting with friends, picnicking, or fishing on the banks.
The National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Theatre occupies a building that was first opened in 1939 and heavily renovated in 2009. The Bolshoi Theatre provides an amazing cultural experience in a showpiece venue. The National Ballet rivals any troupe in the world and regularly presents classics of ballet and opera, as well as more recent works created by Belarusians.
In addition to the theatre, Belarusian painters and writers have made an indelible mark on the world. The city of Vitsebsk preserved the home and studio of the world-renowned Marc Chagall. The village of Smilovichy honors native son Chaim Soutine with a museum that has been incorporated into a school for the arts. Minsk-based Nobel-Prize winning author Svetlana Alexeivich uses unique voices to write about World War II, the Chernobyl disaster, and post-Soviet life in Belarus. She continues to be a democratic voice for the people, even today as one of the members of the Executive Committee of the Coordination Council set up by the energetic opposition movement to attempt to negotiate a peaceful democratic transition with the government.
Key landmarks within the city hearken back to the local experience during World War II. Victory Square occupies the heart of the original city of Minsk—only four blocks of which survived the war’s devastation. It houses monuments filled with symbolism such as the 125-foot pedestal topped by a replica of the “Order of Victory” and the “Sacred Sword of Victory” at its base. Built to honor soldiers of the Soviet Red Army and Belarusian partisans, this square plays a major role in current events and daily life for all Minsk residents.
Outdoor excursions and camping are plentiful. Almost half of Belarus is covered by forests, and the country has four national parks, the most famous of which is Bialowieza on the Polish border. Embassy Minsk’s Community Liaison Office has organized regular overnight trips for the embassy community there. Belarus also has four UNESCO sites, which can be visited by car for quick day trips or overnight. Victory Park is the biggest park in Minsk, and the embassy has apartments and homes located nearby. The park offers bike paths, sports grounds—such as tennis and basketball courts—and a beach.
Following Belarus’ presidential election in August, which was neither free nor fair, protests broke out across the country. Although the protests were peaceful, the authorities responded to them harshly. Massive crowds, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, reveal the Belarusian people’s determination and optimism as they attempt to effectuate change and secure basic freedoms for their country. All over the cities of Belarus, large groups of individuals, waving “white-red-white” opposition flags, carrying red and white flowers, and singing protest songs, gave voice to what they call their “awakening” and their desire for change.
Notably, Belarusian women have taken a leading role in the ongoing political movement. In October, the European Union awarded its top human rights prize to the Belarus opposition movement and one of its leaders, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, for the group’s challenge to Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s long reign (since 1994).
The nearly 30-year relationship between Belarus and the United States has been anything but average. The last U.S. ambassador to Belarus was forced out of Minsk in 2008, and, at one point thereafter, only five Americans staffed the embassy. The last two years before Belarus’ recent presidential election saw a focused attempt to improve the relationship, exemplified by a rapid expansion in the number of embassy personnel, the nomination of the first U.S. Ambassador to Belarus in 12 years, and several high-level American delegations to Belarus. The United States continues to support the Belarusian people’s desires to choose their own government democratically. Only time will tell how the story of Belarus will continue to unfold, but it increasingly seems the dynamism of the Belarusian people will determine their own destiny.
Jeffrey Cole is a consular officer at Embassy Minsk.