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White Russia Makes Progress

A visit to Minsk reveals a peaceful transition to economic freedom.

Belarus is an interesting, attractive country, certainly off the beaten track. A beautiful, rebuilt capital city of Minsk (mostly destroyed along with 30 percent of the country’s population during World War II), with wide boulevards and parks and superbly clean, belies its old reputation as the last dictatorship in Europe. Its economy is heavily statist, but 30 percent is private enterprise, and its information-technology sector is world class (see below). Its rating in the World Bank’s Doing Business, which compares all the world’s nations, is surprisingly high and improving.

The nation borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. It has its own language, similar to but distinct from Russian, and its own long history. It was once an integral part of the Lithuanian empire, which stretched down to the Black Sea. It then was subordinated to the growing power of Czarist Russia and later became an integral part of the Soviet Union. Belarus also became an industrial/technological center where many of the Soviet Union’s heavy and sophisticated industries were located. It has a very skilled and educated workforce.

I was invited there to speak at a conference on “Understanding Belarus Security.” It was co-organized by Washington’s Jamestown Foundation, Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Institute, and the Liberal Institute of Belarus under the auspices of the Minsk Dialogue. It continues the tradition of Belarus serving as a neutral regional hub for inter-European diplomacy following the Russian-Ukrainian ceasefire agreement. Our delegation also met with top foreign-ministry officials on improving understanding and relations with America.

Belarus has become more independent of Russia since the Ukrainian conflict, rejected Moscow’s plans to establish a new airbase on its territory, and refused to join Russia’s trade war with Ukraine. Repression is mild, and the government retains a degree of popularity for providing stability and substantial economic growth. Witness the chaos in neighboring Ukraine, and how “privatization” of Russian state industries just ended in impoverishment and handing them over to billionaires. People are not so anxious for possibly chaotic, unjust “democracy,” as long as their government delivers safety, order, and economic growth. Grigory Joffe, Jamestown’s Belarus expert, writes in “The Declining Fortunes of the Belarusian Opposition,”

Specifically, the government led by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, since 1994, was instrumental in propping up Belarusians’ civic identity, ensuring the country’s stability and security (Belta.by), building up its infrastructure, pursuing economic development, boosting the quality of governance, and even improving living standards—by several measures exceeding those in Belarus’s culturally close Eastern Slavic neighbors.

Many formerly communist East European nations are today, surprisingly, more dynamic economically than many debt-ridden West European nations weighed down by years of socialist baggage. After the conference I also spoke to students at the Liberal Institute in a hall called the “John Galt Club,” named after the famous character in Atlas Shrugged. The institute’s director is a very dynamic Belarusian student, Yauheni Preiherman, now studying for his Ph.D. in England. It was also he who helped organize the main conference. He introduced me to many of the students and I was very impressed by them.

Belarus’ Surprising Economic Ratings

More than 50 percent of goods produced in the country are delivered for export. The list of export products is sophisticated and varied. Among the major export commodities of Belarus are refined oil products, semi-conductors, potash and nitrogen fertilizers, metal products, busses, heavy trucks, tractors, chemical fibers, yarns, tires, dairy and meat products, and sugar. The private sector is led by exports from its brilliant information-technology services (IT) based at the Minsk High Tech Park free zone. The export of IT services grew from $50 million in 2005 to $800 million in 2015.

Belarus imports are mainly composed of energy resources (oil and natural gas), raw materials and components, metal products, raw materials for chemical industry, machine parts, and manufacturing equipment. Belarus has trade relations with more than 180 countries. The nation offers low costs and is attractive for tourism. It has eleven impressive war museums, one in downtown Minsk, another in the countryside at the old Stalin Line.

Doing Business measures the ease or problems of starting and running a business in nearly all nations. It was discussed at the conference and has become a very effective means to press Third World and former communist governments to facilitate and encourage economic growth.

Belarus rates surprisingly high on several measures. The nation ranks 12th in the world for “starting a business,” compared to Austria at 106th, France at 32nd, and Spain at 82nd. For “registering a property,” Belarus is number 7, Germany 62, and Ireland, known for its pro-business environment, 39. Rated for “ease of doing business,” Belarus is 44, compared to Ireland at 17, France at 27, and Spain at 33. For “enforcing contracts,” Belarus is number 29, Belgium is 53, Chile is 56, Poland is 55, England is at 33. See the Doing Business link above for exact details. Still, the regime is pressed to privatize its heavy industries, still mostly government owned. There is little street crime, which also makes the nation attractive for foreign investors. Economic freedom pales when street crime, kidnapping, and armed robbery are rampant, as in some Latin American countries.

Shakedowns and bribes to the police and government inspectors are a very common aspect of post-communist regimes. From what I learned, Belarus limits such small time, yet cumulatively devastating corruption, unlike Russia for example.

In conclusion, Belarus is progressing in ways favorable to economic progress and is much freer than its reputation as a surviving “Marxist” state. The British Guardian, in a positive article, asks “Is it accurate to call Belarus a dictatorship?” Although political opponents are sometimes jailed (a dozen in 2013), they are then shortly released. The dynamic, free market, and the rising living standards of neighboring Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland, are vibrant examples for them. Often American policymakers don’t appreciate that “in much of the non-Western world, people desire order more than democracy,” writes Jamestown’s Grigory Joffe (see “Understanding Belarus”). He writes of “a legitimate fear of evil, destructive … behavior by their fellow countrymen that only a strong government can restrain. … Democracy cannot be exported, much less imposed, by an outside force. Simply put, one cannot build democracy other than on the homegrown foundation of civility and trust.” Having lived in lawless countries I concur totally with Joffe’s comments. Opposition movements in such nations demanding “democracy” are often supported by Washington, but many or most are not Jeffersonians in waiting.

Effective groups such as Students For Liberty and the Atlas Network, which I have long supported, help local think tanks and such groups to spread Western concepts of individual freedom, limited government, property rights, low taxes, and economic progress. Only a nation’s own people can really bring it progress. Washington is too ham-fisted and all too eager to threaten or even start wars as a “solution” to promote freedom. Then we wonder at the chaos our military interventions create.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.