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Belarus: Warsaw And Minsk--A Tale Of Two Cities

  • Kitty McKinsey

Minsk, 29 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Warsaw and Minsk, the capitals respectively of Poland and next-door Belarus, share more than 40 years of common history. They were both occupied by Hitler's forces and leveled to the ground by fighting during World War II, then they languished under Soviet domination for the next four decades.

But in 1989 their paths diverged -- with dramatic results immediately evident on the streets of the two neighboring capitals. Poland overthrew communist rule that year and launched economic "shock therapy" that has now made the country one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. Belarus lost its way when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and residents are now suspended in a contracting economy that offers neither the guarantees of the Soviet system, nor the opportunities of a market system.

The two cities starkly illustrate the pay-off of swallowing tough medicine quickly contrasted with the agony of dragging out half-hearted economic reform tinged with heavy-handed government intervention.

A Minsk-based Western diplomat who also served in Poland during the first stages of its transition from communism to capitalism, sees the two cites as "negative images of each other. Every day in Warsaw things got better and better. Here every day they get worse and worse."

The differences between the two cities are evident as soon as the traveller arrives at their airports. Warsaw's terminal is bright, glitzy and modern -- just opened a couple of years ago to handle the vast number of foreign businessmen coming to invest in the country and the huge number of newly-rich Poles travelling abroad.

The Minsk airport is a holdover from the Soviet days -- dingy and smelly, with arriving passengers left to grope in the dark through unlit corridors and down stairways. Outside, the taxis are lumbering Volgas, not the sleek Mercedes that await arrivals in Warsaw.

The drive into town from the two airports quickly demonstrates how the two markets are regarded by Western companies. On the entire 40-kilometer drive into downtown Minsk there is not a single billboard. The road from Warsaw's airport is non-stop ads for everything from German detergents to Japanese cellular phones.

In the first five years of its transition from a command economy, Poland has attracted more than $7 billion in foreign direct investment and is expected to attract another $22 billion over the next four years. Foreign investment in inhospitable Belarus, by contrast, is in the low millions and dropping.

The economic lesson continues when the visitor changes money. Poland, after a bout of hyperinflation, last year dropped four zeroes from its currency, with the result that the zloty now trades at a respectable 2.8 to the dollar. But change $50 in Minsk, and you're a millionaire.

In Warsaw, prosperous young entrepreneurs wear the latest Italian fashions, drive every luxury brand from Porsche to Jaguar and talk animatedly on those ubiquitous cell phones. In Minsk, a more common site is pensioners begging in underpasses or searching through garbage cans in apartment courtyards, and highly-educated, retired university professors selling cigarettes on the street for a profit of a few cents a day.

Irina Kuropatkina, a well-travelled Minsk journalist, recently paid a visit to Warsaw.

"Warsaw is a normal European capital now. I felt very bad for Minsk," she said.

The statues on the streets of the two cities also give a clue to the contrasting attitudes towards their common Soviet-dominated history, and their views of Russia's role in their future.

Nobody loves monuments more than Poles, but the new ones on the streets and squares of Warsaw -- like the one commemorating the Katyn Forest Massacre -- tend to honor victims of Soviet aggression. In Minsk, the statues, like the one of Lenin in front of the Parliament, pay homage to a Soviet past now regarded as glorious.

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka sees his country's future in integration with Russia, a country many believe too poor to bail out an even poorer relative. Poles, on the other hand, clearly see their economic future in the European Union.

Lukashenka promises his people a return to the certainties of the Soviet system, with pledges of free medical care and the right to work. Poles have turned their backs firmly on the Soviet-style command economy and are forging ahead as some of the most ardent capitalists in Europe.

Minsk is at best at the level that Warsaw was at in the first days of "economic shock therapy" in January 1990 -- with small kiosks on the streets selling bananas, and the beginnings of Western investment. The hip Italian clothing store, Benetton, one of the first outposts of capitalism in transition economies, is here. So are the Marlboro man and Camel cigarettes. But that's about all.

Pavel Sheremet, deputy editor of "Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta" ("Belorusian Business Newspaper"), says the difference between Poland and his country is "colossal."

"We are dragging behind by at least seven years," he says.

Christopher Willoughby, head of the World Bank mission in Belarus, says comparisons between Poland and Belarus are not even appropriate because in Belarus "the economy is still going down." He says that if Belarus did a sharp U-turn and started pursuing true economic reform, it might reach Poland's current position in 10 years. But he also says that right now there is no real prospect that this will happen.