Life in provincial Belarus remains largely out of the media spotlight. But this is where 80 percent of the country's people live and where economic hardships are felt most acutely. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to workers and farmers in Belarus' eastern Mahileu region.
Mahileu, 13 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There is a cruel irony to the current regime in Belarus. Restrictions on human rights remain at Soviet-era levels. But the social security of the communist era has been abolished.
The government still acknowledges workers' achievements, but wages are falling and rising inflation is eroding families' purchasing power. Professor Oleg Manayev, head of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research in Minsk, explains:
"The economy in Belarus is in deep crisis -- deep crisis. All indicators point to the fact that the economy is worse off than levels reached six years ago, in 1995. For example, in 1995, the average salary was already close to $100 a month. Today, it is around $75."
That view is confirmed by Yuri, a locksmith in the eastern city of Mahileu:
"Of course, five years ago, we lived a lot better. That's why many people voted for President Lukashenka at that time. But now our opinion of him is diametrically different. Our standard of living is falling catastrophically."
Yuri and many of his fellow workers have banded together to form a free trade union in Mahileu, in an attempt to better defend their rights. They also hope to use their collective strength to aid the opposition in September's presidential elections. A dozen workers gather on weekends in a dingy, two-room apartment to plan their strategy. Union members are regularly harassed by the authorities, but they are undeterred. At one meeting attended by our correspondent, the men were eager to share their experiences. Sasha tells his story:
"I'm alone now -- my parents are dead -- and I'm alone. And imagine: my salary is 45,000 rubles per month [$35]. What a joke! Once I've paid the rent on my apartment, I'm left with 9,000. I pay for the apartment and I've got nothing left. How can I live the rest of the month?"
Volodya explains that most people, after working all week in the city, have to subsist on the food they manage to grow or receive from relatives. He says there is no money to buy groceries in the shops:
"How does everything hold together? Some people have relatives in the countryside, others have a plot of land and families live mostly from what they themselves can grow or from what their parents can give them -- potatoes, vegetables, fruit, jam. That's all a big help. If you look at statistics, meat and fish consumption, for example, has dropped several times in recent years. It simply means that people are now worse off."
Buying a new car or an apartment, notes Aleksei, has become an unattainable dream:
"With apartments, it's also very bad. Terrible. They're building new ones, but the first and second installments have to be paid in dollars, and it's very expensive."
A new two-bedroom apartment in Mahileu costs $20,000. Assuming that a worker making $50 a month can save all his wages and apply them towards the purchase of a new home, it would still take him 33 years to save the necessary amount.
Zhenya is disabled. In exchange for getting a state pension, he is barred from seeking work. If it were not for his mother, he says, he would probably be begging on the street:
"I'm an invalid of the 2nd group [one of three disability groups, meaning one has serious health disabilities that require special treatment] and I get a pension of 16,000 rubles [per month]. That's $12. How can you live on such a pension? You can't work legally since invalids in my category are not allowed to work. I wanted to get work at one enterprise and then another -- [but it's] not possible. At the government office, they just shrug their shoulders [and say] 'we can't help you.' "
Outside the city -- away from the decaying facades and potholed streets -- country lanes wind through forests of birch and pine. The air smells of spring and the initial impression is cheerier. But the country, too, has its troubles.
Young people, if they can manage it, are leaving for the cities. Fertile land is parceled out among state and collective farms where wages, when they get paid, are even lower than in town. There is no money for new tractors or fertilizer, one state farm director complains, adding: "How are we supposed to raise salaries?"
The collective farm director -- a state-appointed bureaucrat -- takes time to explain the care and concern the government is showing to farmers. But after a half-hour of talk, he himself seems unconvinced. He says:
"To tell you the truth, my own personal opinion is that if they'd given this land to people immediately after [World War II], after we had the war here, to these guys who came back from the front, things would be totally different. We've brought up a generation of loafers."
Ordinary people in the countryside are less willing to express their thoughts in public. A cowherd, when asked to comment on President Lukashenka, says simply:
"He's a man fighting for human rights, fighting for the well-being of humankind."
Once the microphone is turned off, she asks shyly: "Now tell me about life in your country. That's what we're really curious about."