U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once famously called Belarus "the last dictatorship in Europe," an epithet that has stuck to the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Now, the country's capital has been branded the European city with the worst living standards.
A study released last week by Mercer, a global human-resources consultancy, says expatriates in Minsk are worse-off than anywhere else in Europe. The city ranked last in Mercer's annual living-standards tally, trailing 182 other European cities.
Slagin Parakatil, a senior researcher at Mercer, says Minsk fared poorly in most of the 39 criteria examined for the report.
"One of the criteria in which it didn't get very good scores is consumer goods -- the availability of fruit, meat, and fish; there's also the infrastructure -- we're looking at reasonable, expatriate-standard housing facilities," Parakatil says. "If an expatriate needs to have emergency surgery, the score is relatively low for services provided by both private and public hospitals."
The city also got bad marks for its recreational facilities, economic and political environment, airport facilities, and transport connections.
Unlike most other Eastern European cities, which have moved up the list since Mercer's previous study, Minsk remains last with consistently low scores.'Nowhere To Go'
Do Minsk residents share this unflattering view of their city?
Some, such as Valmen Aladau, an architect and professor at the Belarusian National Technical University, have denounced the Mercer study as slander.
"Minsk is one of the most interesting cities in Europe, everyone who's been here has said so publicly," Aladau says. "This is pure political vileness that is probably targeted against our government and ends up hurting the whole population. We don't have enough hotels. But in terms of being interesting, there should be more such cities in Europe."
But a poll carried out by RFE/RL's Belarus Service in the streets of Minsk shows that many residents do agree with Mercer, particularly with regard to their city's recreational facilities.
"In all European cities, if you're not in a hurry to go home in the evening, there are clubs and cafes where you can spend some time," says one woman. "Here, the only places open at night are the casinos and train station."
"Nothing open at night" (Bymedia.net)
"There aren't enough places to drink coffee from a nice cup, not a plastic one," says another woman.
"For children, for instance, there's the Ice Palace, but it would be nice to have something other than just the Ice Palace," a third woman says. "There's almost nowhere to take kids during the summer holidays."
Syarhey Khareuski, a Belarusian cultural analyst, agrees that city authorities have done little to preserve and embellish Minsk's historical city center.
"Take a walk in the center of Minsk, what is there to see? Two churches, and that's all. Museums that were once planned were never built. Instead of museums and exhibition halls, you have ordinary pubs. The efforts of the current authorities have concentrated on selling every square meter of space in the city center, lining their pockets, and allowing as many vehicles as possible to pass through the city center."RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report