Recent polls show that Belarus is the country the Russian people view most favorably. In this article, the author examines this perception by presenting a variety of data, comparing Belarus first with the other Soviet Union republics/post-Soviet independent states and then with Soviet/post-Soviet Russia itself. Armed with this data, the reader is prepared to judge whether the favorable perception is justified.
Key Words: Soviet/post-Soviet Belarus; Soviet/post-Soviet Russia; other Soviet/post-Soviet republics; The "Belorussian Path;" Demographic comparisons; Macroeconomic comparisons (ODP, its structure and growth, external debt); Socioeconomic comparisons (the standard of living, forms of ownership).
The reader might ask: Why Belarus? What is so special about this landlocked, small European country surrounded by Poland to the west, Lithuania and Latvia to the north, Russia to the east, and Ukraine to the south?1
In the opinion of this author, the particularity of Belarus lies not in the country per se but in the importance given to it by its neighbor, Russia, one of the world powers. According to a public opinion poll conducted in 2007 by the Russian Levada-center2, Belarus is the country of which the Russian people have the most favorable view. In the eyes of the Russian people, it occupies the first place among Russia's possible allies.
The same Russian source points out that the major factor for the Russian attraction to Belarus is the latter's presumed way of development. Many Russians, nostalgic about the Soviet system, see in Belarus a country that has preserved the basic elements of the Soviet structure. These Russians believe that because Belarus, unlike Russia, had no dramatic economic reforms, the country has been able to sustain the relatively comfortable life of the Brezhnev period. As a result, according to the same source, about 68 percent of the Russian people support the rapprochement between Russia and Belarus, including 74 percent of the retirees.3
Moreover, approximately four percent of the Russian population would welcome A. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, as president of Russia. The desire is more pronounced among the Russian military personnel.4 This portion of the Russian population sees in Lukashenko a gatherer of Slavic lands (Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine) into a unified country and a successful fighter against corruption, markets, privatization, foreign "American-European-Jewish-Masonic imperialism," domestic oligarchic comprador capitalism, and squandering of the country's natural resources.5
Is there any justification in Russia's thinking this way about Belarus? That is, is Belarus, in its post-Soviet developmental pattern and achievements, a special post-Soviet case and really what the Russians believe it is? If yes, what are the causes for that Belorussian path? And if not, then would it be advisable that Russians stop diverting their energy into creating illusions about their neighbors but concentrate instead on improvements of life in their own country?
This article endeavors to address these questions by analyzing the socioeconomic conditions in Soviet and post-Soviet Belarus and by comparing them with the similar periods in other former Soviet republics, including Russia.6
We deliberately begin our analysis not by comparing Belarus to Russia but by placing Belarus among the fifteen (when it is possible) or fewer (when the data for all the fifteen are not available) former Soviet republics, which are now independent states, successors to those union republics. In such a priority of narration, we attempt to avoid accusations of pro or contra bias by staying as neutral as possible. If we were to start directly with Belarus versus Russia and if the former turns out to be less (more) successful than the latter, the outcome would be unacceptable to those in Russia who believe that the Belorussian post-Soviet developmental way is better (worse) and more (less) humane than the Russian one. …