Vic Vapennik -
"If we have another 10 years of these prices and wages, there will be no need for a census - a roll call will do."
This quote from a TV presenter on Belarusian state-controlled television went viral on Facebook and for a short while seized the headlines in the local independent media. State TV usually exudes optimism, but the pithy slip points to the serious consequences of the deepening political and economic crisis - the mass emigration of the skilled workforce.
The rule of President Alexander Lukashenko has been a boon for pensioners and the infirm, as his one great achievement has been to avoid the pain inflicted on the population by the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the same tight control that had prevented the collapse of the economy also drastically restricted opportunities for the young, who have fled the country in droves in search of a better life. When the economic crisis finally reached the country following the global meltdown in 2008, emigration accelerated.
The first wave of renewed emigration in early 2011 had purely political reasons: people were leaving out of fear and despair after the violent outcome of the December 2010 presidential elections, when riot police violently broke up popular protests. However, a year on and it's an economic crisis that is driving people out of the country. The National Statistical Committee said in November that inflation reached 103.4% over the first 10 months of 2011.
A public opinion poll conducted in September by independent sociologists from the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) showed that almost three-quarters of respondents (73.7%) said their financial position had worsened in the last three months and over half (52.7%) expected a worsening of the socio-economic situation in the country over the next few years.
Many see escaping abroad to find work as the only solution. A 46-year-old construction worker Mikalay explains: "When your wife receives a salary that is just enough to buy only one pair of boots or food for several days, a man has to look for a way to make money - even in a foreign country and with uncertain prospects. But we are ready to come back to Belarus when we are sure that our skills are truly appreciated and needed at home.
Russia is regarded by Belarusians as one of the best places to migrate to due to the lack of complicated bureaucratic procedures and its high demand for labour, together with there being no language barrier and its cultural proximity.
1m to go
Sociologists estimate more than 1m Belarusians left the country in 2011, or roughly one in 10. They speak about a serious risk this process presents for Belarus where the working-age population is just 5.8m, just a notch more than a half of the whole population of about 9.5m, of which 3m are pensioners.
According to a survey commissioned by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), two-thirds of those going abroad to work are qualified personnel. As a result Viktar, head of a big construction company, complains about the lack of skilled workers: "Just imagine, we couldn't find a single stonemason of the sixth grade - the highest - in Belarus, and those having the fifth are extremely scarce."
The economic malaise has also made it hard for qualified workers to find jobs that match their training inside the country. Engineers might work as construction workers, while teachers with a degree in pedagogical sciences are sometimes employed as babysitters.
Lyudmila, 40, is a teacher with extensive experience and a good reputation, but she abandoned her profession for a job in Russia: "I'm working at a toy assembling line there, in shifts. That means I live and work in Vyazma for two weeks, and then I spend two weeks at home. Well, it's difficult at my age, of course, but I have to pay for my daughter's education."
Even the Belarusian elite that are the main beneficiaries and defenders of the present regime now look for employment abroad. Independent media uncovered the fact that a senior editorial staff member from the presidential newspaper had been applying for jobs with newspapers in Moscow. This person is notorious in Belarusian media circles for laudatory articles about the "Belarusian miracle."
Even the police force is fleeing: in one of the regional centres in the west of the country, there have been reports of mass migration by police officers to jobs in Russia. In the course of a few weeks, five precinct police officers resigned and left for Russia where they got jobs as construction workers.
The well-known economist Leonid Zaika believes that 2012 will be even worse and the river of emigrants will become a flood of fleeing Belarusian specialists. "Instead of inflation, we get the problem of the loss of human capital. In this I see a serious challenge for our country."
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