Andrei Ivanou: Inside Belarus, Europe’s Last Dictatorship

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Andrei Ivanou: Inside Belarus, Europe’s Last Dictatorship

Andrei Ivanou Podcast CoverAndrei Ivanou, a Belarusian native, and I sit down to learn more about the fascinating, oft-forgotten country of Belarus.  Belarus has the dubious honor of being the longest-running European dictatorship thanks to their leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who seized power in 1994 following the power vacuum that was created by the fall of the USSR.  A military man, Lukashenko is often referred to as бацька (“dad”) by Belarusians because he oversees everything and dominates the country.

If you’re like me before this episode, you don’t much about Belarus – or even where it’s located.  (Hint: It’s sandwiched predominantly between Russia, Poland, and Ukraine on the eastern edge of Europe.)  Nor have you given it much thought in terms of what life is like there. Yet for Europeans, it’s often viewed as a bridge between East and West.  And for Russia, it’s long been one of its closest allies because it serves as a critical land buffer between Moscow and the EU across the North European Plain.

Andrei and I discuss what’s changed since the fall of the USSR, what it’s like to live in a dictatorship (especially after having lived in the U.S.), what’s being smuggled into and out of the country, how much locals actually make and which surprising job is the best-paid, the sort of economic propaganda put forward by the press, why Belarusian women are known worldwide for their beauty, how to travel there (spoiler alert: It’s not that easy), and more.

Andrei is the CSPO at TechVice, one of the companies which my software company, CallerSmart, works with.  If you’d like to learn more about Belarus and get a “boots on the ground” taste of what life is actually like under “daddy” in Europe’s last dictatorship, then this episode is for you.

Favorite Quote:

“I think this is not the problem of Belarus, this is the problem of attitude towards our country, but what I really think is the real Belarusian treasure is our brains, our minds.”

Andrei’s Links:

Other Relevant Links:


Brian Crane 0:30
Hey, Andrei, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. So as a bit of context, you and I were having a chat last night in the car and we were talking about some of the differences between Belarus and the surrounding countries. And I gotta say that Belarus is a country that I think most Americans know very little about. You lived in the states for a year, you’ve obviously traveled, as well, outside of Belarus, which is somewhat unique, because the majority of fellow Russians don’t necessarily get to leave the country. And I want to talk about a little bit of the history and Belarus some of your observations from having been outside of the country and then going back and also maybe the logistics as far as how you actually got here. Because it’s a testament to some of the government policies in Belarus. Yeah? Cool. So first of all, what speller is known for, it’s the, it has the oldest or the longest running dictatorship in Europe. You said yesterday, yeah?

Andrei Ivanov 1:39
Yes. So Europe thinks so, that we have the last dictator of Europe, so they call it our president this way.

Brian Crane 1:47
And what’s his nickname inside of Belarus?

Andrei Ivanov 1:49

Brian Crane 1:52
Which is… daddy?

Andrei Ivanov 1:53
Daddy, father.

Brian Crane 1:54
Effectively, yeah? Okay. And so he…

Andrei Ivanov 1:59
Do you know, why it’s so surely?

Brian Crane 2:01

Andrei Ivanov 2:02
I think that it is so because he tries to care about everything. Doesn’t matter if he can do it or cannot he tries to do it so he’s, he thinks that he is the best in biathlon, in economics in everything, spacecraft, I don’t know so that’s why we call him, like, “batjka” because he can try to do everything so… That’s it, I think.

Brian Crane 2:32
Was he in the military – in like the Soviet military prior to the fall of the Soviet Union? Because he’s been the dictator since the fall of the USSR, correct?

Andrei Ivanov 2:47
He is the first president of Belarus after the crash of the USSR.

Brian Crane 2:50
Okay. But in Belarus, I was watching a video earlier today, and they actually, a lot of the symbols, the flags, these sort of things. They haven’t really changed much since the fall of the USSR, since the fall of the Soviets, right?

Andrei Ivanov 3:07
Not exactly. So we changed our flag, actually. So it was changed. The colors were changed. We were white, red, white.

Brian Crane 3:19

Andrei Ivanov 3:19
And now we’re red, green, and a little bit of white. So he changed the flag, but…

Brian Crane 3:28
What are the things that haven’t really changed since the fall? Like when we were sitting here working yesterday, Roman, his plug was still a throwback to the Soviet Union on his computer, those sorts of things.

Andrei Ivanov 3:41
You mean, did something change from that time?

Brian Crane 3:44

Andrei Ivanov 3:45
So we try to change but so we are back. So we’re still back 20 years back from I think, a well developed country., so…

Brian Crane 3:55
And you’re – Let me just speak a minute to your experience in coming to Poland, which is, as we’re talking right now we’re in Warsaw, and you have to get a visa to leave. You have to get stamped when you’re here in the country to illustrate that you had the business meeting. And then you told me yesterday in the car, that one of the reasons that you all took a bus from Belarus over here was it’s one of the few ways that doesn’t – that actually is on time that there’s not, uh, stopped by the border guards and searched for contraband or smuggling or those sort of things, right?

Andrei Ivanov 4:25
Not exactly, but there is some truth in that.

Brian Crane 4:39
What am I getting wrong?

Andrei Ivanov 4:41
Okay. So, if you speak about the visa, this is not our country’s problem. This is the European Union, requires visa to get a seat, you know. So what concerns these queues on the border? So, again, so this is the problem of both sides, I think. So we got checked out –

Brian Crane 5:11
In both directions.

Andrei Ivanov 5:12
Yes, yes. So, and what about the papers that we have to sign and stamp and seal a lot of papers, that’s true. So the bureaucracy is our second name.

Brian Crane 5:26
Well, if you had told me that, so for instance, it’s quite popular to smuggle cigarettes and some other things from Belarus into Poland. Yeah, they’re cheaper. If you bring it up from Belarus and vice versa, if you’re going from Poland, back to Belarus, it’s pretty common to take technology because there’s some sort of ratio of what is actually allowed to be sold in Belarus – Has to be, what, 80% Russian 20% European Union or something like that?

Andrei Ivanov 5:52
Yeah. So the thing is that people try to earn some money selling cigarettes, oil –

Brian Crane 6:06
Like gasoline?

Andrei Ivanov 6:06
– Yeah, to Europe. So they try to pack the cars and try to get through the border. And they’re trying to buy expensive things in Europe. I mean TV sets, refrigerators, all that stuff, because they’re cheaper first of all. Secondly, they can buy brands, which means it’s a good quality. And thirdly, they can return some money back so they can return 20 or 23% out of that purchase.

Brian Crane 6:53
From the Polish guy, yeah.

Andrei Ivanov 6:54
What concerns the quarters, I can’t tell the real proportion, but it is some about 80 to 20. So we have to sell our Belarusian goods in our shops. Because it is thought by our president, that it will stimulate our economy, it will help our factories, you know, to remain open and to give people jobs.

Brian Crane 7:29
And you told me yesterday that there’s press all the time and Belarus that talks about how it’s getting better. That reminds you, I don’t know if it’s propaganda, or if it’s press somewhere in between the two…

Andrei Ivanov 7:45
I don’t know why it is happening. But of course, if we switch on the TV, and we’ll try to watch programs, which are Belarusian programs, control the government, so everything is okay there. We have some economy grows every year, so… and we are told that everything is okay. So we are getting better every day and every week and every year, there will be some day that everything will be okay. But… nothing is changing, at the moment.

Brian Crane 8:21
And your sympathetic to this because you live close to the Polish border and can watch or pick up on what’s happening in Poland and see sort of the contrast.

Andrei Ivanov 8:29
Yeah, yeah. So people who live in the West, they just can compare the living in Belarus and the living in Poland, for example, or other European countries. So that’s why we understand that the stories we are told about the progress is not actual aid. It just, the information, which is given to us under the right angle, if you understand what I’m talking about.

Brian Crane 8:59
Yeah, yeah. From the government’s angle.

Andrei Ivanov 9:03
Yeah, from the government’s angle. So for those people who will vote in five years…

Brian Crane 9:10
Yeah, there’s a couple other things that I found interesting when we were talking about Belarus. So one is that programmers, that’s the highest paid job in Belarus.

Andrei Ivanov 9:20
Yeah, correct.

Brian Crane 9:22
So therefore, you have a lot of people that are going into programming or engineering, computer science, that for you, you have a family and you would be keen for your kids to go to school outside of Belarus, because the degrees and the diploma that come from a Belarusian University aren’t honored by any other… basically any other country, right?

Andrei Ivanov 9:46
Yeah. I don’t know why it is happening, again. But I think this is not the problem of Belarus. This is the problem of attitude to our country. But what I really think is real Belarusian treasure is our brains, our minds, that’s why we have – that’s really true, that’s why we have the real and the best programmers, we have very good doctors. So still, like in Soviet Union, we have a very good educational system. So we are forced to study so the studies and the control, so everyone should attend school then go to university. So I think that governments stimulate that… the whole country stimulates that, parents stimulate that, government stimulate that, different third party stimulate that. So that’s why we really have good specialists, but there is some difficult things to understand. So the diploma we have here in Belarus is not recognized in Europe. So we have to prove the knowledge…

Brian Crane 10:52
A second time.

Andrei Ivanov 10:53
Second time, right. So, and just after that, we can, you know, get the job. But still a lot of people go outside the barriers, they prove this, this knowledge, they start working in Europe and become successful doctors, programmers, engineers, whatever. So, but still, after that our diploma is still not recognized anywhere.

Brian Crane 11:20
And when when they leave, is that a problem in Belarus where you have young people who are leaving, going elsewhere in Europe, not coming back. And there is a demographic… essentially, like a demographic crisis where you have the the young have left, the old need the pension system, and there’s not enough there’s not enough young people effectively to support the existing pension obligations?

Andrei Ivanov 11:47
I think that the problem is not just only that the young people are going out from Belarus. The problem is that everyone tries to get out of Belarus. So not just young people, people who are 30, 40, 50? If they have an opportunity, they go somewhere, start business in the country. So try to set there, to get their permanent residence there and then maybe the citizenship. So not just young people, but young people understand more. So young people were not born in the USSR. They were born in these barriers, and they understand what is happening. And they are trying to do this just after they finish school, university…

Brian Crane 12:32
Yeah, to get out.

Andrei Ivanov 12:32
Yeah, to get out. So that’s why at the moment, a lot of people try to find something better because our government don’t want or can’t give our people what they deserve.

Brian Crane 12:48
Now, what about internet censorship? Is there, is the internet censored? What…?

Andrei Ivanov 12:54
So our government controls the only provider of internet, so what is behind that? I can’t tell, but I suppose yes, of course. So if we have only one provider, if the government asks to put a special device somewhere in the

Brian Crane 13:12

Andrei Ivanov 13:13
Yeah. So it means something. I think that – so yeah, there is some kind of control. How do they use it? I don’t know. But I think that it is.

Brian Crane 13:23
So – on a more positive note, I will say a couple of things I learned interesting about Belarus. Number one is it has the most trees of any country in Europe, something like 40% of the country is covered in trees. So it’s known as, what, the lung, the lungs of Europe.

Andrei Ivanov 13:39
Yeah, yeah, we are very we are very green country. And not only just because of these forests, if you come to any city of Belarus, you will find a lot of trees and parks, in every city and every town. So I think that’s cool. Yeah, that’s right.

Brian Crane 13:56
And for folks who don’t know the geography of kind of the Northern European plane, it’s… Poland is exceptionally flat. Belarus is exceptionally flat. It’s almost like the Midwest in the US. I know you were in the US for a year but you were only in New Jersey? Yeah. So it’s just, it’s almost like open planes effectively right? And what did you say about the seasons, is that summertime there’s magical, wintertime when it snows is magical but outside of that?

Andrei Ivanov 14:31
So winter is a good season in our country. Of course it’s very beautiful. So we have a lot of trees with a lot of flowers. So that’s really beautiful. So late summer, late spring, then summer, and maybe early Autumn is very beautiful. If we have snow in winter, it is also beautiful but with this global warming, we have less and less snow every year, and it becomes gray without snow. But if you have snow, that’s really beautiful. Our children are very happy to be able to play with the snow make snowmen… No, that’s not bad.

Brian Crane 15:12
And what about just the Belarusian people in general? You had told me yesterday that they are quite a bit warmer than Russians.

Andrei Ivanov 15:22
Yeah, but the Belarusian people are different from Russians. And sometimes, you know, even offensive – sounds like an offense when you’re called Russians, not Belarusians. They are Russians, but we are Belarusians, not Bela-Russian. Belarusian.

Brian Crane 15:41
Belarusian, okay.

Andrei Ivanov 15:42
Yeah. So and I think, yes, so we are different. So we are kinder, so we are warmer. We are very, very hospitable. I was talking about Georgia, yes, there was also… so people from Georgia are also very hospitable. So I think that we are quite the same. So we are positive. So whatever happens, we will remain being positive. So, I think it’s a very good thing. Why also aggressive? So I think we are not aggressive at all. So… that’s the point, I think, so… That’s the difference from Russians.

Brian Crane 15:43
And, and with with respect to Belarus and its history related to Lithuania and Poland, it was one country at one point, right?

Andrei Ivanov 16:33

Brian Crane 16:34
And what was the language that was spoken?

Andrei Ivanov 16:39
It was, it was some kind of, you know, you mean the history right?

Brian Crane 16:46
Yeah. What was the name of the country?

Andrei Ivanov 16:48
It was Pilita.

Brian Crane 16:49
That was because –

Andrei Ivanov 16:50
Of all that country. Yeah. So the language, you know, it was some it was an ancient language. It was the mixture of Polish language, Belarusian language, and Lithuanian language. So in different times it was different language. So you know, there were hard times. So it was Lithuanian language, some part of it was Belarusian language. So then the Poland language, so… Time changed, so the language also changed. The politics changed. So, but still we have a lot of common words with Polish language, and I think that the Belarusian language is more familiar, more… similar to Polish language than them to Russian if we take the roots and native language, not Russian substitution of original words.

Brian Crane 17:41
Yeah. You had told me yesterday that the people who speak Bela-Russian – or Belarusian are viewed almost as…

Andrei Ivanov 17:53
Suspicious, with suspicion.

Brian Crane 17:55
Yeah, because the president doesn’t actually speak it.

Andrei Ivanov 17:57
So that’s my point of view. So our president speaks Russian. And I have never heard him speaking Belarusian language. So and as a president of Belarus that’s, that seems strange. So we have two official languages Russian and Belarusian, but our president speaks only Russian. And those who speak Belarusian are considered to be like of little position. And they are looked at with suspicion.

Brian Crane 18:24
That they are, um… there’s an old expression about one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And depending on who’s looking at him, some people would consider him to be a domestic terrorist, possibly.

Andrei Ivanov 18:37
Yeah. But anyway, so I think that our Belarusian language is getting better, year after year. So more and more people speak it, and whether our president wants it or not, our language is moving forward. So we have, you know, signs around the country in Belarusian language.

Brian Crane 19:01
Like a nationalist movement away.

Andrei Ivanov 19:03
Yeah, really not very quick, not very quick but steady moving forward. And our Belarusian language has not been forgotten.

Brian Crane 19:14
So a couple other interesting things, because after you and I talked last night, I started to do some research. Average salary in Belarus is roughly $400 a month.

Andrei Ivanov 19:23
Yeah. So, you know, if you just, if you just make a close survey of the salaries, what I remember is some kind of 10 years ago, our president promised that at least $500 will be will be their salary of dollars per month, yeah. After this 10 years, we have the same promise to get this $500 as a salary. So if we have this $500 in salary, Iit’s not big money, of course, but it will be enough to live more or less comfortably within the barriers. So, so we can’t really travel around the world. But within the barriers, it will be okay with the sum of money, but still we don’t have that. So we have the promise that salary in two years and three years, so you’ll get this $500 but nothing happens.

Brian Crane 20:28
And there’s no, there’s no real movement to overthrow this guy, effectively. There’s, there’s sort of an expectation of “we’ll just ride it out until he passes away” and he doesn’t have like a prince or a son who’s waiting in the wings to take.

Andrei Ivanov 20:47
Not at the moment. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. The first one is control. So they’re… the police forces, the military forces, some special forces like, so you call it FBI in your country?

Brian Crane 21:06
Internal Security Agency?

Andrei Ivanov 21:07
KGB? Yes, golden. So I think that these forces are under control and they control this nation’s barriers. And don’t let anything happen, first of all. The second thing is that actually, there are no other candidates, potentially, that can change the situation because if someone tries to think that he maybe, can participate in the elections and become another president, something happens that… this candidate’s, this candidate is out of this race, president race, so… In every election we have, you know, our president as the number one candidate, and some no-names which are, you know, can’t be a real president. So, that’s my point of view. So let’s happen this way.

Brian Crane 22:05
I had read that there is an old Soviet expression, which is “the government pretends to hold elections and the people pretend to vote.” Or that maybe a better way to say it is that “it’s not he who votes that counts, but he who counts the votes.” Famous phrase from Stalin.

Andrei Ivanov 22:23
I think the thought was, it’s not Stalin, probably. It’s some British politic. Yeah, maybe Margaret Thatcher. I can be mistaken. But yeah, the thing is that it’s not it doesn’t matter how people vote. It doesn’t matter who comes.

Brian Crane 22:40
It’s who counts it.

Andrei Ivanov 22:42

Brian Crane 22:42
Yeah, and certify the election. Yeah. Well, I think on one side that is compelling for Belarus is… I hope that whenever, if I say his name, is it Lukashenko. Is that correct?

Andrei Ivanov 22:59

Brian Crane 22:59
Yeah, when he moves on that Belarus as a country moves more into the orbit of Europe, because like you’ve said right now, is it’s not even really considered. It’s very much in the orbit of Russia. And historically speaking, Russia gets very antsy when anything gets closer and closer to threatening its border. And by its border, I mean, that is able to strike at Moscow or move into the heartland of Russia. And so for that reason, Belarus is quite important to Russia as a buffer between it and Europe, right?

Andrei Ivanov 23:36
Yeah. So my political views are not my strong side, but as far as I know, so yes. So we are important for Russia to be such a zone and you told that our country is trying to look West, westward, and try to make some context with Europe. And of course, that’s what Russia doesn’t like. And these processes have started not long ago, maybe within a year. So now we have the possibility to pay less for visas because of such a such policy because Belarus started to talk with Europe. And that’s why I think that we’re trying to look westward and not just, you know, eastward, but westward.

Brian Crane 24:39
And one other shift that’s happened is that at least since last year, if you’re coming from certain countries, and the US would be one of them, if you land in Minsk in the airport, you’re able to enter the country and spend 30 days there visa free, which is unique. If you cross the border like on a land border you can’t do that if you come in another way, you can’t do that. It has to only be through the Minsk airport but you can come in for 30 days visa free and so you get more Europeans probably coming in as a result of that.

Andrei Ivanov 25:12
Partially through so if you fly to Minsk it’s okay and if you cross the border and will visit Grodno for example abreast by car, it is also possible. So but you cannot cross the border and go to Minsk. Because you…

Brian Crane 25:30
It’s too far.

Andrei Ivanov 25:31
Yeah. You’re not supposed to leave this zone of visa free zone. So and if you just go by car, you can’t go by means of car because you will leave the Grodno freezone so you should fly to Minsk to visit Minsk for free, without visa.

Brian Crane 25:47

Andrei Ivanov 25:47
Or go by car to visit Grodno abreast.

Brian Crane 25:50
And then when you land there, in Minsk, you have to take out insurance, I think, as a foreigner, for the duration of your trip from what I’d read online is that effectively you, say, I don’t know what the insurance covers, but I think it’s partially to register you with the police. And then partially also to say it’s almost like a bond like if you break something or get in trouble…

Andrei Ivanov 26:10
I think medical insurance.

Brian Crane 26:12
It’s medical insurance?

Andrei Ivanov 26:12
That’s medical insurance.

Brian Crane 26:13
Okay. Okay.

Andrei Ivanov 26:15
But when we go to Europe, we also have some medical insurance. Must have it.

Brian Crane 26:23
Okay. For the single guys listening to this, what did you say last night about the Bela-Russian or the Belarusian women?

Andrei Ivanov 26:33
So they’re the worst. Oh, they’re the most beautiful. So you can argue that. So I…

Brian Crane 26:40
Your wife has also said that they are much more fit than, like physically fit than the Poles and the other countries around and why is that?

Andrei Ivanov 26:51
I didn’t know, because of, maybe because of fast food, I think.

Brian Crane 26:54
In Poland, yeah.

Andrei Ivanov 26:55
In Poland, in Europe.

Brian Crane 26:56

Andrei Ivanov 26:57
Maybe in the US as well.

Brian Crane 26:58
I went to a shopping mall last night to get a couple things and there was Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Burger King, like four or five of the big multinational brands, fast food chains were all over this place. And I can see that having an impact on their diet.

Andrei Ivanov 27:17
Speaking about growth. For example, we also have McDonald’s, Grondo.

Brian Crane 27:21
City of a quarter of a million people. 300,000 people, right?

Andrei Ivanov 27:25
Yeah. We don’t have one… Burger King. And that’s it. No Subway. No KFC. Yeah, so, lesson like that in Grondo, just in Minsk means so maybe we are still trying to stay away from that a bit.

Brian Crane 27:45
It was I mean, it was crazy. I looked at flying into Grondo to meet you and Roman and there was no public airport. When I mean public airport, I mean an airport that commercial airlines fly into and so Grodno is three hundred thousand people. But it’s a three, three and a half hour drive from Minsk, from Warsaw… And you have to cross a border, an actual manned Czech border to get into Poland. So the feasibility of getting there. If you’re coming in on an EU passport or an American passport, it’s effectively you gotta fly to Minsk and take the train. Is that right?

Andrei Ivanov 28:21

Brian Crane 28:22
Yeah. Okay, let’s stop there. Thanks for chatting with me.

Andrei Ivanov 28:26
Thank you! Yeah. If you if you have some more questions, so we can chat again, sometime in the future…

Brian Crane 28:33
I definitely want to get to Belarus. It’s a country that I, prior to me and you two, knew very little about and now I’m very interested to go there.

Andrei Ivanov 28:41
I still welcome you.

Brian Crane 28:42
Thank you. All right. Cheers.

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