Howard Davies: Belarus sparks fond memories

The MT Diary: Howard Davies reflects on Lithuanians in the EU hot seat, and puts in a rare good word for Ryanair.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 17 Jul 2013

As politicians and economists argue the toss about austerity, the Baltic states have assumed unwanted (by them) significance.

They were the first to feel the full force of the recession. Their economies boomed when they left the Russian bear's warm embrace, and not just because they became destinations of choice for low-rent Brityouth stag weekends.

GDP increased by 40% or so in the five years up to the crisis, then slumped by 20% or more in 18 months, as they cut costs, government spending and wages to try and restore budget balance and competitiveness.

They achieved that elusive economic feat of a large internal devaluation, and are now growing again, modestly. So they have been used by the Austerians as an icy stick to beat the Greeks, Cypriots and others rendered feckless by a warm climate.

The anti-austerity crowd find this most irritating. Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf have argued that they do not offer a useful lesson, that they suffered too much, and that post-Soviet economies are a different kettle of herring altogether.

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So it seemed worthwhile popping into Lithuania to have a look, even at a time when it fully lived up to the meaning of its name: the land of rain. The movers and shakers of Vilnius seemed a little shy of being in the eye of this particular storm.

Staying close to the EU is so obviously beneficial to the Lithuanians that they will make dramatic sacrifices in the cause. They did what they had to do, roughly sums up their attitude. They think others should draw that conclusion, too.

Does that matter? Well, they are about to take on the EU presidency and are unlikely to be sympathetic to richer countries asking for favours.

I was not the only UK visitor as the presidency approaches. The Lord Mayor of London preceded me and Richard Branson is next up. I fear the clean-living Balts may be shocked by his underpants with 'stiff competition' written on the front - worn at his latest PR triumph.

Most people are taken to the most exotic site in Vilnius - the self-styled breakaway republic of Uupis. It's a kind of Hay-on-Wye on the Baltic. It has a constitution, which includes such thoughtful clauses as 'a dog has the right to be a dog' and 'people have the right to be insignificant and unknown'. (The latter has never occurred to Sir Richard.)

They might think of offering it to the EU as a presidential gift, to replace the committee-designed camel we now have.

It is doubtful that any economists offer up Belarus as a model. Somehow, Soviet central planning remains a tarnished brand, not helped by the fact that the Russians gave up state control of the commanding heights in favour of handing them over to a collection of oligarchs in return for the usual consideration.

But the news hasn't reached Minsk, where the main drag is still named after Lenin and the British Embassy is housed on Karl Marx Street. You will have to take my word for that, as a stern militia man prevented me from photographing the flag.

I hope he wasn't following new Foreign Office orders that our embassies should be invisible to people seeking visas.

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You can, however, pop round the corner and snap a big bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, the original version of the Soviet secret police. His statue was pulled down by the crowds in Moscow as the USSR fell, but no such nonsense is permitted in Belarus, where he gazes sternly at the HQ of what is still known there as the KGB.

There are as many hammers and sickles in Minsk as you could want, and impenetrable and inexplicable bureaucracy at every turn. It took six attempts one day to find an open restaurant: at one, the staff locked the door as we approached, explaining that they were going out for lunch.

It is, in other words, an absolute joy for those who have always hoped that time travel would be with us one day. I felt 40 again - the age I was when we had to stop worrying about the Soviet menace and go back to thinking of the French as Public Enemy No. 1.

Minsk brings those good old days flooding back, in an exotic, pleasurable, not-really-frightening sort of way. There's a Gorky Park, with old-fashioned dangerous children's rides and no elf'n'safety rubbish.

I even enjoyed eating in a smoke-filled restaurant. You feel slightly ill at the end, but it takes you back. The beer tastes of beer and the ice cream does too. The soldiers (there are lots) have very silly caps with crowns shaped like a ski-jump.

There are also, to my surprise, some top-notch castles in the countryside, lovingly restored courtesy of Unesco. The Radziwi's old pad at Njasvizh is in what is now Belarus, but has variously been Lithuania, Poland and Russia in the past.

Next door - well, 30km away - was the Wittgensteins' hunting lodge at Mir. In the winter it must have been a schlep to drop by for tea, so rumour has it that they built a tunnel wide enough to allow two coaches to pass.

There's no need for tunnelling now, as the roads are rather good and not built with our money, as they are in southern Italy. So as I got back to the Lithuanian border after three days in socialist paradise, I was feeling sorry to leave.

But that soon passed. For reasons too complicated to explain, I had to walk across the border. The process challenged the experience base of the guards, who subjected my passport to the most rigorous examination it has ever endured, with inexplicable delays and Delphic comments.

It was quite a relief to get through and make my flight from Vilnius with five minutes to spare. I stumbled into the welcoming arms of Ryanair with huge relief. (Did I really write 'welcoming arms'?)

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