Why China Is Investing Big Time In Belarus

Beijing is making infrastructure investments in and around Minsk that no one else is prepared to make. It may be a gateway to business in both Europe, and Russia.

Is China setting its sights on Minsk?
Nikolai Anishenko

MINSK — The Chinese ambassador in the Belarusian capital is enjoying a special status. That’s because it’s unlikely any other country is prepared to make the kind of infrastructure investments here that China is planning.

There are, for example, the Minsk International Airport, hidden behind the trees, and a highway that connects Minsk with Moscow in one direction and with Berlin in the other. High-speed rail is also planned, and there are rumors that 600,000 Chinese people will be migrating to Belarus.

It’s not clear where the Chinese companies plan to market their wares, now that they will have a foothold just 300 kilometers from the EU and Russia — which has a Customs Union with Belarus. But anything is possible: China is interested in expanding to any market that its products can reach.

A village against the technopark

The blue gas pipe in the town of Bykachino, 20 kilometers from Minsk, arrived in the fall. Most of the work was done on the pipeline at around the same time that the residents in this and 13 other small towns were preparing to see their homes destroyed, to make way for the largest construction project under Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko — the Belarusian-Chinese Technopark.

Electronics, machinery, chemistry, biotechnology and manufacturing — it will all be there, spread out over 90 square kilometers, most of which is now forest. Technopark tenants are promised major benefits: complete tax amnesty for the first 10 years and a 50% tax cut for the second 10 years. Of course, the residents who are being forced to move aren’t getting anything like that.

There is some discussion about what “residents” means in these towns. Irina Kozel, for example, was born in Bykachino and her mother lives here, but Kozel lives in Minsk, where she works as a teacher. She and her husband built a house in Bykachino 15 years ago out of a desire to get back in touch with the land.

There are many people like her who live in Minsk but have houses in the country, and it was via the media that they discovered their property could be destroyed, with minimal compensation. After collective outrage, the government changed its mind about destroying the houses, but the general plan for development didn’t change.

“Now they say they won’t touch us for 15 years,” Kozel says. “That means we’re basically on a reservation. Then they promised to give us new land. Then what? Build from scratch again? Everyone is outraged now.”

Residents in these small villages, lost in the forest, have a guerrilla relationship with the press. They beg the media to tell people “what is being done to us,” and they claim to have gathered hundreds of signatures against the industrial park’s construction. But at the local meetings about the project, there were 299 people who showed up in support of the technopark. And only two who opposed it.

“The truth is, I don’t understand where they got that number from,” says Victor Obmetko, a local resident. “We haven’t seen any government representatives here. Everything we know about the project development, we’ve learned from the newspapers.”

Information vacuums generally breed fear — about environmental harm and the possible migration of 600,000 Chinese people to Minsk. No one knows where that number comes from, but there are genuine reasons to be worried about the environmental impact of the technopark.

The area is home to many underground lakes, which is why it was not developed during the Soviet Union. There are also two wildlife sanctuaries, several animal burial grounds, and the Petroviski reservoirs, which provide water for much of Minsk.

People are equally worried about demographic changes. “If there is a mass immigration of Chinese people, I don’t even know what language we’ll all be speaking here in a couple of years,” says Obmetko.

At the moment, though, the most concrete fear is of massive clear-cutting. “We are proud of our forest,” says Kozel, whose father helped plant the forest after the war. “No one has thought of the consequences for Minsk or for the country.”

As a last attempt to stop the massive project, Kozel and others tried to build an Orthodox church six months ago because village residents thought it would scare off foreigners. They quietly gathered signatures in support of the church, without attention from the press. But the local authorities looked over the proposal — and denied it.

A window to Russia?

There were several major presentations in China about the new technopark over the course of 2013, and they all emphasized Belarus's Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan — which means a location in Belarus would allow unprecedented access to markets in both of those countries.

“The government is obviously not counting on selling the goods produced in the technopark in Belarus,” explains Yaroslav Romanchuk, a former presidential candidate. “They are only thinking about how potential residents can sell on the Russian market.”

Romanchuk thinks the technopark is like a hole in the fabric of the Customs Union. “The union requires working together on questions of trade, customs and macroeconomic policies,” he says. “The technopark is an example of one country creating favorable conditions for a third country that is outside of the union, which could create problems if the project is too successful and starts to squeeze out products from Russia and Kazakhstan.”

But Romanchuk thinks there are other things that might get in the way of a successful technopark. “It's hard to consider a country where the government can’t handle inflation, and where there is no clear monetary policy, as a reliable place for long-term investment.”

For China, the project in Belarus is an attempt to expand the network of Chinese technoparks to a third continent, after Asia and Africa. It’s no secret that China has acquired a number of European companies, mostly in the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries, as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have insisted that those countries privatize key state companies and industries. It’s possible that the project in Belarus will serve as a model for the red dragon to spread its wings throughout all of Europe.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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