Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Subway Bombing in Minsk, Belarus

In case you haven't heard: the capital of Belarus was rocked early Monday morning by a bomb exploding in the subway station where their two underground lines intersect.  12 are reported dead; more than 130 injured.
In a conversation with a smart, globally aware, middle-aged Russian colleague this morning, I was told that this bombing is a complete shock for citizens in the region: "Belarus is known as a very stable place: the people are not very well-off, but the country is very orderly and very clean.  The police are not corrupted; they are known for not being corrupt."
"I just don't see any motivation for this attack," she continued.  "Belarus is not involved in any conflicts like in Chechnya or anything, and they are not close allies of the United States or other big powers."

I was a little bit skeptical about her perspective and the reality of the "stability" in the region; from the way she was describing Belarus, it sounded like a great place to live.  I'd never heard such a great review of the country.  So I did a little research....


Here's an excerpt from a blog post called Zealous Belarus. While I haven't done the research to confirm all of these facts, I offer it as a brief overview of current regional issues:


The current economic and political self-portrait of Belarus is full of the brightest shades of the darkest colours. Since presidential elections in December 2010, the future of the country has been changing. On 12 April EU ministers will discuss potential economic sanctions against Belarusian authorities. No sweat: they already introduced economic sanctions against themselves.
The country faces a crisis in terms of hard currency: trading in foreign currency has been restricted and no flexibility in the exchange rate is allowed. It’s very difficult to buy dollars or euros, which makes foreign travel difficult, handicaps the private sector and could end-up bringing the biggest state factories to a standstill.
Belarusians have hurried to empty their bank accounts to buy foreign currency as well as anything that can be traded (gold) or might get a lot more expensive (sugar, buckwheat, sunflower oil).
Belarus lives beyond its means. Foreign debt skyrocketed from zero in 2006 to $10.6 billion dollars in March 2011. The government has ruled out a devaluation, which the IMF believes is a vital step.
It looks like Moscow is in control. It promised loans ($3 billion) but is in no hurry to pay them. First the Kremlin gave Minsk 10 days (!) to bring forward a plan for economic reforms. Now this document is being studied. Is Moscow expecting Belarus to give it carte blanche to buy the family silver (Belarusian chemical and machinery plants, oil refineries)? Russian businessmen have wanted this for a long time but could not get access.
Meanwhile, Russia is to raise its gas price for Belarus. It used to be $187 dollar per 1.000 cubic metres in 2010, $223 at the beginning of 2011 and will now be $244.7.
One sign that Belarusian authorities are once again putting their hope in the West is the release of a number of detainees from KGB detention centres considered by the EU to be “political prisoners.” Their charges have not been dropped but10 of them now face three instead of 15 years in jail. The official story is that this is the result of the investigations.
The two main sources of stability for Belarusian authorities have always been cheap Russian gas (for whtever reasons) and the trust of the wider public (for whatsoever reasons). The lack of the first asset shows the instability of the latter. And this at least is logical.

Using this portrait of Belarus to balance the idealistic one propagated by my Russian colleague, I think the actuality of the situation lies somewhere between the two.
Belorussian President Lukashenko has vowed to "turn the country inside-out" in pursuit of the terrorists to whom this attack has been credited.  St. Petersburg's metro security has been upgraded and officers put on high alert, but I'm a little wary of all metros these days.
Mayakovskaya Metro station - St. Petersburg

Last week I was traversing the city and spent about an hour in the metro system, making three different transfers.  My last transfer was at Mayakovskaya station (pictured at right). You can see that there are elevator-door type contraptions that open at the same time the train doors open on the other side of the wall.  So when it's busy everyone ends up in a queue on either side of the doors.  I was about the third or fourth person in line on the right side of one of these doors, peacefully waiting for the train, when a women dressed entirely in black -- a half length burqa with veil and face covered, plus loose black pants tucked into black army-style high-top lace-up boots -- walked right up to the doorway, passing everyone in the queue, and stood with her nose only an inch away from the metal doors. She was wearing a rather large backpack and also had a smaller messenger bag strapped across her chest.  Something about her comportment and behavior made me immediately uneasy, and from my very core -- not my brain -- arose a little voice that suggested: Why don't you just wait for the next train, Shirah?
I pulled out my cell phone, pretended to answer it -- in French, not English -- and slowly took about three steps backward, turning to "look for" someone whom I pretended to wait for.  I can't quite explain the feeling that this woman evoked in me; it wasn't something I consciously thought about and formulated, but rather an irrepressible sense that something was amiss mixed with the anticipation of a dreadful event.  As I watched the doors close and the rumble of the train pulling away from the station, I held my breath and prayed that it would arrive in one piece at the next station.  It did.  I let a few more trains come and go before I boarded one myself and then calmly walked out onto the street and on home.

I arrived in St. Petersburg one week after the Moscow airport bombing, and while concern about the possibility of terrorist attacks here is not something that plagues my every day, I do find myself paying close attention to my surroundings, especially in public transportation.  I try not to speak at all, especially in English, when I'm on the metro, and subconsciously profiling fellow passengers has become a habitual routine. This is the only time I've been quite so uneasy about someone. Even though nothing happened to reinforce my apprehension, I've decided to never ignore my instincts.  It wouldn't be the first time that I escaped a potentially harmful situation thanks to a still, small voice.

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