and what two countries’ “deeper integration” might bring to Belarusian urbanites

Lately it has become more common to hear talks of legislation harmonisation and even total state amalgamation of Belarus and Russia. Details remain undisclosed to the public, and it is uncertain whether the new agreements will remain just on paper. Despite anxiety in Belarusian society (according to independent polls, “deeper integration” is supported by no more than 15% of it), the topic is largely ignored by international media. One of the possible reasons is the stereotype that differences between these two non-democratic countries are minimal. However, a closer look at practices of waste management, public services, urban planning, housing construction, transportation provision, and municipal forestry in two states suggests that decision-making redelegation from Minsk to Moscow may change urban life of Belarusians dramatically.

In October 2019, Minsk Cyclist Society published their analysis of potential implications from such «deepened integration» for Belarusian cycling infrastructure. As well, the Society encouraged other organizations to conduct and publish such an analysis regarding their areas of activities.

Since 2014 Minsk Urban Platform promotes participatory planning, qualitative field research and educational events, all to spread practices and ideas of comfortable and just urban living in Belarus.

We are closely monitoring news from Russian cities and occasionally visit them ourselves. We happily share our experience with Russian colleagues, invite them to do lectures in Belarus at our international events and publish their essays on our website.

Considering our expertise, the Platform team is very much concerned by the prospect of potential integration with Russia. Extra attention, we believe, has to be drawn to today’s peculiarities of Belarusian cities, as some of them are truly valuable.
This text is our statement on how application of Russian practices and regulations in planning and public services management would affect quality of urban living in Belarus.

Although the text is not based on any comprehensive research — it is nonetheless stems from our broad expertise and knowledge of Belarusian urban realities.
Discussing the issue we do not only employ numbers and sophisticated stats, but also do consider such qualitative attributes of “urban” that create everyday experience of city dwellers.

Likely effects of “deepened integration” are not limited to the issues of regulations and building codes, they might also be very practical. In the article we linger on several most acute outcomes.

Broad opportunities

Belarus today possesses a set of structural opportunities for financial and expert support of its cities, although some of them are not used wisely. Over the last couple of years, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has supported plenty of urban projects in Belarus. EBRD aid helped repair water discharge and supply systems, as well as solid waste management systems in a number of Belarusian cities. Furthermore, there is a project on electricity grid modernization. As many as 48 Belarusian towns and cities participate in the Covenant of Mayors, a EU-sponsored project that aims to reduce atmosphere emissions (and no Russian cities participate in the Covenant)

Eastern Partnership has already enabled Belarus to hold more than 400 events, among them are the Republican Ecological Forum in Navahrudak as well as movie shows, cycle races and open door days at the Polatsk Hydroelectric Plant.

Belarusian cities are open for visa-free visits from citizens of the EU, US, Canada, Ukraine, Russia and multiple other countries. It makes Belarus an attractive platform for hosting international events, especially regarding those parties for whom Belarus is literally the only middle ground available.

Russian Federation, in turn, is neither a member of Eastern Partnership nor does it participate in the Covenant of Mayors. Even EBRD does not cooperate with Russia since 2014.

EU citizens are required to obtain a visa when visiting Russia, with the exceptions of Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad which have some short-term visa waiver for tourists.
Summing up, today Belarusian cities and towns enjoy plentiful opportunities that their Russian counterparts lack. They incrementally, if a bit slowly adopt the practice of using those opportunities in a smart way.

Energy efficiency and waste management

Waste management in Belarus is not as highly developed as its is in Western Europe, but nevertheless it’s much more advanced than in Russia. By its waste management efficiency, Belarus, although being far from Western Europe, is still far ahead of Russia. Today in Belarus 19 % of solid waste is being recycled, compared to just 7 % being recycled in Russia. Coloured bins for plastic, paper and glass today can be found not only near the majority of high-rise residential quarters of Minsk or Hrodna but also in smaller cities like Navahrudak, In Saint-Petersburg such trash bins are not as widespread and mostly only bins for plastic bottles are installed. Meanwhile in Belarus we witness trash recycling plants construction and separate garbage bins installation with active funding support from the EU. In Belarus public interest ads tradition is strong and recycling is widely promoted by catchy mottos.

Moreover, the EU supports projects aspiring to increase country’s energy efficiency (in particular through solar thermal collector installation in schools and street lightning modernisation).

Still novel for Belarus, reverse vending system is about to come along in 2020. At least, that is what is being actively discussed in the society. When introduced, plastic will be much more easily collected, and more of it will finally reach a recycling plant.

In order to increase energy efficiency in Belarus the program of additional facade insulation and roofs reconstruction in residential high- rise buildings EBRD is ready to grant loan for these purposes.

Public Services and Security

The renown cleanliness and tidiness of Belarusian cities hides something more important than meets the eye. Constant repainting and plastering, which is commonly made fun of, may constitute a controversial practice in urban realm. Nevertheless, it certainly has a practical advantage as many surfaces, materials and other physical elements decay much slower.

In cities of the Russian Federation explosions of household gas became more frequent recently. Only through 2017-2018 as many as 61 cases were reported by RIA News, and the public opinion has concluded that “Russian gas security monitoring substantially degenerated over the last decade”. In fairness to Russia, Belarus has known such tragedies too. but there are no more than a handful of those.

Crime rates in Minsk remain relatively low. According to stats provided by Russian urbanist Ilya Varlamov, murder rate in Minsk is 4 times lower than in Novosibirsk, the closest city to Minsk in terms of population.

Finally, Belarusian cities maintain better ecology, at least because they are able to import food and supplies from the EU. Russia in contrast initiated the ban on imports from EU in 2014 in response to political and economic sanctions. In case of Auchan, a typical supermarket that is located in an average big Russian city, a majority of fruit and vegetables come from South America, Africa and Asia, while in Belarus the same items would be supplied from Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. In a regular Minsk supermarket one is able to find a broad range of goods that have traveled only several hundred kilometers, not many thousands.

Construction and demolition

Current development practices in Russia are quite different from Belarusian ones. There have been numerous cases of predatory seizure of land. In Rostov-on-Don, for instance, an entire neighborhood was set on fire in 2017 to justify land seizure, and this is far from being the only case. Many new developments in Russia are built not up to the fire code — their upper floors are unreachable to any fire escape ladder. Public transit service often comes into newly-built neighborhoods with a lag of several years, and bike infrastructure there is planned rarely, if at all.

In Belarus, despite development process not ever being discussed with the public and real estate market being dominated by a handful of big players, construction industry does not put residents in a state of risk.

Russian cities face widespread housing stock demolitions. Only in Moscow though 2010-2014, 60 buildings – monuments of culture and history – were damaged or completely destroyed (full list can be found here). Not only historic buildings but also Khruschev era houses are demolished.

Belarusian Ministry of Architecture and Construction has approved the National Universal Design Concept. It establishes rules and requirements to accessibility on a national level. As far as we are informed, Russia has not yet adopted a similar concept.

Meanwhile, Russian cities are better provided with houses of worship, especially with newly built ones (some of these constructions were preceded by felling of significant amounts of trees). On average, Russian million cities have 4–5 of them per 100 000 residents; in Minsk this figure is 2.5 as of 2019.

Sustainable mobility

In terms of traffic safety, Belarus is far ahead of Russia – numbers on traffic-related deaths are the evidence. Equally important are practices in public transit management. Today Belarus has almost entirely fulfilled its need for vehicle fleet, which includes buses, trolleys and trams. Those are being exported in numerous countries, including Russia.

In Russia, on the other hand, in spite of existing vehicle production capacity, the stats reveal a steadily declining electric public transit. Since 2014 many cities have shut down trolleybus networks, among those are Perm, with more than a million inhabitants (without subway), and Moscow and Tver are about to shut down theirs. Even considering that Moscow tries to substitute trolleybuses with (battery-powered) electric buses (with a lag of a few years though), other cities opt for minibus and diesel bus as an alternative.

Minsk in contrast has a little number of private minibus agencies, not only given their regulatory status, but rather because the demand is being satisfied by high capacity public transit well enough.

Many bus stops, not just in Minsk, are equipped with electronic schedule boards, additionally service schedules are available on local agencies’ websites and in popular apps (Yandex, Google).

For comparison, Russian Rostov and Voronezh, both having more than one million inhabitants do not have available public transit schedule at all, and electronic schedule boards remain just a few exceptions. In the evening time (after 9 or 10 pm), big capacity buses are a rarity.

Bike infrastructure shows the most drastic difference between the two countries. In Belarus it is being paid much bigger attention; Minsk Cyclist Society publishes detailed reviews of the National Bike Concept, admits the increasing number of cyclists in cities (the growth is more than 7 times within last 10 years), as well as growing bike infrastructure, successful introduction of bike-sharing in Minsk and Brest etc.

The above is far from the full list of Russian vs. Belarusian cities’ differences. The former are characterized by random and unauthorized constructions, obnoxious ad banners, “predatory” parking, if you can call it, right in the middle of sidewalks and omnipresent disregard for speed limit. These can be ascribed to “difference of cultures”, but they also indicate that corresponding city services in Belarusian cities do work more efficiently.

So what's the difference?

Despite its questionable political freedoms, Belarus delivers fairly good infrastructure maintenance, not only in major cities.

Belarus has poor natural resources. It is significantly less corrupt than Russia according to independent global rankings. Its cities exchange experience with geographically close cities of the EU. Finally, its social contract presumes that reduction in political freedoms is compensated by at least minimal stability of the life quality (while ideological speculations cause little interest among public). During decades of independence these factors altogether resulted in a definitely not ideal but still minimally adequate and population-friendly practice of urban management and maintenance. At least it entails some commitment to sensibility in spending, as well as substantial involvement of the state in the management of urban environment.

Is there a chance to keep all these, when being unified with a super-power that has already got 15 million-plus cities itself in addition to 22 cities with 500K+ population and, more importantly, very different approach to the city?

There are no guarantees that Russian urban practices are not coming to Belarusian cities, backed by legislators, city managers, developers, decision-makers now residing in Moscow, or plainly lots of Russians immigrating to Minsk .

Belarusian city is really hard to confuse with any foreign one. It’s often regarded as “from-a-soviet-postcard city”, “Soviet relic” and “time machine”. Such urban landscape though represents a different point. Belarus in a far less degree than other USSR member states bet on denouncing the material legacy of communist era and substituting it with new artifacts. Instead, the path we took was to preserve and maintain what we were left with. As experience suggests, for a country with relatively scarce natural resources that wasn’t the worst option. We must realize, after all, that adoption of a now-foreign legislation and practices threatens to bring urban transformations of an exceptional power. If so, we will absolutely feel it in our daily lives.

Translated from Russian by Eugene Kalinouski.

Original text written by Andrey Vozyanov and Minsk Urban Platform;