'Europe's last dictatorship' gets Western PR makeover
AFP - Sunday, November 30
MINSK (AFP) - - Lenin's statue still stands proud in central Minsk, the KGB is still the KGB and authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko shows no sign of bringing his 14-year rule to an end any time soon.
But Belarus these days is trying to push friendlier relations with the West and overturn its image as "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe," a label once used by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
To this end, Belarus has recruited British public relations guru Lord Timothy Bell, famous for transforming the image of British ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher with advice on everything from policy to hair-styling.
"You'll be happy to work in our country with our people, with today's Belarussian authorities," Lukashenko told Bell at a meeting in Minsk this year before agreeing a contract with his firm Bell Pottinger.
"Today the world is developing in such a way that it's impossible to imagine this or that country without your line of business."
An image makeover is quite a challenge for a former Soviet republic whose economy is still predominantly under state control and where opposition protests are regularly crushed with overwhelming force by riot police.
But the government now has a new English-language website for prospective investors, Western journalists are being jetted to Belarus and even Intourist, the notorious Soviet tourism agency, is getting a spruce-up.
"Of course it's difficult to change Belarus' image," said Maria Filipovich, director of Belintourist, in an office dominated by a portrait of Lukashenko and located among some of the drab Soviet apartment blocks of central Minsk.
"People make up their minds without even coming here," she told AFP.
"Over the last three years, the government has been spending a lot on advertising the country abroad. The republic is planning to set up information centres in Paris and Berlin, as well as Lithuania and Poland," she said.
Belarus spent one million dollars (773,000 euros) on tourism advertising this year and is set to spend twice as much next year. "We're fighting to be among the countries that tourists want to visit," Filipovich said.
"The Stalinist buildings on Independence Prospect are unique!" she added.
Like many parts of Belarus, Minsk was largely destroyed in World War II and rebuilt as a Soviet city with broad avenues and huge squares. The city is kept as pristine as it was in Soviet times with few advertisements in the streets.
For tourists unimpressed by the imposing Soviet architecture, Belarus also has ancient forests and picturesque castles. The agro-tourism sector, where guests can stay in traditional farmhouses, is also being developed.
People like Andrei Klimov, a former political prisoner who was released this year as part of a Lukashenko amnesty to improve relations with the European Union, however, are highly critical of Belarus's PR efforts.
"It's an effort to whitewash the last dictatorship in Europe... It's a commercial project involving Bell and the illusions of Lukashenko," said Klimov, referring to the president's contract with London-based Bell Pottinger.
Lukashenko came to power in 1994 and has imposed authoritarian rule in Belarus, keeping close ties with Russia. Human rights organises regularly report on multiple abuses carried out by security forces in the country.
Unlike neighbouring Russia, the internal intelligence service makes no secret of its communist origins, still calling itself by the familiar Soviet name KGB.
Contacted by AFP, Bell Pottinger declined to comment on working in Belarus.
Yaroslav Romanchuk, an economist from the Mises Research Centre in Minsk who took part in an investment forum organised by the government in London earlier this month, was also unimpressed by Belarus's efforts to sell itself abroad.
"You can't sell bad goods by just changing the wrapper. They're trying to change the Soviet wrapper but it's not going to work... Foreign businessmen are condescending and pitying on Belarus's attempts to change its image," he said.
Speaking about PR on Belarus's business climate, he said: "There have to be changes in legislation, changes in personnel, changes in the decision-making process. There's a limit to what you can change with declarations alone."
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Lenin's statue still stands proud in central Minsk, the KGB is still the KGB and authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko (pictured) shows no sign of bringing his 14-year rule to an end any time soon. But Belarus these days is trying to push friendlier relations with the West and overturn its image as "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe."
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