From Belarus with Love

From Belarus with Love 

Tirana Times -

By Anastasia Nazarko 

Tirana, Dec 16 - It is not often that Belarus makes major international headlines. Nestled between Russia, Poland and Ukraine, the country—currently under the 17-year-long presidency of Alexander Lukaschenko— has remained isolated from the international community. Still, however, educational and professional pursuits have led many Belarusians to neighboring countries and abroad. 

Having come to Albania in 2009, Elena Zanevskaya-Cela, a native of Minsk, Belarus, admits that life abroad was not necessarily something she had always planned on. Following high school, Elena enrolled at a European university in Minsk; however, following its government-imposed shut down in 2004, she realized that pursuing education outside of her country might be a better option. 

“Until my university was closed, I didn’t really think about politics or its problems. They didn’t affect my everyday life. But when the university was closed, it opened my eyes. I went with our faculty and the other students to watch the news. Interestingly, the university-closing wasn’t even mentioned; instead, other stories like dying fish were the headlines,” remembers Elena. 

So the next year, Elena transferred to American University in Bulgaria. The experience, she notes opened her eyes to a life in contrast with the traditions she has been accustomed to in Belarus. It was especially new to her because, as Elena described, Belarus does not have many foreigners, so exposure to other lifestyles was minimal. Still, however, Elena embraced the experience—one which brought her in contact with her future Albanian husband. 

“In Belarus we know Albania exists,” she says when asked about prior knowledge of the Balkan country. “But we don’t know anything else. It was funny because when my husband and I got married in Belarus, we couldn’t even find a single Russian-Albanian translator for the documents… Of course, it wouldn’t be a good business though, since we probably would be the one and only customers.” 

After staying in Belarus for a while, Elena and her husband decided to move to Albania. Although she had not visited the country before, Elena remembers the photo-books her husband had shown her with pictures of the country—”only good pictures of course,” she added with a laugh. 

Still the photographic introduction she received didn’t prevent her from being surprised when she arrived in Albania. 

“I was really surprised by the city structure. The streets were confusing, and sometimes you think you are going somewhere, and then there is a building at the end of the street. I had been used to Minsk, which is very organized. Here sometimes it is even hard to have a mailing address,” comments Elena. 

In addition, the Belarusian-native found the Albanian “coffee culture” interesting. In Belarus when friends want to get together it is customary to go to each other’s homes for cups of tea. In Albania, however, Elena noticed that people prefer to meet at coffee bars. 

“I noticed this in Bulgaria too,” she adds. “And I was always amazed by how Bulgarians and Albanians can sit at a coffee place and make a tiny cup of espresso last for hours. I preferred to invite friends over to my house.” 

Despite these factors, Elena appreciates the uniqueness of Albania—which she notes is so different from all of the other European countries she has visited— and enjoys the seaside, an element that land-locked Belarus lacks. 

Unfortunately, however, things may not be as sunny in her native country. Elena notes that since she left, the political situation and economy have become much worse. In an effort to have smooth and uncontroversial elections in 2010, the Belarusian administration played down any economic weaknesses and encouraged the notion that everything was going well. However, since then an economic crisis has permeated the country. At the time of elections, 1 USD was equal to 3, 000 Belarusian Rubles. Now, one year later, 1 USD is equal to a staggering 10, 000 Rubles. 

“It would have been better if the people had been warned of a weak economy,” notes Elena. “Then at least they would have been prepared and better able to manage.” 

In addition, the political administration has become stricter over the years—something compounded by a lack of opposition. 

“All of the opposition is already in prison; so there is no one left to protest. The remaining population may complain in their homes, but they are afraid to do anything. They don’t want to lose their jobs, and their daily needs are more important,” adds Elena. 

According to her, the situation is also unlikely to change. In fact, the future may depend on the Russian presidential elections. Since Belarusian President Lukaschenko’s administration has been strongly supported by the Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, Putin’s ability to be elected may have significant implications for the future of Mr. Lukaschenko’s presidency. 

Thus, while she can only wait and see what happens at home, Elena aims to enjoy her life in Albania. 

“It’s a good place to relax,” she says. “Albania is a lot of fun, and I would recommend it to any potential visitor. It is very different from the standard vacation packages one will get in other European countries.”