Minsk hopes to become Las Vegas for russians
Russian government severely restricted gambling in Russia in 2009, and Belarus authorities quickly spotted the opportunity.
Gambling supplemented by other services became a source of high profit for local authorities and business, which is often the same Belarus. Since that time wealthy Russians started their pilgrimage to Minsk to squander their fortunes.
For less rich and venturesome Russians, Belarus became attractive due to other reasons. Some of them look for Soviet spirit of their youth, others like calmness and order of local life. For them, Belarus presents an example of how Russia could develop if the situation developed differently after USSR collapse.
Good Old USSR with European Tinge
When Russians speak about their travelling to Belarus, they usually tell very similar stories which involve positive feelings. When Russians cross the border, the quality of Belarusian roads becomes the first good impression. As famous phrase says, there are two disasters in Russia: fools and roads.
Belarusian roads really seem better than Russian roads. "Just try to drive the road between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, let alone any road in provinces, and you will feel the difference", Russians say to their sceptical Belarusian colleagues.
The Russians are amazed by the fact that Belarusian police usually do not take bribes
Belarus traffic police presents another road-related issue that Russians cannot understand in a positive sense. They are amazed by the fact that Belarusian police usually do not take bribes, while in Russia being a traffic policeman became a sort of business enterprise.
The second nice thing in Belarus is the state of cultivated lands and small settlements and villages. In Russia, government dissolved most of kolhoz (communist collective agricultural enterprises), and many lands remain abandoned because peasants simply do not want to work on them.
In Belarus, state enterprises remained up to now and have to cultivate all the lands regardless of their quality. This creates the picture of total diligence of Belarusians that contrast unorganised Russians. Furthermore, villages simply look better: houses and fences are fixed, and the area around them groomed well. This picture creates somewhat more "European" image of Belarus compared to Russia.
"The Last Slavic Country"
Practically all of them admire omnipresent cleanness of the streets, the one that Belarusians spitefully call "sterility". For elder people, Belarusian cities remind good old Soviet past with its confidence in one’s own future. People feel calmness and relief after bustling life in Russian megalopolises.
However, for the younger visitors, this makes an opposite impression. They look for night life, culture events and shopping, and this type of entertainment for youth Belarus cannot offer. Belarusians themselves prefer to go to the neighbouring Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine for these purposes.
Somewhat surprisingly to Belarusians, visitors from Russia often note and particularly like the absence of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia in Belarus. This category of migrants flooded Russian cities in search of income and became a crucial factor in the Russian society, as it often causes tension on national grounds.
The underdeveloped Belarusian state capitalism does not attract migrants on such a scale. Belarus, in the eyes of many Russians remains "the last white Slavic country".
Post-Soviet Las Vegas
In 2009, Russia introduced restrictions on gambling industry. Apart from four special zones, the government ordered to close all gambling houses on the Russian territory. Belarusian authorities decided to use this important gap for enrichment and enhanced the development of gambling sector.
Some Russian companies that own gambling business decided to move their assets to Belarus. Around 30 casinos operate in Minsk and a lot more places with slot machines.
Minsk is becoming an entertainment centre for rich Russians, predominantly from Moscow. A poll in 2012 showed that Russians spent $3,000-5,000 only in casinos during one weekend in Minsk. Their average bill at a restaurant amounts to $200, roughly half of salary of a common Belarusian.
The flight from Moscow takes only one hour, and many firms now offer gambling tours. When you drive the Moscow-Minsk highway, you can see more and more billboards which advertise gambling as you approach Minsk. Likewise, a lot of of gambling ads hang on the road from Minsk international airport.
During holidays and weekends, Russians book a good amount of places in hotels and restaurants of Minsk. Deluxe service industry receives huge profits from such visitors, and in fact works mostly for Russians. Most Belarusians simply cannot afford such costly entertainment.
Although prostitution remains invisible in the streets of Belarus, sex industry surely accompanies such cash-rich enterprise as gambling tourism. Inside hotels, it became a common thing although outside one might think that Belarus remains prostitution-free.
Gambling became one of the reasons for increase in elite real estate sales in the capital. To feel more comfortable, gamblers simply buy the best flats in Minsk for prices that seem insignificant comparing to prices in Moscow.
The New Landlords
Of course, gambling presents not the only reason of Russians for buying property in Belarus. After 2011 economic crisis and devaluation of Belarusian rouble property market fell, and rich Russians started to buy elite flats in Minsk centre in order to sell them profitably when the crises would be over.
Also, Russians eagerly buy houses in the regions with pleasant natural conditions – like Braslaŭ region with famous lakes in north-western corner of the republic. They either use them for personal recreation or start tourist business there.
Another group of Russians that tend to buy property are ethnic Belarusians who return to motherland after retiring from extreme work in Russian north or noisy and stressful Moscow. They also have enough money to buy the best pieces of property, but do not aim to make profits. They seek quiet life in the land of their grandfathers.
Some Russians even buy estates of Belarusian gentry that locals abandoned either before Russian revolution of 1917 or soviet intervention in Poland in 1939. The estates belong to municipal property and local authorities sell them for ridiculous prices, because the investor has to pour huge funds to renovate them. However, some Russians or ethnic Belarusians from Russia have enough courage to invest in them: apart from the building, estates have beautiful lands around them with old parks and gardens.
In such situation, many Belarusians worry to become servants of rich Russian bosses on their own land. On the other hand, Russians present a desirable source of income for local business and authorities. Russia will always be here and Belarusians need to learn how to take advantage of it.