Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

In world rivalries, Trump isn't the beginning of the debate

My time in Belarus was full of great adventures with family, and I could write with love about its people, who are beautiful, and its history, which is fascinating, and its food, which is delicious. But today, in this world where trade negotiations affect us all, I thought to provide a different angle, a business angle, that underlines the boldness of China.

My question: What do you think about Donald Trump?

Their answer: “I don’t. He doesn’t mean anything to us. He doesn’t do anything for us.”

I asked the question to different Belarusians on my recent travels to their country, Belarus, where my wife was born. The answer was always roughly the same. In this former Soviet Republic, tucked between Poland, Ukraine, the Baltics, and its closest friend and partner on the east, Russia, Trump is largely a non-factor. The president of the United States, whom for years at home was falsely maligned by his opponents as a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is largely viewed as just another international leader: neither friend nor foe.

To a few Belarusians, Trump is an obstacle, as they mention the United States embargo of Venezuela and America’s on-again, off-again involvement in Syria, which they tout as “brilliant victories” by Russia.

The relationship between neighbors Belarus and Russia is a complicated one, but for most I spoke with, what’s good for Russia is generally good for Belarus. And Putin’s ability to win Crimea “without a shot” remains a talking point. Questions about Russia’s involvement elsewhere in Ukraine, which has led to conflict and destabilization, were dismissed as inconsequential. This sentiment contrasted with my experience last year in Russia itself, where for the first time in a decade I heard murmurings against Putin, and questions whether the U.S. economic sanctions because of Putin’s incursions into Ukraine (outside of Crimea) were worth it.

Those who follow international news might note the murmurs in Russia last year have turned into loud demonstrations this year. For the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Russians have turned out to protest in Moscow, the most serious challenge against Putin in years. At the center of complaints: chronic economic problems aggravated by Western sanctions. Living standards in Russia have fallen five years in a row.

But this column is not meant to focus on Russia. Or Trump. Because in Belarus, what looms large with the people I spoke with was economic development and trade, and two areas are booming, which have nothing to do with Trump (and only geographic connection to Russia). The first area is software development and IT services. In part thanks to the Belarusian government setting up tax-free zones for IT businesses, Belarus has turned into a powerhouse for computer programming, creating businesses serving the rest of the world. Employees who are now drawn from across Europe receive high salaries and Western-style benefits, which are otherwise rare in the country.

The second area that is booming — or, at least, being built to boom — is a multi-billion dollar economic development project, the largest in Europe, financed by China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” on the outskirts of Belarus’ capital, Minsk. This project, called “Great Stone,” is meant to be a hub on China’s “New Silk Road,” enticing high-tech companies with tax incentives and infrastructure support to locate there. Among its targets: mechanical engineers, medical equipment manufacturers, biotechnology companies, “fine chemistry,” electronics and electrical technology firms. After nearly a decade since inception and after years of construction, the first phase of the site recently held a grand opening, and media reports indicate “residents” already have more than a billion dollars in contracts.

Will the massive, government-organized development be successful? It’s too early to tell, but China is putting a lot of money and attention into the project, and it’s transforming not only the business environment but the social environment in Belarus, especially in Minsk. Street signs in some of the new areas around the airport are in Chinese. Chinese businessmen are regularly seen at trendy restaurants and malls.

Why is this important to us in Southeast Missouri? Simply, it underscores how aggressive China has been in developing a worldwide strategy for economic development, influence and dominance. We may read about China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” which is pumping money for infrastructure into targeted countries and international organizations around the world — including in “the Americas” — but seeing it in action is another matter.

America still shines as a land of opportunity to many in Belarus, and American business is present, too. Software developers and IT firms, for example, provide services to American multinationals. And I frequently traveled around Minsk by Yandex Taxi, which is a ride-hailing company co-owned by a Russian firm and the American-based Uber. But for many in Belarus, China is becoming the new great promise.

Curiously, when talking to one Yandex driver, after he was thrilled to hear I was from America, he explained his wife was a computer programmer who worked with American companies. He added to their budget by driving, where he made more money than his previous job. But his big hope was for them to move to America one day. And, if not there, “Definitely, China.”

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. He studied and worked in Russia in the 1990s, though he met his wife, a native of Belarus, at church in Cape Girardeau. A goal of theirs is that their four daughters spend at least six weeks with family in Russia or Belarus each summer.