Austria and Belarus - Only Differences, or also Similarities?

Belarus is a pretty unknown country. And even myself, who focused the studies around the post-Soviet space, missed the country – but not because I was not interested in, but there was and still is a lack of offers in courses to learn something about that country.

I am lucky having the possibility to work and live in Minsk at the moment. The longer I live here, the more I find out interesting and surprising things and facts and the more I like to compare Belarus and Austria. This might sound strange because you might only see differences. But after living here for half a year I see similarities I'd like to mention.

Please do not understand the following text as scientific (even though I try to be facts driven) and I am working with „fun facts“. In addition, on some topics I cannot and don't want to get too much into details because (especially when it's for instance about history) I can only hint on general facts, years etc. but not go into deep and explain every detail. And sometimes I rather compare „fun facts“ to show similarities, which might be historically not completely correct. Not to forget that I do not know Belarusian history in detail.

Anyway, in case you would like to contribute something, add a notion and/or idea or correct something, please feel free to contact me:

But let's start with hard facts:

1. Differences

To begin with differences, the most obvious one is the size of the country. Austria has almost 84.000 sqm whereas Belarus has about 208.000 sqm making it almost 2,5 times bigger.

Now I guess here but when you ask people what they additionally know about Belarus, some might maybe say that they are orthodox and politically „different“, not able to say in detail what that exactly means... I dare to say that they have in mind that Belarusians are „somewhat (still) communistic“ or the like. Also backed by our media that (as a quote) „Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe“ and maybe in addition that the economy is state driven respectively planned (like in the Soviet Union).

2. Similarities

Yes, these are points making Belarus somehow different. But when you have the possibility to go below these superficial facts you are able to find similarities, even though some can be seen more as fun fact than facts driven.

a. Founding Year

To get back to the table above the more obvious are that both countries share some numbers.

The first one is the founding year for Belarus and might be for some (from the West) surprising. Because for most people there was only the USSR and often (Soviet) Russia synonymously used. But for those who were into the topic knew about the details of the USSR. Yes, it was centralised, but nevertheless there existed 15 states, each one having its own territory, flag, hymn and some additional things building their identity.

Anyway, the founding year of Belarus can be discussed and especially within Belarusians themselves because without question: Belarus has a history before this year. It was e.g. part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland or Russian Empire. But it was always a part of someone else and did not really have defined borders - because borders (and nations in general and with them national identity etc.) are „modern“ inventions coming into life in the 19th century.

So, see this more as a „fun fact“ but when it's about the borders we know nowadays, existence can be set in 1918 or 1919, either the short existence of the Belarusian People's Republic (Weißrussische Volksrepublik) or the Belarussian Socialist Soviet Repulic (hence, BSSR) one year later, with its definitive borders of today.

Without question Austria can also look back to a long history. Therefore I make it short: birthday of nowadays Austria is 1918 as a result of the lost (world) war and the break up of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, where many many more nations and ethnicities lived:

Austria's history is more connected to the Habsburg family and its core territories (what left today is 3, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 + Vienna and Burgenland what did not exist then) and not to Austria as a state or nation (which did not exist then), because the Habsburg monarchy was a multi national construct. „Austria“ played a major role - what led to conflicts with the other ethnicities and cumulated in loss of authority and the disintegration of the empire.

And for your information: People living in the „Austrian“ part of the monarchy did not consider themselves as Austrians but „Germans“, specific Germans. Because in fact, „Germany“ or better: the territories in the area what is nowadays known as Germany (and beyond), was a rag rug (Fleckerlteppich) of dozens of single kingdoms, shires, dioceses etc. being sometimes more or less in conflict with each other. What is the opposite of other countries like France, which was in comparison much more united and centralised.

My father, for instance, was elaborating about the German identity in his doctoral thesis. As far as I can remember (read it long ago) one conclusion was that Hitler was the first leader who could unite respectively harmonise „all“ German people under one nation and state. Because before for example Prussia was competing and fighting against the Habsburgs; Bavarians had problems with the Germans in the (North-)East and so on; also religious conflict lines were existing, where catholics were against protestants etc.
That's why Austrians for a long time considererd themselves as Germans - the term or categorisation was not connected to a specific nation and/or state. And that's also the reason why Austrians, after the dissolution of the empire, had no trust in the new, but small country. People in Austria thought that this small country is not able to survive. Furthermore, in the huge monarchy economy was separated to specific regions: industries and production were now in Czechoslovakia and harvesting was done in Hungary and the south-eastern regions. Austria had nothing specifically developed... That's why there was the overwhelming wish to unite with Germany – what was forbidden by the peace treaty of St. Germain in 1919. It was also forbidden to call the new born country „Deutschösterreich“ (= German-Austria) and rename to Österreich (Austria) only.

Like Belarus it took Austria about a year to define the borders of the new country and fix them in the ongoing year of 1919 as some elections were held for areas if to stay in Austria or unite with other countries (mainly new Hungary or the Yugoslavian Kingdom).

b. Flags and Emblems - Austria

As you can see in the grid, Austria's flag did not change a lot since 1918. The colours and usage can also look back on a long history as it was used by the Babenbergs, the second important family for Austrian history. But the line died and was followed by the Habsburgs. The shield/colours were often used as detail in a lot of symbols but not as a dominant symbol, what changed 1918.

I already mentioned that Austrian identity was poorly developed. In the 1920s and 1930s all countries suffered from economic crisis and ideologies like fascism got popular, leading to the Austrian Federal State (Ständestaat) 1934 and in the end to the Anschluss with Nazi-Germany 1938. Insofar the Austrian flag did not change until 1938 and was restored after 1945.

Unlike the flag the emblem changed between 1934-1938; an eagle was still used but with two heads and reminding more of „vintage“ design of monarchy times (please have researches for more details).

Comparing the eagle introduced 1918 and 1945 you may at first glance do not see a difference. But you have to have a closer look, especially at the bottom. The only difference is that broken chains got added to symbolise the liberation from the Nazi-Regime and reaching independence.
I'm not completely sure but Austria is the only country in the world having hammer and sickle symbolising in a triangle the harmonisation of workers, farmers but also the middle class symbolised by the mural crown on the eagles head.

b. Flags and Emblems – Belarus

The Belarusian flag itself did also hardly change (colour difference here is only because of different sources I got them from). The main difference is that hammer / sickle and star disappeared and the pattern on the left changed slightly.
Nevertheless, there was also another flag existing for a short time, which is the exact opposite of Austrias flag. It was in place for a very short time 1918 and again from 1991-1995. It was abolished because of political reasons as it is connected as a sign for collaborating with Nazi-Forces.

The emblem also only changed slightly. Again hammer and sickle (but not the star) disappeared and got exchanged by the shape of the country's border. The writing on the ribbons were removed, the name of the republic updated and the graphics have more contrast. Like the flag there was an interim emblem which is called Pahonia and connected to the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and it is still (or again) used by Lithuania.

By the way, what also hardly changed is the Belarusian hymn. The melody is the same since 1955 and only the text was updated.

But why the pretty similar symbols of the Soviet past? You can say that Belarus is the only country of the post-Soviet countries keeping the former insignias. Short question, long answer. I would like to summarise that the Soviet past was in general not a bad one and coined by redevelopment and progress of a country which was destroyed in a horrible war, making proud of what could be achieved.
This can also be a fact: that the Soviet past was not only and always something negative, as we in the West like to assume.

c. Some other numbers (population, capital etc.)

Except the size of the country, other sizes are quite similar. Both countries share almost the same amount of citizens (8,9 : 9,5), having only one megacity (capital) of almost the same amount of people (1,91 : 1,98).

Here I'd like to mention that Vienna already had a population of more than 2,2 million people. But this was 100 years ago, about 1915 and Vienna was back then one of the biggest cities in the world! It was the capital of the Habsburg empire which had about 50 million inhabitants meaning that almost 5% of all citizens lived in Vienna. After the break up of the monarchy, population declined until 1990 with about 1,5 mio. people and then rised again sharply. Vienna has a long history in growing and is nowadays the 2 nd biggest city in German talking countries, coming after Berlin (3,7) but leaving Hamburg behind (1,85).
Whereas Minsk grew in a very short time. After the Great Patriotic War ended, the capital experienced quick development and within 70 years it raised from 500.000 to almost 2 million.
Only the size differs a bit and Minsk is closer to Munich (310 sqm). But I already noticed that Minsk still has a lot more place left unlike Munich which has no space left to construct new buildings. In Minsk they mainly built and still build big blocks accomodating more people in a concentrated space (4 to 10+ storey buildings). That's why the city is still pretty green and still much place left even in the center.

There are other similarities, which can be seen as coincidence, nevertheless they exist.

Both countries have only one megacity, the capital, the others are much smaller. The 2nd biggest cities are Graz (291.000) and Gomel (550.000); here you can see that there is already a difference as the Austrian population is spread more even in the whole country and in Belarus it seems to concentrate on the cities. But here I have only a guess now.
What I also like to say and compare is that both capitals have 2 additional „sister cities“. For Vienna they are Prague and Budapest, being the most important and biggest cities in the Habsburg empire and hence sharing a long history together. Minsk has Kiev and Moscow. Looking at it that way, Minsk is pretty young, nevertheless it shares its face and history due to the Soviet empire.
Due to their specific history, where they spent a period of time together, both „sister city hubs“ (Vienna-Prague-Budapest; Minsk-Kiev-Moscow) share similar cityscape and architecture, still having their individuality.

d. Identity and distinguishing from the neighbouring „big brother“

coming soon

3. What and where is (geographically) the center?

One of the more odd similarities is related to our (programmed) „political map“ in our heads.
Let's start with a simple question: What city is (geographically) further in the West: Prague or Vienna? Usually people (in the West) would say Vienna. Maybe this changes now slowly, however, this is or was related to the cold war and old „bloc thinking“, where Prague belonged to the Eastern Bloc and Vienna, even though neutral, belonged to the Western Bloc.
This way of thinking also let people think that Barcelona is closer than Vilnius, even Tallinn is closer to Vienna than Barcelona is.

This leads to the question what the „center of Europe“ is? People would say Austria/Vienna or at least neighbouring countries... I also like to say that Vienna/Austria is centrally located because each destination is more or less the same distance, regardless it is London, Moscow, Athens or Madrid. And politically we call this region „Central Europe“ or maximum „East-Central Europe“, where, from a Westeuropean point of view, Austria/Vienna can be seen as „pretty far East already...“. There is also the joke existing that Vienna is more or less already at the „Balkans“.
Apart from that, look at it geographically. Nowadays the center of Europe is regarded in Belarus, others say in the Baltic region, nevertheless the center is regarded in that area. So, depending on what you regard as „central“ it might either be Austria/region or Belarus/region :)