Difference between revisions of "Belarus"
Revision as of 16:58, 5 January 2013
Originally part of Kievan Rus, Belarus was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the Polish Partitions in the 18th century. After over a hundred years of Russian rule followed by seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. However, under authoritarian rule, it has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December, 1999, envisioning greater political and economic integration. Although Belarus agreed to a framework to carry out the accord, serious steps towards implementation have seen limited success. The economy is completely dependent on Russia, and the Belarusian government has taken vitriolic, anti-Western stance. The country has not seen much structural reform in the past few years. Political and journalistic activity is tightly controlled. Even though the country was the most developed republic (excluding the three Baltic states) in the former USSR, the country remains as one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in Europe.
Visa requirements, basic information
Belarusian visas at Minsk National Airport (MSQ) are issued to the nationals of the countries with no consular offices of the Republic of Belarus at EUR 90. However, the prices for the nationals WITH a Belarusian consulate in their passport country are rather high - EUR 180 when they apply AT MSQ Airport on arrival. Standard documents like a letter of invitation has to be provided, too - a hotel booking is not enough, at least for a tourist visa, but not other entry points. See the visa price-list in English
To the nationals of other countries (Austria, Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, China, Estonia, Egypt, France, Hungary, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Latvia, Libya, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Republic of South Africa, Slovak Republic, Montenegro, Switzerland, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, USA), visas may be issued upon arrival on an exceptional basis only. However, this option will be unavailable to people with Belarusian embassies in their countries starting from 1 September 2012, except if the reason for entry is urgent (such as illness or death of family).
You can apply the visa from Belarusian Consulate or Embassy. The list can be found from Embassy & consulate list &  on Foreign Affairs Ministry web-site. Quick visa is more expensive, but you will get it within half a day.
Visa fees and processing changes so make sure that you check with the local embassy or consulate before you plan your travel. A visa will take a full page of your passport so make sure you have at least 1 page free.
Visa fees are generally as follows:
Japanese and Serbian passport holders are exempted from visa fees.
There is now a trend to spare the transit tourists from a need to apply for a transit visa at MSQ Airport. There is no document with guidelines available to public, but if you come from a migration secure country and travel with Belavia via Minsk to the third destination it is highly unlikely that you will need a transit visa. ALWAYS check with the Minsk Airport Consulate.
There is no possibility to get a Belarusian entry visa on the border (except for the Minsk National Airport)
Latest prices and procedures are available from the Embassy Sites . Pre-issued visas save a lot of time on entry.
Belarusian visa is issued in 5 working days, there is also a possibility to get it urgently (in 48 hours) by paying double fee.
Normal fee for Belarusian private or business single visa can vary from US$40 to US$80. Visas for children under 16 are issued free of charge, visa processing fee can be levied in this case by certain Belarusian embassies or consulates.
In order to get a visa you will also need a passport and an invitation, other papers depending on the type of visa you apply for. There is a compulsory state medical insurance for visitors to Belarus if you do have a policy valid in Belarus. The fee for this insurance is US$0.50 per day rounded up to the nearest US$ (i.e. 1-2 days: US$1; 3-4 days: US$2; etc.). The citizens of the UK are the only nation exempt from this procedure. Even if your medical insurance is valid in Belarus, it is common for customs control to insist you purchase insurance at the airport. This can be purchased just before you go through customs, so it is important you carry a few euros on you.
To get a Belarusian business visa a foreigner has to present an invitation of any Belarusian legal entity officially registered in the Republic of Belarus. The invitation is to be written on letterhead paper and should contain name, personal and passport details as well as purpose and duration of visit. The invitation is to be signed and bear official seal of the inviting organization. Embassies or consulates (with the exception of Consular office at the National airport) can often except invitations received by fax. Multiple business visa is obtainable against payment of US$300 from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Consular department upon presentation of all required documents (contact phone + 375 17 222 26 61).
To get a short-term visa for private purposes (visiting Belarusian relatives, friends, other private matters) with a validity of 30 days, maximum for 1-, 2- or multiple entries for citizens of the EU as well as nationals of several other countries, such as Australia, Andorra, Argentina, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Chili, Island, Israel, Norway, Swiss Confederation, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Uruguay, Republic of South Africa and Japan, no visa support documents shall be required (letter of invitation etc. documents). Short term visas are available from Minsk airport, consulates and embassies.
To get a visa for private purposes a foreigner who is planning to stay in the country for more than 30 days has to present the invitation issued for a Belarusian resident by his citizenship and migration office. The original invitation should be handed over to the embassy/consulate or Consular office at the National airport in this case, any fax or photocopy is excluded. Multiple private visa is issued upon presentation of the original invitation to foreigners, visiting their close relatives. Very often Belarusian consulates grant private visas to the nationals of migration secure countries without any invitation papers.
Visas can be valid for one, two, three or multiple entries. They are to be used within the period indicated therein.
Foreigners visiting Belarus must register within a period of 5 business days with local Migration and Citizenship Department and have registration put in their migration card. If you are staying in a hotel, this will be arranged by the hotel. A police registration form can be found here.
If needed, private or business visas can be extended up to 90 days when staying in Belarus. It will be done by Minsk city citizenship and migration office (contact phone + 375 17 231 38 09) or Regional citizenship and migration office in Hrodna, Brest, Minsk, Mahilyou, Homel upon presentation of all required documents.
Exit permits required for all foreigners intending to leave the country with expired visas. They are issued by Minsk city passport and visa office or Regional passport and visa offices in Hrodna, Brest, Minsk, Mogilev, Homel.
Some agencies provide letters of invitation, apartments, airport transfers etc. Any good search engine should provide links. Avoid belarusrent.com, however. Reports have been received of them taking money through paypal, though not delivering on services and refusing refunds.
ENTRY FROM LITHUANIA It is only in Consulate in Vilnius that you can submit your documents applying DIRECTLY for a visa to Belarus. They issue all visas on the same day - if it is urgent you pay twice as much, get the visa on the same day and it is valid from tomorrow (for example), if not, you pay a normal fee, still collect it on the same day, but travel only within one week (for example).
It is very unlikely for the visa regime to become any softer for EU citizens in the near future. First attempts for visa free traveling are made in the Polish and Lithuanian border areas where people (who reside there permanently) will be able to travel visa free in the 50 km border area.
Several European airlines have flights to Minsk (operating at National airport Minsk  situated approximately 40 km from capital Minsk). Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Lot Polish airlines, Air Baltic, Czech Airlines, and some other carriers offer this destination. The only national airlines - Belavia  and Gomelavia - could be competitive due to attractive ticket prices. If you opt to land in Minsk National Airport, you should be aware of certain issues that might keep you slow when going through the airport procedures.
Flying directly to Belarus is expensive if you do not book tickets early in advance. For example, Estonian Air  sells tickets for €92 if you make reservations 4 months in advance. If you buy the same ticket a week before the trip, the price is much higher.
If you have time and want to save some money, fly to Vilnius or Kaunas, (both in Lithuania) and take a train to Minsk. The train ride from Vilnius is only four hours and generally trains leave twice per day. You will save a great deal of money compared to a short notice direct flight. Visas are, of course, still required.
Some of the entry/exit points along the Poland/Belarus border include:
You can take a local train between the two corresponding border towns.
Timetable information are available on sites like: Deutsche Bahn (DB) , Polish trains PKP (english)  (polish) , Commonwealth of independent states (CIS) trains (and others) , Latvia trains 1 , Latvia trains 2  Lithuania train timetables  trains and bus timetables at Baltic countries  Belarussian railway timetables: 
N.B. There is no direct train from Estonia, but via track Tallin-Tartu- Valga/Valka (Valga/Valka is city at the Estonian/Latvian border. There are a few trains that go to Riga. The name of the train station in Valka is Lugazi. There are plans that direct trains will start in 2010, removing the need for changing in Valka/ Valga, from Estonia, Tallin to Latvia, Riga.
Passport, customs controls
Passport controls happen in the train itself. In the get in to Belarus direction, they happen typically even before the train leaves the station in Poland.
Customs controls happen in a room of the train station in the Belarus train station. As of 2005, you are most likely to have a short chat with a customs officer - the system of green (nothing to declare) and red (something to declare) streams and random checks of suspicious looking people in the green stream - everyone is presumed to be suspicious. In practice, the rules seem to be fairly standard - declare expensive goods, you can import/export a small quantity of alcohol, cigarettes, computer equipment for personal use. However, the formal content of the customs form asks whether you are carrying any publications. So if you have, e.g. a US passport and are carrying a whole bunch of do-it-yourself-color-revolution materials and you have that subversive look about you, then you will probably be giving the customs people have a legal reason to detain you and/or deport you.
Warning: the customs room in the train station where you exit Belarus may be difficult to find (especially if you walk around the station rather casually and your Cyrillic is weak) and it closes a long time before the train leaves; if you arrive only 10 minutes before the train leaves, you will be refused customs control and access to the train. Customs may also be carried out at the border while on the train. It adds over an hour to the trip, but other than that, the officials are efficient and friendly.
On a local train between two border towns, chances are high that you will be accompanied/befriended by women trading underpants, soap powder, strawberries, cigarettes etc across the border. They may be friendly and casual or (leaving Belarus) they might put pressure on you to help them in their trade by carrying cigarettes over the border for them - the idea is that you buy it cheap in Belarus and that you resell it to them once you're in Poland. Chances are also good that their friendly mafia boss is with them and you'll all travel together in the same train carriage, so chances of you getting away and reselling the cigarettes independently are probably weak. Instead, just smile, use your common sense and probably best not to provoke them. If you take their cigarettes, make sure not to take more than a legal allowance and return them to the women in Poland. Don't expect to be paid for it. Don't look to the border guards for help. They know the women traders and seem to have some informal deal with them (e.g. not being strict about visas, etc) - the Belarus border guards are worried only about political subversives; they have higher priorities than defending you against women trading underpants and cigarettes.
At the Terespol/Brest crossing, there are about six different controls. As of August 2009, the Polish side seems to work quite slowly. Being on the outer border of the European Union, they check whether one isn't exporting a stolen car, isn't wanted by European authorities etc.
After crossing the bridge over river Bug and getting on the Belarusian side, one has to show passports and gets a piece of paper with the car's registration mark on it. Then one goes to either green or red channel depending on whether a customs control is needed. In the green channel one has to complete two checks, the completion of each check is recorded on the paper received on entering the Belarusian side.
First passport/visa/migration card checks are done by an officer who comes towards your car. They also check medical insurance and it is quite likely you will be forced to purchase the state compulsory medical insurance at the border. The cost for two weeks was about 5 euros.
Second is the transport/car check, for which one needs to go to a special window towards the end of the customs area. You will be required to produce a "green card" (proof of insurance) valid for Belarus, or will have to purchase a compulsory car insurance at the border. In August 2009, the insurance for 14 days was 17 euros (just over 20$), and there was no problem buying it at the Terespol/Brest crossing. You will also get another piece of paper with your car registration mark. You will need to show this one on the way back.
With the stamped paper, one can go forward towards the last barrier. The officer there just takes the paper, checks that you have completed the controls, and lets you into Belarus.
It would be nice to believe that there's a geiger counter to check for stuff which is radioactive from the Chernobyl accident, but it's unclear if this is used in practice - it's not done in any obvious way.
On leaving Belarus, one has to pay a special "environmental" tax before being allowed to enter the border control area. It costs 1 euro, and in Brest is sold in a large building just before the border on the right.
Taking a bus from any border of the country of Belarus is easy. From all the Baltic countries there is a lot of bus traffic to Belarus here are some samples:
Belarus shares many rivers with its neigbouring countries, so it's no big surprise that in Belarus each major city has a riverport and possibilities for river cruises. The easiest way to check departure times, routes and availability is to call Belarussian River Steamship Company  and/or Belarusian tourist companies . PLEASE NOTE! Cruice inquiries are recommended to do with phone. If you cannot reach one number it is good to call other numbers that same company have (Phone numbers and e-mail addresses change in rapid phase in Belarus)
Belarusian border crossing cruises are such as from Belarus, Polotsk into Latvia's Daugavpilis and Poland's Augustow chanel. Augustow chanal cruises departure from Belarusian city called Grodno and the route is via Neman river.
By a canoe
Kayak paddling, rowing and canoeing are popular hobbies in Belarus.
In some cases with special pre-planning and preparations with the authorities and tourist agents one can cross the border also by canoeing.
If you're at one of the double town crossings, e.g.
there may be some places where you can cross by foot - e.g. because you're on the last day of your Belarus visa and you want to be sure not to overstay - but more likely you'll have to befriend some people in a car who will adopt you for a few hours and will (implicitly) pretend that you're travelling with them. The border guards have no problem with this. Remember that the people in the car are taking a risk as well as you - as far as they know you might be a National Endowment for Democracy agent who will be discovered by the Belarus border guard and get them into a heap of trouble. So if they are Belarusians and they ask for a fee of US$5 consider it fair. See the section By car above for what happens in your adopted car.
Traveling by car will get you far, since the infrastructure in Belarus was well developed after World War II. Gas is relatively cheap by European standards. 1L is <USD$1 (as of April 2010). All gas stations have the same prices (mandated by the government), so no need for shopping around. You can rent cars in Minsk at the airport or city from the major international rental chains or smaller local companies. Traveling by train around the country will get you to a lot of desired destinations relatively cheap and fast (make sure that you book an express train). Also, you will get a chance to capture a glimpse of Belarusian nature, as the forests and plains often start right on the edges of the cities. Notice how there are almost no elevations in this part of Europe - it is all vast green plain. Do not count on being lucky to spot wild animals by the railroad tracks - they are normally afraid of loud noises and savage passengers. Belarus is not a large country, and a traveller can reach from one side of its border to the other in less than a day.
Belarusian and Russian are the two official languages. Both languages are part of the Slavic language family and are closely related, and there are many similarities in those languages. Russian, in general, is more widely spoken by the population. According to the 2009 official census, 53.2% of Belarusian residents considered Belarusian to be their native language and 23% predominantly speak it at home. Others speak Russian. It will be difficult to get by without some Russian or Belarusian.
Polish is spoken in the western parts, especially around Grodno. But most local Poles use their own dialect with Belarusian as the base and with only some Polish words and sounds.
English, on the other hand is not widely spoken in Belarus, but use is starting to increase. Younger people often speak English fluently, but elder people rarely do.
Belarus is visited, annually, by about 100,000 tourists; during at the same period about 12 million people went from the country as tourists. The profit from foreign tourism amounts to less than USD 200 per each tourist. The volume of tourism in total export makes up 1%. The most popular among the visitors are: Minsk City — 40% of visitors; Grodno - 32%; Brest - 22%, Vitebsk - 5%.
Inside of Belarus, you can get Belarusian rubles (but NOT always US dollars or euros) from automatic bank machines for standard types of credit/debit cards, and you can change US dollars and euros into Belarusian rubles BUT NOT (since May 2011) vice versa at many exchange kiosks in big railway stations and centers of big cities. Converting Belarusian rubles back into hard currency shortly before departure or once you are outside of Belarus will probably be extremely difficult (except in Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, strangely enough). However, if you exchange all your rubles before leaving, any last-minute purchases (or fines for overstaying, customs, whatever) would have to be paid in dollars/euros.
Be very careful: exchange kiosks will not exchange any bill that is damaged or marked on but with a commission of 1-2 per cent. About half of the bills you currently have in your wallet will be rejected for exchange in Belarus. Be sure to take only relatively new and undamaged foreign money with you.
Most larger supermarkets, stores and hotels have credit card terminals, but smaller shops often do not. Visa and Mastercard are accepted, while American Express is not.
Prices are typically much lower than in Western Europe, especially for supermarket food and service industry. However, hotels and restaurants are not cheaper than Western Europe (and often a lot more expensive than neighboring Poland).
Potatoes, pork, bread, & beef - in a nutshell. Most of the products and ingredients are organic, and radiation levels are constantly checked in the food to avoid contamination.
Modern Belarusian cookery is based on old national traditions, which have undergone a long historical evolution. But the main methods of traditional Belarusian cuisine are carefully kept by the people. Common in Belarusian cuisine were dishes from potato which is called among people "the second bread". The Belarusians bring fame to their beloved potato in their verses, songs, dances. There are special potato cafes in the country where you can try various potato dishes. Potato is included into many salads and it is served together with mushrooms and/or meat; different pirazhki (patties) and baked puddings are made from it. The most popular among the Belarusians is traditional draniki (known as "latkes" to North Americans, but eaten only with sour cream, never apple sauce), thick pancakes prepared from shredded potatoes. A wide spread of potato dishes in Belarusian cuisine can be explained by natural climatic conditions of Belarus which are propitious for growing highly starched and tasty sorts of potatoes.
Meat and meat products play a major role in the diet of Belarusians, especially to the pork and salted pork fat. One of the people's proverbs says: "There is no fish more tasty than tench, as well as there is no meat better than pork". The salted pork fat is used slightly smoked and seasoned with onions and garlic. Pyachysta is one of the traditional holiday dishes. This is boiled, stewed or roasted sucking pig, fowl or large chunks of pork or beef. Dishes prepared from meat are usually served together with potatoes or vegetables such as carrot, cabbage, black radish, peas, etc. It is characteristic that many vegetable and meat dishes are prepared in special stoneware pots.
Among dishes from fish, the Belarusians prefer yushka, galki and also baked or boiled river-fish without special seasonings. In general, what concerns the most common seasonings such as onions, garlic, parsley, dill, caraway seeds, pepper; they are used very moderately in Belarusian cookery. The national dishes are hearty and tasty nonetheless. The choices of are fresh, dried, salted and pickled mushrooms, and also berries such as bilberry, wild strawberries, red whortlberry, raspberries, cranberries and some others. Of flour dishes, the most popular is zacirka. Pieces of specially prepared dough are boiled in water and then poured over with milk or garnished with salted pork fat. The Belarusians prefer to use whole milk, which affected some methods of making yoghurt and the so called klinkovy cottage cheese. In Belarusian cuisine, the milk is widely used for mixing in vegetable and flour dishes. Myadukha, berezavik, kvas, and beer are traditional Belarusian drinks.
As of September 2012, current international chain restaurants are comprised of McDonald's and TGI Fridays. Many of the restaurants featuring foreign cuisine are Italian or French in origin although some Asian and American cuisine is also available. Pizza is a popular meal in Belarus and travelers will generally find a significant number of restaurants offering pizza in the larger cities such as Minsk or Vitebsk. Visitors from the United States will generally experience a degree of culture shock with respect to Belarusian cuisine as few parallels exist between preparation or composition of cuisine between these regions.
You can get soft drinks and beer everywhere in Belarus. Vodka, bitter herbal nastoikas (especially Belavezhskaja) and sweet balsams are the most common alcoholic drinks.
"Legal theft". Most hotels in Minsk are safe. However, be aware of the Belarusian trick. Since Belarusians are very afraid of the authorities and thus of committing a crime, some corrupt hotels may practice a very annoying way of stealing, so called "legal theft" involving maids (often in conspiracy with the reception personnel). While cleaning your room (in your absence) they may hide your personal belongings in the most outrageous parts of your room, combining bizarre sets of items, such as a cellular phone with a piece of bread, a wallet with a cheap magazine or a pair of glasses (!). The trick is: if you miss them, the maid will come and collect them later, if you report the items missing (or find them by yourself) you won't be able to do a thing (since the items never left the room, it is not considered a theft). The personnel may also ridicule your allegation by pointing out why on earth they would want to hide some bread or a hotel magazine - they just accidentally tucked the items away while cleaning. Avoid such unpleasant situations by always locking your valuables in the hotel safe or at least taking them with you. Before checking out, always search the room thoroughly (wardrobes, cabinets, deep shelves, behind sofas and radiators).
If you participate in a street demonstration with political banners, expect to be detained within minutes. Westerners especially should avoid any political discussions, protests, etc. due to the government's keen opposition to dissenting views. With that said, many Belarusians freely express their political views during regular conversation with fear of immediate arrest or some type of governmental retribution. Active demonstrations against the government are certainly inadvisable; however, foreigners should not feel unduly threatened by any restrictions on freedom of political speech.
Aforementioned demonstrations can be identified by seeing a red and white banner, a white background, with a strip of red going horizontally across in the center, forming a white red white flag. If you see said flag, do your best to stay away from the demonstration.
Security personnel may at times place you, as a foreigner, under surveillance; hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with authorities; these sites are not always clearly marked and application of these restrictions is subject to interpretation.
Belarus police organizations are well trained and professional, but severely restricted by an un-reformed Soviet-era legal system, corruption, and politicization of the police force and other government authorities. Due to low salaries, it is not uncommon for officers to collect bribes during traffic stops. Sophisticated criminal investigations are often inconclusive because of a lack of resources and/or political will.
Historically, Belarus maintained an excellent health system. Ambulances are poorly equipped and unreliable; a wait time of 30 minutes or more is not unusual. The fastest way to secure Western-level care is medical evacuation to the European Union.
Tuberculosis (TB) is an increasingly serious health concern in Belarus. Vaccinations against this disease is highly recommended. You need to consult to a doctor first and get the vaccination before entering Belarus.
In Belarus, there is a big institute and lots of funding for studying the after effects of the Chernobyl disaster, which happened in 1986 in a nuclear power plant on the Ukraine-Belarus border, in the food chain. In principle, food inspectors check food not only for bacterial contamination but also for radiation levels, and except for the banned region within about 50 kilometers of the Chernobyl plant itself and a second hotspot starting from the point where Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all touch each other, and running roughly 100 km to the North of this point, food is considered safe.
Since Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian cultures are very close and thus share much in common, many of the same principles of behavior that can be applied to Russians and Ukrainians, are also applicable to the Belarus populace.
There are 3 major GSM providers in Belarus:
All of them offer no-contract GSM SIM-cards and USB modems for Internet access. Cellular communications are very affordable and popular in Belarus. Each of these companies has numerous stores in Minsk, Brest and other regional centers. You will need your passport to purchase a SIM card, but many tariffs are available only to those who are registered with the authorities in Belarus. However, a stamp by your hotel on the back of the immigration card in your passport is sufficient to be registered, and this is routinely done by hotels upon check-in. See Prepaid with Data Wiki and PrepaidGSM.net for more information in English about buying SIM cards.