Belarus and the Outside World: From Isolation to Co-operation?

Few foreigners come to Belarus from the West. The Belarus-EU border itself appears to be tightly guarded, but the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius raised hopes for improved visa facilitation. Is Belarus at long last opening up?

A typical summer day on Independence Square in central Minsk: Several tourist groups gather around their tour guides and listen to stories about the sights of the Belarusian capital. Very few of these tours will be held in a language other than Russian, because larger groups of tourists come only from Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union.

Often these guests come in search of lower prices, a casino and maybe a bit of Soviet nostalgia. The number of visitors from Western Europe remains low.

Take the example of Germany. Germans like to travel. Worldwide, only the Chinese spend more money on tourism than Germans. There are only 600 km between the borders of Germany and Belarus. Not an overly large distance as a glance at the map of Europe reveals.

Yet, only an average of 4,500 Germans travels to Belarus each year. They include tourists, businessmen, aid workers, diplomats – all added together. To put this number into perspective, the same number of Germans fly to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca – in a single day.

Being Different

Also outside of tourism, relatively few people from other countries visit Belarus. Therefore personally meeting foreigners is not an experience that too many Belarusians encounter on a regular basis – if at all.

In Minsk the sound of foreign languages is not very familiar to its inhabitants. While other capitals of the region – like Kiev or Vilnius – see many more foreign visitors, Minsk is rather different from those capitals. Those communicating in a foreign language in Minsk certainly stand out and often catch the attention of the surrounding crowd.

Why Few Foreigners Visit

In terms of tourism, Belarus certainly lacks spectacular ocean shores nor does it have any high mountains to offer. But visitors can enjoy plenty of untouched nature and a number of old cities and monuments. Still tourism remains a small niche for the Belarus' economy. Only a limited number of tourists want to explore a blank spot on the map of Europe, which is precisely what Belarus is for many in the West.

One issue which explains this phenomenon is the current visa-regime. Indeed, compared to entering Belarus, a Schengen-visa is much harder to obtain for Belarusians. But most Europeans have become used to crossing national borders without going through check points or having done much advance planning at all. The necessity of acquiring a Belarusian visa in advance leads to many people avoiding Belarus

What's more, Belarus is also not a cheap destination. Even avoiding the premium hotels in Minsk – like the Crown Plaza or Europe – it is still difficult to find a room for under €100 a night. The hotel-sector in most of Europe sees a lot of competition. Compared to the standards they offer, even Minsk's cheaper hotels – such as Tourist or Arbita – are quite expensive. For those travelling on a very tight budget, very few hostels exist so far.

Another potential foreign group could be students. Life in Minsk is cheaper than in Moscow or St. Petersburg. The Belarusian capital has therefore become somewhat popular for students of the Russian language. But a major obstacle for more exchange is that Belarus is excluded from the list of Bologna-countries. While the Bologna process aligns the standards for higher education throughout the rest of Europe, Belarus sticks to its own national rules and regulations.

Beyond tourism or student exchanges, permanent migration to Belarus remains an even bigger challenge. Other than some elderly Russians who find it easier to live on their pension here, few people settle in Belarus permanently. It is no surprise that low wages do not attract migrants.

Belarusian society presents itself as relatively closed and is much more conscious in trying to actively maintain its homogeneity. Taken on the whole, Belarus is still a country that is still struggling with its own a nation-building process. Categories such as ethnicity and the nation-state are still very relevant for Belarus. Integration and the question of whether immigrants contribute to Belarusian society are not an issue, as there is almost no one to integrate.

The Few who Come Are Quite Welcome

On the other hand, Belarusians are very eager to meet foreigners. Many Belarusians study foreign languages and look for opportunities to practise them. Once spotted, a foreigner can easily find himself approached by the locals. Even on the streets or in a trolleybus.

Out of sheer curiosity people may address someone from another country. Especially if the visitor is from a Western country. Due to somethat that may be somewhat accounted for as an inferiority complex, some Belarusians may express their surprise that someone from the West would come all the way to their country.

A “real foreigner” can even land an invitation at the home of people who usually do not have foreign guests sitting on their table. And with Belarusian hospitality, a foreigner – just like any other guest – will certainly not leave the house without having tried plenty of all the food available, with the spread always being plentiful.

Belarus Is Becoming More International

Indeed, it is not all bad news. Minsk does have a growing international community. Professionals, students, volunteers or interns come to Belarus. People from all parts of the world mix and mingle in Minsk. Even those who come from countries that do not share a border with the country, such as Venezuela. Minsk – and Belarus as a whole – is certainly opening up and becoming more international.

Many pupils in Belarusian schools not only study English or German but also Chinese. At the same time Belarus and China plan a huge industrial park near Minsk. Soon Belarusian kids will have plenty of opportunities to practise their language skills.

Also an increasing number of young Belarusians study abroad or participates in trainings, youth exchanges and programmes like the European Voluntary Service (EVS). The Eastern Partnership summit at the end of 2013 seemed to have made room for improvements with the EU-visa situation for Belarusians. Those returning to Belarus also regularly share their experiences from abroad.

It should also be taken into account that Minsk's infrastructure is contiously changing. It may still be quite an adventure to buy a ticket at Minsk's main train station without at least basic Russian. But more and more English-language signs are popping up to provide directions around Minsk, though some remain a bit enigmatic for Western visitors. Unless they are looking for places like the “Mass Entertainment Area".

And the doors of many metro stations already reveal that this uvakhod is in fact an entrance and that it is a local custom to “Please Hold the Door Open”. Furthermore a red double-decker bus is now available to take tourists on a sightseeing ride around Minsk.

A big milestone for tourism in Belarus will clearly be the Ice Hockey World Championships in May. The event will hopefully bring many foreign visitors to see for themselves what Belarus has to offer and establish people-to-people contacts with Belarusians.

Thomas Bergmann

Thomas Bergmann served in the European Voluntary Service in Minsk in 2012/2013.

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