The “Real Belarus”: Travel Tips from a German Expat
At the beginning of the new year, Belarus made headlines in the Western press once again. The reporting on the new internet law showed that Belarus is a white stain on the European map for most people. This week the Toronto Star published an article called "Belarus: The North Korea of Europe". It’s those often misleading descriptions that most Westerners have in mind when going to Belarus for the first time.
Based on Western media reports, it is impossible to imagine what Belarus is actually like and how people live here. For this reason, Belarus Digest launches a new series of articles, written by a German living in Belarus. In several articles, we will try to paint a more realistic picture of life in “Europe’s last dictatorship” and describe events and everyday life from the perspective of a Western expat. So let's begin the journey.
If you plan to visit Belarus, you are probably a diplomat or business man on a mission, a backpacker or a German between 60 and 70 on an organized commemoration tour. Unless you drive, there are two principal ways to arrive in Belarus – by plane or by train.
Landing at Minsk-2 Airport: Welcome to the Potemkin Village!
Airport Minsk 2 will seem strangely deserted. There was National Airport Minsk 1 in the very middle of the capital, which was reserved for flights of the president and inner-Belarusian flights but it is no longer used. So Minsk 2 is the only major international airport in Belarus.
Upon landing you will probably be intimidated by customs officers and border guards in huge hats who never smile or try to pretend to speak anything other than Russian. You will need to buy a Belarusian insurance because the traveling insurance you bought in your home country will not be valid in Belarus no matter what the agent told you at home. When you have passed the passport and customs control, you will take a relieved breath and head towards Minsk.
Make sure to buy some Belarusian Roubles which you can't get in Western capitals. Bring small bank notes and a big purse – changing 10 Euros will bring you more than 100 000 roubles. There are no Belarusian coins, only paper money.
Take a taxi or marshrutka (a mini-bus) to the city. You will have a 42 km drive to think about where you have landed now. The highway connecting the international airport Minsk 2 to the city looks very modern and shows off the national companies and campaigns on glossy (English language!) road signs. Clearly this country wants to impress its foreign visitors from first sight.
However, you will understand quickly that this road as well as the impressive buildings you will see when entering Minsk are Potemkin villages. The facades are beautifully maintained and always freshly painted, but when you see them from the backside you understand that you have been fooled. Nevermind, Minsk is still a nice city.
Getting There by Train: Gradual Adaptation During an Overnight Trip
When you arrive by rail, you will probably take an overnight train from Berlin or Warsaw. Most likely you will feel like you are in one of the documentaries you saw on TV, describing trips on the Trans-Siberian railway titled “From Berlin to Vladivostok”. You will have to deal with a stewardess who speaks only Russian. That seems to be very intimidating, particularly when she shouts at you at your home railway station that she is no longer going to wait until you have put your belongings into the train as the train is already running late because of you.
You will then enter a compartment that you share with two or three fellow travelers. Most probably they will be Belarusians coming back from a visit to their children and grandchildren who immigrated to the West. Over the long trip (around 18 hours from Berlin) you will get to know them very well and agree to pretend some of the booze they bought is yours as they exceed the allowed amount. You will pass the border control in the very East of Poland and then in Brest. As always, border guards will not speak a word of English.
Then you will see how the wheels of a whole train are changed. Train tracks in Belarus (and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union) are wider than in the rest of Europe. One carriage will be lifted after another while you are actually on the train. It is an amazing experience.
When you enter Minsk after four more hours of rattling through forests and neat villages with railway buildings that are painted pink and blue and yellow you will hopefully be impressed.
The Minsk railway station is newly built and looks like a UFO landed on the railway square with its two towers. You will get out of the train and be caught up in the buzzing atmosphere: taxi drivers offering you a ride, people meeting their relatives that unload their luggage… Until some years ago, they were still playing a march for international trains arrived in Minsk. This honor is reserved for trains arriving from Moscow only.
Unless you know Minsk and its system of public transport well, treat yourself with a taxi ride to your final destination. It is not expensive, and when again in life will you have the possibility to be driven around a Soviet Union theme park sitting in a Lada with fake fur on the back seat?
Three Survival Tips for Your First Visit to Belarus
So, when traveling to Belarus for the first time, make sure you remember these three tips:
First, never be intimidated by an official unless you have done something illegal and there is a chance they know about it.
Second, never try to put on a seatbelt when sitting in the back back of a taxi. Even if you may find seatbelts, the taxi drivers will be seriously insulted and take it as a sign that you do not trust their driving skills.
Third, if you are not keen on reading newspapers and books in Belarusian or Russian for the duration of your stay, bring your reading materials in a language you understand. It is impossible to buy international newspapers in Belarus.
Belarus Needs an Enemy
If one listens to the Belarusian and Russian leadership, a war with the West is imminent. This weekend, the Belarusian internet was filled with stories about Moscow being ready to defend Belarus from Warsaw's claims to the Grodno and Minsk regions in Poland. In November 2011, Head of the Russian General Staff General Nikolai Makarov presented an alarmist map that showed Russia and Belarus surrounded by hostile nations plotting to occupy them.
Since the 1990s the Kremlin has used Belarus as an ally who is ready to spout radical statements about NATO – something Russia, as a more internationally respected state, cannot do to the same extent. In return, Russia arms Belarus with its weapons at a discount. Putin's vision of the Eurasian Union, one step closer after the countries formed a common economic space on January 1 2012, is intended to take military cooperation to a new level.
Although Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s outbursts have increased his country’s isolation, they perform a useful function for Russia by reminding NATO of Russia’s sphere of influence. Belarus also makes Russia's rhetoric look more moderate. Geographic proximity to the West of Russia allows a weak Belarus to keep its neighbors alert and to secure generous subsidies from Moscow. If the external threat is indeed growing, as claimed by the Belarusian Ministry of Defense at a December 27 conference, Belarus’s prominence will increase.
Fighting Enemies as an Image Statement
With Russia equipping and training the Belarusian military, Minsk need not worry about developing a grand strategy and conducting responsible foreign policy. But if Moscow becomes serious about improving ties with the West, Belarus' leader would have to be reined in. Right now, Lukashenka enjoys reminding Russia about Belarus’ role in defending the Union State and Russia. In 2010, he complained about having to buy weapons at market prices and said that for Belarus defending the “brotherly state” was “profitable, even an issue of image”. This is music to the ears of some Russian policymakers paranoid about Ukraine’s flirtations with NATO.
Russia's military doctrine, approved in February 2010, indeed names NATO expansion as the main external threat. Similar to NATO's article 5 it considers "an armed attack on the state-participant in the Union State" to be "an act of aggression against the Union State" (aka Russia). Russia’s commitment does not allay Belarus’ threat perceptions. Even so, in 2009, Belarus' military budget amounted to 4.18% of government expenditure, according to a 2010 World Bank report.
A small country in such a close military alliance with nuclear-armed Russia could economize on defense, but Belarus spent slightly more than Lithuania (3.85%) or Latvia (4%). Of course, this could be because Belarus' military doctrine is based on its own threat list, which includes "interference into internal affairs", "expansion of military blocks and alliances which are detrimental to military security" of Belarus, and even "information (psychological) influence which is directed against the interests of the Republic of Belarus and its allies".
How Belarus Became Russia's Shield
How did the country that once sought neutrality and gave up nuclear weapons become a zealous Cold Warrior? After all, even Kazakhstan, also closely allied with Russia, has been moderate in its rhetoric and became a key NATO ally in the Afghan war. After a brief attempt at diversifying foreign policy by joining NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1995 (after Russia), Minsk pursued full-scale political and military integration with Moscow. The two countries’ air defense forces have served together since 1995. That year, Belarus also extended Russia's right to keep early warning radar and communication bases on its territory – rent-free for 25 years. A common arms procurement program was launched in 2000.
In the 1990s the young Belarusian state had to choose. One way of generating income was by initiating reform and enhancing economic and trade cooperation with Europe. However, the price – democratization and economic reform – seemed too high for the new Belarusian leadership. Another way of generating income was courting Russia. In 1996, Minsk signed a treaty on the Russia-Belarus Community; in 1997 the Community became Union and in 1999, the Union state. Inviting Kazakhstan, introducing a common economic space and adding “Eurasian” this year is simply the next step in strengthening Belarus’ dependence on Russia and foregoing its freedom to conduct independent foreign policy.
But doing business with Russia has had its perks for the regime insiders, insulating them from political competition and allowing the shadow economy to flourish. In the 1990s, Belarus earned huge profits from selling weapons to unsavory regimes, appearing on the list of the world's ten largest arms exporters. Once Belarus disposed of its own rusting Soviet arsenal, it was rumored to have helped sell Moscow’s, providing Russia with political cover for trade with pariah states.
The High Price of Confrontational Policy
Playing up its role as the first line of defense against NATO and exploiting Moscow’s old phobias have been Belarus’ tactics for over a decade. For example, the rent-free use of Belarusian “bases”, criticized by the Belarusian opposition as politically and economically unwise, has paid off for the regime if not also for the population. The military bases were used in several gas wars with Russia. In 2003, Lukashenka even warned about turning off electricity to Russia's Volga radar station. In contrast, after Russia's Central Election Commission approved the outcome of Belarus' 2010 presidential election, Minsk said the rent-free use of the bases would continue.
Over the years Belarus’ has lost its ability to bargain with Russia, however. As was bluntly stated in a US cable from November 2009, published by WikiLeaks, “Belarus is bankrupt, and therefore vulnerable to Russian exploitation”. Everybody knows that despite Belarus’ anti-NATO bluster, it is Russia which calls the shots on both military and economic integration. Alone, Belarus has neither a strong military nor a strong economy. The December 2010 elections contributed to Minsk’s loss of external support in dealings with Moscow and the economic crisis of 2011 delivered another heavy blow with Gazprom buying Beltransgaz.
At this point, the Belarusian leader has squandered his opportunities for dialogue with the West and undermined his own “multi-vectored” foreign policy. Playing Europe against the Kremlin to get economic benefits worked in the past. However, in the end Belarus’ irrational behavior made some European states welcome rather than fear Minsk’s loss of independence to Moscow. Many in the West are no longer concerned to see Russian influence in Belarus grow, preferring to border a more predictable and responsible eastern neighbor. This is good news neither for the Belarusian people not its current leadership.
In its 21st year as a sovereign state, it is high time for Minsk (and indeed Moscow) to develop non-confrontational foreign policy goals. As a small state, Belarus has to adjust to the greater powers around it, and the best solution is to spread the risk among several international actors rather than surrender its sovereignty to one of them. This means balancing ties with both EU and Moscow, diversifying trade and reforming the economy, and avoiding entanglement.