The Ukraine Crisis Will Turn Minsk Into a Regional Airline Hub?
The suspension of air traffic between Ukraine and Russia on 25 October has created a new opportunity for Belarus.
The national air carrier, Belavia, and the national aviation authorities reacted quickly by increasing aircraft capacity on the routes between Minsk and Kyiv and negotiating with Kiev over the opening of new routes to Ukraine.
Belarus already has experience in profiting from many sanctions and trade wars, which Russia has waged against Europe and its new allies in the post-Soviet space. It looks like the government of Belarus is hoping to gain not only short-term benefits out of the Ukraine-Russia airline conflict.
Minsk as a Preferred Transit Hub
On 17 September, Ukraine introduced sanctions against twenty-five Russian airlines in punishment for their flights to annexed Crimea. In retaliation, on 29 September the Russian aviation authorities banned five Ukrainian airlines from flying to and from Russia. As a result, when the winter timetable kicked in on 25 October, all air traffic between Ukraine and Russia stopped.
It is estimated that over 70,000 passengers flew routes between Russia and Ukraine each month. Now, they will have to use other means of transportation such as trains, or reach their destination through a transit airport in a third country.
Ukrainian and Russian passengers have several options for indirect air travel, including Chisinau (Moldova), Vilnius (Lithuania), Riga (Latvia), Warsaw (Poland) and even Istanbul (Turkey). However, Minsk has a number of advantages over most if not all of them.
First, travel time. The combined time in the air for travel from Kyiv to Moscow via Minsk is roughly 2 hours and 10 minutes. The second-best route, via Chisinau, is 20 minutes longer. Even when one counts the stopover time, Minsk remains the best option.
Second, the formalities. Ukrainians travelling to Russia via Belarus will pass border and customs controls in Minsk airport and not at Moscow and other Russian airports. It may be an advantage given the tense relations between the two countries.
Sanctions Wars as an Opportunity for Minsk
Belarus has already profited from another case where air travel was disrupted and partially ceased. In August 2008, in the aftermath of Russian military aggression against Georgia, the two countries severed air links. Regular service only resumed in August 2010.
During that time, the Belarusian national airline Belavia increased the frequency of flights between Minsk and Tbilisi from three flights per week to daily services. Some Georgians nicknamed this route a “lifeline” as it became one of the best options for Georgians to travel to Russia, where they have family and business projects.
Even after direct flights between Georgia and Russia were gradually restored in 2010 and fully normalised in 2014, Belavia maintained the daily flight frequency between Minsk and Tbilisi and introduced flights to Batumi (now twice a week) and Kutaisi during the summer.
Belarus has always been a winner in its neighbours' sanctions wars Read more
There is another reason for the continued popularity of the Minsk transit route among Georgians. Belarus has visa-free regimes with both Russia and Georgia, while Georgians need visas to travel to Russia. Many Georgians, who cannot or do not want to apply for a Russian visa, travel to Belarus. There, they take advantage of the absence of passport controls on Belarus’ eastern border and travel illegally to Russia by rail or road.
Besides air transit, Belarus has on previous occasions managed to profit from the numerous other sanctions and trade wars in which other post-Soviet states have become involved. In 2006, Minsk refused to join Russia’s ban on the importation of Georgian wine and mineral water. Due to the absence of customs controls, Belarus became an important transit route for smuggling these drinks into Russia.
More recently, Belarus became the primary beneficiary of the food embargo which Russia introduced against Western nations in August 2014. This success was partially down to the hard work of Belarusian producers as well as the inventiveness of local smugglers.
Belavia is Ready for Additional Traffic
The Belarusian authorities quickly reacted to the mutual Russian – Ukrainian travel ban. On 1 October deputy minister for transport Jauhien Rahachou announced that Belavia and Minsk National Airport were “fully ready” to receive transit passengers going to Ukraine. “We would like to avoid making any fuss about it”.
Belavia now has 14 flights per week to Kyiv. Its code-sharing partner, Ukraine International Airlines, doubled the number of its flights to Minsk to fourteen in an effort to catch up with the growing demand.
Belavia is also trying to negotiate an increase in flight frequency to Ukraine. The most immediate plans include the launching of a third daily flight to Kyiv. In the meantime, Belavia has responded to the changing situation by allocating higher-capacity planes on the route to Kyiv. “When we saw that the occupancy of our aircraft was increasing, we decided to replace the 50-seat CRJ-200 aircraft with the 148-seat Boeing 737-300”, said Ihar Charhiniec, Belavia's deputy director.
On 25 October, Belavia opened a new route to Odessa, starting immediately with daily flights. This was a long-planned enlargement of Belavia’s network not related to the air traffic ban. Regardless, the new destination is destined for success because of the new circumstances.
Flights between Minsk and Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzha, Kharkiv and Lviv are considered Read more
The other part of the transit link also looks good. Belavia has seven daily flights to Moscow and three daily flights to Saint-Petersburg. It flies twice a day to Kaliningrad and several times a week to Krasnodar and Sochi. Russia's national airline Aeroflot operates five daily flights to Minsk from Moscow.
The number of flights between Belarus and Ukraine may further increase quickly. Currently, the two countries' airlines and aviation authorities are negotiating the opening of new routes linking Minsk with Zaporizhzha and Kharkiv in Ukraine. Other possible options include Dnipropetrovsk and Lviv. Belavia will have to share these routes with its Ukrainian colleagues.
The reopening of limited air traffic between Kyiv and Moscow remains a possibility. Nevertheless, Belavia and Minsk National Airport are determined to profit from another round of crises in Russian – Ukrainian relations. Uladzimir Koscin, the head of the Belarusian department for aviation, forecasts a 5%-7% increase in passenger flow through Minsk airport.
However, Minsk airport, which was renovated with Chinese money in 2014, remains seriously underused. Despite this new opportunity, it has little chance of becoming a regional transport hub until the Belarusian government radically improves its image to lure foreign tourists and businessmen to the country.
Unusual Aspects of Travelling to Belarus – a Westerner’s Perspective
In geographical terms, Belarus lies at the heart of Europe. It borders the European Union. Its capital Minsk can be reached from London by plane in less than three hours. Even so, the first time visitor may encounter a number of features of life here that will surprise.
An apparent obsession with Red Tape and Bureaucracy, particularly within Officialdom, can both amuse and infuriate. Certain aspects of promenading the streets may catch the eye. A visit to the museum offers a fuller experience than might be expected. And symbols of the country’s turbulent twentieth century history offer a hint as to the national psyche.
Red Tape and Bureaucracy
Belarus is not the only country in the world that requires visitors from abroad to obtain visas as a condition of entry. Stretching from the United States in the West all the way to Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, via Kenya and Vietnam in between (all likely destinations for the tourist), an array of visa rules await.
Earlier this year, the Belarusian government was pleased to announce a relaxation in visa requirements under certain controlled conditions for visitors crossing the border from Poland into Byelovyezhskaya Puscha National Park. Unfortunately, completing the application for exemption matched the application for a visa itself in complexity!
The secondary obligation to present a migration card for stamping on arrival to report details of a traveller’s temporary address and duration of stay can sometimes prove to be difficult, but is not entirely unique either.
If travelling on a trip organised by a travel agency, the procedures required by the regulations will be taken care of. The agency will offer visa application support in advance, and then after arrival, registration of the visit in the form of a stamp on the obligatory migration card will be taken care of by the host hotel.
However, those who choose to travel independently will encounter more of a challenge. The visa application is not particularly difficult and seeks no more information than is required to enter the United States for example, but the subsequent process of registering at the local Citizenship and Migration Office can call for endurance, patience and a calm head.
Registration must be completed within five working days of entering the country. It pays to make this task a priority and if a Russian speaker is available to go with you, preferably someone local, then the path will be less tortuous.
In the final analysis, obtaining a stamp on the obligatory migration form sets a non-negotiable task. Do not overlook it.
Promenading the Streets
Stepping into the road to cross lines of cars in London and other major Western cities can be a stressful business for pedestrian and motorist alike, with jaywalkers and cyclists crossing every point of your peripheral vision.
Not in Minsk. For starters, do not expect to see anyone riding a bicycle. And even with little or no traffic in sight, whether on a side street or an eight-lane boulevard, pedestrians will always wait for the clock on the stand of traffic lights to tick down to green. The rules are universally observed, which means you never step off the pavement until the green light invites you to.
Do not play fast and loose with this. If you do, a militiaman will appear from nowhere to ‘have a word’. Belarus still boasts a police presence per capita amongst the highest in the world. Contrast this, however, with the statistic that London’s faceless officials peer through more CCTV cameras than can be found in Minsk.
A Visit to the Museum
At times, museums in the West present significant overcrowding, such that a long wait just for entry can be expected, followed by difficulty in getting close to exhibits for a good look. At best, self-led tours with only an audio guide and headphones for company make the visit an isolating one.
A trip to the museum in Belarus offers considerably more, but do be sure you have allotted several hours for the experience. Particularly in the provinces, you may find very few fellow browsers. If you go at the right time, a personal guided tour of the exhibits by a local expert, perhaps even the curator, will be offered.
Your guide will want to show you all there is to see and will have a huge amount of detail to share. This presents a fine opportunity to receive a wealth of information on a one-to-one basis that will help you to understand the country and its people, though it does not lend itself to speed. Do be sure to allocate enough time.
Minsk is beginning to present a more welcoming face to visitors from the West in the form of readily available information in English. One good example can be experienced at the excellent Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, relocated in 2014 to Pobedy Park. The exhibits feature informative English display boards that paint a vivid picture of all that transpired here in the brutal days of the 1940s.
Other Minsk museums of more specialist interest present a greater challenge for non-speakers of Russian or Belarusian, but with notice in advance it may be possible to arrange an English-speaking guide. Alternatively the travel agency in charge of organising your trip will be able to provide someone, though at a cost.
One example of niche interest is to be found at the Azgur Memorial Museum, dedicated to the life and work of renowned Belarusian sculptor Zair Azgur. The exhibits here are simply magnificent.
Twentieth Century History
To this day the gaze of the old Bolshevik Lenin, leader of the 1917 Revolution, continues to anticipate a brighter future as he stands guard on a plinth of granite (or at least, concrete) in every Belarusian city, town and village.
Equally ubiquitous, reminders of the suffering at the hands of the Nazis endured during the Great Patriotic War are to be found never far away. Whether doleful memorials to the lost, or glorious celebrations of heroism, citizens and visitors alike are exhorted never to forget the sacrifices made by their forbears.
This small sample by no means encompasses all that a first-time visitor may find different about Belarus; after all, travel offers an entirely personal experience and each visitor will have different impressions. Yet all are likely to conclude that a visit to this fascinating country holds much of unique interest in this corner of Europe.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK