Country profile: Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship
Belarus is often referred to as the last leftover of the former USSR. The country is ruled with iron fist by the Soviet style dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Fraud has been used to win elections, protest demonstrations are forbidden, opposition leaders are harassed and have even disappeared. Lukashenko like Vladimir Putin is a leader branded by his Soviet background.
During his youth he was a Komsomol chapter leader, worked for the KGB and Red Army as a border guard and later became director of a giant Sovkhoz (state farm). The main destination in Belarus is it’s capital Minsk, a surprisingly dynamic and modern city. Minsk offers the best kind of Soviet (Stalinist) architecture, good restaurants and a lively nightlife. An other good place to visit in Belarus is Brest with it’s famous WW II memorial and the fortress. A two or three day city trip to Minsk is a good idea for those who want something different from the usual destinations like Prague, Riga or Budapest. An other good way to combine a visit to Belarus with other countries in the region like Poland, the Baltic countries, Ukraine and Russia. There are some hurdles to get in the country, an invitation is needed to obtain a visa, both documents take time to get and are not cheap. But it is a mistake to think that Belarusian are inhospitable or unfriendly people, on the contrary, tourist will get a warm welcome and find that the locals are very friendly. Belarus is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship and has a bad human right’s reputation. Everybody should judge for himself if this is a reason not to visit the country. During our visit Belarus certainly didn’t feel like police state, but looks can deceive of course.
City guide: Mystical Minsk
Minsk was totally destroyed during the second world war and rebuild in classical social realist style by the Soviets after the war. Very view tourists visit the Belarusian capital but Minsk is certainly worth a city trip. The locals are very friendly and honoured that tourists are interested in their country. On Page 1 you will find tips for the best restaurants, hotels and museums of Minsk. Page 2 is about Minsk famous Stalinist architecture. Finally lost of information about the many Soviets monuments on page 3.
Getting there and away: Visa
A visa is required to enter Belarus, to get one from the embassy you will need an invitation and hotel vouchers.. These can be obtained via Hotels or travel agency’s. A visa usually cost around ?50 and an invitation around ?25. Hotels or other accommodation need to be booked for all day’s your visa is valid. There have been cases of people that were not aloud in the country during periods of political unrest but usually there should be no problems entering Belarus with a valid visa.
Getting there and away: Train
Getting there and away: Flight
There are many international trains from and to Minsk. Flying with low budget airlines like Sky Europe or Air Berlin to cities like Krakow, Warsaw, Vilnius or Riga and from there take the train can be a good way top save money. Go to the International ticket office (building on the right of the train station) when you want to buy international tickets in Minsk.
A good airline fore reasonable priced flights to Minsk is airBaltic. This low budget airline operates cheap flights from many European cities. There will be a stop in Riga with sometimes an overnight stay when flying Air Baltic. An other option is flying the national airline Belavia. Take a bus service that runs every half hour from the airport to the city.
Brief History: Belarus
Between the 6th and 8th centuries a big migration of Slavs in Eastern Europe took place. The East Slavs settled on the territory within present-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia assimilating local tribes and nomads already living there. During the 9th and 10th century a common language and religion (Orthodox Christianity) resulted in a new geopolitical entity, the Kievan Rus. The Kiev Rus state stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and into current Russia, Novgorod (now Russia) and Kiev (Ukraine) were the main cities. In the 13th century the Kievan Rus state collapsed due to nomadic attacks from Asia. The climax was the sacking of Kiev by the Mongols in 1240, as a result the East Slavs splintered into a number of independent and competing principalities. From the 13th to 15th the Belarusian land became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, acquired by conquest and dynastic marriages. During this period the Slavonic language differentiated in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian. In 1596 the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth was constituted, becoming the largest multinational state in Europe. Belarus stayed part of Lithuania while the Ukraine became subject to the Polish crown. In the lands of the Grand Duchy the peasants had little freedom and had to pay high taxes in benefit of the local gentry. This made many people flee to the scarcely populated lands where they formed the Cossacks. Religious conflicts (the gentry adopted Catholicism while the common people remained orthodox) and many wars weakened Polish Lithuanian commonwealth. During the mid 18th century the Russians tsars annexed the Belarusian land and they were now part of the great Russian empire. Under Russian rule Belarusian cultures were repressed by Russification policies, Catholicism was banned and the use of Belarusian language was prohibited. However Belarusian self-confidence and nationalism rose this period despite the Russian measures. During World War 1 Belarus was occupied by the Germans who withdrew during 1918. During 1919 most of the land was taken by the red army and the western part by Poland. The Polish part of Belarus was subject to Polonization and the Soviet Belarus was named Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and was one of the original republics which formed the USSR. The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22 1941, all of the present-day Belarus territory was occupied by the Germans by the end of August 1941. The Germans imposed a brutal racist regime, in total Belarus lost a quarter of its population, almost all Jews were killed, 9,200 villages and 1,200 thousand houses were destroyed and Minsk lost over 80% of its buildings and city infrastructure. Many Belarusian partisans were fighting an efficient guerrilla war forcing the Germans to withdraw considerable forces behind their front line. After the war the Soviet Union rebuild and then expanded the total destroyed BSSR economy. Belarus became a major centre of manufacturing in the western region of the USSR. The Chernobyl accident on April 26, 1986 was a huge disaster for Belarus, 60 percent of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus, a quarter of the territory populated by 2.2. mln people requires permanent radioactive monitoring. In 1990 the end of the Soviet Union was near, Belarus declared its national sovereignty and was renamed the Republic of Belarus. In 1994, the first presidential elections were held and Alexander Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus. In 2001 and 2006 Lukashenko was re-elected in presidential elections both elections were described as undemocratic by Western observers, at the same time he was criticised of being authoritarian. Many consider Belarus to be the last dictatorship in Europe, Belarus has sustained ongoing economic growth over the last year helped by cheap Russian gas.