Illuminating Belarus

Change is inevitable. It’s one of life’s certainties, along with death and taxes. Sometimes though, change takes its time in arriving. In the case of Belarus, it’s been a couple of hundred years of waiting, with, in many ways, little change.
Belarus as we know it, was first annexed by the Russian Empire in 1795 and in spite of an uprising in 1830 – led by the gentry – Russian rule continued. A programme of Russification was only partially successful and in the early nineteenth century a number of authors started publishing in the Belarusian language. In a further Russification drive in the 1840s, Tsar Nicholas I forbade the use of the term Belarusia and renamed the region the “North-Western Territory”. He prohibited the use of the Belarusian language in public schools, campaigned against Belarusian publications and tried to pressure those who had converted to Catholicism to reconvert to the Orthodox faith. In 1863, economic and cultural pressure exploded into revolt, which was crushed again. As a consequence, the Russian government reintroduced Cyrillic and banned the use of the Latin alphabet, making road signs so much fun for most of us westerners riding there today… As you’ll see later it’s doubtful you’ll be crossing it as you head east anyway.
Geographically trapped between Poland and Russia, most of the 20thC saw poor Belarus occupied by one power or another. The Germans had a go during both wars too and even though it lost a quarter of its pre-war population (including most of its large Jewish population and practically all of its intellectual elite) the partisans fought vociferously for self-determination and the cultural spirit of the Belarusian people has refused to disappear.
Soviet era Belarus was much as you’d expect, (including Stalinist purges in the 1930s and a further period of Russification in the 1960s) and although Belarus finally attained its independence in 1991, much of the legacy of seven decades as a member of the USSR remains disturbingly intact. Belarus is the only former Soviet Republic which has not seen the need to even change the name of the KGB, and around 80% of industry remains in state hands. State-sponsored forced labour is a continuing problem, with students forced to do farm work without pay and military conscripts forced to perform unpaid non-military work; the government has even retained a decree forbidding workers in state-owned wood processing factories from leaving their jobs without their employers’ permission… But the distinctively Soviet architecture also remains, such as the very grand rail stations underground in Minsk, and the hideous grey housing blocks on the surface.

Politics in Belarus since independence are down to one man – President Aleksandr Lukashenko, originally chairman of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee. Since his election in July 1994 as the country’s first and only directly elected president, he has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian restrictions on political and civil freedoms, including freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Elections and referenda are usually judged by Western observers to be neither free nor fair, resulting in a situation where it is not uncommon for the government candidates to win all of the parliamentary seats and thanks to a change in the law. Lukashenko is in his fifth presidential term (with ever wider powers).
Belarus has been heavily criticised by rights bodies for suppressing free speech, muzzling the press and denying the opposition access to state media. TV is the main news source, with the eight national channels still state-controlled. Their main competitors are Russian networks, but most Russian bulletins are not rebroadcast live, allowing Belarusian censors time to work their magic.
If you want to turn to the internet as a source of news, the law restricts access to foreign websites and forces internet clubs and cafés to report users visiting sites registered abroad; perhaps something to consider if you’re blogging as you travel. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Belarus 157th out of 180 countries in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
However, the Belarusians are a spirited lot as all the invaders through the years discovered, and so protests and acts of dissent still take place. When a young protestor placed teddy bears with pro-democracy slogans outside government buildings he was arrested, and when a Swedish organisation heard about the stunt, it threw 1,000 teddies with even more slogans attached, out of an aircraft flying over Belarus. Lukashenko responded by firing the head of his air force and expelling the Swedish ambassador.
If all of the above hasn’t put you off, there are signs that things are – very slowly – changing, and arguably that makes ‘now’ a pretty interesting time to visit. Belarus is landlocked, with cold winters, cool, moist summers. It’s not somewhere we’d recommend if you are seeking twisty mountain passes – it’s generally flat with a lot of marshland, and only a 256m difference in height between the Nyoman River and Dzyarzhynskaya Hara, the lowest and highest points in the country respectively – but there are still miles of forestry tracks. The glacially flattened landscape means that the motorways are wide, flat, straight and extremely boring.
Motorcycles are thankfully currently exempt from charges on the toll roads, and these super wide motorways are typically in excellent condition, whereas the smaller roads are anything from newly surfaced to riddled with pot holes like a giant colander. Road works and potholes are usually poorly marked, and horse and carriage combinations can be a specific hazard for unwary riders in rural unlit areas.
The drivers in general are aggressive and ignorant of motorcyclists, but defensive and alert riding will typically see you through without any problems. On the smaller country roads, the traffic is light and you can relax and enjoy the scenery. Speed limit is 60 km/h (37 mph) in built up areas; 90 km/h (55 mph) outside built up areas; and up to 120 km/h (74 mph) on motorways (Brest-Moscow), but it’s worth noting that visiting motorists who have held a driving licence for less than 2 years must not exceed 70 km/h (43 mph)!
International Driving Permit (IDP) is compulsory, and you must be able to produce vehicle ownership documents or a letter of ‘power of attorney’ at border crossings. Only originals of these documents are accepted. You must have them with you for police checkpoints too or you may get an on-the-spot fine. You’ll need to buy third party insurance for your bike at the border (in cash), as without it you can receive more fines and if you don’t have it when leaving, the authorities confiscate your bike. The same fate awaits if you overstay the temporary import authorisation on the bike. However, you no longer need a carnet or to pay the 150% value of your vehicle temporary import duty, as that was scrapped in 2017.
Visitors need to supply a permanent place of residence in Belarus though, along with the details of the inviting person or organising tour company. Once In Belarus, you have to register with the police station in the district of your stay, with fines for late registration.
Petrol is plentiful and cheap, with the ‘pay first, fuel afterwards’ system, so common in the east. Food in restaurants is varying; There are “modern” places that serve a mixture of local delicacies and more western fare, but in the rural areas the food is more traditional and a little bland. Every menu is complete with the weight of the food you get – i.e burger 200g, fries 100g, along with a stamp from the officials who approve the menu and confirm the data. Some establishments even contain a price list of things that you might break, such as crockery, chairs, etc. How wild is lunch in Belarus?!
It’s best to avoid certain foodstuffs including local dairy produce, forest mushrooms and fruits of the forest, which can carry high levels of radiation as a result of contamination from the 1986 accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine. Significant radiation affected around 20% of Belarus, and it’s estimated that 65% of the radioactive fallout from the disaster fell in Belarus. Having said that, as long as you avoid the exclusion zone near the Ukrainian border in South East Belarus, the risk of radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl site is insignificant. Don’t drink village well water as it is usually heavily contaminated with impurities.
While on the subject of border areas, the Russian government maintain that there are no legal grounds for foreign nationals to cross the Russia-Belarus state border, so if you’re planning a trip which includes entering Russia by road, you’ll need to take an alternative route through a different country.
And finally, in what seems like a list of negatives, be careful what you catch on camera (I once took a photo without noticing the military barracks in the background…). Keep the camera away at the border and the obvious places like governmental buildings (KGB HQ, Presidential buildings, etc), subway and railway stations… and near uniformed and non-uniformed police officers. The law apparently says that you’re allowed to film the police, and people have beaten charges in court, but do you really want to end up in court to find out?
This is a big chunk of hidden Europe still worth visiting, especially if you hanker after a bit of cold war nostalgia. Most young people understand English, and speak a little too, and that in itself is an indication of a change in Belarusian society. Because that’s inevitable. Isn’t it?