Hostile environments, Part #9: the Republic of Belarus
Like many CIS countries, Belarus is not violent or dangerous in the conventional sense. Indeed it is one of the most law-abiding countries in all Europe. Nevertheless there is something very wrong with it. It is not a country you should enter without a profound understanding of the region and its cultural peculiarities. Otherwise you will find yourself quickly arrested without knowing what on earth you were arrrested for. And then your life will become very bad.
While Belarus is highly law-abiding, all sorts of things are against the law that you would never imagine might be. And the criminal penalties are out of proportion to all common sense.
With these introductory comments in mind, we now make the following observations.
Check the visa rules with meticulous care, and comply with them neurotically. Citizens of most western nations do not for the most part need visas. However they can only enter and exit the country using Minsk International Airport - and not from or to an airport in Russia. (This rule makes little obvious sense but Belarus often makes little sense.)
Given the comprehensive air travel sanctions in force against Belarus, this limits one's entry options to Istanbul, some obscure flights from Egypt and the UAE, and miscellaneous Caucasian destinations.
You can forget trying to enter or exit Belarus overland. You will be arrested for espionage.
Do not overstay your permitted period of stay granted at the airport, without applying for an extension of stay with the relevant Police office. You will not be able to navigate this bureaucratic jungle without an experienced Belarusian friend who knows exactly how that office works. On the other hand, you can extend your stay indefinitely if you know how to do it.
If you try to overstay unlawfully, the hotel staff or your landlord will call the Police and you will be arrested and imprisoned for an indeterminate period.
Do not cross roads save at official pelican crossings on green; or you may be arrested.
Do not make loud noises in the street, including clapping your hands, or you will be arrested.
Do not engage with opposition politicians or any NGO's, or you will be arrested.
Do not consume any quantity of recreational narcotics of any kind, or you will be arrested. You are looking at a blood test and then an eight year minimum sentence.
Officially it is a crime to photograph the KGB building in central Minsk. Lots of people do photograph it; but be aware that if you are caught doing so, you may be arrested for espionage.
Do not make any derogatory remarks about Belarus, or you may be arrested.
Walking in silence and dining in silence or with low voices in restaurants and cafes in Minsk are not illegal.
You can travel round Belarus and even hire a car to do so. This is not illegal. Belarus has plenty of tourist attractions. You can even go well off the beaten track without anyone minding, as long as you obey the law.
Brawling with drunk people in bars can be common at night; but try to avoid it. The Police or KGB may arrive, with unpredictable consequences for you.
Do not spend time in hospitality venues frequented by 'hipsters' (i.e. people who dress in unconventional ways), or you may be swept up in a Police arrest.
There are various drinking establishments in Minsk, usually disguising themselves as casinos, that are open 24 hours a day. They may also serve food. Be cautious in these places. An approach from a violent drunk Russian is reasonably likely in which case go to stand next to anyone who looks like a member of the security staff and wait for the Police to arrive.
Minsk railway station is open 24 hours a day but guess what - it is constantly full of Police officers. Whatever your business is in the railway station, do it efficiently and do not loiter. Otherwise you may be questioned, which is very similar to being arrested.
The Police are very professional in their own way. Do not attempt to bribe them, or you will be arrested.
Drugging with flunitrazepam by women in bars is fairly common. It may take place with the connivance of the bar staff. Stay alert.
This author has photographed and videoed massive columns of Russian armour in Belarus in front of the Police, without problems. This does not seem to be illegal.
Avoid expressing political opinions to anyone, no matter how well you think you know them.
Water quality is very bad; boil tap water before consuming.
Be aware that if you compromise someone you know locally by saying something politically contentious, for example, then they or their families may end up incarcerated by the KGB.
Use a VPN when reading international news or engaging in international communications.
Do not attempt to visit anyone's private residence. You will probably cause them to be detained by the KGB.
Do not leave a restaurant or bar without paying, even if just to go to the bank or to buy cigarettes next door. The Police will be called and you will be arrested.
Likewise do not unwrap anything in a shop (e.g. a chocolate bar) until you have paid for it. Otherwise the Police will be called and you will be arrested.
If you commit serious crime in Belarus (including possession of 3 grammes or more of a recreational narcotic), you can expected to be sentenced to death and you can expect the penalty to be executed promptly. The Belarusian appellate court system is most efficient.
Belarus is rather closed. It has no democracy and no free media. Nevertheless it is very orderly and predictable. As long as you follow the rules very precisely, you will be safe. And if you do not, you will spend an extended period in a Belarusian prison or you will be shot by firing squad (which may be preferable).