What makes Belarus a unique country to travel to?
Belarus has been led by Alexander Lukashenka since 1994. Under Lukashenka’s rule, economic and political reform has stalled and the government’s human rights record has steadily deteriorated. Both Belarusian and Russian are official languages, and Russian is widely spoken throughout the country, particularly in the cities. Tourist facilities are not highly developed, but food and lodging in the capital and some regional centers are adequate.
Belarus has a moderate rate of street crime. Criminal activity in Minsk is comparable to the level found in other large cities, while in the rural areas it is very limited. Though violent crime against foreigners is rare, criminals have been known to use force if met with resistance from victims. Common street crime, such as mugging and pocket picking, occurs most frequently near public transportation venues, near hotels frequented by foreigners, and/or at night in poorly-lighted areas. In Minsk, you should be especially alert in metro and bus stations.
Visiting night clubs, you should pay particular attention to your surroundings and drinks; the drugging of drinks is not uncommon. Prostitutes at hotels may attempt to open hotel room doors in search of customers. Local and transnational organized criminal activity also exists in Belarus. Most casinos and adult clubs are operated by criminal elements, but street-level organized criminal violence is rare and does not generally affect foreigners. Carjacking is also rare, but theft of vehicle parts and car vandalism is not. Sport-utility and luxury vehicles tend to be the most sought-after. Parking in a secure area overnight is highly recommended.
Sexual assaults on women are as commonplace in Minsk as they are in most large urban areas in the United States. Women are advised to exercise the same caution as they would in any large city in the United States.
Keep a copy of your passport in a separate location from your original passport.
Internet-Dating Schemes and Cyber-Crime: "Internet brides" are advertised on several websites and are not always legitimate. Often, potential suitors in the United States lose thousands of dollars when they send money to people they have never met and never hear from again. A growing variant on this theme is the suitor invited to Belarus to visit a “friend,” who arranges lodging and transportation for him (at hugely inflated prices) and disappears when the money has changed hands.
Cyber-crime of all kinds is well developed in Belarus. Merchandise orders with fraudulent credit cards, ID theft, hacking/blackmail schemes, and advance fee fraud are gaining in popularity. If you are doing business with persons or firms in Belarus electronically, you should proceed with extreme caution. You should avoid using credit and debit cards, except at ATMs located inside major banks. Not only is electronic fraud common at ATMs and grocery stores, serious injuries have been inflicted during assaults at street-side ATMs. Please note that transferring funds from abroad, replacing stolen traveler's checks or airline tickets, or canceling credit cards can be difficult and time consuming, especially due to the lack of English-speaking tourist agencies and an undeveloped tourism industry in Belarus.
In many countries around the world, counterfeit and pirated goods are widely available. Transactions involving such products may be illegal under local law. In addition, bringing them back to the United States may result in forfeitures and/or fines.
The local equivalents to the “911” emergency lines in Belarus are: 101 for Fire and Rescue Squad; 102 for Police; and 103 for Ambulance (Medical Emergency).
Belarus police organizations are well trained and professional, but severely restricted by an un-reformed Soviet-era legal system, corruption, and politicization of the police force and other government authorities. Due to low salaries, it is not uncommon for officers to collect bribes during traffic stops. Sophisticated criminal investigations are often inconclusive because of a lack of resources and/or political will.
Some U.S. citizens have reported harassment at border crossings. Despite these problems, the Regional Security Officer recommends that you report any crimes immediately to the local police and the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical care in Belarus is neither modern nor easily accessible, especially for those who do not speak Russian. There are no hospitals in Belarus that provide a level of medical care equal to that of Western hospitals, and none accept U.S. health insurance plans for payment. Despite the recent emergence of facilities which offer private "advanced" medical services, modern diagnostic equipment and even basic supplies are still lacking. Traumatic injuries are especially serious as the level of care and competence to deal with them are well below U.S. standards.
Ambulances are poorly equipped and unreliable; a wait time of 30 minutes or more is not unusual. The fastest way to secure Western-level care is medical evacuation to Western Europe. You should consider purchasing medical evacuation insurance prior to travel, or have access to substantial credit to cover evacuation costs. There are no air ambulance services in Belarus. Local health insurance for non-residents is required for all visitors by the government and may be purchased at points of entry.
The medical emergency number for Belarus is 103 from any telephone.
Tuberculosis (TB) is an increasingly serious health concern in Belarus
Safety and Security
Both organized and spontaneous demonstrations occur occasionally in Belarus. While infrequent, localized street disturbances relating to political events are more likely in Minsk or larger cities than smaller towns and villages. In some instances, authorities may use force to disperse protesters. Bystanders, including foreign nationals, may face the possibility of arrest, beating, or detention. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can sometimes become confrontational and escalate into violence. For this reason, it is recommended that you, as a U.S. citizen, avoid all demonstrations and protest gatherings.
Security personnel may at times place you, as a foreigner, under surveillance; your hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in your hotel rooms may be searched. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with authorities; these sites are not always clearly marked and application of these restrictions is subject to interpretation.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
U.S. citizens on short-term visits to Belarus (up to 90 days) are permitted to drive with a valid U.S. state or international driver’s license. Therefore, you should always carry your passport with you to prove date of entry into the country in the event that police stop you. If residing in Belarus for more than 90 days, you should apply for a Belarusian driver’s license (regardless of the type of license you have, state or international), in which case you will be required to pass a two-part test in Russian. The first part of this test is a computer-based multiple-choice test on local driving rules, and the second part is a driving test. To receive a local driver’s license, you will also need to complete a medical exam at a special medical clinic, which will include a general physical, approval form from a neuro-pathologist, a surgeon, and an EENT specialist, as well as an EKG, a chest x-ray, and an eye exam.
Roads in Belarus are in generally good condition, but modern cars share the highways with tractors, horse-drawn carts, and pedestrians. Drunk driving is also common, even with a zero-tolerance law. Ice and snow in the winter months pose an added hazard. Should you get involved in an automobile accident, report it immediately to the road police, and remain at the scene until after the police arrive and complete the investigation. You may leave the scene of an accident only if you believe your personal safety is in danger.
Except for a stretch of the main east-west highway where the speed limit is 120 km/h (75 mph), the maximum speed limit on divided highways or main roads outside village, town, or city limits is 90 km/h (55 mph). Speed limits in cities are 60 km/h unless marked and will usually range between 40 km/h and 80 km/h, with frequent radar traps. Fines for speeding depend on the speed over the speed limit, and can vary from 2 to 10 minimum tariff units (from $26 to $130).
Visible and hidden dangers exist, including potholes, unlighted or poorly lighted streets, inattentive and dark-clothed pedestrians walking on unlighted roads, drivers and pedestrians under the influence of alcohol, and disregard for traffic rules. Driving in winter is especially dangerous because of ice and snow. Driving with caution is urged at all times.
DUI fines vary from 15 to 35 minimum tariff units (from $200 to $500) for the first detected offense. Repeated offenders within 365 days may be subject to criminal prosecution (up to 6 months in prison or up to two years of corrective labor).
Drivers are expected to yield for pedestrians crossing at pedestrian crossings marked by respective road signs or road markings, and intersections not controlled by a traffic signal or a road policeman.
Use of hand-held mobile phones while driving is prohibited. Radio-dispatched taxi services are generally reliable, arrive promptly once called, and usually offer the lowest fare. Most radio-dispatched taxis are metered. Current fare is approximately $1 per mile. However, the minimum charge is about 4 dollars which includes the first 3-4 miles of travel. With the majority of taxi services, the rates are the same during the day and in the overnight hours. The use of informal, unregistered taxis is not recommended.
Minsk has a clean, safe, and efficient subway system that easily reaches most of the city center. Service is stopped from 1:00 a.m.to 5:30 a.m., but otherwise runs regularly throughout the day. Ticket prices are extremely low by western standards. Though their routes are extensive, buses and trolleys lack cooling capabilities in the summer and are usually crowded.
When travelling on public transportation of any kind, you should be wary of pickpockets and other petty crime. If you are interested in car rentals, there are several western rental agencies currently operating in Minsk. In general, rental-car networks in Belarus are not well developed.
You may experience significant delays (1-12 hours)in crossing the border by road into neighboring countries, especially Poland and Lithuania.