Visiting Belarus has become much easier: in late October, the Belarusian authorities sanctioned visa-free travelling to Hrodna and Augustów Canal for foreigners. Belarus, however, is not a member of the European Union; due to different laws or customs an unaware tourist can face problems or even trouble. That is why belsat.eu has prepared a short vademecum on what one should pay attention to and what one should avoid after crossing the Belarusian border.
In Belarus, some roads are available for foreign drivers only for a fee. (MAP)
After entering the country, a driver must buy a special device and put it behind the wind screen so that a car’s moving could be recorded when it passes through gates set on roads. Before going to Belarus, one should decide whether they will use toll roads. For example, in the visa-free area around Hrodna there are no toll roads. To get to Minsk, one can choose the toll speedway Brest-Moscow – or resort to local roads. However, if one chooses the latter, they should be careful not to enter the toll road. Should the police detect the lack of a measuring device, it might cost you 100 euros for each gate you have driven through. Moreover, cameras installed on gates record all ‘free-riders’; then footage is sent to border guards. And even you manage to leave the country without paying the fee, you will be forced to settle a debt next time – under the threat of confiscation of the vehicle. Popular Polish blogger Tomasz Sikorski experienced it firsthand – after re-entering Belarus he had to pay EUR 400 penalty.
However, possessing a device does not guarantee that everything will be ok – sometimes gates happen not to detect it, or a windscreen window jams its signal.
Then – usually at the border crossing – it turns out that you have run in the red. Of course, you can attempt to clear up the mess, but it is to be done by mail or at the headquarters of Beltoll company that is located in Smolenskaya Street in… Minsk. The procedure is long and complicated, the agency may ask a claimant to let them inspect their device or windscreen. Some people encountering such problem often prefer to pay a fine in order to save time and leave Belarus as soon as possible. Thus, if you hear no signal after passing the gate, it is crucial you stop and phone BelToll (the number is on the contract for the device). The company will send a police patrol to trace the trouble.
People staying in Belarus for more than five days (not including Sundays and public holidays) must get a registration. The easiest way is to register in hotels. In accordance with the law, guests of agritourism farms are exempt from this obligation providing that they are able to prove their staying on the farm. However, if you are going to stay longer (say, at your friend’s), this is reasonable to visit the Department of Citizenship and Migration – its branches are located in each district directorate of of the Interior Ministry – in the company of the owner of the place of your stay. To register, you should have a passport, a migration card and a certificate of insurance. Frankly speaking, we cannot think of any cases of imposing fines on tourists without registration. However, playing safe is always better.
As part of the war on drugs, in 2015 Belarusian authorities repeatedly extended prison sentences for trafficking and storage of drugs – even 14-year-olds may be punished. The new wording of Article 328 of the Criminal Code of Belarus provides for deprivation of liberty up to 15 years for selling drugs and up to 20 – for producing them. What is new is that one may also be sentenced for drug taking in public places.
In Belarusian prisons, over a thousand people are serving long terms for possession of small amounts of drugs. Neither the president nor the courts had mercy on them. Therefore, one should stay away from these types of substances here, and of course, bringing them into the country is out of the question.
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Belarus has laws stipulating that one cannot buy alcoholic beverages in shops after 22.00. Fortunately, the ban does not apply to restaurants and cafes. Drinking alcohol at night is not forbidden either. All you have to do is to stock up on stiff drinks in advance if you want to have a party.
In the former USSR, men walking with a bottle of beer or people sitting on benches and drinking vodka were a dime a dozen. Some years ago, the use of alcohol in the streets and public transport was outlawed – in case of violation, one is liable to a fine.
Drunk or even half-drunk? Do not get behind the wheel! You should not lend your car to a ‘merry’ friend. In Belarus, if one is fined or sentenced for drunk driving and then caught in the same act during one year, a car they are driving may be confiscated. Interestingly, this car is seized even if it does not belong to a violator. Thus, lending a car to drunk drivers can end badly as well.
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In Belarus, a car registered abroad must be driven only by its owner. Another person is actually allowed to drive it, but only on condition that the owner is present in the car. Passing your car to a third party is not permitted. In 2013, Teresa Strzelec, a citizen of Poland, left her Jeep to be repaired in Brest. When a son of the workshop’s owner was secretly driving it – i.e. without Mrs Strelec’s permission, he was stopped by the police. The car was confiscated and sold at the auction before the woman could take any measures.
We would not recommend you to photograph official institutions, police stations, military facilities and even the Minsk Metro. A policeman has the right to prevent you from doing it and then question. After the events in Crimea and Donbas, they detained individuals taking pictures of local administration buildings in the east of Belarus. Belarusian authorities seemed to fear that the photos could be used for establishing separatist ‘republics’ in Belarus.
In July, Russian citizen Maria Rymar, who came out with the joke about TNT in your bag in the presence of border guards searching the luggage, was arrested at Minsk Airport. A criminal case was opened against her for reporting false information about danger. Although the woman was released on bail, but she is not allowed to leave belarus and has been waiting for the trial for six months.
Until recently, foreigners could travel, for example, to Moscow through Belarus. Between the two countries there was no border control as it is with the EU. However, since September 2016, Russians refuse to let pass foreign travelers entering their country from the Belarusian side. They keep referring to the fact that there are no no international border crossings between Belarus and Russia.