Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Republic of Belarus

I've done a lot of travelling since I moved to Euroland back in 2009.  There's only one country in Europe that I haven't been to yet and that's Belarus.  Mainly due to visa requirements that make it a pain in the arse to go.  However in September I will go to Minsk and complete my 50 European countries.  So here's a bit about Беларусь.

The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe.  Of course, it sees itself as Central Europe which I guess there's an argument for, if you consider Europe running from Iceland all the way to the eastern bit of Russia.  I say that it's in Eastern Europe and borders Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.  It is a bit smaller than Kansas.  The population is almost 10 million people.  Minsk is the capital and its largest city.

The area was first settled in the 3rd century and Slavs took control around the 5th century.  It was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth.  The territory was eventually taken by the Russian Empire.  It declared independence after WWI and joined the Soviet Union as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

After 70 years of communism the country declared independence in August 1991.  It is a presidential republic in name but most consider it to be the last dictatorship in Europe.  The president, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled since 1994 and there is not much in the way of political opposition or freedom of speech.  The country is Russia's staunchest ally and is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Belarusian is the official first language but only about 12% speak it.  Mostly in the countryside.  In 1995, Russian became the second official language is is used by 72%.  Russian is favoured by the government and is used by the media.

There is no official religion but about 42% are Orthodox.  There is a small Catholic minority of about 9% mostly in the western part of the country.

Current 1,000 note will be replaced
The Rouble is the official currency.  Only bank notes are used as there are no coins due to hyperinflation. In July 2016 a new Belarusian Rouble will be released in to circulation that will reduce everything by 1,000.  For example, if something costs 20,500 Roubles today, in July it will cost 2,5.  Coins will introduced for the first time.  This should make things more interesting when I visit in September.

Most foreigners require a visa in order to visit Belarus.  The application process can be complicated and is one of the reasons that so few people visit.  As an American, a single-entry tourist visa used to cost $120.  Recently the government lowered the price so it should cost $65 now.  Next up is to apply for my tourist visa at the embassy in either Prague, Vienna or Bratislava.  I'm looking at the one in Bratislava because it's the closest and I'm there for work at least once a month.

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