It took a lot of time and effort to get official permission to travel around Belarus for a month.
The country was opening up to tourism, leastways in theory. One could enter the country and stay for 5 nights without requiring a visa. If one wanted to stay for longer than 5 nights, a visa was required. A month – 28 days – was the maximum time one could stay in the country.
A month visa had to be applied for in one’s nation of origin, in our case, The Netherlands. There were many forms to be filled in. The requirements varied from the obtuse (e.g.name of mother and father and grandparents along with their birth dates and nationality) to the ridiculous: e.g. to give the name and address of a person in Belarus who was prepared to sponsor our visit. Another demand was for a letter from our health insurance company confirming that we would be fully covered during our stay in Belarus; it had to be in English, not Dutch. Fortunately, our Dutch health insurance company agreed to send us a covering letter in English. They confirmed that we would be covered during our time in Belarus.
It was a daunting prospect filling in the forms. When they were completed, we turned to a small company which specialised in visa applications. They checked our forms to ensure that everything was filled in as required and crucially, they had someone in Belarus who could act as our sponsor. They also checked the letter from our health insurance company. The whole exercise, including the cost of the visas, set us back 300 Euros.
After a couple of weeks, our passports came back from The Hague with the official 28 day visa stamped in our passports.
We were elated.
Belarus here we come!
Belarus was the only communist regime still in existence, although walking around the capital, Minsk, I had to wonder about that: everywhere I looked, I saw luxury cars, American take away outlets, upmarket restaurants, mega shopping malls, and just about everyone talking into a smart phone. Minsk was a modern city and there seemed to be precious little communism remaining.
I had to remind myself that the country was ruled by an authoritarian despot named Lukashenko who had been in power for almost 30 years and was good friends with Russia’s resident despot, Vladimir Putin. In Belarus there was no such thing as an independent media, free elections, or public dissent.
However these sides of Belarus remained hypothetical during my first day or two of walking around the city. Not only was it modern, it was also scrupulously clean, had lots of parks and walking trails and bike tracks and its historic centre had been tastefully preserved. There were no blatant signs of poverty, no homeless people camping in the parks. It was difficult to balance up the reality of Minsk with the oppressive nature of the communist government.
But on our third day in Minsk, we were suddenly confronted by one of the truly enduring aspects of communist rule: the bureaucracy.
We had booked an apartment near the centre of Minsk for 3 days. But we liked the apartment and we liked Minsk, so Anya phoned the owner of the apartment – and big, garrulous man named Nikolae – and booked another 3 nights.
Then the ball started rolling.
Fine by him, he said, but did we realise that if we planned to stay in Belarus for longer than 5 nights we had to report to the immigrant police?
Anya explained that we had a visa for 28 days.
That didn’t matter, Nikolae said: we had still had to register and he had to accompany us because no one at the immigration police spoke any other languages other than Belorussian and Russian.
Anya began peppering him with questions, to which he said:
‘Look, I better come around tomorrow and explain the situation to you. This is a crazy country you’ve come to…’
We agreed on a time and Nikolae duly appeared.
The three of us sat in the lounge of the apartment. Outside was a view of a square surrounded by other apartments, four stories high. It was a fine day. Patches of snow covered the ground inside the square and the trees were bare, but the sun shone brightly and flooded through the windows of our apartment. Nikolae however brought a darkness with him which soon made us forget about the beautiful weather.
It took some time, but in his broken English he finally made us understand: irrespective of the fact that we had a visa, we still had to register with the immigration police.
Nikolae then asked us whether we had proof of our medical insurance. This was crucial for registering. When we showed him the letter from our health insurer – in English – he grimaced:
‘No good, this must be translated into Belorussian.’
‘What? But this has been approved by the Belorussian embassy in The Netherlands – ‘
‘I know, I know,…I told you, this is a crazy country! I can’t do anything about it but …’
It was preposterous!
We had gone to the trouble of arranging for a covering letter from the Dutch insurance company to be translated into English, as the embassy had demanded, and then on arriving in Minsk, we were then told that the letter had to be translated in to Belorussian.
The long-winded process of obtaining a 28 day visa from the embassy in The Hague was no more than the first step in a longer journey.
Nikolai knew the ropes. He possessed a natural skill which was essential to surviving in this system: he knew how to scam.
To get around the requirement of translating the health insurance letter into Belorussian it was easier he told us to take out a policy with the Belarus state insurance agency. This would cost 50 Euros (a lot of money in Belarus), but it would be quicker and cheaper than getting our original letter translated.
After the emotions of anger, incredulity and sheer disbelief washed over us, we realised that we were helpless.
If we wanted to travel in Belarus we had to play this game.
And what a game it was!
Early the following afternoon, he picked us up in his beaten up Audi to the Belorussian State Health Insurance Office. It was at the outskirts of Minsk. The office was a small, modern single level building surrounded by old, run down apartment blocks. This was where the poor lived. We were a long way from the modern heart of Minsk.
Inside, a long conversation ensued between Nikolae and a woman behind a counter. She passed over two forms and we retreated to a nearby waiting room, where Nikolae took out a pen and copied the details from our passports on to the forms in Cyrillic. It took quite a while.
Then he took the forms, our passports and a 50 Euro note back to the counter. This was followed by a long wait.
Whilst sitting there, it hit me:I suddenly thought of Franz Kafka’s epic novel ‘The Trial’.
The classic opening line of that novel rang in my ears:
‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but one morning, he was arrested. ’
K. is picked up one morning in his lodgings by the police and brought to the hallways of an immense bureaucracy to be cross-examined by a magistrate. But he has no idea of what crime he has committed and no one tells him. He is shunted from one department to the other, endlessly – and then allowed to resume his life on the condition that when summoned, he must appear before a court and defend himself – against unknown charges. Joseph K.’s entire life is spent in this limbo land at the behest of an amorphous bureaucracy, omnipotent and requiring no pretext to charge and detain. He is puppet on strings, his life forfeit to a judicial/bureaucratic labyrinth.
Kafka was writing in the 1920’s in Prague. How strangely prophetic that novel proved to be. No one could have imagined then that one day, ‘The Trial’ would become the reality of communism and that communism would come to dominate all of Eastern Europe, including Prague.
Communism: the empire of bureaucracy.
Finally we were called back to the counter. After signing a lot of forms, all of them in Cyrillic, and having each one of them stamped, we got three small receipts, confirming that we were insured for the following 25 days.
As we left to get back into the car, Nikolae said: ‘You can’t use that insurance policy. If you get sick or have an accident, then use your Dutch policy. They will never admit foreigners into a Belorussian hospital with a policy taken out with the State Insurance.’
It was utter madness of course, but by this time we were reconciled to going along with the scam.
Next stop: the Immigration Police.
Where more madness was awaiting us.