Belarusians are happier than Ukrainians

Belarus at a glance

The optimistic optimistic mood of other successor states of the collapsed Soviet Union is rare here. Belarus' burdensome history and its oppressive present are not the breeding ground for hopeful plans for the future. The bad mood does not go unnoticed by travelers. But sometimes, when you unexpectedly meet warm hospitality and spontaneous helpfulness paves the way, it is there again, the nice feeling of lightheartedness.

An oppressively long Soviet rule has left its wounds, surpassed by one of the worst chapters in German history, the occupation of Belarus by the Wehrmacht in 1941-1943. The lives of 2.2 million people, nearly a quarter of the total population, were wiped out in those terrible years. Still trying to find a way out of the nightmares of the past, a new catastrophe overtook the country in the spring of 1986: Chernobyl. 70% of the radioactive fallout contaminated southern Belarus. Cover-up, chaotic escape and evacuation scenarios document the failure of those in power in Minsk and Moscow. Fortunately, Belarus can be safely traveled to today again. In practically all locations and landscapes, the radiation level corresponds to the natural radiation before the Chernobyl accident.

Beaten by the history that drove the country from one brutal foreign rule to the next, independence was not the dawn of a promising age for the Belarusians, as the independence of their country is on clayey feet. The modernization of society is a long time coming, and those in power are suspicious of any approach to the norms of the international community.

Park in Minsk
Photo: © kaschwei -

Where villages and entire cities (90% of Minsk) were wiped out during the war and, unreasonably, historical buildings were torn down in the 50s and 60s, old, grown town centers have become rare. Visitors have to get used to this and to the large number of new, often monumental memorials and memorials that commemorate the victims of the Stalin era and the German occupation, but also to the everyday inadequacies and the gruff charm of the real world that can still be found here and there Socialism, be it in meetings with officials or the staff in restaurants and shops.

The pound that Belarus can use is its wealth of forests, lakes and rivers, most of which are designated as protected nature reserves. The best-known is probably the Beloveshskaya Pustscha National Park in the Polish-Belarusian border area, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992. It covers 145,000 hectares, of which 87,600 are in Belarus and 57,400 in Poland. This forest on the watershed between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, which in parts looks like a primeval forest, is a remnant of the huge forest area that stretched between the Baltic Sea and Bug, Oder and Dnieper in the Middle Ages. The last wild aurochs were shot here in 1919. In 1929 the reintroduction of the bison began, which today has a population of over 300 animals. The mixed and deciduous forests (including more than 1,000 oaks between 300 and 700 years old) are home to a rich flora and fauna such as lynxes, wolves and bears, red deer and wild boars, golden eagles and black storks.

South of the park is Brest, the famous border town, where motorists often have to endure long traffic jams and rail travelers have to wait a few hours when their wagons are converted from standard to broad gauge. The remains of the martial fortress of Brest are worth seeing. After heroic resistance from some Red Army soldiers, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR declared it to be a "hero's fortress" and turned it into a memorial.

more about: World (cultural) heritage sites in Belarus

Hrodna (Grodno in Polish) is also close to the Polish border, a large Polish-Catholic city on the banks of the Njeman (Memel) with an old town that is well worth seeing. Navahrudak on the way to Minsk also looks back on a long history. It was the first capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and is the birthplace of the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. The contemplative place was able to preserve its medieval cityscape. Not far from here is an important cultural monument of the "Golden Age" of Belarusian history, the fortified castle Mir. The building, begun in the style of Belarusian stone Gothic in the 15th century and completed with stylistic elements of the Renaissance and Baroque, is considered an extraordinary example of Eastern European castle construction. In 2000 Mir was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Through the Radziwill family, Mir was connected to the nearby town of Njasviz, where the famous noble family built one of the most beautiful castles in the country in 1583, surrounded by a romantic park.

Orthodox Church in Minsk
Photo: © kaschwei -

Minsk, the unadorned megacity in the center of Belarus, was first mentioned in a document in 1067. After the destruction of World War II, Belarus` capital received a new cityscape, which is characterized by wide squares and parks, wide boulevards and buildings in the heroic, Soviet-neoclassical style. Few of the old cathedrals survived the war inferno. The old district of Trajeskaje Predmestje also remained undamaged, and its winding streets with houses from the 19th century invite you to take a delightful stroll. The "Minsk Sea", a reservoir, is a popular destination for swimmers and in the north of the Minsk area you can even really vacation on the shores of the 80 km² (corresponds to the area of ​​the Chiemsee) large Narac Lake. A recreation center has been created here in the midst of beautiful forests. The large forests of the Narac region and the forests of Vilejka form the Narochansky National Park (94,000 ha) with the largest pine forest area in Belarus.

Further north, not far from the border with Lithuania and Latvia, lies the Braslawskije Ozera National Park, rich in lakes, a paradise for anglers, water sports enthusiasts and hikers. The 70,000 ha park area is a refuge for rare plants and animals such as elk and brown bear, lynx and badger, and more than 30 types of fish cavort in the lakes (183 km²).

Polack on the western Dwina (Düna) in the north is considered to be the oldest city in Belarus. It can be reached after a varied drive through heather, forest and lake landscapes. The city was a center of Christianity in ancient Rus (empire) and the monastery of St. Jefrosinija with the Church of the Redeemer and the repeatedly rebuilt Church of St. Sophia, which, like the Church of St. Sophia in Novgorod and Kiev, was built on the model of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, remind us of that time .

Vicebsk (Vitebsk) southeast of Polack is Belarus' third largest city. It welcomes visitors with monotonous high-rise slab buildings, where the Wehrmacht had almost completely destroyed the old city trains. Some old churches have been renovated, others rebuilt based on old models. The city on the Dvina is known as the birthplace of the painter Marc Chagall, as the place of work of today's world-famous Russian avant-garde artists, including Kazimir Malevic and El Lisickij. The memory of the city's great sons is cultivated in a modest way.

Flowing through the Berezina, lies an important biosphere reserve to the west of Vicebsk. Berezinsky was placed under protection as early as 1925 and today surprises with primeval forests and untouched wetlands on an area of ​​80,000 hectares. On hikes, photo safaris and boat tours, encounters with moose, bears, bison and wolves are not uncommon.

A special experience for nature lovers is the lowland called Polessje in the south of Belarus. The sluggish Pripyat with its many tributaries, which often damming and creating extensive swamps, runs through this vast landscape, in the center of which lies the Pripyatsky National Park. It covers 750 km² of forest area (pine, oak, beech), 30 smaller lakes and many swamps. These in particular change their appearance several times a year in a fascinating way. An ice surface in winter, a lake district in spring and a lush grassy landscape in summer. 45 species of mammals and 256 species of birds are native here, including bison, lynx, black stork and crane. Guided excursions are offered to visitors.

Hunting tours for wealthy "Westerners" in the Pripyat area or in other "hunting grounds" are clearly on the rise. Whether Krasnoselskoye (56,000 ha, 40 km north of Minsk), also Teterinskoye (82,400 ha) in the east or Telechansky (83,000 ha) in the Brest district, haymen can indulge in an upscale trophy hunt here - from wild ducks for 10 US dollars the wolf ($ 600) to the bison, for which the "lucky shooter" is allowed to shell out $ 3,800.

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General travel information and current Entry requirements as well as notes on security and medical care can be found on the following pages of the Foreign Office (Berlin): Foreign Office

The national airline BELAVIA Belarusian Airlines flies from Berlin, Frankfurt / Main, Hanover and Vienna to the Belarusian capital Minsk. Lufthansa and Austrian also connect Frankfurt / Main in 2.15 hours and Vienna in 1.50 hours with Minsk. Inexpensive trains and buses run between all major Belarusian cities. Thanks to its geographical location, Belarus has a dense network of trans-European communication channels. Outstanding are the west-east connection Berlin-Warsaw-Brest-Minsk-Smolensk-Moscow (train) and the north-south route Klaipeda (Memel / Lithuania) -Vilnius-Minsk-Ukraine (train). The Belarusian railway network (broad gauge) covers around 5,500 km, of which around 1,150 km are electrified. The motorway from Kaliningrad / Königsberg (Russian Federation) via Vilnius (Lithuania) to Minsk and the second largest Belarusian city Homel / Gomel in the south-east of the country is also of great economic importance. The main roads are usually well developed, but side roads are not always paved. There are seldom visitors to the country who are not traveling on an official mission (employees of international organizations and aid agencies, business people, diplomats). In 2014 only around 137,000 “real” tourists were counted, in 2016 there were 217,400, 171,000 of them from Russia alone, and in 2017 283,000 came.

Belarus belongs to the Eastern European Time (EET) time zone. It is two hours ahead of CET.

The months June to September with summer temperatures and low precipitation.

In 2000 the Belarusian ruble replaced the Russian ruble. In 2016 a currency reform was carried out, the value of the national currency was reduced by four decimal places and new banknotes and coins came into circulation. Major credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard, American Express are accepted nationwide. In larger cities, you can withdraw money from ATMs with your EC card.

220 V, 50 Hz. An adapter is recommended.

Belarus occupies the western part of the Eastern European Plain. Its relief does not show any great differences in height. Wide, hilly plains with many moors and swamps determine its landscape. Only in the north do terminal moraines come together to form a ridge (western Russian land ridge). Here, west of Minsk, is also the highest point in Belarus, the Dzerzhinskaya (346 m). To the south, the country gradually sinks to the Polesje lowland, a huge forest and swamp area that extends far into the Ukraine with the famous Pripet swamps in its center. A third of Belarusian territory is accounted for by forests and a fifth by swamps and bog areas.

Moderately continental weather is prevalent. The winter cold of Russia is the exception here, as is the dry summer heat of neighboring Ukraine. The average annual precipitation of around 600 mm falls mainly in the summer months. Unlike the inconsistent spring, autumn is usually mild and dry and well suited for traveling across the country, but so is the usually warm summer, if you know how to adapt to the rainfall.

In northern Eastern Europe. Belarus borders in the northwest with Lithuania and Latvia, in the north and east with the Russian Federation. Ukraine is a neighbor to the south and Poland to the west. Area: 207,595 km²

The Respublika Belarus has been independent since August 1991. It is a member of the CIS, the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of successor states to the Soviet Union founded in 1991. The presidential republic has been ruled by Alexandr Grigoryevich Lukashenka with dictatorial powers since 1994. In 2010 L. was elected for a fourth term in what was, in the opinion of the Belarusian opposition and foreign observers, rigged. The OSCE did not recognize the election result. His re-election in October 2015 took place under less dubious circumstances and induced the EU to relax certain sanctions from 2016. Nevertheless, Belarus remains isolated in Europe because of its obvious democratic deficits (no independent trade unions, persecution of the opposition, elimination of the separation of powers). The foreign policy alignment with Moscow led Belarus to join the "Eurasian Economic Union" (members are Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan besides Russia and Belarus), but also raised concerns in Minsk about the Russian annexation of Crimea and the intervention in the eastern part Ukraine come up. What worries the Belarusians is the "2024 problem". This year, the presidency of the Russian autocrat expires and the fears in Belarus are that the man in the Kremlin, in view of the declining popularity, could whip through the Union state Russia / Belarus, which has been targeted for decades, in order to be at the head of this entity to stay. Because of Moscow's increasingly aggressive foreign policy positions, Lukashenka temporarily kept his distance. At the same time, however, the Russian leadership urged the establishment of an air force base (was rejected!) On the territory of Belarus, where Russia already has a radar station and a naval radio station. In any case, Belarus’s military and secret services are integrated into the respective Russian systems and Belarus could not survive financially without Russian support loans. Lukashenka kept his people reasonably happy by means of wage increases and imports of western consumer goods - which of course has its limits. “Here, as in Russia, democracy does not have a majority”, says the Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, “but one has to admit that Lukashenka keeps the treaty with the people to some extent (...) We have corruption and nepotism. The people in Belarus are not plundered as outrageously as in Russia ... ”In 2018, the Washington NGO“ Freedom House ”gave Belarus a 6 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties on a scale from 1 = free to 7 = unfree. In 2018, “Reporters Without Borders” ranked Belarus 155th out of 180 countries in their press freedom ranking.

Minsk with 1,982,444 inhabitants (according to data from the National Statistical Committee of March 2018)

Belarus has 9.434 million inhabitants (as of the beginning of 2019, according to estimates by the UN Population Division) with a growth rate of minus 0.19% compared to the previous year. The country's population has been falling steadily since 1993. The titular nation counts itself (all data refer to the last census. It was in 2009) 83.7%, 8.3% describe themselves as ethnic Russians, 3.1% as Poles, 1.7% as Ukrainians, 0, 1% as Jews, other minorities are Tatars, Roma, Lithuanians, Latvians and others The number of people belonging to national minorities is falling continuously.
According to surveys in 2017, 97% of the population felt they belonged to a religion. 73% described themselves as Russian Orthodox Christians, 12% as members of the Roman Catholic Church (especially in the western parts of the country, which were Polish until 1939) and 9% belong to other Christian denominations. There are also 27 Muslim and around 40 Jewish communities in the country.
Belarusian has been the state language since 1990 and Russian as well since 1995. Belarusian is in danger of being marginalized. This language has been almost completely ousted from official usage. The Russian language has long been the predominant lingua franca and colloquial language. The 2009 census found that only 26% of ethnic Belarusians speak Belarusian at home. But for a few years now, the spread of the Belarusian language has been particularly encouraged.

The Belarusian economic sector has been at a standstill for years. The overdue structural reforms have so far not been carried out. Foreign direct investment remains far below expectations.In 2011 the country suffered a serious economic and financial crisis after expansionary government spending and a misguided monetary and credit policy, which was followed by a sales crisis in 2013/14, after Russia, as its most important trading partner, drastically cut its demand for Belarusian products and also affected that by unrest and fighting Ukraine bought less. The economic difficulties with which the Russian Federation is struggling have such a massive impact on the Belarusian economic sector because around 50% of exports (especially trucks and tractors) go to Russia and over 50% of imports come from there - primarily inexpensive raw materials. The Ukraine, China and Germany are the next important trading partners. Belarus continues to adhere to the system of a centralized governance economy - the country is more of a planned than a market economy, in which more than half of the workers are employed in state-owned companies, which usually employ more staff than are needed and pay higher real wages increased as labor productivity increased. The low international competitiveness, too few high-quality export goods, too low labor productivity weaken the economic sector.There are excellently trained skilled workers, a good academic education and a reasonably functioning infrastructure - good prerequisites, in combination with far-reaching reforms, to strengthen the Belarusian economy and to make them interesting for domestic and foreign investors as well. But the latter also hold back because they fear legal uncertainty and are dissatisfied with the work of the public administration. Belarus' economic policy is too unpredictable for them and they also miss a strategy against rampant corruption.