Between 21st and 30th June, Belarus will host the second ‘European Games’, an international multi-sport event. Athletes from 50 countries are expected to compete in 15 different sports, eight of which offer them opportunities to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Up to 400,000 tickets have been made available, with spectators travelling from across Europe to attend.
Visiting the easterly state has historically proven difficult due to strict entry requirements. However, visa restrictions have recently been lifted for British, American and Canadian travellers planning to spend less than 30 days in the country, making visiting the former Soviet republic much less difficult than in previous years. The Western media frequently deem the state ‘Europe’s last remaining dictatorship’; a tagline that may be off-putting for potential visitors to Belarus; however, the security risks posed to those attending the European Games vary little from those that travellers would face in Western European cities. In fact, some factors such as petty crime are less of a concern in Minsk than in more frequented capitals due to the comparatively small number of visitors the city receives.
Despite this, it is important to understand the political and security environment in Minsk in order to mitigate the latent risks posed to travellers. Healix has therefore compiled a list of five key considerations for those planning on attending the 2019 European Games:
1. Entry Requirements to the European Games
Recent changes to entry requirements have made it much easier to visit Belarus, and restrictions have been further loosened temporarily for those attending the European Games. Western tourists can enter the country for a period of up to 30 days without a visa but must ensure that their passports are valid for a minimum of three months from the date of entry into Belarus and that they have sufficient funds (49 BYN/24 EUR per day) and medical insurance to cover their visit. Due to the changing visa requirements, travellers are advised to contact their relevant embassy or consulate for clarification and to ensure the correct procedures are followed.
Where visitors are usually required to enter the country solely via Minsk National Airport (MSQ), European Games ticket holders can enter Belarus through any border checkpoints between 10th June and 10th July. All visitors to Belarus staying for more than five days are required to register with the Citizenship and Migration Department of the Ministry of Interior within three workings days of arrival. Hotels will usually complete this process on behalf of their guests; however, travellers staying in private accommodation should ensure their hosts register for them.
Any travellers to Belarus before, during and after the European Games should familiarise themselves with customs regulations prior to entering the country. Comprehensive information regarding items that can and cannot be brought into Belarus can be found on the customs.gov.by website.
2. Transport around Minsk
Taxis, buses and the metro system are all convenient and safe ways to travel around Minsk. The metro is the quickest method of public transport within the city and is both clean and reliable. It operates between 05h30 and 01h00 and signs are displayed in both Belarusian and Russian. The network is extensive throughout the city, but does not serve the airport.
Travel from the airport can be undertaken by either bus or taxi. Yandex and Uber are widely used within Minsk; however, travellers should ensure that all taxis are registered. Order taxis from the official booking point within the airport, and do not take up offers from drivers waiting in the arrivals hall or foyer. Although a more comfortable method of transport, travelling by taxi can cost between 20 and 40 BYN, compared to 5 BYN for a bus or minibus. The latter option may take up to an hour – the journey is approximately 20 minutes slower than by car. Travellers are advised to plan their journey from the airport in advance due to limited English-language signage and capabilities; writing your destination on a piece of paper in Cyrillic to present to taxi or bus drivers may help expedite the process.
3. Local crime
As is the case in most major urban centres, petty criminals pose a minor threat to travellers. In general, Belarus enjoys low rates of crime, and Minsk is considered a very safe city; however, areas that attract large crowds are generally those most frequented by pickpockets and the influx of visitors for the European Games is likely to draw opportunistic criminals.
Travellers should employ common-sense security precautions in public transport hubs such as Minsk-Pasazyrski, the city’s main railway station; the foyers of high-profile venues for the Games, including Dinamo Stadium, Minsk Arena and Cyzouka-Arena; and in the lobbies of well-known international hotels. Metro trains and stations are also likely to attract petty criminals, in particular Instytut Kultury, Lenin Square and Oktyabrskaya, due to their high footfall.
Measures such as keeping valuables in front or inside pockets, as well as ensuring bags are closed and kept close to the body, should be sufficient to mitigate the risk of pickpocketing. Should you fall victim to criminal activity whilst in Minsk, we would advise liaising with contacts with local language skills prior to contacting the police where possible, as English-language capabilities within the security forces are limited. Travellers are advised that you will be expected to carry your passport at all times in Minsk and may be asked to produce it in dealings with the police.
4. Likelihood of unrest
Minsk has been the site of several mass protests over the past decade. The most significant in recent years occurred in 2017, when a controversial policy decision led to a series of street demonstrations across the country over the course of five weeks. Reports suggest that around 400 people were detained by the police during one such rally in Minsk and clashes occurred between the security forces and protesters.
Demonstrations are not rare but do not occur with the same frequency as is seen in Western Europe, and are usually triggered by a change in legislation or elections. President Alexander Lukashenko has declared his intent to hold parliamentary elections in 2019, but these are not expected to coincide with the European Games. At present there is no indication that demonstrations will occur during the course of the Games; however, the possibility of protests cannot be ruled out.
Should protests occur, travellers are strongly advised to avoid the affected areas due to the risk of unrest. Previous smaller-scale demonstrations have passed off peacefully but there is a latent risk of violence at all protests. Becoming involved in a protest could also lead to detention. If you come across a political gathering in the city, leave the area quickly. Travellers can remain informed of planned demonstrations via the Healix Travel Oracle app.
5. Threat of terrorism
Belarus has not played a role in either the Chechen Wars or the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, involvement in which has led neighbouring Russia and Western states respectively to be targeted by international Islamist militant organisations. Minsk has experienced only one fatal incident of terrorism; in 2011, an improvised explosive device was detonated at Kastrycnickaja metro station, killing 15 and wounding around 200. The motive for the bombing remains unclear.
Although there is little-to-no history of domestic or international terrorism in Belarus, militant groups pose a latent threat to European and Western interests. An event such as the European Games would be a high-profile target; however, no specific threats against the competition have been made and the Belarusian government has undertaken significant security measures to mitigate this risk. Russian police officers are due to work alongside their Belarusian counterparts to provide extra security at key infrastructure such as stadiums, hotels and transport hubs throughout the Games. Similarly, local reports from earlier this year suggest that British security experts have travelled to Minsk to share best practice and advice on major event security with the local authorities.
Despite this, all travellers to the European Games should exercise increased situational awareness, particularly in open public areas where large crowds may assemble. Where possible, minimise time spent in lobbies and foyers where spectators may queue and pass through security checks as quickly as possible. Any suspicious behaviour or items should be reported to the police immediately.
It is important to note that considerations such as those listed in this article are relevant for travel to most minimal, low and moderate risk locations. A lack of interest in Belarus by Western tourists is not indicative of a security environment starkly different to that seen in much of the rest of Europe and, in fact, many of the risks cited here are of much greater concern to travellers to Western European capitals than to Minsk.
Should you or your business require any support for your travel to the European Games, Healix can provide bespoke event monitoring services, ground support, risk assessments and in-situ security advances. (For more information, please see Security Consultancy & Bespoke Services).