My journey to Minsk, compared to my last one four years ago, was different from the start. When I entered Belarus by train from Lithuania I quickly discovered that border control had changed dramatically and that Lithuanian and Belarusian authorities must have come to some kind of agreement to reduce travel times. In 2010, my train had been stopped twice — once before crossing and once after crossing the border. Now the Lithuanian officials carry out their duties at the train station in Vilnius. This simply means that those traveling to Belarus (or outside the European Union in general) must pass through a separate corridor. There, a couple of Lithuanian guards let everyone pass by and answer questions from people who bring them receipts from duty-free purchases. Even the train itself is different now. The old long Soviet train with six beds in each compartment that I remembered is gone, replaced (to my disappointment) by a modern two-wagon train with air conditioning and outlets. The fact that the train is so short also means that it takes less time for border control officials to check passengers.
Border control inside Belarus was another element that showed definite signs of change. On my last trip I clearly remember two threatening Belarusian officers in full uniform and large hats, almost shouting the same question repeatedly without taking notice of the fact that I was nearly trembling while repeating the only thing that I could say in Russian — that I didn't speak Russian. This time, an informal officer without any hat was going through the wagon quite quickly, asking politely to check peoples' bags and even saying a couple of words in English after hearing my accent in my much-improved spoken Russian.
My impressions were definitely strengthened after my arrival in Minsk. Brand new English language signs marked the platforms and exits all over the train station and I noticed a large poster welcoming English-speaking visitors bearing the logo of the International Ice Hockey championship that was held in Belarus earlier this year. The championship was expected to be a high point in international media coverage of the country but was largely overshadowed by the Ukrainian crisis and went basically unnoticed in most of Western Europe. The influx of tourists in the country was also apparently much lower than expected, so that the huge investments in hockey stadiums and other sport infrastructure ended up being overkill.
Whether or not Minsk's facelift was for these anticipated tourists, the city has definitely changed. It will never fully be able to conceal its Stalinist look, but my memories from 2010 were of a dull city with few restaurants — most of those either too old or too tacky. Recently, however, I found a pleasant city full of cafes and nice restaurants, most of which had a new clean and modern design, more Baltic than Russian. In fact, I noticed for the first time that Minsk has the same swallows flying everywhere as Vilnius, a similarity that can also be seen in comparing the villages on either side of the border.
I didn't see a single police officer on the street, and in the main square, Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad, music played on loudspeakers, people chatted around a large fountain and lovers held hands. Definitely a different sight from what I remembered.
Things seem to have changed in a deeper way since 2010 as well. That was the year that President Aleksandr Lukashenko was re-elected for the fourth time and the streets of Belarus filled with thousands of protesters, only to be violently repressed after a few hours. Belarus has been stable since then, without major reform or sudden change, but relations with the West have been improving lately. The regime notoriously continues its tactic of swinging both east and west — first gaining advantages from Russia, then from the European Union. At the moment it is on a westward swing and it allows human rights conferences to take place in Minsk between the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, something that was practically unthinkable a few years ago. Yet, this might well be just a phase. Presidential elections are held next year, and that will be the real test to understand how much things have really changed in Belarus.