I should mention at the start of this tale that it is now seven years old and that nothing like it has happened to me since the particular events I hereinafter recite. This means I share it not as a representation of what you can expect today, but purely for its entertainment value, a purpose for which I’d like to think it still retains a degree of validity. You can be the judge of that claim. Anyway, I knew we were in for trouble the moment the two militia officers strode out of the airport terminal.
They headed for us with far too much purpose and intent for comfort. We had just paid the cab driver and were about to check in for the flight home to London. ‘Good day. Passports please.’ While one stood sentinel, the other leafed through the pages, one by one. When he came to my immigration document and turned it over to find a blank page, without a stamp, I’m sure that a flicker of a smile played at the edges of his mouth. ‘There is no registration stamp. Why not? This is a very big problem.’ All of my visits to that point had been on invitation from one of the regional executive committees and not once in the past had it proved necessary for us to register locally. We were always in the country on official business. But it seemed that the rules had changed and I instantly had a feeling that I knew where this was all leading. We were instructed to pick up our bags and follow the officer into the terminal, where he again looked at my immigration document. Again, ‘This is a very big problem.’ He took out his mobile, spoke quietly into it and 30 seconds later, another militia officer appeared, this time with a bigger hat. He too looked at the document, shook his head and said to me with grave solemnity that this was ‘a very big problem’. The two of them turned their backs and whispered to each other, before our new-found friend motioned for Richard and me to go with him and to bring our bags with us. It’s a very long walk from one end of the departure terminal to the other, particularly when your mind is racing from one scenario to another, as you try to think of a way out of a fast-developing situation. He was actually quite chatty and as we walked past the departure gates, he cheerily pointed out which of them was ours. By now, Richard had turned very pale.
As we reached the end of the terminal and passed through a small door, the turn of events that I had started to expect did indeed come to pass. ‘Do you have money?’ he asked. I replied that I had some roubles, but this clearly wasn’t the right answer. ‘No. Dollars.’ Now that the likely endgame was becoming more apparent, I was able to start thinking a little more clearly about an exit strategy and I could give Richard the reassurance that he clearly needed, even though I wasn’t entirely sure myself how this was going to turn out. My big worry had been that we would be detained until our flight had gone, which meant that we would have to stay another night, by which time our visas would have expired. Then we would have been in real trouble. We were instructed to follow the officer into a very small and very hot lift, with barely enough room for two nervous travellers, two large bags and a militia man with a large hat who held every card in the deck.
We descended all the way to the bottom and he motioned us to step out of them lift and into a vast, gloomy and deserted area. He stood looking at me, expectant and confident of his position. I took a deep breath, apologised for the oversight, stressed that it was entirely unintended and asked what we could do to address the difficulty. ‘This is a very big problem for you. The court will impose a very heavy fine. But I can fix it. If you give me a hundred dollars.’ The endgame at last. I thought for a few seconds and then nodded. He smiled and indicated that we should join him in the lift again. Just after it began to ascend, he leaned across me, pressed the ‘stop’ button and with a judder and a bump, we came to a halt. The defining moment had come. Richard had turned grey by this time. It was now very hot and the silence roared in my ears. If I didn’t pay up, then it was clear that we weren’t getting on our flight. But what if I did offer him money, only for him to announce that now, we were in serious trouble? Breach of immigration laws was one thing, but attempting to bribe an officer of the state was a different matter entirely. In reality, I’m sure that it took only a few seconds to make the decision, but it felt like hours. I reasoned that US$100 in the officer’s back pocket was going to be much more important to him than ensuring observance of the laws of the land. Not entirely with conviction, I reached into my wallet, counted out the last hundred that I had left (a lucky break) and handed over the wad. He smiled, folded it away (it really did go into his back pocket), leaned across me once more and pressed the ‘start’ button. I thought Richard was going to faint. But as we left the lift and walked back into the departure lounge, the tension had palpably relaxed. Except that we still had two major obstacles to overcome. There were two official procedures to be observed in terms of checking our documents before we could leave and I was starting to envisage two more ‘fees’ of a hundred dollars each. And I had no more dollars. I mentioned this to my militia friend, but with a smile and a reassuring arm on mine, he told me that everything would be OK.
Bless him, he was clearly a man of honour. After a cursory word with a colleague, who went over to have a word with somebody else, we were ushered through at speed. The final check of the papers, before a stern officer in uniform, can often take five minutes and more. He/she will scrutinise every single page of the passport, scan the photograph, occasionally pick up the phone and sometimes summon a colleague to recheck everything, all of the time looking quizzical and glancing up to look into your face. This time? Ten seconds at most. He took my passport, turned straight to the right visa, stamped it with a flourish and handed it back. We were through and out. But Richard didn’t relax until our plane had landed at Milan for our connection and he was well inside the terminal on terra firma. The moral of the tale is a statement of the blindingly obvious. Never, ever play fast and loose with bureaucracy and red tape in this country. And always have a few dollars spare, just in case you need an upgrade in services.
Read more in Belarus: the Bradt Guide