It may be Europe's last dictatorship, but those looking for a European version of North Korea will be sorely disappointed. Almost overnight, Belarus has forced itself onto tourists' radars with a mix of hip and happening cities, accessible national parks and genuine country-bumpkin charm. A mecca for international sporting events such as the 2019 European Games and the 2021 World Ice Hockey Championships, the country is now easier than ever to visit thanks to relaxed visa rules.

The Thaw

The 2015 presidential election was business as usual for strong-armed leader Alexander Lukashenko. With the opposition effectively silenced, Lukashenko presented himself as a steady hand in light of the chaos over the border in Ukraine and won more than 80% of the vote. And, for a change, protests were minimal. However, the 2016 parliamentary elections saw two opposition candidates elected – the first opposition politicians to win parliament seats in 20 years.

The surprising parliamentary result coincided with an apparent softening of the attitude of Belarus' notoriously steely leader toward the west. Lukashenko introduced visa-free travel for most Western countries in early 2017, while in Minsk he allowed a counterculture district of sorts to sprout up around vul Kastrychnitskaya. The district seems to have rules that don't apply elsewhere. Art installations criticise government initiatives. Street art and graffiti flourish (they are nonexistent elsewhere). Drinking in public is evident everywhere on warm summer evenings (but is illegal everywhere else). It's also one of the few places in the country where people talk (quietly) about politics – often in Belarusian, a language traditionally viewed by authorities as dangerously nationalistic.

Lukashenko's tepid embrace of the West appears to be at least partially driven by his increasing paranoia about the intentions of the country's giant neighbour to the east. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin have never gotten along very well. Close observers say the Belarusian president fears that Putin will orchestrate a Crimea-style territory grab in Belarus. Whatever the reason, Belarus has suddenly flung open its doors to Westerners, who can now visit the country visa-free for a whopping 30 days (up from five days previously). Minsk's airport is being doubled in size and the country's humming bars and restaurants have been busy printing menus in English. Even the notoriously frosty border guards and police have shed their scowls and now seem to greet visitors with courtesy rather than suspicion.

In short, the Belarus of today is a warmer, fuzzier place than the Belarus of a decade ago. But don't be fooled into thinking that this is an open society. Despite the opposition's minuscule gains in the 2016 election, the OSCE and other Western observers roundly criticised the poll as being neither free nor fair. Media distribution is handled by the state, as it has been since Lukashenko took office. Independently produced publications are quickly quashed should they fail to toe the government line, while antigovernment websites are quickly blocked or taken offline. Freedom House rates Belarus' internet freedom as 'not free', with obstacles to access, limitations on content and violation of user rights prevalent.

The latest round of protests, in early 2017 over a tax on the unemployed, were met with beatings and arrests. With the media muzzled and the Belarusian opposition fragmented, it could be a long time before anyone puts forward a serious and united challenge to Lukashenko.