Belarus-EU Border: Iron Curtain or a Safety Valve?

On 27 January, in an address to the State Border Committee, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka sounded appeared to be in a cooperative mood with Brussels urging officials “to more effectively use the interests of the EU in creating a strong border.”

Border-related projects were among few positive achievements in relations between Belarus and the EU in recent years. They have achieved results wherever possible without running into politically controversial matters and could help launch projects in other spheres.

Furthermore, at the Eastern Partnership summit in November Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makey said that “the time has come” for negotiations on visa facilitation with the EU. In late January, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna discussed in Brussels the official launch of these negotiations.

Despite these developments, nobody should expect rapid success. Minsk is known for pragmatically using such issues for rapprochement with the West without giving in on issues which could undermine the current regime, such as human rights. Nevertheless, steps like visa facilitation pave the way for changes in Belarus.

Guarding the Border For the EU...

Lukashenka did not in the least sound idealistic when he recently insisted, “they [EU and international community] shall see that we fight both [illegal] immigrants and smuggling and hunt for radioactive materials... So, value us as your partners.”

Minsk has used border control as a bargaining chip in the past. In 2002, after the EU had introduced a travel ban on a group of Belarusian officials, Lukashenka warned that 200,000 illegal immigrants, eager to reach Western countries, were trying to make there way through Belarus to travel further west.

In 2012, an official from the State Border Committee expressed their intent to prioritise control entries for all arrivals on Belarus' borders. Earlier, he stressed, border control had been balanced between arrivals and departures. In this context, recent Lukashenka's words look like an attempt to reach out to the EU.

… at the EU's Expense!

Belarus apparently hopes to secure financing from the EU to strengthen its borders. The EU Delegation in Minsk reports that in 2002-2012 the European Commission allocated over €50m on border management projects in Belarus. In coming years, the Commission plans to spend more than €40m on such projects. In addition, more than €72m have been spent on other joint projects related to border management and migration.

Not everyone is happy about Belarusian-EU cooperation in this sphere. As exiled Belarusian politician Andrei Sannikau told The Telegraph newspaper, he was detained and searched by the border guards using equipment which allegedly carried EU logos.

In reality the border guards and customs service occasionally create nuisances for some Belarusian opposition activists by questioning them on the border and checking their belongings with extra zeal. The truth of the matter is that they can do so even without EU-supplied equipment.

Emigration serves as a safety valve that helps to ensure the stability of his government

Lukashenka understands that emigration serves as a safety valve that helps to ensure the stability of his government. The more opposition politicians activists that leave the country, the better for the regime. In the name of fairness, there was a period in Belarus' history when oppositional politicians, activists and journalists faced serious restrictions on their foreign travel.

The government resorted to employing these repressive measures on a broad scale between March 2012 and early 2013, as the Belarusian authorities promised to ban some activists and journalists from leaving the country. The names of those on this black list remain unpublished as of yet according to Radio Liberty. In the ensuing months the border guards turned back about two dozens of activists and journalists at the border. By early 2013, however, the Belarusian authorities lifted the ban on all of them.

Open Border For Whom?

The Belarusian state hardly sees any political problems in easing its visa regime with the EU. Which immediate dangers could threaten the regime if Belarusians had even more opportunities to visit the EU? They could change their mind after seeing another reality - but, concerning short-term visits, it seems unlikely that many more of them would go to the EU countries than presently do so today.

The removal of visa restrictions will bring benefits for relations with the EU countries in the more distant future by facilitating business, study and people-to-people contact. But the Belarusian regime, which is concerned only with surviving today, has little time to think about tomorrow.

Some economic considerations - like visa revenues - may count more. Nowadays Minsk is clenching onto every source of revenue that it can. While it asks the Germans for €60 for a tourist visa, it demands from own citizens €175 for permission to reside abroad.

Belarusian officials have also expressed concerns over the drain on foreign currency reserves which are making their way to Lithuania and Poland. In September, Lukashenka famously proposed to put a special tax on Belarusians going abroad to shopping.

A very peculiar trade flourishes on the borderlands with Lithuania and Poland. Belarusians smuggle in to the EU numerous items which are cheaper in Belarus (cigarettes, gas, alcohol), while purchasing consumer goods in Vilnius and Bialystok both for personal use and for resale in the country. Belarusians also regularly take foreign currency out of the country, a phenomenon which further deteriorates Belarus' negative balance of payments problem.

Sometimes it has little to do with healthy entrepreneurship and does not necessarily make either Lithuania and Poland happy. Lithuanian business openly complains about problems with its tobacco market that is largely due to Belarusian smugglers.

It partly explains why the Belarusian government equivocates on the implementation of local border traffic agreements with Lithuania and Poland. Minsk suspects that with any hasty implementation of these agreements it will itself face a growing trade in suspicious transborder activity. Even more worrying for Minsk is what special visa regulation for border regions can lead to -- namely, a marked increase in their economic reorientation towards neighbouring countries.

While the Belarusian government avoids creating special conditions for its border regions, it also demonstrates its own reservations about visa facilitation. Their recent moves in this direction mean that they explore opportunities both for a new rapprochement with the EU and the new benefits they would bring for Belarusians before the 2015 presidential elections.

Minsk also has to afford a great deal of care and attention to easing visa regime with the EU due to the regional context. Moldova has effectively achieved its abolishment of a visa regime with the EU. Ukraine is implementing the first stage of its action plan on visa facilitation, and even Russia is negotiating on visa removal.

Best Way to Deal with Minsk?

The border issue serves as a good example of fruitful cooperation between Belarus and the EU. Brussels rightly considered it unwise to endlessly wait for the regime in Minsk to change and launched cooperative projects with a minimal potential of being used for any form of political suppression.

Border management projects have transformed borders by, in the very least, making crossing the border more comfortable for people. They have effectively facilitated the links both between common people and border security agencies of Belarus and the EU.

The Belarusian regime may be still be hideous, yet it has no actual interest in fanatically opposing the EU. Minsk sometimes resorts to fierce rhetoric, yet it displays a sense of responsibility by seriously guarding its borders with the EU. And this itself has nothing to do with closing off the country to the outside world - oppositional activists have usually fled the country in some other way - in particular through the open border Belarus shares with Russia.

Undoubtedly, Belarusians should have more opportunities to travel to the West. Undermining Belarusian border control or making it slower and less efficient will not help it. Brussels' best strategy would utilise its support for Belarus' long-term prospects by using the current momentum to push for visa facilitation and ensure that Belarusians can easily travel to the rest of Europe.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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