Russia Pushes For Single Visa Space, Belarus Resists

Russia is getting serious about the idea of creating a unified visa space with Belarus.

On 3 March, Moscow brought in big guns when Vladimir Putin announced upcoming talks on an agreement providing for the mutual recognition of each country's visas. Belarus has refused to confirm the existence of such plans so far.

The Schengen-like visa arrangement would deprive Minsk of independence in its visa policy and Belarus would become hostage to Russia's confrontational foreign policy. In particular, the single visa space could jeopardise Belarus' relations with other post-Soviet countries, such as Georgia and potentially Ukraine and Moldova.

Thus far, Minsk has confidently withstood this diplomatic attack. However, Belarus' deep entrenchment in the Russian-led integration projects could undermine the country's long-term capacity to resist.

Transparent Border, Independent Visa Regimes

Moscow has actively promoted the idea of a single visa space in late 1990s, during the boom years of integration between Belarus and Russia. Passing this authority to a supranational body would have effectively led to Russian control over visa policy.

However, the two parties failed to find common ground on this issue. The Treaty establishing the Union State, signed by Boris Yeltsin and Alexander Lukashenka in 1999, makes no mention of a common immigration policy.

Belarus and Russia have their own independent visa policies

Like the Schengen countries, Belarus and Russia have no control on their joint border. The citizens of two countries can freely move between them without being subject to document checks. In practice, many foreigners can do the same, risking deportation if they get caught.

Unlike the Schengen countries, Belarus and Russia have their own independent visa policies. A foreigner who has entered either country with a visa cannot go to another country without obtaining the latter's visa first. A holder of a Belarusian or Russian visa cannot claim any privilege when applying for the other visa. Visa-free transit between Belarus and Russia through their international airports remains impossible.

Differences Getting Public

The issue of a single visa space resurfaced in September 2014. Grigory Rapota, the State Secretary of the Union State, called independent visa policies a nuisance for business and tourism. "We should try and create some look-alike of the Schengen visa", he said, claiming that the matter was already under consideration.

Belarus MFA: No talks on a single visa regime

Indeed, businessmen and tourists from third countries would certainly welcome the introduction of a single visa space. For those travelling to the region, it would mean less paperwork as well as time and expenses. However, the Belarusian authorities have their reservations about the matter.

The next day after Rapota's statement, Dzmitry Mironchyk, the Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman, denied the existence of any talks on a unified visa regime. He implied that the existing arrangements were largely sufficient: "Belarus and Russia have been successfully carrying out a coordinated visa policy, and we are working on improving our joint action".

As an example of such policy, Dzmitry Mironchyk referred to high-profile incidents when Belarus or Russia have denied entry to foreign "politicians and other characters behaving in an unfriendly manner towards our countries".

Russian MFA: No need to hasten the issue

The Russian foreign ministry commented on the single visa issue on 22 September 2014. They called the introduction of a single visa regime "quite a logical step in the absence of the border control". However, the ministry recognised that "neither Russia nor Belarus had a disposition to hasten artificially the preparation of a pertinent bilateral document". This all sounded very much like an admission of their failure to agree on its need.

Visa Regimes: Hard to Reconcile

The Russian foreign ministry mentioned two obstacles to a single visa regime: potential problems to bona fide travellers and additional costs.

In fact, Belarus and Russia would have to agree on a common list of visa-free countries. As the matter requires the agreement of the third countries involved, this would be a very ambitious undertaking.

Incongruous visa regimes with third countries are the main obstacle

Thus far, the national visa-free lists differ quite a lot, the Russian one being longer. There is also the sensitive issue of Georgia. Belarus, unlike Russia, has a visa-free regime with Georgia. As a result, flights from Tbilisi to Minsk are fully booked as many Georgians use this loophole to get to Russia without a visa.

The introduction of a single visa may lead to a drop in visa fees revenue for Belarus, as many visitors may prefer the more developed network of Russian consulates. Nevertheless, the increased revenue from tourism may well offset these losses.

An unilateral visa-free regime for EU citizens, modelled after Ukraine's, would bring even more money in tourism. However, the Belarusian authorities would never agree on it as it would weaken significantly their negotiating position with the current visa facilitation process and eventual visa liberalisation talks with Europe.

Withstanding Russia's Pressure

Despite earlier statements from Russian officials, Putin's announcement that the two countries intended "to prepare an agreement on the mutual recognition of visas issued to citizens of foreign countries" came as a surprise. It certainly was not on the agenda of the two presidents' recent meeting in Moscow.

Dzmitry Mironchyk had the most delicate task of disavowing the Russian president's words. He managed to do it tactfully, but clearly. Mironchyk described the issue as a "complex and difficult" one and stressed that two countries were pursuing an ever more coordinated visa policy. However, the essence of his comments laid in the following statement: in the time since his previous remarks on this subject, "the situation and [Belarus'] approaches [to it] have not undergone any fundamental changes".

Russia wants to have more leverage in Belarus' policy

Putin's involvement in the matter means that Russia's pressure on Belarus on the visa issue will continue to grow. A single visa regime takes the phantom Union State one (very symbolic) step closer towards a truly unified country, pleasing Soviet-minded voters. Also, the visa regime is an important tool in building political, economic and human relations with other countries, and Russia would love to control it.

A source in the Belarusian foreign ministry confirmed to Belarus Digest that Russia was obstinately probing the firmness of Belarus' position on a single visa regime despite the tepid response Moscow was receiving as of late. Thus far, the ministry has instructions to agree on nothing more than a coordinated visa policy.

Nevertheless, they do not exclude a "change of heart" in the presidential office under Moscow's pressure. Even if the talks eventually start, the Russian initiative has good chances of succumbing to lengthy discussions and never materialise. Belarusian diplomats have earned a reputation as tough negotiators.

Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

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