Belarus is The World’s Schengen Visa Champion
On January 23 Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronis Ažubalis stated that the EU should be more open towards ordinary Belarusians and increase pressure on the Belarusian regime. A year ago EU Commissioner Štefan Füle announced a “balanced approach” to overcome the harsh consequences of the 2010 post-election opposition crackdown in Belarus. However, in practice the EU imposes additional sanctions against Belarusian officials, but fails to offer new positive incentives to bring Belarusians significantly closer to the rest of Europe.
Belarusian citizens have to undergo the most cumbersome and expensive procedure in Europe when they apply for EU visas. This is ironic because according to recently released data from the European Commission, in 2010 Belarus was the absolute world leader in the per capita number of Schengen visas. That would seem like a good reason to trust Belarusians in visa matters and to abolish the EU visa regime completely or at least to dramatically liberalize it.
Champion Despite Difficulties
The recently published data show that the EU countries issued 428,000 C-type short-term Schengen visas for Belarusian citizens in 2010. In comparative perspective, Indians, a population of 1 billion, received only 406,000 Schengen visas. Turkish nationals obtained 522,000 visas despite the population of Turkey being seven times greater than that of Belarus. Moreover, every third Schengen visa issued to Belarusians was for multiple entry. If the EU trusts Belarusians so much, what is the purpose of imposing on them the toughest and the most expensive visa regime in the whole of Europe?
In order to obtain a EU visa, Belarusians must pay a €60 non-refundable fee and prove that they have a good reason to visit the EU. In most cases they first need to obtain a special written invitation from an EU citizen or organization. Moreover, if the invitation does not contain information about the financial sources of the applicant, they must prepare official documents to show they have at least €40 per day for their stay in the EU. Not every family in Belarus is ready to confirm the availability of €240 in order to spend two days with a child in Vilnius,a city situated just 170 km from Minsk.
Belarusian applicants need to bring official documents showing that they have a stable job and good income. They also have to purchase health insurance, book and pay for tickets and accommodation in advance, and persuade visa officers that they plan to go back to Belarus. Many consider collecting such a huge pile of documents not only meaningless but also humiliating.
Submitting a visa application is still much more difficult than receiving a positive decision on the visa. New PACE President Jean-Claude Mignon recently stated that “for Europeans to obtain the Belarusian visa is as difficult as the flight on the Moon”. Many ordinary Belarusians have the same feelings about EU visas.
Given that the average monthly salary in Belarus is now about €190, the €60 fee and other conditions for obtaining a EU visa look truly draconian. In comparison, Russia and Ukraine finalized their negotiations with the EU on the facilitation of the visa regime in 2007-2008 and now their citizens pay only €35 for each visa, the number of documents they need to submit is much more reasonable and the percentage of multiple entry visas is much higher.
Free Visas = More Democracy?
Belarus refused to conduct negotiations with the EU on visa liberalization. They refer to misunderstandings on the conclusion of the readmission agreement as the main reason for that. On January 23 the Belarusian MFA spokesman Andrei Savinykh clarified the government’s position, saying that Belarus does not want to accept other countries’ illegal migrants which have come to the EU from the Belarusian territory.
Nevertheless, many experts doubt that this is the frank reason for refusal and say that the Belarusian authorities are just trying to isolate the country from western influence. Member of the Lithuanian Seym Foreign Committee Piatras Austriavicius shares this point of view. He thinks that the impact of an open Belarus-EU border on the democratization of the country would be far greater than the effect of hundreds of seminars organized for this purpose.
When Belarusians travel to European countries, they can see the real life of other Europeans and clear their minds of the TV propaganda that constantly brainwashes them about the alleged serious problems in the new EU countries such as Poland and Lithuania. Propagandists forget to inform Belarusians that the average monthly salary has reached €620 in Lithuania and €1300 in Poland, while the level of living costs is almost the same in these countries as in Belarus.
Lots of Discussions Without Concrete Improvements
Belarusian civil society campaigning and lobbying in Brussels and other European capitals started a widespread public discussion on the issue. Unfortunately, the visa regime has not yet been facilitated. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Germany began to issue no-fee national visas for Belarusians in accordance with Fule’s approach after the presidential election in 2010. But Belarusians only very rarely request this type of visas; this measure therefore looks like a symbolic gesture. Besides, other EU countries have not joined the pioneers.
Lithuania, Poland and Germany grant more than 99% of Belarusian applications for EU visas. Lithuania refuses only 0.17% of Belarusian applications – quite logical, given that residents of the 2 million Belarusian capital Minsk can travel to Vilnius in just 2 hours for $10 and shop in local supermarkets such as Akropolis. Belarus has nearly three times more consumers than Lithuania, Belarusian shoppers can significantly benefit the Lithuanian economy.
Towards Europe Undivided by Visa Barriers
Even if the European Union hesitates to unilaterally abolish visas for Belarusians, official Minsk's plans to allow visa-free entry for EU citizens in 2013 as an experiment before the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championship could be a good starting point for successful negotiations.
As a response, the EU could begin by reducing the visa fee for Belarusians to the same level as for Russians and Ukrainians (€35). Then it could accelerate visa proceedings (from 10 days to 5 days as in Russia) and simplify the procedure of applying for a visa. The next step could be to remove visas altogether.
Many citizens of non-democratic countries have a right to enter the Schengen area for 90 days without visas. Nationals of countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela benefit from this right. These countries are not particularly democratic and much more poor than Belarus. If nationals of Albania can travel visa-free in Europe, why can’t Belarusians?
By taking simple visa liberalization steps, the EU can assure Belarusians that they have a European alternative to the Eurasian Union. And the complete abolition of the EU visa regime with Belarus would more effectively facilitate openness and democracy in Belarus than another round of declarations and visa sanctions from Europe.
Belarus of Jews and Muslims
Each year on Holocaust memorial day, Belarus has its own tragedy to recall. In the early 20th century, Jews made up 43 per cent of the population in Minsk and equally high rates were found in provincial centers. Yiddish was one of four official languages – de facto and de jure – between the First and the Second World Wars. The other three languages were Belarusian, Russian and Polish. Modern Belarusian literature is unimaginable without Jewish Zmitrok Biadulia, and the renowned artist Marc Chagall, who never forgot his native Vitebsk while living in France.
Today's Belarusian authorities like to present the country as an Orthodox Christian and Slavic nation. But historically, Belarusians of other religions and ethnic backgrounds significantly enriched the country. Jews and Muslims, in particular, have made lasting contributions to the country's history and culture. They represent tolerance and multicultural character for which Belarus is seldom credited today.
Every Tenth Belarusian Was Jewish
Today, about 30,000 Jews live in Belarus which has a population of 10 million. Although that is much more than in the neighboring countries, it is significantly less than in the past. At least a third of the population of nearly all Belarusian cities used to be Jewish. Numerous yeshivas and synagogues were found all over Belarus. Chabad Hasidism was founded in the 19th century by Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and Shneur Zalman of Lyady. Labor Zionism was also founded in Belarus and Minsk held the second convention of Russian Zionists in 1902.
Jews constituted an integral part of Belarus since at least the 14th century. Their own cultural significance has been complemented by their role of mediators of contacts with Western Europe. They say that Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish Renaissance philosopher, temporarily hid in Belarusian Jewish communities following his conflict with his native community in Holland. There were only very limited religious persecutions in Belarus until the 19th century and the country was famous for its tolerance.
Belarusians have never displayed any religious fanaticism. For example, some decades after Spinoza, a member of the Belarusian noble family of Radziwills, Marcin Mikalaj Radziwill – after experimenting with Christian denominations – adopted Judaism. The Belarusian national movement also generally avoided anti-Semitism; even the nationalist musician Andrei Melnikau sings a song with Chagall's text about his love for Belarus.
In the 19th century, anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire began to force Jews out of the country. Many migrated to Europe and the United States. Under the Soviets, some Jews chose to assimilate and seek new prospects in other regions of the Soviet Union. In Western Belarus governed by Poland the dire economic situation, combined with Zionist sympathies, again compelled many to migrate overseas.
The Nazis dealt the final blow to Belarus's Jewish population. By destroying Belarusian Jews and their culture, the Holocaust also destroyed a valuable part of Belarus itself. Jews constituted more than a tenth of the population, and an even higher percentage in smaller cities and towns. They played a significant role in culture and science. Remnants of old synagogues and religious schools in urban areas are a testament to this thriving period. Even today, older Belarusians remember their Jewish neighbors and some Yiddish words.
While the devastation caused by World War II wiped out large swathes of Belarusian Jewish culture, postwar Russification played a role as well. Both Belarusians and Jews began to renounce their languages – Belarusian and Yiddish – in favor of Russian. Today, Belarusian Jews are studying Hebrew, as there is no place for Yiddish in modern Belarus. Its last traces are found in the klezmer music performed by groups such as the Minsker Kapelye of Dmitri Slepovitch.
Dozens of prominent Israeli politicians were born in Belarus – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Perez, Chaim Weizmann – to name just a few. Today's famous Jews of Belarusian origin include the expressionist Chaim Soutine, chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand, sociologist and political scientist Moisey Ostrogorsky, and Hebrew language reviver Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
Qur'an in Old Belarusian
The Muslim community never reached the strength of that the Jewish population did, but it managed to make a remarkable contribution to Belarusian statehood and culture. Belarus is the only European country where numerous Muslim communities settled peacefully in the Middle Ages without conquest.
Since the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Litva) – the first united Belarusian state – invited to serve soldiers and military experts from various Oriental lands and peoples, and sometimes settled Muslim prisoners in the land. Today they are frequently referred to as Lithuanian or Belarusian Tatars, but the generic name 'Tatars' was used quite arbitrarily until a century ago to denote many Muslim ethnic groups of predominantly Turkic origin.
They very soon integrated into Belarusian society and the only distinction that they retained was their Islamic faith and script. There would be no discussion in Minsk about whether or not a European city should have a mosque in the center – the Belarusian capital has had once since the 16th century in the district of Nemiga. It was only in the 1940's that Communist authorities tore down the building.
Almost immediately, successive generations of Muslims began to write in Belarusian with modified the Arabic script. The Belarusian Arabic script that resulted from this syncretism invented, for instance, original letters for specifically Belarusian sounds like [dz] and [dž] not found in either the Cyrillic or Latin versions of the Belarusian alphabet. Due to its more precise phonetic system, Belarusian Arabic script in fact enables us to understand how Belarusians spoke their language in earlier centuries.
Sometime in the 16th century, Belarusian became the first living European language into which the Qur'an was translated from the Arabic. There are thousands of Belarusian Muslim manuscripts – both religious and secular. Until 1980s, Muslims were the denomination with the largest volume of religious literature in the national language.
The Muslim community was famous also for its contribution to the army of the Grand Duchy of Litva. Its men were disproportionately represented in the military, until they were decimated by a series of large-scale wars with Moscow in the 17th century. Now there are only about 10,000 Belarusian Tatars. Nevertheless, when the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic fighting against Communist Russia formed the national army in 1918, it appointed a Muslim, Colonel Hasan Kanapacki, as its commander.
The Jews and Muslims serve as two examples of how different cultures shaped the Belarusian nation and were wedded to it by land, language, culture, and also fate. Remarkably, their decline coincided with that of the entire nation. Both connect Belarus to other cultures and regions of the world. Unfortunately, people too often portray the country as "Europe's last dictatorship", an isolated and hopeless place. But there is much more that Lukashenka regime in the rich historical fabric of Belarus.