Belarus Plays the Border Security Card with the EU
In response to the EU sanctions policy, Belarus allegedly weakened border control at the Belarus-EU border recently. This puts in doubt Belarus' willingness to implement in the nearest future local border traffic agreements with western neighbours in full.
It makes the prospect of signing a readmission agreement with the EU even more remote, which in turn makes visa facilitation impossible in short term.
"I can increase the number of border guards and customs posts, but you should be ready to pay", Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka said addressing Europeans in April, making it clear that the move comes as a response to the EU sanctions policy. The migration wave to the EU is the result of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, he added.
Egyptians chose Belarus as a transit country since they were aware of the border control weakening, the official communication explained, and was a clear sign of blackmail Read more
Apparently to demonstrate that illegal immigration is a serious problem, Belarusian state media recently reported the alleged detention of Egyptian terrorists who arrived in Belarus with the intention of illegally entering the EU. A group of five who expected to enter the EU “to join the underground resistance that confronts the public and political order of European states”, an official police statement said.
Belarusian state media provided neither their names nor how they arrived to Belarus. Egyptians chose Belarus as a transit country since they were aware of the border control weakening, the official communication explained, and was a clear sign of blackmail.
Belarus has no readmission agreement either with the EU or with any of its member states. That makes a relaxed border policy a more serious problem. Readmission agreements impose legal obligations to readmit own nationals and also, under certain conditions, third country nationals and stateless persons who do not or no longer fulfil the conditions of entry to, presence in or residence in the requesting state.
All the other immediate EU neighbours in the east (Russia, Ukraine, Moldova) have agreed with the EU on readmission. Among the Eastern partnership countries, Georgia lately signed the readmission agreement, too. EU negotiations with Armenia and Azerbaijan are in progress.
Unpleasant Consequences of Worse Border Management
Belarus does not belong to the club of top transit countries and it never has. The last Frontex annual risk analysis mentions Belarus with regard to the trafficking of petroleum products rather than as a significant transit country for illegal migration.
Indeed, a few hundred illegal immigrants coming from Belarus that EU neighbour states detect annually is not a big deal. To put it into context, the total number of detentions of illegal border-crossing in 2011 was 141 thousand, where Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes' constituted 86%.
the alleged weakening of border control is alarming for Latvia, Lithuania and Poland Read more
However, the alleged weakening border control is alarming for Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Although the European side has kept quiet so far, such changes in the border policy of official Minsk is surely of concern to her immediate neighbours. At the same time, playing the border (in)security card will surely bring adverse effects to Belarus' security itself. If Minsk keeps promoting the message of porous western frontier it risks becoming a transit hub for illegal immigrants for real, with all the negative effects that it implies.
Belarus' playing with the border issue and its reluctance to agree on readmission creates a clear obstacle for the development of people-to-people contacts and a visa facilitation regime.
First, reorientation of border forces from the western border to the south indicates that Belarus does not intend to launch long-awaited local border traffic agreements with Lithuania and Poland in the near future. At least, the agreements will not be able to become fully functional, as this requires an intensification of customs and border work, not their reduction. While the local border traffic regime was launched at Belarus-Latvia border a couple of months ago, similar agreements are stuck with Lithuania and Poland for political reasons.
Second, visa facilitation agreements are linked to the readmission agreements. Without the latter, the EU cannot proceed with visa facilitation. There was not a single case of unilateral reduction of visa fees and facilitated procedures introduced by the EU for third country nationals without readmission agreement in force.
Creating a precedent of unilateral visa facilitation for Belarusians will cause problems in the negotiations with other countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan Read more
Currently the so-called EU Visa Code stipulates all the procedures and conditions for issuing short-stay visas. Creating a precedent of unilateral visa facilitation for Belarusians will cause problems in the negotiations with other countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan whose citizens go through the same burdensome visa procedures when applying for a Schengen visa.
Those countries that already went through painful negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission, including Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, would not be happy with EU double standards and more favourable attitude towards their sluggish EaP partner either.
EU Pushes for Negotiations, Belarus Remains Indifferent
In June 2011, the EU Commission sent a letter to Minsk inviting them to start negotiations. Almost a year has passed with no response. During the last few months, the Council recalled its invitation twice. Belarus' procrastination with the negotiations seems ridiculous, as for many years Minsk has been claiming the visa facilitation with the EU countries to be its priority.Belarus worries that “thousands, if not tens of thousand” of illegal migrants would be re-admitted and gather in Belarus if a readmission agreement comes into force
Belarus worries that “thousands, if not tens of thousand” of illegal migrants would be re-admitted and gather in Belarus if a readmission agreement comes into force, Belarusian MFA press-officer Savinykh explained the sluggishness in starting the negotiations.
The readmission issue may be solved either in the framework of Customs Union between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, or by concluding readmission agreements with EU member states first, he suggested.
Removing a third countries nationals clause from the readmission agreement with Belarus would make Minsk concerns over illegal migrants utterly meaningless. However, such a generous move regarding illegal migration, especially towards an immediate neighbour, holds little value for the EU. Therefore, visa facilitation is a hostage of an apparent gridlock over the readmission agreement.
But how well-founded Belarusian concerns over the readmission agreement are? It turns out, they are greatly exaggerated. First, available statistics on readmission between EU and other countries show that fears about excessive numbers of re-admitted migrants are groundless. In 2010, some 867 persons were readmitted by Ukraine, out of whom 469 were its own nationals (55%).
Second, reports from Belarus and EU member states indicate that Georgians constitute the biggest number of migrants arriving in Belarus with the intention of illegally entering the EU. The current visa-free regime between Belarus and Georgia significantly facilitates their entry. Introduction of visa regime and stricter reviews of visa applications by Belarus' consular service would reduce the number of Georgian nationals that illegally go to the EU via Belarus.
a real figure of re-admitted third country nationals is unlikely to exceed a couple of hundred persons a year Read more
With this in mind, a real figure of re-admitted third country nationals is unlikely to exceed a couple of hundred persons a year, that is much fewer than an official assumption of “thousands, if not tens of thousands' migrants.
Benefits for the population at large from enhanced people-to-people contacts and better border control would seem to highly exceed the potential costs. The only significant cost would be supporting dozens of illegal migrants at a detention centre while seeking for their further deportation to their countries of origin.
The question remains: how sincere is the willingness of Minsk to introduce a facilitated visa regime for Belarusians?..
What is the Belarusian Regime?
Last week, some opponents of the Belarusian regime called for a demonstration outside the Belarus National Theatre's performance in London. In fact, that theatre has nothing to do with political persecutions and actually represents a part of Belarusian culture disliked by many in the Belarusian regime. Should it be regarded as a part of the Belarusian regime nonetheless?
Labelling individuals and organisations as parts of the regime or as working with the dictatorship may backfire. For instance, do foreign investors who implement projects in Belarus support the regime of Lukashenka? After all, their investments can change the political economy of the authoritarian regime. Or do ordinary Belarusians, who pay their taxes to the current government; is that collaboration? Failing to do so may result in chaos but would hardly aid the building of an efficient state, free of Lukashenka.
No uniformity among the Belarusian bureaucracy
The Belarusian regime is very opportunistic. It has nothing to do with totalitarianism or a fixed ideology. Officials are simply bureaucrats who differ from each other. Even radical opposition politicians admit this. Speaking to European Radio for Belarus in 2010, then presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau said: “I would not call the [current cabinet members] 'ministers,'as they are in one or another way involved in the establishment and support of a dictatorship. I know, however, that below ministerial level work very qualified and professional people.”
the Minister of Culture Pavel Latushka speaks Belarusian in public already a deviation from a standard bureaucrat Read more
But even ministers are different. For instance, the Minister of Culture Pavel Latushka speaks Belarusian in public – already a deviation from a standard bureaucrat – and is known for his professionalism. After taking the office he initiated the policy of supporting Belarusian culture, neglected since 1994 by the regime. One of his initiatives was a large state-funded program titled Belarusian Castles.
Prominent ideologue of the regime Leu Kryshtapovich criticised the program as "alien" to Belarusian history. In his opinion, the Belarusian nobility had nothing to do with national history. Alyaksandar Kavalenya, director of the History Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, responded harshly, and supported essentially the version of national history which generally corresponds with that of the pro-European part of the Belarusian society.
Moreover, minister Latushka got support from Pavel Yakubovich, another veteran of the regime and the chief editor of Belarus Segodnya, the most important media outlet of the regime. He published a commentary on what he saw as the Soviet-era views of national culture being espoused by his opponent, which would be welcome even in oppositional media.
Another example is the unusual public debate on economic issues last autumn which showed that many ministers hold reasonable views and that there is a collision of opinion at the very top of the government. Moreover, Prime Minister Myasnikovich seems to be a more independent figure than previous prime ministers. He worked in top positions in the the Belarusian government long before Lukashenka came to power.
different people with different views exist even in the Lukashenka's inner circle Read more
These cases are too numerous to be dismissed as insignificant. One thing is clear: different people with different views exist even in Lukashenka's inner circle. The Belarusian regime is certainly not monolithic. It is actually more amorphous than even the Soviet Union in the final years of its existence.
Belarus after Lukashenka also needs police
Unfortunately, too often, the issue of what is collaboration with the regime and what is the regime itself remains unaddressed. Yet it has immense significance, putting everyone who is not engaged directly with the opposition into an easy category of collaborators with the regime. Most importantly, it alienates the numerous bureaucrats which will play a decisive part in transformation of the Belarusian regime.
Belarus has more developed infrastructure compared to Balkan nations or many Russian regions Read more
The role of Belarusian bureaucrats is evident. Belarus does not look like a run-down failed state like some other former Soviet Union republics. It has a much more developed infrastructure compared to the Balkan nations or many Russian regions.
It costs money to maintain infrastructure, educational and a healthcare system. In heavily industrialised Belarus,revenues from state-owned industries play the most important role for the functioning of government. The EU sanctions against Belarusian firms will unavoidably punish not only the workers of these firms but also the country in general.
After all, Lukashenka uses the revenues not only to pay the KGB but also to more publicly beneficial aims. A May 2012 study by Julia Korosteleva on the Impact of Targeted Sanctions on Belarus, conducted under the auspices of the EU's Directorate-General for External Policies, emphasised that a broader sanction approach to Belarus "may potentially cause greater economic damage for the economy as a whole, affecting vulnerable populations in the first instance, but be less efficient in facilitating a regime change".
Furthermore, the study admits that Belarus might, as a result, become more isolated internationally and be pushed towards Russia. In fact, the impact may be devastating – the results of decades-long efforts to come to Western markets would be destroyed.
To compare Belarusian prisons with Nazi concentration camps or Stalin massive political killings in 1937 helps no one but damages the image of opposition Read more
Struggling against the dictatorship should not harm the future of the nation. Opponents of the regime should refrain from anarchistic anti-state propaganda which often appears in non-state media. Even the Belarusian police force catches not only oppositional activists but also criminals. And there are no reasons to demonise it.
After all, every state needs police and prisons. To compare Belarusian prisons with Nazi concentration camps or Stalin massive political killings in 1937 helps no one and only damages the image of the opposition among ordinary Belarusians.
Many agencies of the Belarusian government are even today responsive to organised protests and petitions. Of course, the authorities punish such public activity but also have to react to it. A recent example is a public protest against a huge Chinese investment project in Smalyavichy, a town to the south of Minsk.
Public opposition campaign Tell the Truth has aided the affected residents and although the actual protests have been limited, the government not only put the Tell the Truth activists under administrative arrest but also sent a high-level official to speak with the protesters to reach some kind of understanding.
Nothing will help Lukashenka more than the stonewall of misunderstanding between the Belarusian bureaucracy and the opposition Read more
The small core of die-hard regime insiders should be isolated from a majority of public servants who just do their work as best they can under current conditions and who are also willing to see an alternative to the current political regime. Nothing will help Lukashenka more than the stonewall of misunderstanding between the Belarusian bureaucracy and the opposition.
Belarus as a functioning state needs a government, and the government should be distinguished from repressive bodies set up only to support the dictatorship. Deciding on whether a given conduct is serving or collaborating the the regime, the opponents of the Belarusian regime should focus on the effects of those actions rather than just on the affiliation of those carrying them out.