Belarus’s immigration policy: perpetuating a demographic crisis?
On 8 November, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka met with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Lukashenka mentioned that the number of Ukrainian refugees who arrived in Belarus since 2014 has reached 150,000.
Over the past 20 years, the population of Belarus has decreased by more than 600,000 people. At a security meeting on demographics in August, President Lukashenka set a target to increase Belarus’s population to 15 million.
In the context of low birth and high death rates, the Belarusian population can only grow due to an increased number of immigrants. However, Belarus still has no clear policy to encourage labour migration. Moreover, bureaucratic procedures, such as work permits, remain difficult to obtain for the majority of foreigners apart from citizens of CIS member countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine), especially Russians, which have special conditions for working in Belarus.
Labor migration: Ukrainian factor does not work anymore
Lukashenka stated that more than 150,000 Ukrainians have come to Belarus since the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine. This figure significantly differs from Internal Affairs Ministry statistics, which report about 42,000 refugees from Ukraine in the period 2014–2017.
The war in Eastern Ukraine indeed contributed to a growth in labour migration in Belarus, but not all Ukrainians who moved to Belarus stayed for long.
“The situation with work in Belarus itself is quite sad: Belarusians lose jobs [or] take pay cuts from a salary that is already very small,” writes Ukrainian website Workland, which helps Ukrainians to find jobs abroad.
Workland reports that in Belarus it remains easy to get agriculture-related work, but there is almost no chance of finding an office position. The best that a Ukrainian immigrant can expect in Belarus is €150–200 per month.
Therefore, current conditions in Belarus are unlikely to bring large numbers of labour immigrants from Ukraine to Belarus. Indeed, now that Ukrainians have received visa-free travel to EU countries, they are even less likely to come. In the past year, Belarus has experienced a reduction in the number of immigrants—21,038 comparing to 28,349 people in 2015. The number of tourist visitors from Ukraine has also decreased by half from 10,000 in 2015 to 5,000 in 2016.
Receiving a work permit in Belarus
Every year thousands of foreigners arrive in Belarus in search of work. Most of them come from China, Ukraine, Russia, and Uzbekistan. In the first quarter of 2017, 4,369 labour migrants came to Belarus, according to official statistics. So far, the vast majority (almost 80 per cent) of immigrants in Belarus are employed as labourers. At the moment more than 20,000 foreigners have the right to work in Belarus.
Enticing highly skilled employees to Belarus remains difficult. Anastasia Babrova at the Institute of Economics of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences lists a number of constraints. In previous years, a law on labour migration limited employment possibilities for foreigners in Belarus. However, in 2010 the government liberalised the law, which simplified the employment of foreigners in Belarus. In 2016, authorities revised the law again, increasing bureaucratic involvement in the work permit process.
Rules for receiving work permits in Belarus vary depending on a person’s country of origin and occupation. According to the law on external labour migration, foreigners willing to work in Belarus need to receive ‘special permission’ approved by an executive committee and the police. From 2014–2015, the number of rejections of ‘special permissions’ decreased by 21 per cent, reports lastrada.by, the Belarusian arm of an international anti-human trafficking network.
Receiving ‘special permission’ remains the most difficult step for foreigners. They need to possess five years of experience in the relevant field. Moreover, a Belarusian employer needs to pay at least $1,500 salary to the highly qualified foreigner. “This appears as a high threshold, taking into account the fact that the average salary in Belarus barely reaches $500,” said Babrova in an interview with Naviny.by, a news website.
Russian citizens face the least paperwork when it comes to labour immigration to Belarus. They receive a right to work in Belarus by registering in the population register within 90 days after arrival. Moreover, a Belarusian employee pays a regular salary to Russian citizens comparing to $1500 for other foreigners.
Belarus’s Migration policy supports citizens of particular countries. Different rules apply to citizens of Russia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Foreigners coming from these countries can work without special permission. The Eurasian Economic Union agreement (signed May 2014) created guidelines for granting CIS citizens the right to work in Belarus.
How to improve migration?
Conditions surrounding labour immigration to Belarus vary significantly depending on the country of origin. CIS countries have many favourable conditions for employment in Belarus compared with foreigners from other countries. The law remains even more welcoming for Russian citizens, who just need to register as a resident when they arrive.
However, to provide a migration gain in circumstances of growing emigration, the Belarusian government needs to review the policy on foreign labour migration. It seems overly optimistic to assume that qualified labour immigrants will choose to move to Belarus without additional incentives.
The most necessary policy changes are the simplification of employment procedures for foreigners outside the CIS area and the lowering of the obligatory $1500 salary for immigrants to a more equal level with Belarusian salaries.
Additionally, Ideaby.org, a media platform created by young professionals who promote smart large-scale reforms in Belarus, notes that Belarus lacks accommodation even for its own citizens. This suggests the building of new living areas would also be needed to improve conditions for immigrants.
Another incentive could be ‘the Belarusian card,’ which would encourage the return of Belarusians to Belarus who also have citizenship of other countries. So far, it seems that the authorities are trying to patch the demographic hole with labour migrants. However, Belarus has an immigration policy that favours a select few countries, instead of liberalising the law and opening its doors to a more inclusive group of foreigners.
Censorship of music: who gets to sing in Belarus?
On 2 November, Belarusian bard musician Zmicer Vajciuškievič had a 25th-anniversary concert in Minsk. Before that, he had been unable to perform in Belarus in public for many years. Along with some other musicians, he became a part of the blacklist of “politically inappropriate musicians.”
While the particular reasons for banning a musical show in Belarus change from event to event, the possibility of concerts taking place unchangeably depends on the authorities.
The official motivation of concerts’ cancellation often refers to extremism, the “low quality of lyrics,” or logistical obstacles such as overlaps with other events. Although excuses vary, there exists a clear pattern: Belarusian authorities attempt to restrain musicians for social and political reasons.
While Belarusian musicians face strong censorship, many pop-stars refusing to admit Belarusian national identity and statehood continue to perform in Belarus. Despite a few positive changes, so far authorisation for public musical performances and shows in Belarus remain a field controlled by the regime.
Black-listed-musicians: who and why?
Already in 2000s, the authorities had restricted public performance rights for several famous Belarusian musicians. Liavon Volski who demonstrated clear opposition to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and his regime became one of them in 2004. Such artists as Siarhei Mikhalok and Zmicer Vajciuškievič have faced bans and restrictions on performing on Belarusian stages. An unofficial black-list of Belarusian musicians has recently included more artists such as Vinsent and the band Dzieciuki.
In most cases, musicians face obstacles in form of last-minute cancellations and shows being called off for unclear reasons. For example, the band Dzeciuki had been trying do a gig in Minsk for 2016. At first, the club refused to host the concert. Next, the ideological department of the Executive Committee in Minsk asked to send them the lyrics of the songs. The Executive Committee then issued a statement for an official cancellation of the band’s concert. They had concluded the band’s lyrics were of “low quality,” and thus the band was not given permission to perform.
This happens to Belarusian musicians directly or indirectly opposing to the regime. It is especially topical for rock musicians, because rock music in Belarus often translates protest of society against the state. Rock artists, such as Siarhei Mikhalok, who is famous as the frontman for bands Liapis Trubeckoj and Brutto, live and perform abroad.
Indeed, Siarhei Mikhalok faced a pressure after insulting Lukashenka in an interview to 1tvnet, an online news portal. Mikhalok said Lukashenka “initiated a genocide against the Belarusian people” and that Lukashenka ”hates the Belarusian people.” After the interview, Mikhalok had to leave the country for several years.
Only in 2016 was Mikhalok able to return to Belarus, performing in Homiel and then in Minsk. However, until now his second band, Brutto, meets constant restrictions on songs and places to perform.
Although the reasons and explanations by authorities for banning musicians vary, the scenario of blacklisting looks the same. The local authorities cancel concerts at the last minute. It happened with Belarusian singer Vinsent when authorities banned his concert at Minsk-Arena in 2016. In September 2017, the leader of the band Dzieciuki faced being blacklisted when he tried to receive a permission to perform in Minsk with his solo project.
After expressing a political or social position that opposes preferences of the officials, musicians can become blacklisted. Vital Hurkou, the world famous sportsmen from Belarus, lost financial support from the Ministry of Sports for a collaboration with Brutto. In 2014, the band Amaroka was refused the right to perform after authorities deemed the songs to be extremist. TuzinFM, a Belarusian video-driven music website, believes the authorities at present have blacklisted four musicians.
Doubtful pop-stars in Belarus
While officials aim to prevent anti-regime singers from performing, they pay little attention to the people denying Belarusian nationhood and statehood who come to sing from abroad. Recently, Viktor Kalina, who supported separatists in Ukraine and posed with weapons on occupied territories in Ukraine, had a tour in Belarus. Ukrainian authorities have already put Kalina on a list of people dangerous for national security, because of his close ties with the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Despite this, Kalina received permission from the Belarusian authorities to perform.
Indeed, his concerts in the Belarus often receive support of the local authorities, who help to distribute tickets in towns like Vitsebsk and Brest.
Civil society activists have protested Kalina’s concerts. In October, Vitsebsk and Brest activists sent an appeal to the authorities demanding cancellation of Kalina’s November performances in the largest Belarusian towns. This prompted Kalina to write a letter to President Lukashenka with a request to protect him from Belarusian nationalists.
Civil activists’ efforts are not always in vain. Two years ago, local authorities positively reacted to a letter from activists and banned one of Kalina’s concerts. However, most recently authorities appear reluctant to forbid Kalina from touring. After a concert in Hrodna on 4 November, the singer posted on VKontakte, a Russian-language version of the social networking site Facebook, saying that his concert was successful despite the “animals” who tried to cancel it, reports Belarusian Partisan.
In addition to musicians, Belarusian authorities rarely prevent visits of pro-Russian artists, who believe in the idea that all the Russian-speaking territories should belong to Russia. On 25 November 2016, Russian propagandist Vladimir Soloviev, who became famous for his open pro-Putin and imperialistic views, came to Minsk to give a book reading. Despite protests and appeals of Belarusians, he managed to perform in Minsk. So far, it seems pro-Russian imperialism looks less dangerous to the authorities than music critical of the Belarusian government.
Why Belarusian authorities censor music?
The logic behind the motivations of Belarusian authorities to ban concerts remains hard to understand. In October, authorities forbid Russian rapper FACE to perform in Belarus. After submitting song lyrics to the Executive Committee, authorities refused to allow his concert.
FACE’s songs contain much swearing, stories about drug abuse, and stimatisation of certain groups of people. A month before his slated performance, Belarusian musician Dzianisau, who based his songs on Belarusian poems written by Ales Chobat (a member of the Belarusian Writers Union), also received refusal to perform in Minsk for allegedly writing “low quality lyrics.” While Belarusian musicians of varying success fight for their rights of freedom of expression, Belarusian society attempts to confront imperialist adepts like Viktor Kalina.
During the last years, Belarusian musicians with the help of the public have been gradually receiving more freedom of expression without censorship. Consistently, the most difficult time for musicians to perform are the pre-election months during the presidential campaigns, for example in 2010 and 2015. It also seems that the authorities see less threat in musicians during the middle of the electoral cycle. Fewer musicians tend to be blacklisted, and officials allow more concerts and put less censorship on Belarusian musicians.
However, the authorities hold an administrative resource in their hands with which they can get rid of “politically inappropriate” musicians wherever they want. It becomes especially topical on the eve of elections when the regime demonstrates its power. It appears that music in Belarus is not so much the sphere of culture and business, but more the sphere of ideology and politics.