Border Forever: Minsk Restricts Local Border Traffic with EU States
On December 1, Belarus and Latvia took a new step toward opening up their common border. They signed a local border traffic agreement allowing their residents to visit each other's border regions for up to 90 days every six months without visas.
One could argue the achievement is modest: the eligible regions span no more than 30-50 km and visitors cannot travel to other parts of the host country or work there. Belarus gains little when compared to the Eastern European states that joined the EU and now enjoy Brussels' regulatory and funding support.
However, the agreement with Latvia is significant in other ways. Given Belarus's difficult experience with Europe, it represents a small step towards establishing normal communication with neighboring countries. More importantly, Lukashenka's ambivalent attitude toward local border traffic agreements underlines their broader political significance.
Who Wants Belarus Out of Europe?
For the residents of Belarus border regions, the border traffic agreement allows reestablishing old commercial and family ties disrupted by the more recent creation of national borders. The frontier with Poland dates back to the late 1940s, while the Lithuanian and Latvian borders only came into existence in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, broader political interests often obscure the Eastern European natural borders. The severity of EU visa requirements implies Belarusians somehow pose a danger to the EU security or economic interests. Such measures only exacerbate tensions with the Lukashenka regime which benefits politically from the country's closure. At the same time, European attempts to use visa restrictions as a means to force internal liberalization only serve to increase Minsk's resolve.
The peculiar nature of this dispute was captured in a December 7 statement by Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy. Mr Füle expressed his dissatisfaction that the Belarusian authorities have expressed no interest in the border issue. He said: “[W]e waited for Belarusian authorities to respond to our request to conclude such agreements for many months now […] When such an agreement is concluded, there is no reason why we cannot move further towards a non-visa regime as our ultimate goal.” But Mr Füle's assumption – that Belarusian regime wants to remove visa barriers and open up the country – may be completely wrong.
Like the EU visa situation, agreements on local border traffic illustrate that the Belarusian regime is not keen to remove borders anytime soon. Ukraine has already ratified and implemented a well-functioning local border traffic regime with some EU members. Belarus, by contrast, is trying to use such agreements as an instrument to confront the EU. Besides Latvia, Belarus has signed local border traffic agreements with two other neighboring EU nations – Lithuania and Poland. Officials and diplomats of these countries insist, however, that the Belarusian government delays further implementation.
On November 25, Lithuanian foreign minister Audronius Ažubalis said Lithuania could already have launched its local border traffic mechanism with Belarus in November if Minsk had not hampered the process. More frankly, Polish diplomats stated in November that Belarus had ignored ratification for more than 14 months. The Polish ambassador to Belarus even alleged that Lukashenka had signed the agreement in December 2010 yet Belarusian government was technically unprepared to implement it.
Polish Fears of the Belarusian Regime
There is some logic behind Minsk's divergent approaches to opening its borders with neighbors. The agreement with Latvia, first of all, is most amenable to the Lukashenka regime because Latvia has not exerted much diplomatic pressure on Minsk in recent years. Indeed, Latvia has even supported Belarus in some of its disputes with the EU. Moreover, the Belarusian area bordering Latvia is sparsely populated, so the actual effect of the agreement is insignificant.
Border traffic agreements with Lithuania and Poland, however, are a different story. In the former, approximately 800,000 Lithuanians and 600,000 Belarusians would be allowed to visit each other without visas. Some major cities on both sides of the border would be affected — Hrodna, Lida, Ashmiany and Pastavy in Belarus, and Vilna, Ignalina, Varana, and Druskininkai in Lithuania. Even more dramatic would be the effect on border traffic between Belarus and Poland, covering a larger swathe of Belarus, including the provincial centers Hrodna and Brest, and encompassing around two million people on both sides of the border.
But the Belarusian regime has its reasons for delaying the agreements with Vilnius and Warsaw. Relations with Poland are tense because of its resolute support for Lukashenka's opponents. Although relations with Lithuania are in much better shape, the country hosts numerous Belarusian opposition groups and events. Over the past decade, Vilnius has become for Lukashenka's opponents what Miami has always been for the opponents of Cuban dictators – a safe haven next door to the home country.
Second, Belarusian authorities maintain a Soviet era attitude to controlling borders. In the Soviet Union, entire regions along the borders were considered to be border security zones. They were strictly patrolled by KGB, and even Soviet citizens needed special documents to enter them. In early 2009, the Belarusian government finally reduced the size of border zones and abolished the special documents required for its own citizens to enter these areas. But old attitudes die hard.
Third, Lukashenka has always been suspicious of the 400,000-strong Polish ethnic minority in Belarus. For years, police and security agencies have led a coordinated struggle against the independent leadership of the Polish minority union. In this context, local border traffic could be suspected as a channel to strengthen potential opposition movements among ethnic Poles in Belarus.
Opening the European Union to Belarusians
The very best sanction against Lukashenka's regime would be a unilateral opening of the European Union to Belarusian citizens. This would be a positive policy not linked to any bargaining game with the Lukashenka regime. Visa-free travel would be much more effective than border traffic agreements, which ultimately are just half-baked measures.
Without this, Belarus will remain closed to the West – its rulers are not at all interested in establishing more links with the rest of Europe, which they consider a threat to their own survival. The absence of freedom of movement to the West carries adverse geopolitical consequences not only for Belarus, but for Europe as a whole.
Belarus Regime’s Lobbyists in Russia
On 4 December Russian Ambassador to Belarus said that he greatly respects Belarusian president and thinks that Aliaksandr Lukashenka inspired many by his policies. Ambassador Surikov is not the only Russian inspired by Lukashenka. Lukashenka's populism and pro-Russian rhetoric made him popular among various groups in Russia.
Although the popularity of the Belarus development model continues to fall in Russia, it remains attractive for a large part of the Russian population because of various lobbying groups which advocate the interests of the Belarusian regime. These groups include communists, army, nationalists, certain state officials and ordinary Russians nostalgic about the Soviet Union.
What Do the Russians Think about Belarus?
Until 2008, the attractiveness of Belarus as a reliable ally and a development model was on its peak. Russian people, who were tired of corruption, bureaucracy and low living standards in their own country, considered Belarus as “state for the people” or even a Soviet-style paradise across the border. This myth remained almost unchallenged by Russian state institutions and media until recently.
The situation has changed when Belarus refused to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states and then came into a series of conflicts with Russia over the formation of the Customs Union, including gas and milk “wars”. Russian TV channels and newspapers started a massive campaign against Belarus and its leader, using various types of propaganda and unveiling unpleasant facts about Lukashenka family.
These measures have decreased public support for Lukashenka’s rule, but have not seriously affected his lobby in Russia. They keep supporting his brave image of Robin Hood who takes money from the rich to redistribute it among the poor and disadvantaged state employees and workers.
Support of Russian Communists
The first and the most influential lobbying group is the Russian Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov. Almost every month he makes positive statements about Belarus and cites its experience as an example worth following. For instance, on 9 October he noted that Russia will benefit from investing money into the Belarusian economy even despite the current financial crisis.
Previously Zyuganov defended interests of the Belarusian regime in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He also appealed to Medvedev and Putin to provide money and other types of help for Belarus without any preconditions. Russian communists are the main opposition party that obtained almost 20% of votes in the latest parliamentary election and their election program highlights the need to actively cooperate with Belarus and to protect it from the “Russian oligarchs”.
Respect of the Military
The second group of support is the Russian military, especially middle-ranking officers who see Lukashenka as a strong leader ruling Belarus. They think he rules the country in a barrack-like manner, not allowing any behaviour deviations such as being a dissident, a hipster, a gay or any other kind of person not in the mainstream.
One of the striking examples is Vladimir Kvachkov, former colonel of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (GRU), who is thought to be implicated in an attempt on life of Anatoly Chubays – a close liberal aid of Boris Yeltsin in 1990s who currently heads the Russian state corporation Rosnano.
Just before the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus, Kvachkov was received warmly in the Belarusian Presidential Administration and was interviewed by the Belarusian government newspaper Respublica. According to Kvachkov, Russian authorities are rogue and they must be replaced by new ones in order to “restore the real Union between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine”.
Belarus regularly obtains a considerable amount of new military vehicles, ammunition and equipment at low prices from Russia.
Admiration of Russian Nationalists
Russia faces a rise in nationalist sentiments as a result of interethnic problems related to the North Causasus. The importance of the Russian culture and language is diminishing in most of post-Soviet countries. This is why Russian nationalists view Lukashenka as the only defender of Russian interests in the former Soviet Union. They refer to Belarus as an example of truly pro-Russian and anti-American state where all rights of Russian citizens are respected and the Russian language has an official status.
More radical of them tend to imagine Belarus as a place where there are no Gypsies and the people of “white race” occupy the jobs which representatives of Caucasian nations traditionally occupy in Russia. Alexander Prokhanov, a writer and an Editor-in-Chief of the Russian nationalist and often anti-Semitic newspaper Zavtra, is the most visible nationalist advocates of the Belarusian regime in Russia. He spoke highly of the results of the Belarusian presidential elections after his return from the inauguration.
Yuri Luzhkov, a Mayor of Moscow and a vice-chairman of the ruling United Russia party used to be one of the most influential lobbyists of Belarusian interests in Moscow. He was allowed to participate in several large business projects in Belarus in return for his friendship with Lukashenka.
After Luzhkov was fired from his post, the First Deputy Mayor of the Russian capital Vladimir Resin who was born in Minsk acts as a good mediator between Minsk and Moscow.
Pavel Borodin, the State Secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia has also done a lot in order to place Lukashenka in a good light in Russia.
Evgeniy Primakov, former Russian prime minister and president of the Russian Chamber of Trade and Commerce has also supported Lukashenka for a very long time. Lukashenka himself even called Primakov his teacher. But today Primakov does not hold any important posts, although he still can share necessary contacts.
General Public Support
Nevertheless, the Belarusian regime is supported not only by those mentioned above. Many ordinary Russian people genuinely believe that Belarus is a “social state” based on an improved version of communism. In general, these people do not live in big cities, have low salaries, and are used to paternalistic model of state and economic management which Lukashenka represents.
Belarusian authorities try to use their propaganda machine to reach the Russian population. Every year Belarus Presidential Administration invites editors and journalists of leading Russian regional newspapers. The presidential administration dines and wines them and shows them the best examples of the Belarusian economic and political model.
One of the examples of pro-Lukashenka “people’s” projects in Russia is the website Lukashenko2008.ru that has proposed him as a candidate for the Russian presidency. The web site has been online and is regularly updated foe more than 4 years.
As Belarus struggles with a severe economic crisis, its policymakers continue their efforts to influence Russian authorities. Since after December 2010 Belarus is increasingly becoming more dependent upon Russia and the role of the West is diminishing. This is why lobbying the interests of the Belarusian regime in Russia is becoming even more important.