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 Read more
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 Read more
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 Read more
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 Read more
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 Read more
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.
Threats to Belarus, Eurasian Union, Political Prisoners – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Belarusian analysts discuss the threat to Belarusian statehood from Russia, the pros and contras of the Eurasian Economic Union as well as protest potential and intensified contacts of Belarus with the West.
Karbalevich on Belarus: Hybrid Ally – Valery Karbalevich believes that both the opposition and the authorities are aware of the threat of Belarus' independence from Russia, which arose after the accession of Crimea. According to the expert, to confront Russia, Belarus should become truly independent, ie, to create a viable economic system able to exist without Russian privileges. But Lukashenka cannot go for reforms, "because the transformation of Belarus is a bigger threat to his rule than the hybrid potential war with Russia."
Russian Media: Belarus Should Join Russia or It will Be Liquidated – The Russian business newspaper Vzglyad published an article calling for Alexander Lukashenka to hold a referendum in the autumn of 2015 on the accession of Belarus to Russia. The journalist notes that Lukashenka needs to decide whether he is with Russia or the West. Otherwise, Belarus could suffer the fate of Ukraine.
The Eurasian Economic Union: Analyses and Perspectives from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia – In the present publication, four perspectives from three member states of the EEU have been drawn together, which together sharpen the vision on the emerging trends of the Eurasian integration process – and its numerous contradictions. Arseniy Sivickiy (Minsk) perspective on the EEU hinges on clear differences of interest in the design of the EEU contract and its implementation.
Opinion. Devaluation of Political Prisoners – Artiom Shraibman, TUT.BY, analyses recent developments in the warming relations between Belarus and the West: "The Europeans and the Americans themselves knocking at the door, saying that economic cooperation is no longer linked to political differences, does not contradict them." Accordingly, the political prisoners are not the most important obstacles anymore between Belarus and the West. This greatly increases the possibility that they will stay behind bars until the end of their terms.
Warming on the Western Front Can Help Belarus to Slip Into the Bologna Process – Representatives of the Council of Europe and the Monitoring Group of the Bologna Process have arrived in Minsk to ask questions about the readiness of Belarusian officials of higher education to join the European educational space. According to the Head of the Council of Europe's Education Department, Sjur Bergan, now "the political situation in the country is more favorable than in 2012, when Belarus was denied entry into the Bologna Process."
Belarusians' Protest Capacity Does Not Exclude New Ploscha – On the eve of the presidential elections 2015 and on the background of the Ukrainian events protest activity has increased in Belarus. These findings are contained in the annual monitoring, prepared by the Political Sphere Institute. In 2014, researchers recorded 127 protests. In comparison with 2013, the number of public actions increased by 26%, social conflicts – by 18%. The leader in the number of protest action of 2014 was Minsk.
Overview of Youth Policy and Youth Participation – Key barriers to youth participation at the policy level in Belarus are formalism, structural constraints, the lack of will of the authorities and personal factors. This is the conclusion of Belarusian National Youth Council RADA under its study conducted together with the Center for Legal Transformation. Currently the first two chapters are available: youth policy and youth participation in public and political life of the country. Chapters on youth labor and education are being prepared for publishing.
Legal Regulation of Economic Activities of NGOs – European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) present an overview of the legal regulation of economic activities of civil society organizations in Europe. The research was done at the request of the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus and Legal Transformation Center. The research paper aims to indicate the options how civil society can independently earn money for their activities.
In Belarus there are 2,596 registered NGOs. In 2014, the Ministry of Justice registered 86 newly-established non-governmental organisations (1 international, 13 republican, 72 local), 3 unions (associations) of non-governmental organisations, 11 local foundations. In comparison to 2013, the total number of registered NGOs increased by 2.9% and to the moment reaches 2,596 NGOs. The most frequent activity among registered NGOs is sports and physical training (684 NGOs).
Freedom of Association and Legal Conditions for Non-profit Organizations in Belarus. Review Period: January-March 2015 – NGO Assembly and LawTrend prepared the document covers the most important issues in the sphere of freedom of association for the period of the last 3 months. The Monitoring includes the list of non-commercial organisations registered during the review period: namely, 23 public associations, 3 foundations and 15 non-governmental institutions were registered.
Lessons Learnt of State Social Contracting in 2014 in Belarus – ACT NGO releases key findings of the first practices of state social contracting, implemented in Belarus. In 2014, 26 regions used the mechanism of state social contracting and subsidized the NGOs from local budgets for the total amount of more than 1.8 billion rubles (about $125 thsd). The study was carried out with the support of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection.
Business, Opinion Polls, Human Rights
Top 5 Pro-Belarusian Business – Vadzim Mazheyka composes the top 5 business companies engaged in pro-Belarusian projects. The list includes, for example, Belgazprombank that made a loud exhibition project "Ten Centuries of Belarus Art", or network of gas stations A-100, which serve customers in Belarusian. The expert notes that the Belarusian business notices the popularity of Belarusian culture, and that means the latter is going beyond historical and political ghetto, and becoming a true social trend.
IISEPS National Survey in March 2015 – According to recent survey of Independent Institute of Socio-Political and Economic Studies (IISEPS), almost 40% of Belarusians believe that Belarus needs serious reforms (structural and system changes), and more than 42% agree for gradual reforms that would retain the current system. Alexander Lukashenka's electoral rating has dropped to 34.2% (almost by six percentage points compared with December 2014), due to the deteriorating economic situation.
Amnesty International Report 2014/15. The Amnesty International has released its regular report 2014/15 that documents the state of human rights in 160 countries and territories during 2014. Namely, the report states that Belarus remained the only country in Europe to carry out executions; the right to freedom of expression was severely restricted and journalists faced harassment; NGOs continued to be arbitrarily denied registration.
Five Years of Belarusian Web – Michail Darashevich, manager of Gemius in Belarus, analyses figures of Internet development in Belarus for the last five years. Namely, from December 2009 to December 2014, the Belarus online audience has risen by 65.5% or from 3.023 million to 5.004 people. The retired people group has risen from 1.28% to 5.56%; however, this is extremely little as compared to the whole Belarusian society. The number of daily users has grown from 72.70% to 82.73% of the whole Internet audience.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.