Schengen visa facilitation: jeopardised by fear of migrants?
Recent statements by Belarusian officials have confirmed that the country's citizens should not expect a more liberal visa regime with Europe in the foreseeable future. Belarus's decision to introduce a conditional visa-free regime for nationals of eighty countries, many of them European, does not mean Europe has to reciprocate.
Georgia and Ukraine, Belarus’s fellow inmates in the Soviet camp, will soon join Moldova in the group of countries which enjoy visa-free travel to the Schengen zone. Meanwhile, Belarusians are subject to the strictest Schengen visa regime amongst all Eastern European nations.
Differences between Minsk and Brussels over the readmission procedure, concerning migrants who attempt to cross the Belarusian border into the EU, have dashed hopes for imminent visa facilitation. Does this mean citizens of Belarus will continue to be targets of expensive, complicated, and sometimes humiliating visa procedures?
Migration fears hamper visa facilitation
On 1 March, Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei admitted that migration-related ‘challenges and dangers’ have impacted visa negotiations with Europe. According to Makei’s spokesman Dmitri Mironchik, Belarus is ready to sign the visa facilitation agreement immediately – but not the readmission agreement. However, Europe insists on a single package.
The readmission agreement would commit Belarus to taking back all illegal migrants – including third-country nationals – who enter the EU from its territory. Belarus's open border with Russia would make further readmission more difficult.
While the number of such trespassers remains negligible, Minsk is unwilling to undertake such obligations while the migration crisis looms in Europe. Belarus lacks proper infrastructure to accommodate returnees as well as a network of agreements with potential migrants' home countries.
Europe is not ready – ‘politically or psychologically’ – to grant Belarus a grace period on the readmission of third-country nationals. However, the EU had earlier given such grace periods to Belarus’s neighbours: Russia (three years) and Ukraine (two years).
Schengen visas: a priority topic for many Belarusians
In 2015, embassies of EU countries in Minsk issued 753,937 Schengen visas, 66.3% of them being multiple-entry. This is the highest per capita rate in the world and the fifth-largest absolute number. Belarus also has one of the lowest refusal rates, at 0.3%.
Despite these encouraging statistics, the visa process remains lengthy, costly, overly bureaucratic, and sometimes humiliating. Even people with spotless multi-year records of travel to Europe must, each time they apply for a new visa, submit the same heavy set of documents, pay a high fee, and wait many days before retrieving their passport.
Belarus and the EU began negotiations on simplifying visa formalities and launching a readmission procedure in 2014. This was six years after Minsk had confirmed its willingness to engage in talks. Both parties can assume the blame for this delay.
A successful visa facilitation agreement would make the visa process much simpler for Belarusians. Visa fees would go down to €35 from €60, and more people would be exempt altogether. Additionally, the application paperwork would be streamlined and more multiple-entry visas would be issued with longer validity.
Belarus and the EU have held three formal rounds of negotiations on the agreements, most recently two years ago exactly. Both parties had hoped to initial the drafts during the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga in May 2015, but failed to finalise the talks by then.
Are selfish officials responsible for the delay?
Belarusian officials blamed the delay on unspecified ‘technical details’ that required further discussion. Meanwhile, Gunnar Wiegand, director for Eastern Europe at the European Commission, announced in December 2015 that both agreements were ready to be signed.
Allegedly, the only unresolved issue regarded the implementation of higher security standards for Belarusian diplomatic passports. Belarusian authorities wanted the draft to guarantee visa-free travel for diplomats. However, EU negotiators insisted that the passports should first have biometric features.
The comments of EU diplomat caused noticeable discontent in Belarusian society. Many Belarusians blamed selfish officials for the delay in visa facilitation.
In all fairness, Belarusian diplomats were right to demand the country’s equal treatment in international negotiations. Most holders of diplomatic passports cannot use them for private travel. As for official travel, they face no problems obtaining visas anyways.
This ‘technical problem’ is now irrelevant. A government official confirmed to Belarus Digest that the agreed draft includes the same provisions on visa-free travel for diplomats as similar EU agreements with other countries. The issue of biometric passports will work itself out as Belarus starts transitioning to them next year.
Once bitten, twice shy
The Turkish precedent is haunting Europe. The readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey, which came into effect on 1 October 2014, provided Ankara with a three-year respite from readmitting third-country nationals. Millions of refugees from Syria entered Europe via Turkey during this transition period.
Europe’s migration fears prevent Brussels from granting Belarus a readmission grace period. What's more, no precedent exists for a visa facilitation agreement not contingent on a readmission agreement. Thus, the only option for Belarus to obtain a simplified visa regime with Europe is for it to agree to the readmission document in full.
This will not happen any time soon. Moreover, Belarus fears a possible spike in migration from Asia and the Caucasus region and feels unprepared to handle it. It has no detention centres for migrants, who are now held together with criminals.
On 3 February, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka insisted that he would only consider signing the readmission agreement with the EU when Belarus concludes similar agreements with sending countries (‘all the way to Russia, China, and Afghanistan’).
Belarus already has a readmission agreement with Russia. However, it covers only those migrants who possess a valid residence permit in Russia. Thus, this agreement excludes a vast category of migrants who stayed in Russia illegally prior to entering Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities are working with the EU on securing technical assistance in establishing the proper infrastructure to process the flow of illegal migrants. In January, the European Commission allocated €7m to Belarus to build detention centres for migrants.
However, the Belarusian authorities want more money. In the words of Lukashenka, ‘If the EU doesn’t pay, we won’t detain [the illegal migrants]. It costs much’.
What Europe can do for Belarusians
It looks like the simplification of the visa regime for Belarusians has been jeopardised by bargaining between Belarus and Europe over who should bear the risk and cost of migration. This bargaining may take years.
In the meantime, EU countries are still capable of easing the visa procedure for Belarusians within the framework of existing visa rules. This could mean reducing wait time, simplifying paperwork requirements for frequent travellers, and further increasing the share of multiple-entry visas and their duration of validity.
This would be a decent response to the recent measures taken by the Belarusian government to facilitate travel to Belarus for European citizens. It would also help increase Europe’s soft power in Belarus and dispel the myths of Russian propaganda about ‘decaying Europe’.
Women’s activism in Belarus: towards the real gender equality
On 8 March, women the world over will celebrate International Women’s Day, which commemorates women's emancipation and their achievements. However, Belarusians largely celebrate the 8th of March in a different way, putting an emphasis on women as mothers, housekeepers, and wives.
On 17 February, the Council of Ministers signed a national plan on gender equality for 2020. Although Belarus generally performs very well in gender equality indicators, women nevertheless earn 24% less than men and occupy high academic positions in only 23% of cases.
The weak representation of Belarusian women in politics and business should have the potential to galvanise them to demand rights. However, the women’s movement in Belarus is woefully underdeveloped, disorganised, and disoriented.
Staying put or moving backwards?
Belarusian women’s activism has a long history. The first union, called United Belarusian Women’s Committee, appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, advocacy groups were actively involved in promoting both women’s rights and national revival. The first women’s party, Nadzeja, emerged in 1994, and throughout the 1990s Belarusian women pulled together in working associations and rights organisations.
However, starting in the 2000s, the development of women’s activism hit a rut. Today around 40 registered women’s organisations exist in the country, making up less than 1.5% of all NGOs in Belarus. Despite its existence on paper, the Belarusian women’s network, an umbrella organisation of women's rights groups created in 2007, has not achieved significant results. Over the past few years, the Belarusian women’s movement has struggled to form common advocacy campaigns or united and coordinated actions.
Moreover, a significant portion of registered organisations do not even recognise the thriving discrimination against Belarusian women. Vice-chairman of the Belarusian Union of Women, Antanina Morava, has stated that there is no need in Belarus to introduce a gender equality law as the Constitution already guarantees all rights.
The role of women's organisations is often a mere formality for the regime. This is also true of most other GoNGOs (Governmental non-governmental organisations, created and controlled by the government). Organisations such as the Belarusian Union of Women, which comprises more than 170,000 members, receive grants and help the state monopolise the sector by promoting traditional family values.
Despite attempts to unify and hammer out common goals, Belarusian women’s organisations have been so far unable to create a strong movement. In 2007, almost 20 women’s initiatives set up a network for Belarusian women. Belarus also introduced a National Gender Platform for stimulating gender equality in the country. Nevertheless, due to the difference in agendas and goals, the women’s movement in Belarus has suffered from a lack of unity, with every unit acting alone.
Iryna Salamatsina, author of the project Gender Route, told Belarus Digest: 'Women’s organisations have failed to reach the next level as the next qualitative step is recognising the variety of vectors within women’s initiatives, which have their own ideas, ideologies, goals, and vision for the future. Unfortunately, none of this is true when it comes to the women’s organisations sector. The third sector denies the significance of promoting gender rights.'
Violence and participation
Several times, women’s organisations have attempted to create a network which would prioritise political and social issues. Meanwhile, the majority of associations focus on working with victims of violence and violence prevention. Cities have domestic violence hotlines, violence-related billboards, and some form of women’s organisations.
However, a much smaller number of units works to promote social and political rights. For instance, in 2016 women's initiatives monitored the parliamentary election from a gender perspective.
The Belarusian women’s movement appears to be unique in that it is mostly non-feminist. A study conducted under the framework of the project ‘Developing a single strategy on Gender Equality issues of the EaP CSF’ revealed that almost 80% indicated that their organisation has no written gender policy or means to monitor it.
Currently, financial organisations and projects prioritise the inclusion of women in business. In 2016, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development financed (and is still working on) a large project called Women in Business, centred around women's participation and education in business. The media continue to write about the top 10 or 25 Belarusian businesswomen. However, in the most recent rating of the best business people, only seven out of 200 were women.
Neither is it the case that gender issues have become a visible part of the political agenda due to women's political participation. In 2015, Tacciana Karatkievič, Belarus's first female presidential candidate, fostered a 'motherly' image rather than promoting women's rights.
On 6 March, Lidzija Jarmošyna, chairperson of the Central Election Commission, told the national press-centre that 'women are not very prone to political participation'. Despite a 30% parliamentary membership, comparing to 12.5% in Ukraine, women’s rights are not a part of the agenda.
Women’s rights also remain underrepresented at the economic level. In 2016, the average salary of Belarusian women was 25% lower than men. According to a recent Internet survey of 1,519 women conducted by TUT.by, 90% encounter discrimination at the workplace. Nevertheless, this is a last-order issue for many organisations.
The three main obstacles to the women’s movement
Three main obstacles to Belarusian women’s movements predominate today. As in the case with youth organisations, the state aims to feign women’s participation by creating large-scale pro-governmental organisations such as the Belarusian Union of Women. Poor coordination of women’s organisations and decreasing support from the state and sponsors weakens the movement even further.
Women's political representation in Belarus and the activity of women's organisations seem to be completely uncorrelated. In 2016, Belarusians elected Kanapackaja and Anisim, who became the first two female oppositional deputies. However, neither deputies aim to address gender issues, and women's organisations do not try to use them to promote their agenda.
Women’s rights groups, much like other organisations in Belarus, have become victims of NGO legislation. Difficulties with registration and receiving foreign funds create additional obstacles for activists. For instance, over the past several years, the Ministry of Justice has registered only two women's organisations, thus keeping the share of women's NGOs at 1.5%.
Despite the fractured nature of the women's movement in Belarus, over the past years many unregistered initiatives advocating for social rights for women have appeared. Recent projects, such as MakeOut, Zdolnaya, and HerRights create new possibilities for women's rights advocacy. Nevertheless, their popularity is low and their activities are restricted by legal issues.
If the state, society, and activists fail to address these existing challenges, the Belarusian women’s movement will become increasingly marginalised and continue to lose ground.