Visa-free travel and registration in Belarus: not so simple
Starting 12 February, citizens of 80 states, including 39 European countries, will be able to enter Belarus visa-free through the Minsk National Airport. But unlike Kazakhstan, which allows foreigners to stay in the country for up to 30 days, Belarus introduced a much more tricky visa-free regime.
Foreign travellers should be prepared for strict penalties should they fail to understand or abide by the rules. The current practise of registering people with Belarusian visas staying for longer than five days sometimes creates an impression that Belarusian migration authorities view tourists as cash cows.
Since 2016, the Belarusian authorities have been gradually opening up the country to foreigners. On 26 October, Belarus allowed visa-free entry for up to five days (UPD: from July 2018 the tem is extended to 30 days) for tourists from most Western countries coming to Hrodna Region by bus or car. This has already brought thousands of tourists to the region.
The visa-free regime through the Minsk National Airport introduced in January has more far-reaching implications. Belarus opened to ‘favourable countries in terms of migration’ and ‘strategic partners’, including the European Union countries, United States, Canada and Japan (see the full list here).
Tourists should have a valid passport or other document permitting foreign travel, a small amount of money (minimum €25 per day), and medical insurance. For some poorer countries, visa-free entry is allowed only on the condition that they also possess an EU visa.
Unlike Kazakhstan, which expanded the list of countries allowed to travel visa-free for up to 30 days in January 2017 and whose policy is fairly straightforward, the Belarusian visa regime is more complicated in practice than at the first sight.
Visa-free tourists must both arrive and leave only through the Minsk National Airport. This is the only international airport in a country of 9.5m people. The airport is far from Minsk (40 km) and is poorly served by public transport.
Due to the scarcity of flights connecting Minsk with the rest of the world, having even a full three-day slot in Belarus could be problematic. For example, there are only three direct flights per week to London.
This short time period effectively makes travelling to other parts of Belarus, such as Hrodna or Brest, very difficult because this requires at least half a day’s travel from Minsk.
Kafkaesque migration regulations and procedures
Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to create a positive image of the country to promote the visa-free regime, the Ministry of Internal Affairs seems to have a different goal.
On 10 January 2016 the Head of the Department of Citizenship and Migration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Aliaksei Biahun, explained that those who overstay their five-day visa will face a warning or a fine of up to €550 with or without deportation. We will not know until February how the new visa-free regime will work in practice, but the current procedure for registering foreigners with Belarusian visas who want to spend more than five days in Belarus is perhaps a hint.
If you are a foreigner with a Belarusian visa and want to stay for more than five days not in an officially registered hotel you need to register with the police. The point of this procedure is to ensure the authorities know where you are staying. Ironically, by this time you will have given the authorities this address twice: when applying for the visa and completing a migration card when crossing the boder.
Belarus probably has the strictest system of registration of foreigners in Europe. For example, the United Kingdom only requires police registration if you stay longer than six months. Russia permits visits without registration of seven working days, which can mean eleven if you include weekends. Belarus only allows five days, which following a strange logic includes Saturdays but not Sundays (this tiny detail is often omitted and can lead to serious problems and fines).
To make things even more complicated, on Saturdays the police registration offices are usually open for only a few hours, but the banks where you need to go to pay fees are closed. On Mondays, police departments are usually closed for registration procedures but this day still counts towards the five-day limit.
Under normal Belarusian law, counting the days starts on the day following the event (i.e. crossing the border). However, migration officials also count the day of arrival, even if you arrive at 23:59. This makes it even more difficult to figure out when exactly you need to register.
Although Belarus bills itself as a new Silicon Valley, home to successful startups such as Viber and World of Tanks, registration for foreigners cannot be done online; foreigners need to register in person in a remote office.
The registration fee is very small (around $10), but you are likely to spend at least half a day registering yourself. You will need to figure out the procedure (which is not explained when you cross the border), find and reach the registration office in a remote location and queue to get an application form. You cannot go there alone even if you speak the language, because the application form has to be signed both by you and your Belarusian host.
It is not possible to pay on the spot, so you also have to find a local bank and queue there to make the registration payment. With the confirmation of payment and a number of other documents, you will then need to return to the registration office to join yet another queue to submit it to a migration official.
The wrath of Belarusian law and the hungry Belarusian budget
If you think that failure to pay a small $10 registration fee on time is not a big deal, you don’t understand the logic of the system. The main purpose of the fine is not to compensate the damage caused by failure to submit your address for the third time. The logic is to bring in money for the budget. As Belarus is experiencing a deep recession caused by falling oil prices and lack of reform, the government has to be creative.
So, if you miss the registration even by one day, you will face a fine equivalent to hundreds of US dollars. Although the law also provides the possibility of a warning, in practice this will be of little help, even if you have a very good reason for missing the deadline.
What’s more, your Belarusian host will also have to pay a fine of a similar amount for failing to ensure that their guest is registered. According to this logic, a driver should pay a fine for violating a traffic rule as well as a passenger for failing to prevent it. This absurdness, however, helps raise money for the budget.
Is it worth all the hassle?
Belarus is an interesting country for tourists, not only because of the remnants of the Soviet past such as monuments to Lenin, but because of its rich history.
It has four UNESCO World Heritage sites and beautiful nature with plenty of forests and lakes. The prices (particularly for alcohol) are generally very low, the country is very safe and easy to reach.
The best advice for tourists would be to check and double-check all regulations and procedures in advance in order to avoid fines.
The new visa-free regime is certainly an important step which makes political and economic sense. One would hope that the Belarusian government would think more of the bigger picture and the country’s reputation. Belarus should welcome tourists so they can stay in the country longer and spend more on pleasurable activities than fines.
Belarus and Georgia: Russian lessons and Lukashenka’s new strategy
Diplomacy between Belarus and Georgia has taken on new life. On 20 December 2016 Belarus finally opened its embassy in Tbilisi. This decision, long and complicated for both sides, has proved their intention to renew bilateral dialogue. This step could also indicate a new Georgia–Belarus strategy towards Russia.
Belarus and Georgia have never been strategic partners. The countries’ diplomacy suffered numerous crises due to the Russia-Georgia conflict and the strong ties between Belarus and Russia. Furthermore, the economic side of the partnership is at an extreme low as well. In 2016 Belarus – Georgia trade came to only $63m, making Georgia only the 57th most important trade partner for Belarus.
The Russia factor
Georgia and Belarus have had a rather complicated diplomatic history. Lack of progress in the development of bilateral relations between Belarus and Georgia has mainly been due to the Russia factor: Russia and Georgia suffered a severe diplomatic crisis in 2008.
As Russia's ally, Belarus was expected to support its actions. However, after the conflict ended, Belarus made a surprising decision. The Belarusian authorities refused to support or recognise the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, going against Russia’s wishes.
However, following this decision, Belarus nevertheless decided to freeze its partnership with Georgia. On May 22 2014, in an interview for the Russian channel Dozhd, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka disclosed that he had even rejected the former Georgian leader Micheil Saakashvili’s invitation to visit Georgia because of 'extra problems with the Russian authorities'.
The sides turned a new page in bilateral dialogue in April 2015. The historical visit of Lukashenka to Georgia contributed significantly to diplomatic ties. During his first visit to the country, Lukashenka outlined his priorities for Belarus and made some key statements on important issues. Lukashenka mentioned that in the near future, the sides will be able to find solutions so the countries can 'live in the same family as the three countries once did'. He stated that there are is nothing inherently contradictory between the Georgian people, Belarusians, and Russians.
How can Belarus benefit from the Russia-Georgia crisis?
Today, the sides share common interests. Georgia enjoys a good reputation with EU countries. The country withdrew its CIS membership in 2008. Georgia and Belarus have also both joined the Eastern partnership programme. In June 2014 Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the European Union. Belarus could benefit from this situation.
During his visit to Georgia, Lukashenka remarked that the sides did not have contradictory politics, and he expressed gratitude to former leader Micheil Saakashvili and President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili for Georgia’s support of Belarus in the West.
In return for Georgia’s diplomatic support of Belarus, Lukashenka seems ready to work out a new dialogue platform. The Belarusian leader hinted that the country could become a mediator between Russia and Georgia as they try to normalise relations. During his visit to Georgia in April 2015, the Belarusian president stressed that after the conflict between Georgia and Russia 'it would be great if Georgia could build these relationships in a softer way and not resort to any harsh measures.'
In his turn, on 24 April 2015 Margvelashvili stressed the importance Minsk's role in helping to find a peaceful way out of the situation in Ukraine. This statement could also be a signal for Russia to start a dialogue with Georgia.
Thus, in the near future the partnership could lead to a diplomatic exchange between Georgia and Belarus. Belarus will receive more support from Georgia during dialogue with the EU, while Belarus will try to create a new platform for dialogue between Russia and Georgia. The opening of the new embassy following these statements proves the possibility of such a scenario.
The economy first
Belarus considers progress in economic relations to be a test of the possibility for future political normalisation. The first step in the development of relations is to achieve a $200m trade turnover in 2017.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Uladzimir Makej paid an official visit to Georgia on 20 December 2016. Makej took part in the opening ceremony of the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Tbilisi. The '$200m-aim' is bolstered by the fact that the former head of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce Mikhail Myatlikau has become the ambassador of Belarus to Georgia.
However, this figure seems unrealistic. At the end of 2014, Belarus's trade with Georgia stood at $64.18m. In 2015 the bilateral trade was estimated at only $44.9m. To change the situation, the Chambers of Commerce and Industry of the two countries signed a package of 15 documents to more than triple trade. Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Mikhail Rusy disclosed that more than 140 companies from Georgia and Belarus will be working on increasing the trade turnover.
In the future, Georgia is likely to continue its strategy of cooperation with Belarus. Thanks to Belarus, jointly developed products of the sides can be sold on the markets of the Eurasian Economic Union. In 2006 Russia banned Georgian wine products despite the fact that Russia accounted for 80% of Georgian wine sales. However, Belarus is ready to allow Georgian wine makers to bottle wines and cognac spirits in Belarus, Rusy states.
The sides are also establishing joint ventures with Minsk Tractor Works to produce vehicles. In March 2016, the two countries' businesses met in Minsk. Representatives of 50 Belarusian and 30 Georgian companies discussed ventures projects in mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, and food production.
The Georgian side understands the potential profit. In March 2016 Prime Minister of Georgia Giorgi Kvirikashvili met with Lukashenka and assured the president of the partnership between the two countries. As Kvirikashvili stressed: 'There are huge investment opportunities if we cooperate. In all spheres, we plan on significant progress.'
What is next?
A new page of Georgia-Belarus relations could result in two scenarios. Firstly – Belarus suffers another diplomatic crisis with Russia. In this case Belarusian authorities would start developing economic relations with Georgia to gauge Russia’s reaction. In the second scenario, there is an agreement between Belarus and Russia to start normalising relations between Georgia and Russia. The second scenario appears more realistic at this time.
During the opening ceremony of the Belarusian embassy, the two sides agreed to continue constructive dialogue and mutual support within the EU's 'Eastern Partnership' initiative. This can be regarded as part of the deal. What's more, Belarus and Georgia also discussed facilitating an official visit from the president of Georgia to Belarus in 2017. The visit could result in a final high-level agreement on normalisation.
Dzmitry Halubnichy is an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, Belarus.