Why is the EU shutting its doors to ordinary Belarusians?
On 30 May, the Danish visa centre in Minsk announced a temporary shutdown of its visa application service in Belarus, suspending the issue of visas and resident permits. The visa centre suggested applicants use visa processing services in other countries.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine put EU countries on high alert, the Baltic states, Czechia, and the Nordic countries gradually stopped issuing Schengen visas to Belarusians. They consider Belarus an accomplice to Russian aggression.
Instead of exclusively targeting the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka, these visa restrictions affect ordinary Belarusians, most of whom have no say in Belarusian politics and foreign policy. On the contrary, the rigged election and massive post-election protests in 2020 brutally suppressed by the authorities demonstrated that most of the population did not support the regime.
The EU-Belarus visa system
Belarusians have long led the rankings of Schengen visas per capita, despite the process of obtaining one not being easy. In 2020, Belarus signed an EU visa facilitation agreement, which brought visa requirements and processes more in line with other non-EU countries in the region.
The European Commission described the visa agreement as an important step in strengthening the EU’s engagement with Belarusians and Belarusian civil society. It introduced multiple-entry visas with longer validity and reduced consular fees and processing times.
But in November 2021, the EU suspended visa facilitation provisions for Belarusian officials. This was in response to the artificial migrant crisis that Belarusian authorities had created at the EU-Belarus border. Even though ordinary Belarusians continued to benefit from the visa agreement, COVID-19 and Belarusian domestic travel restrictions made crossing land borders more challenging.
At the start of 2022, it seemed the travel industry might return to business as usual. But then Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Some EU states suspended issuing Schengen visas to Belarusians—either without explanation or citing the Belarusian regime’s support of Russian aggression.
Baltic states and Poland
Just a few years ago, Belarusians needed to apply for Schengen visas at the embassies of neighbouring EU countries or via specialised Lithuanian and Polish visa centres requiring minimum supporting documents. The Russian war against Ukraine changed this.
On 24 February 2022, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda announced a state of emergency in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Lithuania stepped up border protection measures to guard against Russian or Belarusian provocations or hybrid attacks. On 11 March, restrictions for Schengen tourist visas were re-introduced, limiting the issue of visas to certain groups, such as lorry drivers, athletes, or family members of Lithuanian nationals.
Currently, Lithuania accepts applications only for long-term national visas for those who can prove their intention to live in the country temporarily or permanently. Latvia followed suit with similar restrictions, suspending the issue of short-term Schengen visas for Belarusians as of 5 April.
As of 14 June, Estonia will temporarily suspend the operations of its visa centres across Belarus for three weeks. No explanation has been given. In the past, these centres have provided assistance for Estonian, Finnish, and Swedish Schengen visas.
Poland still offers more options for Belarusians, but these concern only long-term national visas for work or study, visas for possessors of the “Pole’s Card” (a document confirming a foreigner’s belonging to the Polish nation), or those seeking a Polish national visa for humanitarian reasons.
While Schengen visas from the Baltic states and Poland are unavailable, obtaining a national visa still remains difficult. Hurdles include high demand, a shortage of online appointments, and long wait times. In addition, Belarusian intermediaries that help to prepare application packages and secure appointments have started to charge higher fees.
For instance, services for obtaining Polish humanitarian visas and registering for an appointment online can cost more than €300 ($321.69). These fees are not insignificant for Belarusians. According to Belstat, the nominal gross salary in Belarus in May 2022 was about €600 ($643.38). The minimum monthly salary was only €180 ($193.01). Travel to neighbouring EU countries is, thus, becoming a privilege for those who can afford it.
Czechia’s new migration law
On 5 March, the Czech government stopped issuing visas and residence permits for Belarusians. The decision was in response to Belarusian authorities’ provision of Belarusian territories for Russian attacks on Ukraine. Earlier, Czechs had introduced similar restrictions for Russian citizens.
On 6 May, the Belarusian diaspora in the Czechia learned about a new draft law to prohibit the migration of Russians and Belarusians to Czechia. A few days later, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader in exile, visited Prague to convince Czech politicians that ordinary Belarusians should not be associated with the actions of the Lukashenka regime:
“We need to put pressure on the regime and help Belarusians, because Belarusians do not carry any threats for the Czech Republic […] On the contrary, there is a need for more visas, more scholarships, more initiatives that reinforce Belarusian-Czech ties.”
Czechia demonstrated solidarity with Belarusian democratic forces back in 2020, when massive anti-regime protests swept across Belarus. Just two years later, it seems Czech politicians are forgetting the difference between the regime and the Belarusian people that remain subject to politically motivated persecutions.
Where can Belarusians still obtain a Schengen visa?
Currently, Belarusians do not have many options to choose from if they need a Schengen visa. Italy, Greece, France, and Hungary might remain good working options, if not for the long waiting times—often months.
A Spanish visa centre in Minsk used to issue tourist visas but closed down suddenly, failing even to return documents in time for some of its applicants. At present, Belarusian intermediaries offer tours to Spain’s visa centre in Moscow, which does not have long wait times. Ironically, Belarusians now have to travel to Russia—the state that attacked Ukraine—to obtain a Schengen visa, and face even more visa restrictions than Russians.
The decision of EU states to close their doors to ordinary Belarusians is unfortunate. Belarusians already bear the brunt of the Lukashenka regime, which intimidates, arrests, tortures, and even kills Belarusians who disagree with or actively oppose regime policies or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the past, the EU promoted people-to-people contacts via its visa facilitation agreements. Now many EU states do the opposite. This is placed in stark contrast to the Belarusian authorities’ recent visa waiver for Lithuanian and Latvian citizens.
As long as the EU fails to make a clear distinction between Belarusians and the Lukashenka regime, ordinary people will remain isolated from their EU neighbours. This deprives ordinary Belarusians of experiencing an alternative way of life and society just across the border. The image of the EU also suffers as Belarusians continue to face high costs, bureaucracy, and queues at consulates and visa centres.
Lives and legacies of Shushkevich and Kravchuk who buried the Soviet Union
Stanislau Shushkevich, the first leader of independent Belarus, who signed the Belavezha Accords to dissolve the Soviet Union, died on 3 May 2022. Just one week later, his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kravchuk, also passed away.
Both leaders’ lives reflected the fate of their countries after 1991, in constant battle with Soviet ghosts from the past. Shushkevich lost Belarus’ first independent presidential election in 1994, which paved the way for authoritarianism in Belarus. Kravchuk made history as the first president of an independent Ukraine.
The Belarusian regime denied Shushkevich the respect he was due. In later life, they withheld Shushkevich’s pension. And in death, they refused him a place at the prestigious Minsk cemetery. By contrast, Kravchuk received a state funeral attended by current and former Ukrainian presidents.
In April 2022, Stanislau Shushkevich, 87, was hospitalized in an intensive care unit, suffering complications from Covid-19. He died at home on 3 May. In his capacity as the first head of independent Belarus, together with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, he signed the Belavezha Accords on 8 December 1991, dissolving the Soviet Union.
Born in 1934 to a family of teachers, Shushkevich spent his childhood in Nazi-occupied Minsk. His family hid a Jewish boy in their house, risking execution at the hands of the Nazis. After the war, he studied physics, completed a doctorate, and built an academic career. Shushkevich entered Belarusian politics as a deputy of the BSSR Supreme Soviet in 1990. After becoming the speaker of the Belarusian parliament in 1991, he served as the first official head of independent Belarus, although executive power rested with the prime minister.
Shushkevich’s political career declined as he lost his position in early 1994. He ranked fourth in the country’s first presidential elections that year, losing to pro-Russian populist Alexander Lukashenka. According to political analyst Valer Karbalevich, Shushkevich’s reputation suffered because he appeared too centrist to deal effectively with multiple crises, despite the fact he was not head of the executive branch.
Under Shushkevich’s leadership, the white-red-white national flag and historic Pahonia coat of arms (now associated with Belarusian independence and democracy) became official state symbols by the minimum required majority of 231 votes. In an interview from 2019, Shushkevich recalled the strong pro-Russian mood among political elites in early 1990.
In late 1993, Shushkevich signed the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty. Shushkevich opposed the treaty but was pressured to sign by pro-Russian deputies. This step drew Belarus closer into Moscow’s orbit.
In 1995, Shushkevich became a deputy in the 13th Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus. He did not recognise the results of the 1996 constitutional referendum, which had significantly increased Alexander Lukashenka’s powers at the expense of the Belarusian legislature. Shushkevich refused to join the modified lower chamber of parliament, the House of Representatives.
Kravchuk and Shushkevich
Born in the same year as Shushkevich, Kravchuk came from a family of farmers in western Ukraine and made a career in a Communist Party, dealing with propaganda and ideology. In July 1990, he became the chair of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet and then, in 1991, the first president of independent Ukraine. Like Shushkevich, Kravchuk lost his country’s 1994 presidential elections to the pro-Russian candidate, Leonid Kuchma.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, while Belarus possessed nuclear missile launchers. Under Kravchuk and Shushkevich, both countries gave up their inherited Soviet nuclear armaments. Western countries welcomed the move. But domestically, their decisions remain controversial.
As part of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the US, the UK, and France guaranteed Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan their independence within existing borders in exchange for relinquishing their nuclear armaments. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 lay waste to the memorandum’s assurances.
Despite the controversial perceptions of Kravchuk in Ukraine, he secured a place in his country’s history through his genuine support for Ukrainian independence. Even though Kravchuk and Russian President Boris Yeltsin both came from the nomenklatura, Kravchuk understood that Russia didn’t want an independent Ukraine—even as the Soviet Union fell apart.
The professor versus the populist
In many ways, Shushkevich was a complete antipode to Lukashenka, who came to power in Belarus in 1994. Shushkevich openly described Lukashenka as an uneducated person, who gave away Belarus’ independence to Russia.
Lukashenka, in his time as a member of the Belarusian Parliament, lied about Shushkevich in his notorious anti-corruption report. In 1997, he froze Shushkevich’s pension, which subsequently dropped in value to $0.20 per month. Belarusian media reported that his wife finally managed to secure him a minimum social pension in 2015.
In September 2021, state authorities removed Shushkevich’s name from school textbooks following his critical comments about the rigged 2020 presidential election. After he passed away earlier this month, the authorities denied Shushkevich’s family a place at the prestigious Minsk cemetery where many prominent Belarusians are buried.
Shushkevich’s funeral made a stark contrast to the state funeral for Kravchuk in Kyiv on 17 May. The Shushkevich family decided on a private funeral service at St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Minsk. Shushkevich had been instrumental in reinstating the cathedral’s status as a church in the 1990s. No state officials were formally present to pay their respects. Lukashenka ignored the funeral. Although some state media briefly reported on Shushkevich’s passing, they failed to mention his role in recent Belarusian history. Belarusians bid him farewell.
CEU Press is releasing the English translation of Shushkevich’s memoirs, A Life for Belarus: The Fall and Postmortal Rise of the USSR, in November 2022.