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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...

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.

A map showing the facilitation of EU visas and liberalisation of visa requirements. Image: European Council.

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.

Visa restrictions for ordinary Belarusians have been re-introduced. Image: onliner.by.

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

A March 2022 survey by Chatham House. Image: Chatham House.

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.

Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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