Will the Kremlin topple Lukashenka?
On 20 January, Alexander Lukashenka described the reactions of Russian officials to the introduction of the new five-day visa-free regime in Belarus as 'groans and wails.'
Recently, rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus.
However, off and on conflict remains a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin's interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.
Would the Kremlin replace Lukashenka and occupy Belarus?
In recent months, people of different political views and backgrounds have begun to voice concerns that the Kremlin plans to replace Lukashenka.
On 4 January, the chief editor of the Belarusian oppositional news source Charter 97 Natallia Radzina stated that 'Russia is currently conducting an operation to depose Lukashenka.' Her colleague Dzmitry Bandarenka had spoken about the existence of documents that prove the existence of a plan to replace Lukashenka a few days earlier.
Meanwhile, on 11 January analysts Arsen Sivitski and Yuri Tsarik, who have warmer attitudes towards the Belarusian authorities, published a report claiming that Russia is considering occupying Belarus. Their conclusion was based on information regarding the Russian Ministry of Defence's plans to send four thousand railway carriages to Belarus next year, which is 83 times more than in 2016.
Although these two claims are coming from very different ideological backgrounds, both sides believe the Kremlin is angry because of Belarus's refusal to support the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine as well as its resistance towards the idea of a Russian base on its territory. Moreover, they believe the Kremlin is angry enough to attempt to get rid of Lukashenka. However, Russia has little chance of replacing the Belarusian president: unlike Ukraine, Belarus has stable public institutions.
Relations in conflict
These speculations do indeed seem to hold water given the present condition of Belarusian-Russian relations. Lately, it seems that Belarus and Russia are butting heads on just about every issue.
On 20 January, Lukashenka publicly responded to the criticism Russian officials, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, regarding the introduction of a visa-free regime in Belarus. The Russian government sees this new policy as a threat to its security and hinted that Belarus should create a single visa space with Russia, instead of taking such steps on its own. However, according to Lukashenka, 'they should accept this calmly and focus on their own work.'
One month prior, on 26 December 2016, Lukashenka ignored the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union, where Union heads of state signed the Customs Code, which members had discussed for three years. Although the code was signed by all other members on 26 December, the president of Belarus only agreed to approve it two days later on condition of further negotiations.
It is no secret that the Belarusian authorities are hindering the Eurasian integration project because of the oil and gas conflict between Minsk and Moscow, which has now dragged on for more than a year. Minsk demands a reduction in the price of gas while Russia seeks to make Belarus pay back their debt for previous deliveries, now amounting to $400 m. In order to encourage Minsk to pay, Moscow plans to reduce its supply of oil to Belarus by 12%, according to claims by Russian business newspaper Kommersant from 9 January.
On 26 December, Uladzimir Andreichanka, the head of the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament, stated in Moscow that 'the situation at the Belarusian-Russian border goes beyond the contractual framework and common sense.' In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-country nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.
Belarus's list of grievances is quite long: Belarusian officials periodically complain about Russia implementing protectionist measures, or that the Russian media and commentators are portraying Belarus in a bad light. On 22 December, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry even recalled a Russian diplomat to protest statements by the head of the Russian Strategic Research Institute questioning Belarusian sovereignty.
Moscow and Minsk fluctuate between love and war
If the present misunderstandings between the two countries were a reason to overthrow Lukashenka or occupy Belarus, the Kremlin would have already done so dozens of times, as the countries have already been through many similar conflicts. But despite all the animosity between Lukashenka and Putin, the Belarusian leader remains simply a difficult ally for the Kremlin – not an enemy.
Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict Moscow will keep Minsk in its sphere of influence for a long time, given the great political and economic significance that Belarus has for Russia. Read more
Even given the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian government is less pro-Ukrainian than it lets on. According to information published by Radio Liberty on 4 January, a Belarusian militant fighting against Ukraine in Donbass, who has killed dozens of Ukrainians, freely visits Belarus. The KGB has invited him for talks, but has not opened a criminal case. Previously, Belarusian KGB officials stated that they would prosecute Belarusians who join the fight in Ukraine, on either the Ukrainian or the Russian side. However, evidence shows that the Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to initiate criminal cases.
Although Belarus's rejection of a Russian military base on its territory was certainly painful for the Kremlin, Belarus managed recover from the conflict by announcing the launch of an Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System. Belarusian diplomats have repeatedly refused to support a UN resolution that would have condemned Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Although the Belarusian authorities are making small steps towards promoting their own culture, which Russian nationalists seem so afraid of, Russian culture and media still dominate in Belarus. When Russian television broadcasts reports about a possible re-orientation of Belarus to the West, Belarusian authorities do not block them. Even the recent arrests of several Belarusophobic authors seem relatively insignificant compared to Kazakhstan, where the authorities have consistently been condemning pro-Russian activists for several years now.
Neither does Belarus intend to undermine Eurasian economic integration, as Belarus needs this market to sell its own manufacture goods, while Western countries remain primarily interested in Belarusian petrol. Minsk is slowing down Eurasian integration to gain concessions from the Russian side, as the Belarusian economic system exists thanks to Russian energy 'subsidies'.
This new iteration of the off and on Belarus-Russia conflict is hardly unique, albeit with one exception. Russia has started to count money and seems reluctant to give Belarus handouts, demanding more loyalty from Belarus. However, this is a far cry from replacing Lukashenka or occupying Belarus.
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 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 straight forward, the Belarusian visa regime is more complicated in practise 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.
Although regulations are ambiguous, it is most likely that the day of arrival will count towards the five-day limit. This leaves visitors with only three full days in the country.
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 practise, 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 receiving a migration card.
Belarus probably has the strictest system of registration of foreigners in Europe. For example, the United Kingdom only requires police registration from those foreigners with visas who are planning to stay for longer than six months in the country. 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).
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 not open 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 confirmation of payment and a number of other documents, you will then need to return to the registration office to join the queue to submit it to a migration official.
The wrath of Belarusian law and the hungry Belarusian budget
your Belarusian host will also have to pay a fine of a similar amount for failing to ensure that their guest is registered Read more
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, but 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.
Thus, 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 practise 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.