Belarus opens up for foreigners but not for own nationals

January 16, 2017 11:50

Economic challenges have prompted the Belarusian authorities to open up Belarus to foreign businesses and tourists. The authorities are likely to continue to liberalise the entry for foreigners. However, they are unlikely to simplify the visa regime with the EU for own nationals, primarily due to economic reasons and fears of currency export from Belarus.

Belarus introduced a five-day visa-free regime for nationals of 80 states, including the European Union, Brazil, Indonesia, the US and Japan, as well, she reduced the visa cost.

Earlier, the Belarusian authorities allowed foreign citizens to visit some areas bordering with the EU without a visa – Belovezha Forest and the Augustov Channel. Meanwhile, analysts doubt the substantial influx of foreign tourists in Belarus due to inadequate infrastructure and unattractive image of the country abroad.

Preparations and the introduction of the visa-free regime has caused tension among the state agencies involved – the Foreign Ministry, the Sports and Tourism Ministry, and the Interior Ministry. Apparently, the security forces responsible for migration issues, did not welcome the Foreign Ministry efforts to open up the country for foreigners.

Meanwhile, cooperation between Minsk and European capitals on border control issues has been the most successful. In the past two decades, the European Commission spent a large amount of grant aid on border cooperation projects with the Belarusian authorities.

However, the Belarusian authorities are holding back the introduction of a visa-free regime for residents of the Belarus-EU bordering territories. The delay with the launch of small border traffic with Poland and Lithuania is likely to be due to economic concerns of currency export from the country. According to the Polish authorities, thanks to the cross-border trade, Belarusians spend circa EUR 1 billion per year in Poland.

The visa-free regime and economic recession are likely to prompt the Belarusian authorities to creating a better environment for advancing foreign tourism in Belarus, including implementing initiatives by local and regional authorities.

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Belarusian authorities hope to narrow application of Decree on ‘social parasites’
February 27, 2017 12:35
Фото: TUT.BY

Yet the Belarusian authorities have not taken any action to prevent massive protests against the decree on ‘social parasites’. On February 26th, 2017, multiple protests against the decree were held in three Belarusian regions in Vitebsk, Baranovichi, Brest and Bobruisk (more than 4 000 people participated in total). Very likely, the authorities, on the one hand, anticipate that the decree will be abolished, and other hand, do not want to take responsibility for decisions either on the decree or on the protests.

It should be noted, that the mass street protests on February 17th, 19th, and 26th, were held in the absence of the president in the country. There are reasons to believe that the authorities did not expect such a massive action. The state propaganda responded tangentially, insisting that protests were unjustified, because ‘the state did not require a lot’, despite the fact, that the protesters primarily complained about the lack of jobs in the country. In addition, the protesters pointed to the unfairness of the requirement to pay the tax for being unemployed as the state could not provide job and money making opportunities, while people were humiliated by the need to prove to the state they were unable to pay the tax.

In the past ten days, there were several protests against the decree, which were characterised by the following: the protesters easily picked up anti-Lukashenka slogans; they eagerly shared their outrage with journalists; many protesters said it was their first time when they took to the streets; protesters were ‘common people’, i.e. not political activists; there were fewer white-red-white flags during these protests than during conventional oppositional actions; politicians, who organised protests (eg on February 26th, by the centre-right coalition and the independent trade union) did not attempt to take the lead, especially in the regions. All this gives a picture of truly popular protests.

While refraining from interfering with the meetings and protest marches, the militia on February 26th attempted to put pressure on the protest organisers in the regions by handing out reports on administrative violations after the events. Other than that, it appears that the local and central authorities are unable to respond to the massive protests against the Decree No 3, including crowded street speeches, numerous signatories of petitions (over 80 000), multiple collective and personal appeals to the authorities, and mass meetings.

That said, the authorities are unable to enforce the Decree No 3 as they do not have sufficient resources to trial some 400 000 people for non-compliance. In addition, the authorities do not have sufficient institutional capacity to exempt all those not liable for the tax from the mailing lists of the Tax authorities. The Belarusian Bar Association will provide free legal consultations on March 1st, 2017 for those wishing be exempt from the tax imposed by the Decree No 3, however, this would only slightly east the tension in society.

In addition, despite concerns expressed by some experts and the leader of the protest in Minsk on February 17th Mikola Statkevich, there were only scarce reports in the Russian media about the protests in Belarus.