Belarus opens up for foreigners but not for own nationals
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.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.