Travel restrictions on the opposition remain informal
The Belarusian authorities have not formalized the practice of travel ban list application and use diverse measures, including illegal ones. Regardless of the previous declarations, the authorities find it less costly to act independently and do not rush seeking for assistance of their Russian colleagues.
On April 11, “European Belarus” civil campaign Coordinator Mr. Atroshchankau was taken off the train at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. Several days before, Academic Director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, Mr. Pikulik was stopped by the traffic police on a highway and his passport was confiscated. On April 13, Chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Gromada political party Mr. Shushkevich crossed the EU border via Russia.
By now, at least two criteria could be crystallized for adding citizens to the so-called “travel ban lists”. Firstly, quazi-legitimate grounds, when traveling is restricted by a court order (case of Mr. Atroshchankau). The court’s order could be extremely controversial (charges of trafficking of drugs and foul language use), but it provides with a formal reason to restrict a person from leaving Belarus.
Secondly, semi-legal actions of police officers: they create a reason for the detention of a citizen. For instance, suspicion of having committed an administrative offence: foul language use in public, participating in a brawl or a forgery (cases of Mr. Pikulik and human rights activist Mr. Volchek). The police used these pretexts to seize passports either for examination or “by accident”. Documents are not returned to their holders on various pretexts, thereby de facto their ability to travel abroad is limited.
Both methods are quite expensive, as they require the law enforcement bodies and courts to act semi-legally, imposing additional responsibilities on them, as well as put additional burden on human resources involved, i.e. additional duties for traffic and road police. Most importantly, such practices cannot be unified to become an automated routine. Every time it is a unique ad hoc operation, when movement of an individual is traced, information about it is forwarded to an action team and a “detention group” is formed and sent after the individual.
At the same time, the fact of Mr. Shushkevich successfully entering the EU via Russia demonstrates that the Belarusian authorities find cooperation with the Russian border guards even more costly. We have mentioned earlier, that to cooperate with Russia, Belarusian authorities would have to legalize the “ban list” somehow, for example, to take legal actions against all the individuals.
Belarusian security services’ actions demonstrate that for the moment being it is easier for the Belarusian regime to use semi-legal and illegal measures inside the country, rather than cooperate with Russian security forces in this regard.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.