The number of people willing to visit our country has increased by several times after Belarus waived visas for European neighbors. Ordinary citizens of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania cheered for this decision of Belarusian authorities. Politicians and officials also demonstrated a bunch of emotions. Nevertheless: why did Belarus open its borders? Is there a hidden agenda behind this? Why are Europeans lining up to enter Belarus? And why are their governments trying to interfere with it by all means? Let's explain it point by point.
The decision to waive Belarusian visas did not come out of nowhere. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic Belarus permitted citizens of 80 countries to fly into the country without visas. The republic's openness and hospitality were affected neither by the pandemic, nor by the complicated political situation, nor the biased attitude of the neighbors. The attitude was even hostile at times. Once again Belarus has the edge on them. While embassies of European countries stop issuing Schengen visas to Belarusians, Belarus declares full visa waiver for Lithuanians and Latvians.
Belarus is being criticized by saying the decision was politically biased. Is there any other way? Just like the decision of Europeans to stop issuing Schengen visas. While they are trying to sever contacts at any levels, Belarus is doing the opposite. It gives neighbors an opportunity to visit relatives or go to a cemetery during an important holiday. And the number of people coming to Belarus soared against everyone's expectations.
In order to find out the state of affairs at the Belarusian-Latvian border, we went to the border crossing Kamenny Log in Oshmyany District. We specifically went there on a weekday in order to show how things are instead of boasting about a high number of vehicles on Saturdays and Sundays. The season of summer vacations and school vacations already ended, the number of people coming to Belarus decreased but there were still queues. Some drivers even had to gather breath in order to comment on the situation without swearing.
“I think I am not going to swear. But my feelings have soured due to the queue,” Aleksandr admitted. He is from Lithuania but he is half Belarusian. He goes in for so-called fuel tourism and comes to Belarus to buy the goods that are not available in Lithuania.
Another Lithuanian came to Belarus in order to visit graves of his relatives. He could not do it for three years but then Belarus waived visas.
He said: “Five people may have died in this period already. I have to go and visit. The Belarus president did a great thing by waiving visas! Profit for the state after all. And we are better off. The only thing is crazy customs right now. Although if we look around, we don't have such luxury cars that Belarusians drive.”
Before the visa waiver Belarus used to welcome up to 50 Lithuanians every day. Over one month their number tripled to 1,500. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland have used the visa-free travel option since 15 April.
Dmitry Dosin, Deputy Chief for Ideology of the border service branch Kamenny Log, noted: “We expect a significant increase in the number of people. Some cross the border several times. Which means they go shopping. Feedback is only positive. Everyone wants the visa waiver to continue. They buy fuel, foods. They buy and praise our dairy products. When you are in Oshmyany or Smorgon, you can see large queues of vehicles with Lithuanian or Latvian plates. This is why popularity is rising fast.”
The decision of Belarusian authorities turned out to be really popular. A motorcyclist from Riga decided to go to Belarus in order to meet with bikers from other countries in Minsk. He said: “Your country now allows people to enter without visas. It is excellent. This is why we grabbed the opportunity.”
Politicians and officials of neighboring countries are the only ones who are not happy about Belarus' visa waiver. They inspired a mass media campaign designed to portray Belarus as a dangerous and hostile territory. The reporters went an extra mile. These are headlines from popular Lithuanian mass media: “A warning to those who go to Belarus to buy fuel and food: a genuine danger awaits you”, “The risk for those travelling to Russia and Belarus has increased, attempts to recruit Lithuanians are being made”.
Even the State Security Department of Lithuania got involved. It issued a special note of warning: attempts to recruit Lithuanian citizens during visits to Belarus are now more frequent.
Even the Lithuanian parliament discussed Belarus' visa waiver from the point of view of a threat to national security. Laurynas Kasciunas, Chairman of the National Security and Defense Committee of the Lithuanian parliament, said: “There is no doubt, since traffic from Lithuania has tripled, the risk has tripled of a person going [to Belarus] whose weaknesses or other life details can be exploited and they can become vulnerable. No apocalyptical cases have happened yet to light red lights, but there are risks. They need to be controlled. I think it is necessary to think about some social campaign.”
And finally the pinnacle from the Lithuanian military expert Darius Antanaitis: “They can put a person in a position that will force him or her to work for Belarusians. For instance, they can plant narcotics or some other illegal things on him or her. Then these things are found and the person gets forced to work for Belarusians.”
Once Belarus extended the visa waiver onto Poland, officials from Poland joined the fear-mongering choir.
Polish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Pawel Jablonski is convinced: “Belarus' attitude to Ukraine and Poland is hostile. If someone visits the country that treats Poland as an enemy, the person has to recognize the risk.”
Since more and more foreigners keep coming to Belarus thanks to the visa waiver, residents of these countries don't really trust their politicians. And European officials are getting angrier and angrier. They summon the citizens who have been to Belarus for questioning, have counseling talks with them, and even threaten them with inquiries from intelligence services. What will happen next? Let's recall what Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko said about that.
“We've opened the border for them. Ahead of Catholic Easter. And there is Radunitsa that will happen in several days. People from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia should be free to come here to visit graves of their relatives like they always have. I've permitted the visa waiver. But they don't let their people to enter Belarus! Why? Because the people come to us and buy salt. They don't have salt! The great and rich West doesn't have salt! Since they don't want the people to say that Belarusians live a normal life, they simply don't let the people out. That's democracy for you!” Aleksandr Lukashenko noted.
And some people grew more distant due to life circumstances. How can they not visit each other?
“I am going to visit my sister and brother. Life has separated us. My blood sister and brother live in Minsk. I am all alone in Lithuania with my family, my children, and grandchildren. Just like that. Yes, we travel and fear that [the border] will be closed once again. We have to see them. I haven't seen my nephews for four years already. A tragedy. I am going to cry... They cannot even come and visit mom's grave right now. Mom was buried in Lithuania. This is the kind of life we have. A difficult one,” a Lithuanian woman could not control emotions.
Despite faultfinding on the part of western neighbors Belarus intends to continue the policy of openness and is thinking about extending the visa waiver. Belarus has even started working out a bill on preferential acquisition of citizenship for Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Poles.
In turn, the Internal Affairs Ministry would like to simplify the acquisition of residence permits for Baltic citizens and Poles of Belarusian origin. The ministry said that once the visa waiver was introduced, in addition to the growing number of visitors to Belarus the number of people asking local police departments about permanent residence in Belarus increased as well. Particularly from foreigners with Belarusian roots.
Vitaly Naumchik, First Deputy Chief of the Citizenship and Migration Department of the Internal Affairs Ministry, said: “The existing legislation already allows this category of foreigners to get permanent residence permits. The Internal Affairs Ministry is now working to simplify the acquisition of residence permits for citizens of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland with Belarusian ancestors. Among other things we would like to reduce the time the administrative procedure takes to one month.”
Time will tell whether all these initiatives will be implemented. But one thing is clear: Belarus has no intention of deviating from its main principles. The head of state pointed it out as he met with Vladimir Karanik, Chairman of the Grodno Oblast Executive Committee. The president stressed he values the nation's opinion about the matter, too.
“We have waived visas for citizens of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Border is primarily your responsibility area. What are your impressions? Your point of view on that? Should we keep the visa waiver in place? How people are responding to it? People coming from Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, and our people. Most importantly our people,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said. “You also know that authorities over there have gone crazy. They are doing crazy things.”
After the meeting Vladimir Karanik told reporters that the visa waiver primarily facilitates interpersonal contacts. He said: “Friendship and good relations between nations probably begin with friendship and good relations between their citizens after all.”
And relations between our nations are truly good. At least Belarusians do not speak ill about Lithuanians while in turn, Lithuanians are fond of Belarusians.
“Your people smile a lot. They are responsive, kind, and always ready to help. They always show and tell everything. I like the atmosphere in Belarus itself a lot,” one of the foreigners smiled as she said that. She came to Belarus with her family in order to visit relatives and Minsk.
Belarus' visa waiver does not really intend to achieve economic goals but still. If we imagine that every one of the hundreds of thousands of the foreigners that Belarus welcomed in the last few months spent 100 euros in our shops, the total sum will be decent: tens of millions. Certainly, it is a far cry from 1 billion. But as they say: look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. If we add the impressions our neighbors will take to their home countries, the benefits of the visa waiver become even more obvious.
While talking to reporters in Myadel District, Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “Our opposition reporters and the rest claim that Lukashenko has introduced the visa waiver in order to earn money. What fool doesn't want to earn money? The state wants to earn money and I do, too. But it is not the most important thing. People having an opportunity to see that normal people live alongside them is. People who resemble Poles. That these people are not aggressive. That they are ready to help out in time of need. I'd like to emphasize once again: they may become not so belligerent towards us. It is important.”
Is it possible that Belarusian authorities are trying to embellish the situation? Are they indulging in wishful thinking? It seems the excitement caused by the decision to waive visas should be gone already. The season of vacations is nearly over. But there are still many people on the other side of the border. Do Lithuanians, Latvians, and Poles, for whom the entire European Union is available, prefer Belarus? Yes, they do! And for valid reasons.
“Salaries remain the same but food prices are going up. Everything is getting more expensive. Payments for everything are getting higher starting with the apartment rent and the rest,” a foreigner admitted at the border.
A piece of advice was offered to Lithuanians: “I buy goods in Belarus most of all now. Good quality and tasty. I like dairy products. Particularly kefir. It is an ideal one.”
But the behavior of Belarus' partners illustrates the correctness of the country's decisions best of all. Lithuania has been unable to prolong the cancellation of the simplified visa issuance for Belarusians in the European Union. And it is now trying to make up for it somehow. By terminating the agreement on border cooperation with Belarus. By introducing additional checks at the border for Belarusians. By raising requirements for getting residence permits. There are rumors Lithuania will not allow Belarusians with Schengen visas to enter the country's territory.
Other neighboring countries are keeping up. Poland and Lithuania ignore the obligations concerning vehicle passage across the border. Those willing to cross the border have to spend hours at border crossings. Doesn't it look like scoring an own point?
Foreigners speak highly of the Belarusian border service: “Your border service personnel are very good and responsive. They always help out and point out things. It is pleasant.”
The story of the Belarusian visa waiver is likely to continue soon. We will keep an eye on it and inform you about the latest developments.