Prior to the third Eastern Partnership summit scheduled for November in Vilnius the EaP region has drawn significant international attention. The expected signing of the association package between the EU and Ukraine induces a quite nervous reaction from Moscow that attempts to pull Ukraine into the Customs Union with subsequent Russia-centric political alignment and advancement of economic ties.
Such a reaction may be explained by the approach that has always dominated Russian politics towards ex-USSR countries after 1991 and became even more pronounced after Putin became Russian president for the first time. Within this approach, Russia sees itself as a natural and the only geopolitical center and leader of the post-Soviet space. Therefore, any attempts of other states or formations to take role of integration centers in the post-Soviet space would be interpreted by the Kremlin as an intrusion into its semi-domestic affairs and induce a certain degree of counter-actions to bring an “insurgent” country into Russia’s sphere of gravity. In other words, the recent stance of Moscow towards Kyiv proves that Russia is trying to convince Ukraine take the path Belarus has been following for number of years.
It should be recalled that the idea of EaP without Russia’s participation as a partner may be interpreted as the first real attempt of the EU to view Belarus and five other partner countries outside the context of the Russian sphere of interests. Even though the EaP countries are treated by the EU on a case-by-case basis, the formalization of their relations with the EU embodied in the EaP may be regarded as the real understanding of the importance of each of these countries for the EU that came only in some 18 years after all six countries appeared in the political map.
Indeed, the EU intentions to enhance cooperation with the EaP countries may be revealed in order to help these countries to transform themselves so that they comply with the EU standards for the terms “security”, “stability”, and “prosperity”. This is thought to be accompanied by “easier travel to the EU through gradual visa liberalization”. However, the matter of visa liberalization brings many challenges since the EU:
- deals with it on a case-by-case basis
- considers this measure a long-term goal and
- requires “conditions for a well managed and secure mobility.
What challenges can this situation bring to Belarus assumimg its authorities are reluctant to maintain a comprehensive dialogue on visa liberalization? What role could Russia play since its authorities are actively conducting such a dialogue? Citizens of Belarus are now subjected to a simplified procedures for obtaining Russian citizenship; Russia has been following the practice of granting its citizenship to residents of some post-Soviet territories on a massive scale.
For a number of consequent years Belarus has claimed to be the “world champion” regarding the issue of Schengen visas per 1000 of its citizens. This fact can neither be explained by an interest of Belarus’ citizens in the EU mechanisms and policies, nor by their geopolitical preference. It rather illustrates quite a pragmatic interest of Belarusians in visiting the EU, be it on business activities, family issues or private trips. At the same time, citizens of Russia, Ukraine or Moldova not only pay less for Schengen visas but are also subjected to much more relaxed conditions for their obtaining. Therefore, it is also questionable whether the quantitative effect of the Schengen visas in Belarusian case will bring qualitative results, i.e. whether this world’s highest number of Schengen visas per person can be transformed into the increase of international and interregional contacts’ effectiveness in business, culture, civic society and all other relevant spheres of life. It can be hardly applied to Belarus and its current political situation. Such status quo not only devaluates Belarus’ “championship”, but also shows possible challenges Belarus may face.
The existing challenge for the unwillingness of the Belarusian authorities to facilitate the dialogue on visa liberalization may be described on basis of the Polish Card (in Polish: Karta Polaka). It was introduced in 2007 and confirms that its holder is a member of the Polish nation. Even though the Polish Card entitles its holder with neither the residence permit, nor entry permit, it does ensure its holder preferential treatment by the Polish state, including the process of obtaining visas. The most interesting issue here is not the negative reaction of Belarusian authorities but the discrepancy in the numbers of ethnic Poles living in Belarus provided by Belarus’ official census (294,549 as of 2011) and by Polish authorities (ca. 900,000 people of Polish descent who live in Belarus). And even though the notions ethnicity and ethnic descent differ in their substance, it is likely that the number of people who declared themselves Belarusians during the national census but applied for the Polish Card will grow. In most cases it will not mean a change of ethnic affiliation but rather a pragmatic adjustment by individuals to the current situation. A better option is sought by means of using additional opportunities granted by the Polish state.
For a number of years Russia is consequently striving to maintain a visa-free regime with the EU for short-term visits. This situation has developed quite slowly, but the one thing is obvious – Russian authorities have eloquently declared their readiness to make this process possible. And contrary to their Belarusian counterparts, Russian authorities do declare interest in the facilitation of people’s mobility — making thereby the Russian presence and interests in Europe growing and visible. This applies not only to the visa facilitation dialogue with the EU, but also to Israel, Argentina, Brazil and a number of other countries. Therefore, it could be concluded that a holder of the Russian passport could have somewhat more opportunities for foreign visa-free travel than a holder of the Belarusian one. Moreover, a holder of the same Russian passport may live in Belarus and enjoy nearly the same scope of rights and protection as the holder of Belarusian one.
Before proceeding to reveal what it means for Belarus under the existing status quo, three aspects should be recalled. First, Belarusian citizens are subjected to a simplified procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship. Second, there is a significant number of Belarusian citizens permanently or temporarily working in Russia. Third, despite lack of permanent border control between Belarus and Russia and the existence on paper of the so-called “union state”, in each case Russian authorities negotiate visa abolishing or facilitation only for their citizens and therefore not burden themselves with the work that Belarusian Foreign Ministry should do itself.
A number of scenarios is to be expected. The determining factor for depicting these scenarios is timing, i.e. it is important not how the visa facilitation is taking place, but when (and if at all) it will be turned into a visa-free regime. So, if the visa regime is abolished both for Belarus (alone or as a part of the EaP initiative) and for Russia at the same time in a short period of time passing between two these events , nothing will change in the existing status quo. If the visa regime with the EU is to be abolished for Belarus (alone or as a part of the EaP initiative) earlier than that for Russia, it would require the reintroduction of regular border control at the border between Belarus and Russia. Most likely it will cause an ardent politically motivated campaign by the Kremlin, criticizing Belarus of not fulfilling the obligations taken by the official Minsk under a number of integration projects orchestrated by Russia. In their substance it would resemble the recent stance of Moscow towards Kyiv. But the most dangerous scenario would result if the visa regime with the EU is abolished for Russia significantly earlier than for Belarus (alone or as a part of the EaP initiative).
The uncontrolled border between Belarus and Russia is not as important here. The most important thing is that Belarusian citizens are subjected to a simplified procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship. And here it is likely to expect a pragmatic adjustment of a considerable portion of individual Belarusian citizens to the current situation, similar to that observed with the implementation of the Polish Card but on a significantly wider scale. It will first concern the category of formally still Belarusian citizens who permanently or temporarily live and work in Russia. For them it will be more convenient to obtain Russian citizenship just for the purpose of avoiding much additional bureaucracy concerning their business and private travels. Further potentially affected categories include, for instance, those Belarusian citizens with close relatives who are Russian citizens, or those who obtained their education in Russia. It is unlikely to predict how large is the category of people who would opt for Russian citizenship in all these cases, but it is definitely significantly larger than the estimated number of potential holders of the Polish Card. Again, in most cases the choice for Russian citizenship would be potentially determined not by the Russian ethnicity or descent or Russo-centric worldview but by the pragmatic choice to exploit more convenient and less bureaucratic options to achieve own goals.
In any case, however, such a trend poses a threat for national security and stability in the Belarusian society - so highly cherished by the official Minsk. At the same time, it could be reasonable for the Belarusian MFA to begin being at least as effective as their Russian counterparts in facilitation of its citizens’ mobility and thereby put at least a little meaning into the naked slogan “the state for the people” promoted by the official Minsk.
Originally published: thepointjournal.com