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Adrienne Warren

Baby, Don’t Hurt Me: The EU-Belarus Visa Tug-o-War

The EU and Belarus are coming to a head again over potential visa-reforms both inside and outside of Belarus. The EU has this month passed the controversial report of recommendations from Lithuanian Special Rapporteur to Belarus, Justas Paleckis. Among other things, Paleckis has suggested more open relations with Belarus, in exchange for the release of political prisoners and greater freedoms for NGOs and civil society within Belarus. Stefan Füle addressed the European Parliament this week with a series of conditions, while Lukashenko addressed the Belarusian people with some of his…

Minsk Airport, Belarus. author: fieldreports. source: Flickr

Minsk Airport, Belarus. author: fieldreports. source: Flickr

The European Parliament has officially approved the report drafted by Lithuanian MEP Justas Paleckis, which suggests increasing the European Union’s co-operation with Belarus, with the understanding that Belarus release all political prisoners and launches reforms. The European Parliament passed  the report after making amendments to Paleckis’ original draft. The initial report  suggested that the European Union suspend the visa ban against key Belarusian officials, on the grounds that, according to Paleckis, the human rights situation in Belarus improved in 2012.  The Report recomments that the EU drop the travel-ban on key Belarusian officials, and make visas easier to obtain for Belarusians traveling to the EU. A pleasant prospect for many, but apparently not for Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko…

Just in time for the EP’s approval of the report, President Lukashenko announced last week that a new regulation would be enforced in the near future, one which will introduce a $100 fee for those who travel abroad.  Activists in Belarus have started collecting signatures on a petition protesting the decision, saying the new regulation would violate the constitution, which guarantees free movement for Belarusian citizens.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Lithuania believes that its current stint as EU Council President, offers a critical change   to restart the political dialogue with Belarus. Furthermore, the hosting of the Eastern Partnership Summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in November offers a practical chance to demonstrate a willingness to consult with Belarus. In light of this, the European Parliament has suggested that Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey be invited to attend the EaP summit, in order to “encourage dialogue with the officials who were not personally involved in repression.” Paleckis also suggested holding a Belarusian civil society conference in Vilnius in anticipation of the Eastern Partnership summit, which is scheduled for November.

Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, spoke  before the European Parliament yesterday regarding the Paleckis report, enumerating the new policy decisions towards Belarus, as well as the conditions which must be met by the Belarusian government:

“I believe that there is broad convergence between our analysis and visions. Your recommendations will help our further deliberations on how to approach the difficult situation we face with this neighbouring country. The contrast between our dynamic relations with some Eastern Partnership countries and the long-standing stagnation of our relations with Belarus is stark.

This regrettable situation is of Belarus’ own doing. The European Union maintains its offer to Belarus, but it is a conditional one. Political prisoners must be released and rehabilitated, and there must be progress on human rights.”

Füle further explained:

“We focus our efforts and find ways of supporting the Belarusian people. During the last two years, the European Union has strengthened its assistance and engagement with Belarusian civil society and with the Belarusian public at large. In particular, the European Union has intensified its dialogue with civil society, including via the European Dialogue on Modernisation.

This Dialogue has the potential to become a channel for communication both with wider Belarusian society and with the authorities. We are working towards this objective with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and with the support of Belarusian civil society.”

However, Belarusian authorities seems to be less than motivated to liaise with the EU about the proposed visa facilitation that Paleckis’ report recommends:

“It is regrettable that after two years, there has been no reply from the Belarusian authorities to our offer to launch negotiations for a visa facilitation agreement,” Füle explained.

The report, once implemented, will be a landmark in dead-locked landscape of EU-Belarus relations, after a long stalemate swathed in sanctions and travel bans. Paleckis elaborates on the task he faced in breaking down the walls between the two powers:

“I was encouraged to write this report by the opinion expressed by one of key European politicians who said that Belarus had already been lost for Europe. When I put forward my idea to make a resolution on Belarus not as a reaction to some developments but as a strategy I thought it was mission impossible. I had doubts that my colleague would support me on the main issue: the dialogue on condition of the release of political prisoners.”

In regards to the controversy surrounds Paleckis’ appraisal in his draft report of an “improved” human rights situation in Belarus, the newly approved official report has also now been altered to read as a “difficult” situation. Speaking on this issue Paleckis explained:

“It was an initial version. I already said that those two and a half pages were just frames. MEPs made 292 amendments. The report has changed beyond recognition. The thesis about the improvement of the human rights situation was fully changed. The report now says about a difficult situation of human rights, but quotes that the number of people arrested on political motives decreased, according to the data from Viasna human rights centre. It is now explained that it is the result of intimidation and repression.”

sources: Lithuania Tribune, EUROPA

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Graduated in International Relations and Russian. Resident of Estonia, but a citizen of the world. Most interested in contributing to the progress and education of mankind--as the primary tool of achieving global unity.

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