At a time when Europe’s popular mood is turning inward, the drive to open borders is coming from unexpected quarters. Last week, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, signed a decree allowing citizens from the EU, America and 51 other countries visa-free entry in the country. The policy has limits: visitors are only eligible for exemption if they enter Belarus via Minsk Airport and stay for a maximum of five days. Yet for Mr Lukashenko, a man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” who rules a country long seen as a Russian satellite, the move signals a significant shift. Why is Belarus suddenly opening to the West?
Mr Lukashenko’s baby steps towards visa liberalisation, in fact, do not come out of the blue. They are another stage in the gradual, tentative rapprochement between the EU and Belarus—and the latest installment of a quiet geostrategic battle being waged in Russia’s near abroad. The relative thaw comes after relations came to a halt in the wake of Belarus’s 2010 presidential elections, which saw brutal repression by the regime. It is largely motivated by Mr Lukashenko’s desire to reduce its security dependence on Russia, in the wake of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. The president, whose personal relationship with Vladimir Putin has never been great, feels ever more vulnerable to possible bullying by its excitable neighbour. The EU, for its part, sees Belarus as a potential diplomatic buffer between Russia and itself. After the regime pardoned jailed opposition figures in 2015 , the bloc last year doubled its financial assistance to the country. It is now advising the former soviet nation on how best to manage its borders.
Minsk is also keen to lessen Russia’s leverage over its economic fortunes. Belarus used to earn most of its revenue by importing cheap oil from Russia, refining it and selling it—at much higher prices—to European clients. But Moscow, unsympathetic to Minsk’s demands for better terms amid the global energy slump, has cut supplies to Belarus; it wants its neighbour to pay $425m in alleged arrears before restoring normal deliveries. Belarus is feeling the heat: its GDP fell by around 3% last year, after sinking 3.9% in 2015. Things have become trickier on the European side too. Under its “Energy Union” strategy, articulated in 2015, the EU is developing supply routes that no longer rely on Russian gas, depriving transit countries like Belarus or Ukraine of part of their business. By opening borders, Minsk hopes to attract investment and generate trade with the West, sowing the seeds of a more diversified economy. Belarus is showing more interest in aligning itself with some of the technical regulations that govern the European single market; an EU delegation visited the country last October to discuss trade. Minsk also hopes the union will respond to its show of goodwill by relaxing its visa regime.
Whether Brussels follows suit largely depends on domestic politics. It took years for the EU to move forward on a similar agreement with Georgia and Ukraine (and the latter remains uncertain, after the Netherlands rejected a broader association package in a referendum last year). But should these arrangements be finalised—and provided Minsk fulfils the human-rights part of the bargain—it may be hard for Brussels to refuse. A formal visa agreement would certainly delight its citizens: Belarus was the world’s fifth-largest issuer of Schengen visa applications last year. There is also interest in Europe, where investors and businessmen see the Belarusian market, so far largely captured by Russia, as offering untapped potential. Yet how far the rapprochement can go remains to be seen. Fearing a Russian backlash, Mr Lukashenko is unlikely to commit to the kind of sweeping political reforms that would enable a deep partnership with the West.
Source: The Economist