Archive for April, 2009

The Berlin Wall Is Still There

Foreign colleagues always ask me whether the Belarusians need a permission to leave the country. No. The national passport is automatically valid for foreign travel. Of course, there are restrictions and black lists, some find out they are on the travel ban list when on the border.

But the biggest problem is to get a visa.

Since our direct European neighbours – Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – joined Schengen area, it’s been a nightmare. To spend a week-end in Vilnius that is 180 km away from Minsk you need to get a lot of documents to prove that you have a job, money and a reason to travel. The pleasure to collect the papers — some of which different embassies need to have translated, notarized and apostilled — and survive the queue costs 60 Euros.

Right, you can visit 25 Schengen countries with just one visa but I don’t think you can make it during one week-end. And you can never be sure you get the visa, nothing is guaranteed.

So it’s a lot easier to do without Vilnius, Riga and Warsaw. The number of tourists travelling to Poland since 2007 has fallen by 90%, Latvia by 82%, Lithuania – 80%… A similiar picture with Germany, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden — by 79-71%.

My Russian colleagues easily get multiple Schengen visas for 5 years as the level of relations with EU is different. The Schengen visa costs the Russians and the Ukrainians 35 Euros for the same reason. Despite the fact that Brussels tries to promote people-to-people contacts with Belarus, we still have a very long way to go. Starting with full participation in European Neighbourhood Policy ending with Readmission and Visa Facilitation Agreements. Democracy goes first, then people can travel.

And there’s also the other side of the coin – EU citizens suffer as well.

As I was planning to visit friends in Spain I asked them to send me an invitation. That is: they go to the police and bring their papers: proving they have a job, money and a possibility to host me. Apart from the banking account info and detailed plan of the house the Spanish authorities requested from my very Spanish friend Anna a picture where we could be seen together (sic! or even: sick!) as well as postcards, letters and emails that we exchanged. To crown it all, the honour to invite a Belarusian cost Anna 109 Euros.

Going to the embassy I had to have all my papers PLUS the invitation card. But it never arrived. The post simply lost this valuable piece of paper…

The Berlin wall never fell. As Belarusian-Swedish writer and radio producer Dmitri Plax says: the Berlin wall never disappeared, it just moved a bit eastwards.  Now it’s intangible: less violent but even more effective.

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Belarus President Not Going To Prague?

Alyaksandr Lukashenka doesn’t want it to be a secret: the significant improvement of relations with the EU is of extreme importantance to Belarus. “Relations with Europe cannot be described as simple today,” he went to say though.

In his annual address to the Belarusian people and the National Assembly today he said he was ready not to travel to Eastern Partnership summit if his presence could “cause inconvenience to someone”, Belapan reports.

“If someone, at least one person in Prague on May 7 is inconvenienced much by the fact that there are Belarus’ representatives there, don’t invite us. We will not be asking to come, we will put up with it, if this causes inconvenience or is disadvantageous to you. Do what you find convenient. If it is convenient to you that we should be there, but not Lukashenka, you also tell me,” he said.

Looks like Lukashenka was offended by Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who said last week that he would not shake hands with him during the summit.

“But do I really want you to shake hands with me?” Belarusian president asked.

He noted that Minsk had agreed to participate in the Eastern Partnership “not for the sake of Lukashenka.” “This is for the sake of what is beneficial to Belarus and I will tolerate everything despite my ambitious or whatever character.” he said, adding that the Belarusian government “will not be bargaining on the subject.”

Meanwhile EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told the journalists today they still didn’t know who was going to represent Belarus in Prague.

… pragmatic as he is, Lukashenka won’t go to Prague, I think.

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Rebranding

minsk_nightIt’s rebranding time. Belarus aka the last dictatorship of Europe (©Condoleezza Rice) ceased to exist. I would suggest The-everything-possible land as a new brand name.

It’s difficult to surprise us. The Belarusians know that everything is possible.

Who could say a year ago that all those recognised by the West as political prisoners will be released, Brussels and Minsk would finally start mending relations and political dialogue would begin? Who could predict that Belarus would be invited to the Eastern Partnership programme? But somehow nobody is surprised here.

Javier Solana coming to Minsk? One foreign minister visiting Belarus after another? Good. But what’s so special about it?

A year ago Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka started appearing with a small boy. Now they are seen together during official visits, beauty contests and military drills. Why is it impossible? You can see it with your own eyes on TV.

The president is a keen and talented hockey-player and has never lost a match. Well, actually just twice. And both times to Gazprom hockey team. Not surprising, huh?

One day before EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner planned to be in the Belarusian capital, the president went to Armenia. Why not, after all… He is a busy one.

Now his first official visit to Europe was announced. And the president goes to… Vatican. An Orthodox atheist© as he called himself, Lukashenka is meeting the Pope. Nobody in BY would be amazed if the president baptises his son in Rome. Or mediate about the meeting of the Pope and the head of Russian Orthodox Church. He has been suggesting hosting this friendly reunion in Belarus since 2002.

By the way. Before travelling to Minsk Czech FM Schwarzenberg had an audience with the Pope. The head of Catholic Church is probably in. And Lukashenka as well. Nothing to marvel at.

Even if Obama comes to Minsk for his holidays bringing his daughters to play with the president’s son or Lukashenka goes to meet Dalai Lama or Santa Claus, you can be sure that Belarusians won’t show any amazement. Why? Everything is possible.

But actually… it’s a sad and passive feeling: you are a bored onlooker, you see things happen, observe but neither influence nor participate. Thus I probably picked a wrong brand name for the country. Unless the Belarusians realise this everything-is-possible motto is proactive in the first place and make reality what they need and enjoy.

I guess I’ll have to think again.

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