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.