Reporting from Belarus: Nick Shchetko
Isn`t youth the best period in life to travel? Absolutely! But young Belarusians nowadays face a serious barrier when they want to go West or North, and the barrier is the “Schengen visa policy”.
For many citizens of Belarus – a small country bordering the European Union to the West and North, Russia to the East and Ukraine to the South – the Schengen visa, especially with multiple entry, has been toted to be a new degree of freedom for Belarusians. With this visa, “you can go virtually anywhere in Europe – enjoy low-cost plane tickets, take advantage of great sales in neighboring Poland/Lithuania, and meet your music idols at concerts in Europe…
So there`s nothing unusual then, that Belarus, according to some calculations based on open European Commission data Belarus seems to be the world`s absolute leader in the number of Schengen visas issued per capita by EU embassies in the country: 470892 “C” type visas in 2010 (a number said to have grown 40-100% in 2011!) to its population of 9,6 million. This is compared, for example, with Russia`s 4,466 million visas distributed to more than 143 millions inhabitants.
For us, Belarusians, this fact is quite ironic. We`ve managed to be in the lead despite harsh requirements for issuance of the Schengen visa. Not only is the processing fee is among the highest (60EUR for Belarusians compared with just 35EUR for Russian Federation and Ukraine citizens), but we also have to provide a valid invitation and financial guaranties (around 40EUR per day in EU) in order to successfully apply and receive the visa, along with the piles of additional documents required, while waiting in massive queues for personal visa applications to “the most popular embassies”. The Polish consulate in Minsk is one of the most popular; the Embassy offers a limited amount of “slots” for applications with a waiting period of over two months. And getting a “slot” is also a challenge; you need to check and recheck the site all the time, endlessly F5-ing (refreshing the webpage) your way into the European Union.
The bureaucratic challenges are even more poignant for youth. Belarusian youth have an overall unstable income, often very limited to non-existent, and are often unemployed. In order to fly Ryanair`s 10EUR special to, say, Rome, you`ll need first to find 60EUR for the visa, 280EUR for “guarantees”, a pile of documents, a way to submit your visa application on time, along with other related issues. Will that make some young people change their plans, and instead travel to visa-free countries? Definitely!
However, people do find routes to evade all the obstacles and get visas after all. They join cultural events which have more lenient visa procedures, cooperate with tourism agencies, or follow other paths, including even those not quite transparent, with various tricks (like borrowing money, or buying traveler cheques to show to the consulate, and then selling the cheques back for a refund).
One of the easiest ways to get a multiple-entry visa is to get an “invitation” from a big mall that you`re invited on a shopping tour, even if you don`t plan to visit that shop at all. Some even joke that you may meet your Minsk friend in Acropolis shopping centre near Vilnius (Lithuania, EU) more often, than in Minsk itself. No surprise there: Vilnius is closer to the capital of Belarus than lots of big regional cities (170 km; while Minsk is 303 km away from the second biggest city in the country, Gomel) and other bordering countries, and competitive pricing attract hordes of “thrifty Belarusians”. Despite different and sometimes questionable ways of getting visas, however, Belarusians seem to be quite welcome at the EU embassies: refusal rate is really low – from 0,16% to 3,94%. There have also not been any big scandals on EU border law violations.
There is nonetheless always the fear that political issues between Minsk and the EU will aggravate the visa process. In the last round of sanction wars (late February) Belarus expelled the EU and Polish ambassadors, and recalled its own ambassadors from Poland and the EU (Brussels) after Europe added more Belarusians to the “black list” (list of people the EU cite as being connected with repressing political opposition), and banning them from entering the EU. All other European ambassadors also left Belarus.
At present, Embassy consulates in charge of visa questions continue working as per usual, still no one knows how far the diplomatic row will go. The worst examples we`ve seen already include a few years ago, after a diplomatic battle between the United States and the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (backed by the highest political powers). The American embassy in Minsk ceased to issue visas at all – it was possible only in exceptional cases to be issued a visa. With the EU there are no such critical signs at the moment.
It`s fairly understandable that the EU opposes official Minsk, but a pitiful problem arises alongside: while declaring commitment to support civil society in Belarus on the one hand, the EU isn’t taking steps to make visas more affordable and attainable for Belarusian citizens.
The last, fundamental question, is this: why do youth (and adults as well) focus on Europe, when there`s virtually no border on the East and free admission on the South, and a host of other visa-free countries on the map? Well, lots of Belarusians, for sure, do go to Russia and Ukraine, and some go to Turkey, Venezuela, and the UAE… But, you know, the forbidden fruit is the sweetest, and in our case, it`s also one of the closest on the branch.