Tomas Alekna, leader of the Kena frontier station for the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service.
VILNIUS - Lithuanian authorities have ratified an agreement aimed at residents living in the frontier zones of Lithuania and Belarus, within 50 kilometers from the borders of the two countries, to acquire permits allowing them visa-free travel.
Since the fall of the USSR, Lithuanian border crossings to Belarus were inaccessible without the holding of necessary visas, which, due to costs and the processes required for attaining them, contributed to what became an almost closed Belarusian society.
The new permits sought to support those separated from family members since village communities, which in Soviet times spanned across rural areas of both countries, were split after governmental borders were imposed from 1993. With softened restrictions, families could potentially maintain visitation rights, without having to continually pay hefty visa fees.
The updated border protocols have also been viewed as a method for bolstering the rights of Belarusian citizens, potentially enabling them freedom of movement into European Union and Schengen areas, to pursue fields such as business, education and politics.
“It could increase the democratization process in Bela-rus, both through the possibility for its citizens to expand their view by visiting democratic societies, and by extending economic, cultural and others relations between the countries. Also, our countries had close historical ties and a lot of people on both sides of the border have relatives on the other side, so it will help them to meet again,” explained Lithuanian MP and Foreign Affairs Committee member, Ruta Rutkelyte.
Following the Belarusian currency crash in May, when its money was devalued by 56 percent, and tied together with political tensions ongoing and allegedly stemming from the dictatorship of leader Alexander Lukashenko, attaining visas to enter or exit Belarus had been notoriously arduous.
On a daily basis, queues of people could be seen winding into the street outside Lithuania’s Vilnius-based consulate on Muitines Street.
“I see two positive changes once the simplified border crossing starts operating. First, the inhabitants of border regions will pay less for the possibility to visit either Lithuania or Belarus: 20 euros for the new long term travel permit, instead of 60 euros for a single-entry Schengen visa. Secondly, Lithuanians traveling to Belarus with the new travel permits will not have to register there, which is a normal procedure when a person possesses a standard visa. Hence, crossing the Lithuanian-Belarusian border will be cheaper and simpler,” said Giedrius Surplys, information officer of the EU-funded Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus Cross Border Cooperation Program within the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument.
Belarusian students learning in Lithuania’s capital billeted for more than just the allowance of permits for frontier residents, and called for the EU to abolish visas altogether. “It’s the main issue all our students and staff were waiting for,” said Tatjana Rudzinskiene, communication coordinator for the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius, a Belarusian university existing in exile in Lithuania.
“Students really have difficulties. [For] some, theirs are connected to the visa question and price. Other difficulties come from the political situation. There was the case where 12 EHU students were arrested at the border, and detained for some hours,” relayed Rudzinskiene, referring to a group who attended a Community of Democracies meeting in Vilnius in June, where many foreign speakers criticized Belarus’ lack of civil rights, and apparently stirred a government sensitive to outside criticism.
But changing the visa system could take time, as the EU controls the visa regulatory system with caution. “A more liberal visa regime for certain groups of individuals could be expected only in the case of successful negotiations between the EU and Belarus on this issue. The restrictions were imposed by the EU because of political reasons, therefore it is likely they will be eliminated only after the disappearance of these reasons,” said a spokesperson from the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.
EHU currently has 49 students engaged in its courses for the academic year of 2011 to 2012, a jump in numbers by exactly 49, from zero enrolments last year.
Rudzinskiene attributed the low numbers of previous years to the limited mobility of students migrating between borders, coupled with limited cooperation between Belarusian and wider European education systems.
“For our Bachelor graduates, it’s almost impossible to get a job in the Belarusian state sector, as their education was not recognized. But it’s not just about EHU: it’s about all European universities. It sounds very ridiculous, but if you come from anywhere in Europe, and you try and use your Bachelor’s degree to get a job in Minsk, it will be refused, due to their usage of an older five-year study model,” Rudzinskiene observed.
“The students want to see Europe, they want to travel and move freely. They want to express themselves in a free democratic way, not to feel oppressed for political or social activity. And they want to experience a new, European style of life, as in Vilnius,” she said.
Despite occasional political discrepancies, authorities from either side of the border appeared to support the EU scrapping visa restrictions over the long-term. “I have a positive opinion on national visa fee cancellation, as it was already done in Poland and Latvia,” predicted Rutkelyte.
Experts have suggested that while benefits of the open borders will be plentiful, there must be an added authority vigilance, to prevent increases of cross-border smuggling and illegal entrants into Lithuania.
“I think we won’t have too many problems with it. But the situation could change. It will be up to the consular to make sure who gets these permits. Consular institutions will have to control this situation,” assessed Tomas Alekna, leader of the Kena frontier station for the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service, approximately 35 kilometers from Vilnius.
“This year we have had 50 incidents of cigarette smuggling coming from Belarus. We detect about half a million [packs of] cigarettes each year,” he stated, acknowledging high-tech x-ray detection equipment utilized by border guards as a key to succeeding against smugglers.
Each year, Kena border guards deport around 100 people who have entered the country from Belarus illegally, have outstayed existing visas, or violated aspects of the Schengen Agreement.
“We detect many, many people who live in Lithuania without visas. Sometimes Belarusians, but also people from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. We have approximately 30 cases of false documents each year, usually from Moldova or Bulgaria. Fake passports were no longer the biggest issue: these days they try to fake Schengen visas,” announced Alekna.
It will take time, though, for the results of the updated visa rules to come to light. “The possible consequences can be identified one year after the agreement comes into force, when the amount of the issued documents, trade growth and tourist flows are analyzed,” confirmed a spokesman from the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.