Since early 2008, the Office for a Democratic Belarus (ODB) has been actively involved in promoting easier visa regime for Belarusians. In February 2008, the ODB joined the European Parliament campaign initiated by three MEPs: Genowefa Grabowska (PL), Justas Vincas Paleckis (LT) and Hannes Swoboda (AU). The ODB actively supported the campaign, elaborated its slogan “Say YES to Cheaper Visas for Belarusians” and visual symbols. Our office also helped distributing a declaration calling for reduction of Schengen visa costs for Belarusian citizens among MEPs during the Parliamentary sessions in Strasburg and Brussels.
Since then, we have been continued to raise visa issue at various meetings and events, as we did, for example, during a round table ‘Schengen visa liberalisation policy towards Belarus and Belarus-EU cooperation in the field of tourism’ organised in cooperation with the vice-chairman of the Delegation for relations with Belarus, Latvian MEP Aldis Kuskis (EPP-ED group). During the debates on visa issues the ODB always stresses not only the advantages that Belarusians could receive if travel restrictions were eased but also the opportunities the EU countries could have from more intensified people-to-people contact.
The ODB has always paid special attention to engaging Belarusian organisations in lobbying visa issues. In February 2009, the ODB in cooperation with the Movement for Freedom launched a campaign ‘For Visa Costs Reduction for Belarusians’. We sent out letters to governments of all countries – signatories of the Schengen Agreement with an appeal to re-examine their policies regarding fees and procedures of issuing Schengen visas for Belarusian citizens. The appeal of the Movement for Freedom and the Office for a Democratic Belarus was supported by more than 70 associations and individuals from Belarus and abroad.
In 2010, the Office was among the founders of the coalition ‘For European Continent Undivided by Visa Barriers’. In March 2011, in the framework of its project with PASOS ‘Paving the road towards visa-free travel between the Eastern Partnership countries and the EU’ the ODB launched a web-site: www.novisa.by which is now being operated in cooperation with Belarus Watch.
At the end of March, the ODB together with the number of Belarusian organisations and think-tanks joined forces within the VISA-Free! public coalition. The members of the coalition started to advocate the idea of visa-free travel between Belarus and other European countries. In April, the coalition sent an appeal to the Belarusian Government, asking to unilaterally reduce Belarusian visa fees and simplify the visa procedures for the EU citizens or even abolish the visa regime altogether as a gesture of good will.
In August 2011, the Center for Research and Policy Making (Skopje, Macedonia) in cooperation with the Office for a Democratic Belarus (Brussels, Belgium) and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (Vilnius, Lithuania) organized a seminar in Belarus entitled “Transfer of Macedonia NGOs experience on visa liberalisation”. This event took place in the framework of the PASOS- led project ‘Paving the road towards visa-free travel between the Eastern Partnership and the EU’, the goal of which is to facilitate the establishment of a visa-free regime between the EU and countries of the Eastern Partnership.