On Friday, November 20, Hrodna hosted a round table "Local Border Traffic On the Eastern Borders of the European Union: Case Belarus" organized by the Evening Hrodna newspaper and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) in partnership with ODB Brussels and the Visa Facilitation and Development Centre.
The experts shared their views on prospects of local border traffic (LBT) development between Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
|For your reference. Local Border Traffic is a form of facilitated border crossing for residents of two states who live within 30 or 50 kilometers from the border. With the local border traffic regime in place, border residents may regularly cross the shared border to stay in the border zone of the second state. No visas are required, but the residents must have a special permit which is first issued for 1 year and then for 2 and 5 years. Such visits can have social, cultural and family grounds, or can be justified economically.|
The idea of local border traffic is not new. Similar bilateral agreement were in place between Slovenia and Croatia in 1997, as well as earlier, in the 1920s between Poland and Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania, Poland and Germany. The EU set out to develop relevant laws in 2002.
For EU neighbouring countries, including Belarus, local border traffic development became especially important in December 2007, when Poland, Lithuania and Latvia were due to accede to the Schengen area and abolish national visas, which meant that many border residents now had to undergo a more complicated and expensive Schengen visa application procedure.
|Ugis Skuja, Head of the Consulate of the Republic of Latvia in Vitsebsk|
Belarus signed local border traffic agreements with all of its EU neighbours, and all of them were ratified by legal authorities and leaders from all signatory countries by 2011, however, as of today only the agreement with Latvia has come into force.
Mr. Ugis Skuja, Head of the Consulate of the Republic of Latvia in Vitsebsk, noted that since the commencement of Latvian-Belarusian Local Border Traffic Agreement, the authorities issued more than two thousand permits, including 1270 in 2014, and 632 from January to September 2015. Within this time period, only 13 applications for border crossing permits were denied, and once a cross-border regime violator with a 50-km zone permit was detained in Prague. A one-year border crossing permit costs 20 euros. For comparison, the Consulate of Latvia issues up to 45 thousand Schengen visas annually, 15% of them free of charge.
|Sample permit issued by the Republic of Belarus||Sample permit issued by the Republic of Latvia|
Mr. Ugis Skuja cited the capacity of border crossings and of the permit-issuing consulates among the challenges preventing active development of local border traffic. Currently, though, the consulate does without an electronic queue or pre-registration. Other challenges, says the diplomat, include the smuggling of tobacco products, which in Belarus cost several times less than in Latvia, and the issue of travelling beyond the border area. Also, an additional logistical challenge is the need to travel to Vitsebsk to obtain the permit.
|Andrey Eliseev, analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) |
However, notes BISS analyst Andrey Eliseev, the number of permits issued by Belarusian authorities to border residents of Latvia is six times larger than that of their Latvian counterparts. This is due to the fact that the majority of Belarusians who left for Latvia in the past to study or find employment now travel back home to see their parents more often than their Belarusian relatives come over to Latvia.
While the agreement with Latvia is in force, the signed and ratified documents with Poland and Lithuania have not yet taken effect, which is due to a number of reasons.
No systemic economic analysis has yet been done to see how local border traffic influences the border territories, so it is normally viewed from the social and cultural perspective, as was initially declared.
However, at the moment the statistics suggest that Belarusians spend a lot more money in the European Union than Lithuanians and Poles who travel to our country, which understandably makes Belarusian authorities concerned for the economy. For example, according to a survey held back in 2013, Belarusians spent more than $1 billion only in Poland, and this figure does not include the cost of declared goods.
"Belarus obtain more Schengen visas than any other country in the world. In 2014, Belarusians obtained about 880 000 visas. Also, our citizens are the least likely to get visa refusals and comply with the Schengen rules better than anyone, so it is far from being a given that the cross-border traffic will increase several times after the agreements with Lithuania and Poland are set up because special permit holders will supposedly travel more", notes BISS analyst Andrey Eliseev. The agreements will bring the most benefits to border residents, most of whom today have to apply for more expensive and difficult-to-get Schengen visas to travel to the 50 km zone. (ODB: Belarus has not yet signed a visa regime simplification agreement with the EU, so Belarusians still pay a 60-euro visa fee to get a Schengen visa).
Possibly, because of the large number of Schengen visas issued there is no active social movement for LBT agreements with Poland and Lithuania to come into force as soon as possible, says the expert, while local Polish border authorities were more active in promoting this. Another important factor cited by experts is the number of border residents in Hrodna and Brest regions: there are 920 thousand residents in the Polish border zone and 700 thousand in the Lithuanian border zone. Considering that these territories partially overlap, the zone covered by agreement will cover about one and a half million Belarusian residents, which will create additional burden on border crossing points.
The study "Keeping the Door ajar: Local border traffic regimes on the EU’s eastern borders", organized by BISS expert Andrey Eliseev and commissioned by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, analyzed the technical capacity of border crossings on both sides of borders with EU neighbouring countries. Respondents rated the majority of border crossings as satisfactory or less than satisfactory, which did not prevent EU countries from launching LBT regimes with Ukraine and Moldova.
At the same time, thinks Mr. Eliseev, there will be a need for new border crossings to be used only for residents of border areas. Their setup can be partially funded by international technical aid and cross-border cooperation projects.
However, political reasons for the deterred commencement of LBT agreements, which was motivated by the stance of Poland and Lithuania on sanctions against Belarus, will gradually fade into background while relations with the EU will generally become better, so Belarus should be ready to set the agreements in motion by forwarding diplomatic notes to its neighbours.