In early January, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signed into law a long-awaited decree: Belarus would introduce visa-free travel for citizens of 80 countries, including the United States and EU states, for up to five days. Compared to the visa regimes of other post-Soviet states, this was an overdue and modest liberalization. Ukraine and Georgia, for example, liberalized their visa regimes for Westerners ten years ago, and Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan have likewise softened travel restrictions in recent years.

But unlike Belarus, none of these countries has an open border with Russia, meaning their visa liberalizations posed no direct threat to Russian security.

Unsurprisingly, Russia responded quickly to Belarus’s new policy: on February 1, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) published Director Alexander Bortnikov’s order to establish a security zone with border controls along the Russia-Belarus border, and in May, Russia moved flights to Belarus from domestic to international terminals.

While the February decision merely established a legal justification for random passport checks at the border without fully restoring border control, the second measure has proven to be more painful. All passengers flying from Minsk to Russia must now wait with everyone else at passport control.

This measure has already impacted Belarus’s state-run airline, Belavia, which earns a handsome profit on passenger transit through Minsk, because it has made Minsk a less attractive transit hub.

Moscow says these steps were taken in light of the growing terrorist threat facing Russia. Toeing the Kremlin line, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov recently stated that ISIS fighters may avail themselves of visa-free travel via Minsk National Airport.

But this justification doesn’t quite work. For one, the visa liberalization has not made it any easier for terrorists with European passports to get into Russia. Belarus and Russia have kept a joint database of unwanted travelers for several years, and the Belarusian border service isn’t going to stop blocking individuals on the list from entering their country now that Westerners can travel more easily to Minsk.

Indeed, the only thing that has changed is the requirement to obtain a visa at the airport in Minsk. A potential terrorist will now save 20 minutes and between 60 and 100 dollars.

What’s more, Russia’s response will not prevent potential terrorists from flying into Minsk, boarding an overnight train or bus, and traveling to Moscow. There is still no border check along train routes from Belarus to Russia; for the most part, the same is true of automobile travel, despite the newly established security zone.

Finally, the chronology of Russia’s response doesn’t make sense. While the security zone order was posted in February 2017, Bortnikov signed it in December 2016—before Minsk announced visa-free travel.

Random passport checks at the border—both at airports and along roadways—began as early as the fall of 2016. Back then, Russian border patrol officers were reported to have sent some tourist buses back to Belarus on the grounds that the border has no checkpoints for foreign travelers. Belarusian travel agencies suffered reputational and financial losses, making the developments a subject of discussion between the countries’ foreign ministers in November 2016.

In this sense, Minsk’s decision to allow visa-free travel was merely a convenient excuse that Moscow used to explain its new security measures, retroactively legalizing the steps taken by Russian border patrol officers last fall.

Though Moscow hasn’t publicly discussed its reasons for tightening border controls, there is no question about its intent. First, Russia increasingly sees itself as a besieged fortress encircled by enemies. Such a mindset among elites—and, to a large extent, the general public—steers the regime toward all kinds of protective measures even if they’re not entirely necessary. Second, one gets the distinct impression that Russia is no longer prepared to entrust its border security to Belarusian troops.

Moscow’s behavior suggests that Moscow no longer sees Minsk as a reliable defense partner. The redeployment of Russian motorized infantry troops in the Smolensk and Bryansk regions is another indication of Moscow’s change of heart. Russia, it seems, is intent on using its own troops to prop up the “Belarusian shield.”

“The style of discussion is more important than its subject,” the theorist Grigory Pomerants once quipped. With this in mind, it’s important to note that according to Belarusian diplomats, no one informed Minsk about the new security zone, which violates the countries’ border protection agreement. 

Evidently, these diplomatic barbs reflect a more general dissatisfaction with Minsk’s improving relations with the West at a time when Russia is feuding with it. Minsk, Russia believes, is trying to cash in on this feud by presenting itself as a more predictable player and profiting from the sanctions regimes on Russia.

To fix the problem, Moscow proposed a mini version of the Schengen Zone—a single visa for both Russia and Belarus (Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev brought up the idea as early as 2015).

But the proposal won’t work for Belarus, in part because Minsk and Moscow now have different visa regimes. Furthermore, an independent visa policy is an important element of sovereignty, which Russia’s neighbors are particularly sensitive about.

Recently, Minsk has been able to convince Moscow to agree to a softer version of visa cooperation. Diplomats and migration officials are currently negotiating a new bilateral agreement on the recognition of transit visas, which, if adopted, would allow foreign citizens to transit through one of the two countries provided they have a visa issued by the other.

Discussions on the agreement just began, but it stands to reason that the Belarusians will try to improve the conditions for transit passengers, who provide Minsk with an important source of revenue. Ideally, the Belarusians want to be allowed to check transit passengers’ passports for a Russian visa so that they can let them board planes to Moscow. The best-case scenario for Belarus would also involve the return of Belarusian flights to Russian airports’ domestic terminals.

The border dispute has again highlighted the different trajectories that the two allied authoritarian regimes have chosen for themselves. The Russian regime has decided to consolidate power by cordoning itself off from the outside world. It has opted for autarky both in terms of its economy and its security. By contrast, partly in response to Russia’s increasing isolation, Belarus has started seeking out new sources of engagement with the outside world. In fact, the further Russia travels down its new path, the more easily Belarus can exploit this for its own political benefit.

  • Artyom Shraibman