You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action?
As Minister of Integration, my first act would be to liberalize Europe’s visa regime. Most Europeans take it for granted that they don’t need a visa to travel or work in EU countries. But for those of us who live on Europe’s periphery, every business, cultural, educational or tourist trip starts with a long line in an EU country embassy, complicated and sometimes humiliating procedure, and relatively high costs. Both sides, the EU and countries like Belarus, would gain more than they would lose through increased travel and people-to-people contacts.
Europeans seem to have forgotten that the issues of economic development and immigration are intimately connected. There will not be future economic growth in Europe without immigrants, because Europe’s population is aging and not replacing itself. The demographics make immigration a must. But because of visa policies, brave, talented and hard-working people looking for better life are often forced to find illegal ways of getting to Europe. The current visa policies have failed to stop this illegal migration, but helped to forge a new, “Schengen Curtain.” A “Europe whole, free and at peace” remains just a dream for many of us. Seeking to stop illegal migration, the Schengen regime has also inadvertently stemmed the flow of European ideas and values. Mr. Putin understands this well and is building his own Eurasian Economic Union, which focuses on post-Soviet integration and economic development, but without the need for democracy or human rights. In my country, our authoritarian ruler understands this argument much better. We have visa free agreements with and direct flights to other dictatorships, like China, Cuba and Venezuela, but our government refuses to ratify visa facilitation agreements with the EU.
As somebody who has been working on visa liberalization as a civic activist (so far without much success), I know that this is a very complex issue and requires a great deal of political will, societal acceptance and technical processes in order for a visa free regime to be established. I realize that the Belarusian government is not likely to sign a bilateral agreement with the EU. I understand that there is a risk that some Belarusians would illegally emigrate and stay in Europe, should visa barriers be removed. Yet, I strongly believe that the majority of Belarusians would choose to remain in their country. However, being able to visit Europe, to experience it with their own eyes, would be a life changing experience for many Belarusians and do more for bringing political, economic and social changes to Belarus than the EU’s current political statements or sanctions. A liberal visa policy is the best means to promote not only economic development but also the equally important policies of democracy and multiculturalism.
Who is ‘the other’ for you?
As an advocate for freedom of expression and media rights, I’ve traveled the world. Wherever I go, whether in Europe, America, Asia or Africa, I meet and work with people like me. They might look differently, speak differently or dress differently, but they are the same as me when it comes to their ideals, aspirations and commitment for democracy and human rights. I feel a unique bond with, and am inspired by free people everywhere. The “others” are my own compatriots, those who face me during the peaceful demonstrations in Minsk, wearing their black helmets and swinging their batons with snarls on their faces and hatred in their eyes. The “others” are those who chase, beat and arrest those of us who think differently, who seek freedom and a better life for our country. The “others” are the police who are supposed to be fighting crime but come late at night or early in the morning to search our homes and offices. They are the judges who are supposed to enforce rule of law but sentence the peaceful opponents of our dictator to years in prison. The “others” are the mouthpieces of the state-controlled mass media who demonize the democratic opposition as “parasites”, “criminals” and “deadbeats.” They are the rectors and professors who speak of academic freedom but expel students who show their dissent. The “others” are those who for ideological or financial reasons, comfort, or lack of caring refuse to listen and tolerate their fellow citizens who have different opinions. When we say “the others” (“яны”, literally “them” in Belarusian), we mean this divide inside of our own society. For centuries our people were diverse but tolerant, but today we are polarized into camps of supporters of the regime, its opponents and a silent majority, which is observing what is happening but is too scared to identify either with “us” or the “others.” Our camp is growing, but at a heavy cost. I hope that someday all Belarusians can come together, that WE can unite to build a freer and more democratic country and society.