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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Who Should Travel, Who Should Not

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The aftermath of the rigged presidential election and brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Belarus has elicited a predictable response in the West. The European Union and the United States have reimposed a travel ban on top Belarussian officials, while economic sanctions are also likely to be imposed. We've been here before. In 2004, Brussels and Washington imposed a travel ban on high-ranking Belarussian officials in response to Belarus' poor human rights record, flawed elections and referendums. These moves did not bring about the desired response -- respect for democracy and human rights -- and the new travel bans and mooted economic sanctions are unlikely to succeed either. It's time for a new and radical tactic: to relax entry requirements to the EU and increase study and work opportunities for ordinary Belarussians.

Economic sanctions do not work at changing governments, but they are good at hitting ordinary people, vividly demonstrated by the humanitarian crisis in Iraq brought on by Saddam Hussein's indifference to his people's suffering. Sanctions have also failed to remove Fidel Castro in Cuba and helped to spawn a thriving black market in the Balkans that served only to foster instability and benefit dubious power groupings.

As Russia has made plain through its open support of President Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus is to remain within its sphere of influence. Any attempt to impose economic hardship on Belarus by the West is certain to be amply compensated for by Moscow, which already heavily subsidizes gas supplies to that country. Therefore, economic sanctions against Belarus would only preserve the political status quo, even strengthen it, ensuring that Belarus was as dependent economically on Russia as the Lukashenko regime is dependent on it for political support.

Moreover, the ensuing economic and political stagnation would sound the death knell for the long-embattled independent media. Already last week, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, a respected business newspaper, became the latest independent paper to announce it is ceasing publication due to state interference with printing and distribution. Any worsening of the economic environment in Belarus would ensure that the state's information blockade, along with government propaganda, would continue unchallenged.

Why did the pro-democracy "revolution" in Belarus fail? Is it that the movement for democracy is weaker in Belarus than in Ukraine or Georgia? Or is it simply because, after years of increasingly authoritarian rule, the "disappearance" of leading opposition figures, ready use of police violence at demonstrations, a loyal security service and absent any internal financial heavyweights among the opposition, any pro-democracy movement in Belarus is doomed to struggle? The answer is probably all of the above. Yet the past week has seen the opposition hold some of the boldest and largest demonstrations in years, which suggests that something is stirring. This should be nurtured.

A travel ban on top officials will have little impact when most ordinary Belarussians are unable to travel abroad themselves for want of visas or the means to pay for the trip. Before Poland acceded to the EU, shuttle traders from Belarus regularly, and one suspects profitably, plied their trade across the border. The EU's tough border controls put a stop to that.

Relaxed entry requirements coupled with enhanced work and study opportunities would help to expose Belarussians to functioning market economies and democracies. Income from EU-based jobs would be sent back to Belarussian families. The information blockade would crumble. The desire and means of ordinary Belarussians to change Belarus for the better would grow. At a stroke, the West would demonstrate the ready benefits to the Belarussian people of open democratic governance and vibrant market economies. With a population of just 10 million, the impact of Belarus on the EU labor markets would scarcely be felt. EU monitoring of border movements, for example to prevent smuggling and human trafficking, could continue and should be unaffected by easier travel from Belarus. And what better demonstration of the worth of a travel ban when ordinary Belarussians are able freely to travel to the EU and the Lukashenko elite, for all their domestic power, are not?

Of course, Belarus may in response restrict the right of its people to travel abroad. It often has imposed such temporary restrictions to prevent key opposition figures from attending meetings or conferences. However, such restrictions would have to apply to all Belarussians and encompass not just the land borders shared with Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, but Russia as well, with whom Belarus currently maintains an open border policy.

Opening up travel and work opportunities to the European Union from Belarus while maintaining a ban on the president and the governing elite would send a very strong message. Although any "revolution" thus prompted would not happen overnight, opening Europe's door could ultimately provide the opposition with the momentum sadly lacking in recent days, a momentum that could become unstoppable.

Malcolm Hawkes is a former researcher on Belarus for New York-based Human Rights Watch and currently works as an independent legal consultant. The views expressed are his own.