Border officials in Belarus have redoubled their efforts to discourage citizens from attempting to travel abroad unless they have permanent residency in a foreign country, as the West closes its skies to the country’s planes.
In a statement issued on Monday, the State Border Committee in Minsk said that it had “recently received many appeals” from those wishing to leave the country. “We officially clarify that since December 21, 2020, exit is temporarily suspended for citizens of Belarus.”
Exceptions, the officials say, will be made only for those with proof of permanent residency in a foreign nation. Those with visas or temporary residence permits “do not have grounds for leaving the country.”
The tough measures at the border, officials claim, are necessary in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, they jar with Belarus’ limited domestic efforts to control the spread of the virus. Citizens returning from overseas do not, for example, require a coronavirus test, and the country has consistently refused to introduce national lockdowns.
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At the beginning of the pandemic, veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko announced that drinking vodka and visiting the sauna would be the best way to ward off the virus. He has also said that playing organized sport was an effective cure, and that “it’s better to die standing on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Belarus’ government came under fire last week after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was ordered to land in Minsk, with officials citing a supposed bomb threat from Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Once on the tarmac, authorities arrested the editor of a banned Telegram channel, Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend, Russian national Sofia Sapega, who were on board the flight.
On Tuesday, Reuters revealed that the EU, which has described the incident as “state piracy,” is now preparing a package of sanctions against Belarus’ national airline, as well as around a dozen aviation officials. Belavia, the country’s flag carrier, has been effectively banned from member states’ airspaces as of last week, and many Western airlines are boycotting routes that pass over Belarus.
A number of analysts and commentators had warned that blunt bans and sanctions against Belarusian air travel would have a negative impact on ordinary citizens. Responding to the coverage of Belarus’ border policy, Georgi Gotev, senior editor of news site EURACTIV, which receives funding from the EU, said that the bloc had “helped” the controversial approach along by banning flights.
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However, one unnamed EU diplomat defended the move in comments to Reuters, saying “all EU states agree with this approach.” A second envoy added that the new sanctions would be “a clear signal for Lukashenko that his actions were dangerous and unacceptable.”
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