VITEBSK, Belarus (JTA) — Jerusalem and Minsk are set to sign a visa-waiver program, Israel’s ambassador to the internationally ostracized former Soviet republic of Belarus said.
Ambassador Yosef Shagal announced the signing on Friday to 700 participants at the Limmud FSU conference in Vitebsk, the former Soviet country’s third-largest city. The Limmud conference is an educational and cultural gathering.
The signing is unusual because the landlocked Republic of Belarus, which has been called Europe’s last dictatorship, is a relatively closed nation where tourists from many Western nations, including European Union member states and the United States, may not enter without a formal invitation from a Belarusian host.
Last year, the EU announced a strengthening of its financial sanctions on Belarus for alleged human rights abuses. “This is because not all political prisoners have been released, no released prisoner has been rehabilitated, and the respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles has not improved in Belarus,” the Council of the European Union wrote.
For this reason, Belarus is “keen to increase its ties with Western countries like Israel, and this relationship is important to many non-Jews in Belarus,” Boris Gersten, the chairman of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, told JTA.
“It is connected to an effort that in recent years saw both Russia and Ukraine waive visas with Israel, a move which greatly enhanced business ties, tourism and the strengthening of Jewish culture in those countries,” Shagal told JTA.
Currently, Israeli tourists need to apply in advance for a visa to only five of 15 former Soviet nations — Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan; Armenia; Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Visas for Russia and Ukraine were waived in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Georgia joined in 2013. The waiving of visas has greatly enhanced cultural ties between Russian-speaking Israelis, who number over a million, and their kin in their countries of origin, Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler said.
Stressing Limmud FSU’s apolitical nature, Chesler said: “We are delighted that Israel and the Belarusian authorities just made our task of building bridges between Belarusian Jews, Israel and the rest of world Jewry, a little easier. The fact that the ambassador chose Limmud Belarus to announce the move is of great importance to us, because it fits into our mission.”
Some 70,000 Jews live in Belarus. The visa-waiver will take effect late in 2014, Shagal said.