“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
– Mark Twain
Intellectuals in western countries encounter one major problem when discussing how to democratize their eastern neighbors, which upsets their theories concerning the improvement of foreign political systems: Citizens of countries like Belarus, Russia and Ukraine approve the policies of their ruling class and even vote for people who exploit their property and limit their liberties.
I couldn’t understand this reality for a long time either: why do people vote for someone like the convicted criminal Viktor Yanukovychin in Ukraine? How can Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko, get 80 percent approval rates from the Belarusian population? Don’t the people in those countries understand that Western countries like the U.K., Germany or the U.S. do much better because they enforce the rule of law and have a functioning system of checks and balances? Don’t they see their former comrades from Estonia and Lithuania living in a free Europe?
Most people who live in countries neighboring the former Soviet Union somehow feel obliged to do something to improve the situation in those countries. Violently changing a political system from the outside, which was tried in the Middle East at the beginning of this century, and which is currently being conducted in Libya, is luckily not on the list of possible options for Ukraine, Belarus or Russia. How, then, do we peacefully change these political systems, if we want to interfere in other sovereign nations at all? How do we help these countries uphold the rule of law, stop cronyism and put a mafia-like ruling class behind bars?
Programs generated in the European Union usually consist of developing a critical dialogue with both the ruling classes and the opposition in these countries. In Belarus, for instance, many tax-funded foundations support pro-western, oppositional think-tanks and similar groups. After violent crackdowns on protests, European politicians usually call for travel bans to be placed on the top apparatchiks in the system.
The relationship between the European Union and the Ukraine offers another example of an attempt to provide incentives for reform. The EU formulated long, vague papers regarding steps the Ukraine has to undergo in order to get a visa-waiver agreement implemented for Ukrainian citizens. The special commission that audits Ukraine’s developments sets benchmarks measuring the rule of law, the safety of documents, the structure of institutions, and so on.
Long story short: The fate of free travel for citizens ultimately depends on the good behavior of bad politicians and on the grace of the external assessors.
These approaches illustrate the general understanding (at least regarding CIS countries) that changes have to come from within: change has to happen in the minds of the people. But all of these approaches share one distinct failure: They assume that an individual derives his liberty from the ruling class. The most efficient and direct way to increase the liberty of people in countries like Ukraine or Russia is to allow them to travel to countries that champion values like liberty and the rule of law.
The current visa regime of the Schengen-countries regarding citizens from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine is very harsh, expensive, bureaucratic and humiliating. The only measurable result of requiring visas for those citizens is the limitation of their freedom. A lot of people, particularly the younger generation, in those countries would love to see more of the world — especially Europe — but are hindered by expensive visas and long application processes.
Since internet access and foreign language skills are much lower in these countries than in the west, it is no wonder that people in such illiberal regimes tend to believe the omnipresent populist statements of their political leaders and public broadcasters. They barely have any chance to see anything other than what is produced by their own country, or similarly-run CIS-neighbors.
The recently created visualization of the Facebook network powerfully illustrates the cultural curtain between the European Union and CIS-countries. By just waiving the visa-requirement the EU would immensely help increase people’s liberties without any political involvement. This would tear down the last barrier in Europe.
The EU and the other Schengen countries could increase the liberties of almost 200 million people in the blink of an eye just by abolishing visa requirements for their eastern neighbors. This would lead to an increased cultural, social and economic exchange between rather closed countries and their western counterparts.
For some people, freedom might be a very abstract mental construct, but freedom is also a very concrete experience: Saying aloud what you think on a crowded street or knowing that a corrupt government official can’t take your property are experiences that people can internalize on an emotional level. Once people experience these feelings abroad, they just may demand these freedoms from their home countries.
It has probably never been so easy to bring so much liberty to so many people at perhaps no cost at all.