Belarus will allow visa-free entry for citizens of 80 countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, for visits of up to five days, according to a presidential decree signed yesterday (9 January).
The decree comes as the former Soviet republic is seeking to improve its image in the West and rely less on ally Russia.
The relaxed visa rules will apply to visitors who arrive in Belarus by airplane. They will come into force a month after their official publication.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who once described himself as the “last dictator in Europe”, helped improve his image in the West by acting as an intermediary during the Ukraine conflict.
The EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia over that conflict in 2014.
Relations between Minsk and the West have warmed since recession-hit Belarus held a peaceful presidential election in October 2015.
The release of political prisoners and Lukashenko’s role in hosting Ukraine-Russia peace talks also eased international criticism of the veteran leader, who the United States once said ran Europe’s last dictatorship.
The European Union ended five years of sanctions against Belarus last February, while the United States has relaxed some of its restrictions on Minsk and said the authorities’ handling of Sunday’s vote will factor into an upcoming sanctions review.
The West has pushed for democratic change in Belarus but has been shifting its approach to engage rather than isolate, as well as to counter what it sees as a newly aggressive Russia.
In spite of its close relations with Moscow, Belarus hasn’t recognised the annexation of Crimea.
But opposition leaders warn that Lukashenko is fooling the West, and that no real democratisation in the country has happened.