Latvians travel to Belarus despite security warnings

Belarus has decided to extend the temporary authorization for Latvian and Lithuanian residents to travel without a visa until the end of the year. Although the State Security Service and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warn of high risks and a special interest of Belarusian special services, the flow of travelers has increased significantly, Latvian Television reported May 18.

In spite of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' call not to use the visa-free regime introduced in Belarus, more than a hundred Latvian nationals have been crossing Silene's border points every day for nearly a month.

“The traffic of cars increased five times. If we talk about Latvian nationals, the number of them increased even more,” said Artūrs Pupins, Chief of the State Border Guard Silene border inspection post.

The people met by Latvian Television in Daugavpils also like the visa-free opportunity.

Resident Belogeja said: "Very good. My brother-in-law lives in Belarus. It's very rare we visit him, now we might go."

Also, Tatjana is planning to visit her parents in the summer. While Roland replied, "It's hard to say, I didn't go there myself. Maybe good for those who traveled all the time, but for those who didn't, I don't know if it was good or bad."

The bus Minsk–Rīga, travels to Belarus and back every day. Normally, buses are full.

“Today fewer but yesterday two full buses. Some 40% with Russian passports, and the remaining ones with Latvian and Belarusian passports. We have more travelers since it is visa-free, imagine two buses,” the bus driver said.

People have different reasons to go to Belarus. A resident of Rīga said that she was using the visa-free option to meet with a former classmate. Meanwhile, for the Russian citizen who lives in Daugavpils, shopping is important, because he believes there is cheaper and more natural food.

Latvian authorities warn against traveling to Belarus

The Latvian security services said that the decision of Belarus could indicate not only attempts by the self-proclaimed dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, to improve the sad state of the economy, but also the intensive operation of the special services of the neighboring country.

“In view of the current tensions in Western countries' relations with Russia and Belarus, the interest of these countries' special services in Latvia has also increased. Therefore, the State Security Service warns Latvian residents that representatives of the Russian and Belarusian special services most frequently address and try to recruit Latvian nationals when they visit Russia or Belarus,” VDD said.

Three months ago, the State Security Service (VDD) detained a Belarusian citizen suspected of spying in the interests of the Belarusian special service. The person obtained information about the facilities of the National Armed Forces, as well as critical infrastructure. This information could also be made available to Russian special services, VDD said. The Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said it is not desirable to go to Belarus at this time.

“We called and are still calling on all those nationals who are in Belarus to leave Belarus. These warnings relate to both the war action mentioned and the internal political and very difficult security situation in Belarus,” said Jānis Beķeris, press secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

People on the border said they didn't really believe the security risks.

“It just scares people. It's not really horrible. There are people who are afraid - I don't know why - war, spies everywhere, diversions, bombs will fall,” said a resident of Rīga.

The Border Guard spokesman Pupins said that “Yes, we get information that there are additional checks, interrogations, and checks on the border for quite some time.”

Both the border guards and customs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that the Belarusian side has not provided sufficiently comprehensive information what is required from immigrants and travelers under this visa-free regime. The extension of the visa-free regime was only posted on the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs' website on Monday, May 16.

The Belarusian Border Guard has circulated information that 9,098 Latvian citizens and 3,672 non-citizens have used visa-free travel during the last month. Meanwhile, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs neither confirms nor denies the number of people.

The Latvian security authorities call attention to danger on the border with Belarus and also Russia – unusually reinforced inspection and interviews, contact with persons in civilian clothing, not in the uniform of border guards, as well as issues that do not apply to border guards and are private.

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