Political observers from Belarus and Kyrgyzstan are reacting with surprise and skepticism to media reports that their former Soviet republics could be added to a U.S. travel-ban list.
Officials from Washington, Minsk, and Bishkek refused to comment on the record about reports that Belarus and Kyrgyzstan will be added to the controversial list of states whose citizens face travel bans or severe restrictions on entering the United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed on January 22 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that his administration planned "very shortly" to expand its travel ban. But Trump did not specify which countries would be added. The current list includes Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, North Korea, and Venezuela.
"We are adding a couple of countries to it," said Trump, who suggested the list was being expanded because of security concerns. "We have to be safe," he told reporters at the World Economic Forum. "Our country has to be safe."
On January 21, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Politico all quoted unnamed officials in Trump's administration as saying Kyrgyzstan and Belarus were being considered for the travel ban. They said other countries that could be added to the travel-ban list included Burma (Myanmar), Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.
Those reports said citizens from the banned countries would not necessarily face a total prohibition on visits to the United States. But immigration restrictions could be imposed and additional restrictions introduced on certain types of visas for tourists and business travelers.
Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator in Minsk, says that "if Belarus falls under U.S. visa restrictions, it would be the result of a misunderstanding." Shraibman says he thinks any move by the White House to add Belarus to the travel-ban list was probably triggered automatically on the basis of some security criteria.
Indeed, one senior Trump administration official told Reuters on January 22 that countries that had failed to comply with Washington's security requirements face the risk of limitations on coming to the United States.
AP reported that countries on the proposed expansion list include allies that fall short on certain security measures called for by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security following a review of security protocols in 200 countries. Such measures include the introduction of biometric passports, information sharing, and cooperation on counterterrorism measures.
The Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. embassies in Minsk and Bishkek have all refused to comment on the proposed expansion of the travel-ban list.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley also declined to confirm any details about plans to add to the list. He said the existing travel ban "has been profoundly successful in protecting our country and raising the security baseline around the world."
"While there are no new announcements at this time, common sense and national security both dictate that if a country wants to fully participate in U.S immigration programs, they should also comply with all security and counterterrorism measures," Gidley said. "We do not want to import terrorism or any other national security threat into the United States."
Shraibman says he does not think the White House has coordinated with the U.S. State Department about the idea of adding Belarus to the travel-ban list. That's because Washington has been eager to improve relations with Belarus, which is seen as being heavily influenced by Russia but which also has serious problems in its bilateral relationship with Moscow.
One day after the reports of a possible expansion to the travel-ban list, it was announced that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would visit Belarus on February 1 as part of a five-country tour that was postponed amid rising U.S.-Iranian tensions. Sources told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Pompeo was expected to stay for only a few hours in Belarus before traveling to Kazakhstan later on February 1.
Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich notes that the current U.S. travel-ban list is comprised of countries with ongoing military conflicts or where U.S. sanctions already exist. Apparently, he adds, the "structure" for expanding the travel-ban list is "guided by a purely formal approach."
"There are U.S. sanctions against Belarus," Karbalevich says. "Some of them have been suspended, but they have not been canceled."
Surprise In Kyrgyzstan
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports that possible reasons Kyrgyzstan -- the most democratic country in Central Asia -- could be added to the U.S. travel-ban list include the possible presence of Islamic State (IS) militants in the country as well as a glut of fake Kyrgyz passports around the world.
Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Osh is seen as a hub for counterfeit Kyrgyz passports -- which are thought to have been used by organized crime bosses from Russia and other former Soviet republics, money launderers, and suspects in international criminal investigations.
Kyrgyz students studying at universities in the United States or coming for visits also have a poor record in terms of overstaying their U.S. visas and remaining in the country as illegal aliens.
Kadyr Toktogulov, who was Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States and Canada from 2014 to 2019, describes the reports about Kyrgyzstan being added to the travel-ban list as "bad press for sure." He says it is "confusing why Kyrgyzstan is the pick of all Central Asian countries."
He pointed out in a tweet that the Politico report said the ban might apply only to certain government officials or certain types of visas.
“I’m interested in what this...means," he added.
Toktogulov also noted on Twitter that Kyrgyz passport-holders already had a "relatively high visa-rejection rate for U.S. visas."
"These additional visa restrictions that are reported to be considered by the U.S. will probably not make the situation much worse for Kyrgyz citizens who have been eligible to travel to the U.S. before," he wrote in a tweet on January 22.