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“A dirty trick to get activists arrested”: Human rights defenders on Lukashenko's passport ban

On September 4, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree banning the issuance and renewal of Belarusian passports outside the country. From here on out, issuing a power of attorney for real estate and vehicle transactions also requires a personal visit to Belarus. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom European states recognize as the elected president of Belarus, has stated she is in consultation with the governments of countries hosting Belarusian nationals and promised to raise the issue at the United Nations General Assembly. Tsikhanouskaya also pointed out that the New Belarus passport is in the works – but it's a work in progress without a deadline. Belarusian human rights defenders Andrei Strizhak and Sviatlana Golovneva explained to The Insider what options are available to Belarusians at the moment.

  • “Come to Minsk and get your passport there!”

  • What next? Confiscation of property?

  • “Getting a new passport can cost me eight years in jail”

  • “Repent and kneel!”

  • Hopes for the New Belarusian passport

  • “Forcing people to return to Belarus”

  • Dual citizenship or asylum

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Andrei Strizhak, founder and head of the BYSOL Foundation:

“Come to Minsk and get your passport there!”

“Lukashenko's decree applies to every Belarusian national living abroad with a Belarusian passport. All of them will be affected by the restrictions one way or another: once their Belarusian passport expires or they run out of pages, they can’t obtain a new passport abroad anymore. They are left without papers and have to look for opportunities to obtain a passport of their country of residence or an alien’s passport.

The alien's passport procedure is more or less streamlined in Poland and Lithuania, which have experience handling Belarusian refugees who could not obtain national passports for political reasons. Essentially, an alien's passport is the continuation of a Belarusian passport. It is issued based on the information submitted to the immigration authorities, for instance, when a passport gets lost or when there are no more pages for visas or stamps. Earlier, immigration services strongly encouraged such applicants to try and obtain a passport at the national embassy or consulate. However, when journalists or activists had their applications rejected by their country's representatives – 'Come to Minsk and get your passport there!' – the alien’s passport procedure could be initiated. I know of people who have obtained alien's passports. Under the present circumstances, such cases will become much more frequent, creating an immense load on the immigration services.

An alien's passport can replace your national ID for travel purposes, including visas and border control stamps, but cannot serve as proof of citizenship. An alien's passport holder cannot enter the UK or the U.S. without a visa, and European travel is limited to destinations where you have legal grounds to be. That's all an alien’s passport is good for. Its validity period matches that of your residence permit.

An alien's passport can replace your national ID for travel purposes, but its validity period matches that of your residence permit

Thus, Lithuania often issues one-year humanitarian residence permits, and in this case, the alien's passport expires on the same day as the permit. This adds another layer to the bureaucratic hell: in addition to renewing their residence permit, Belarusians will have to apply for a new passport every year. In some cases, humanitarian residence permits are valid for three years, and an alien's passport can be issued for the same period. Another option is to secure additional protection or refugee status, which makes you eligible for an ID that is not linked to the Belarusian state under international refugee support and protection conventions. This track is available to Belarusians as well, and I think many of them will be forced to consider the asylum option.

In some countries, the problem will be more acute, for instance in Georgia, which is reluctant to issue such papers to Belarusians. To remind you, Georgia is yet to join the EU, has a long history of grudges against Russia, and convoluted relations with the Belarusian government. At the moment, it is home to tens of thousands of Belarusians, who will have to renew their papers sooner or later and will have to travel to the EU for that.”

What next? Confiscation of property?

“Belarusians could issue a power of attorney abroad with the help of a foreign notary and certify it at the embassy. Since September 7, this option is no longer available as Belarusian diplomatic institutions are already treating Lukashenko's decree as effective, rejecting new applications. As for applications under consideration, they won't be affected. However, the Belarusian Embassy in the Czech Republic has already rejected one such case. In other countries, documents that were submitted earlier appear to be under processing. There are no firm guarantees, though: papers that were accepted yesterday could get rejected tomorrow.

I’m not saying Belarusian emigrants will be deprived of their apartments on a massive scale, but logic certainly points that way

The chain of events makes sense: first, Lukashenko announces he can strip undesirable individuals of citizenship and prepares legal grounds. Then he bans Belarusians from obtaining passports abroad because he believes he has no supporters among emigrés. I think the third step will affect property. I’ll refrain from fantasizing and giving his associates hints on how they could further harm us, but I’m sure they’re moving in that direction. It’s no coincidence that they’ve nullified powers of attorney and demand that people handle all matters pertaining to real estate and valuables inside the country. This is their way of entrapping people who may be wanted by security agencies. I’m not saying Belarusian emigrants will be deprived of their apartments on a massive scale, but logic certainly points that way.”

“Getting a new passport can cost me eight years in jail”

“Despite limiting citizens’ rights, Lukashenko's decree does not automatically provide grounds for protection for those Belarusians who live abroad but aren't involved in civil activism. If a Belarusian approaches his passport expiration date and refuses to go to Minsk, they could be asked: why do you think you might be prosecuted? What makes it impossible for you to return and have your papers issued in Belarus? It's not about the decree itself; it's about your history with the state. Relevant authorities will study your rap sheet: prosecution, repression, any activities that may theoretically result in criminal liability. Over the last three years, Poland and Lithuania have had extensive experience processing such cases. Latvia also has an idea of how to handle Belarusians. The further west you go, the more complicated it gets: the Czech Republic has much more complex procedures in place than Lithuania or Poland. Speaking of Germany or France, immigrants face even more challenges.

But the anti-record belongs to Sweden: despite dealing with relatively few Belarusian refugees, Sweden rejects many applications, including from those with a documented history of participating in protests.

Our record has a lot of similar repression cases: someone who has lived in the West for a decade, having left long before the protests of 2020, arrives in Belarus and suddenly gets a criminal record. It happens because people’s perception changes. Living in a free European society and state, you don't keep track of your online comments, likes, subscriptions, or statements. These are the everyday facts of every European's life. You may not even remember doing any of the above and may set out for Belarus thinking you’re in the clear. You may not even follow domestic developments. Many unsubscribe from news channels because 'they're toxic' and 'I’m paying my therapist enough as it is.' And then: 'I never thought I was in trouble, but getting a new passport can now cost me eight years in jail.'

If there's even a remote possibility that you could get locked up for three, five, or eight years, you may want to reconsider the importance of a passport, a power of attorney, or an apartment. Today's government structures work in mysterious ways when it comes to persecuting activists. Sometimes they pick a random victim as a means of intimidating a particular category of people. All high-profile cases that enjoy media coverage attract public attention, as was the case with the Lithuanian film with non-blurred faces.

You don’t have to have a particular background; a Western passport is enough to get you in trouble

Dual citizenship holders face even more threats. Belarus neither prohibits nor accepts dual citizenship. There's an ongoing war of espionage between Belarus and Lithuania, with many Belarusian nationals detained on suspicion of spying. Belarus has begun retaliating: for instance, I’ve been declared a Lithuanian secret agent. But you don’t have to have a particular background; a Western passport is enough to get you in trouble. I would advise any Belarusians with a Polish passport against traveling to Belarus.”

“Repent and kneel!”

“Lukashenko refuses to accept the fact that he has any opponents at all – let alone this many. He has said more than once: 'Here’s my advice: come home, repent, and kneel! It’ll only get worse. So get back here, crawling on your knees.' This is the idea behind the so-called 'Repatriation Commission,' which is supposed to be considering pleas from Belarusians who have been missing the birch trees of their homeland, oh, so much. Lukashenko's current objective is to make Belarusians’ lives so impossible abroad that we would crawl back and beg for forgiveness on our knees. This also explains the crazy fees charged by consulates for passports and powers of attorney – it was a major source of income. However, Lukashenko is willing to lose this money in exchange for this psychological and emotional pressure.

Lukashenko's current objective is to make Belarusians’ lives so impossible abroad that we would crawl back and beg for forgiveness

On the one hand, Lukashenko is after squeezing people out of the country; on the other hand, he wants to separate the most active protesters from those who latched on, those whose involvement in the events of 2020 was incidental, or who lack conviction. He wants to drag the latter category back in and transform them into his most loyal servants, broken slaves who gave up their ideals. We won’t take them back, and it's the perfect opportunity for him: to split us, to divide, to pick us apart, once again marginalizing the most active. He’s been successfully doing it for the two or three decades of his rule, and he intends to restore the status quo: to have activists work abroad as long-haul truck drivers and construction workers, and to drag back the people carried away by the historical wave.”

Hopes for the New Belarusian passport

“We’ve become one more step closer to statelessness; mass deprivation of citizenship is imminent. Belarusian authorities have a very broad definition of extremism, which gives them the legal grounds to strip citizenship. Having no passport is bad enough, but having no nationality is a whole other story. Europe will have a new problem on its hands – one without an apparent solution. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusian immigrants will soon have no passports at all.

However, I hope that Lukashenko's restrictive practices will incentivize the EU to harmonize its approaches to Belarusians. Handling the issue domestically, in countries like Lithuania and Poland, is also an option – but a temporary and cumbersome one. It would create excessive workload on these countries’ state apparatuses, which is why the chances of the New Belarusian passport becoming a valid ID across multiple countries have improved.”

Sviatlana Golovneva, legal counsel at the Viasna Human Rights Center:

“Forcing people to return to Belarus”

“The decree refers to the biometric passport, which is a new type of regular passport that includes the holder’s biometric data. The main purpose of such a passport is to prevent anyone except for the holder from using it for foreign travel. Belarus began issuing such passports in 2021, so many are still using non-biometric passports and will only be issued biometric ones after their current IDs expire.

According to the decree, Belarusian nationals permanently residing abroad are to obtain passports from ‘internal affairs bodies at their latest residence address.’ As for the issuance and renewal of passports for Belarusians living abroad temporarily, the current law provides no instructions. That is, the recent amendments have made it impossible to obtain or renew a passport at an embassy or consulate in your country of residence. Consequently, the changes to the passport law appear to be aimed at forcing emigrants to return to Belarus, thus exposing them to its criminal justice system.

The amendments are aimed at forcing emigrants to return to Belarus, thus exposing them to its criminal justice system

Over the last three years, a great many Belarusians have had to flee the country due to criminal charges or the risk of facing them. Belarusians who visit their home country may get arrested even in the absence of a pre-existing criminal case – it's a widespread practice. We often get consultation requests from people wondering if it's safe to return to Belarus. Normally, if they participated in street protests in 2020 and 2021 or negatively commented on government policies, our answer is: no, it's not safe to return.”

Dual citizenship or asylum

“These changes to the passport renewal and issuance procedure will strongly impact many Belarusians who can’t apply for a passport in their home country. They will have to look for alternative ways to obtain travel documents, including changing nationality (even if it takes a few years) or obtaining a second nationality – but these options aren’t universally available. Some countries have alternative IDs for foreigners who cannot renew their national passports for some reason. Thus, Lithuania issues alien's passports, and Poland has recently introduced a travel ID for foreign nationals. There’s also the option of international protection – with corresponding paperwork. In cases of political persecution, countries like Poland and Lithuania are often willing to grant asylum to Belarusian applicants.”

As of last February, Belarusian authorities had arrested at least 58 citizens upon their return from abroad and put some of them on trial for participation in solidarity protests abroad. According to the Viasna Human Rights Center, the majority of the detainees were returning from Poland or Lithuania. Security services take them off intercity buses, detain them at railway stations, or even at home, on charges related to their participation in protests or online comments. Meanwhile, Belarusian Prosecutor General Andrei Shved promised those who fled the country for fear of political persecution that they could return under certain terms and would not be tried. He suggested they apply for repatriation, detailing the circumstances of their departure and the consequences they fear they may face at home. In the same application, they have to also commit to 'never breaking the Belarusian law.' Not long before, Lukashenko had tasked his administration with developing a mechanism to facilitate the return of Belarusians who’d left after the 2020 protests.

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