By Raman Vasyukovich, RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, Tony Wesolowsky September 09, 2023
Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the de facto ruler of Belarus, is setting a trap, his opponents say, for those who fled abroad to escape his repressive rule.
No longer will Belarusian embassies issue or renew passports to nationals living abroad, according to a fresh edict from Lukashenka published on September 4. If they need the document, Belarusians will have to return home.
And critics fear Belarus’s security forces will be waiting. An estimated 200,000-300,000 Belarusians have left the country since August 2020, when Lukashenka was declared president for a sixth five-year term after an election that was widely condemned as rigged.
That vote triggered a wave of protests that were crushed by Lukashenka’s security forces. Hundreds were arrested, many were tortured, and several died in the crackdown. Opposition leaders were rounded up, with many imprisoned. Others fled. The West has refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus.
The Belarusian human rights group Vyasna says more than 1,500 people are currently behind bars in Belarus as political prisoners.
Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania after challenging — and many say beating — Lukashenka in the 2020 election, warned Belarusians, saying in comments to the Associated Press on September 4 that “even if your passport expires, you should not return to your home country if you risk persecution.”
The new restrictions come amid what opponents and activists say are stepped-up efforts by the Lukashenka regime to round up opponents. Detentions of Belarusians who have lived abroad and returned home are up this year, they say. Activists predict this latest move could result in more Belarusians applying for either asylum or new passports in the countries where they reside, or eventually even opting for a “new national passport” recently unveiled by the Belarusian opposition in exile but still unrecognized internationally.
Condemnation of Lukashenka’s latest move was quick and widespread.
“The announcement about plans to withhold passport services for Belarusians who live abroad is another repressive measure to control and restrict them,” the U.S. Embassy in Belarus said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“This latest draconian move by the Belarusian government is an apparent retaliation against its critics in exile,” said Anastasiia Kruope, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Those forced to return to the country to obtain essential documents will be at risk of arrest and political prosecution.”
Putting Belarusians In ‘Precarious Position’
According to Lukashenka’s decree, a Belarusian passport may only be renewed now where the holder was registered as residing inside Belarus. Up till now, Belarusian expatriates have been able to get new passports at the country’s diplomatic missions abroad.
“The cancellation of consular services now places exiled Belarusians in a precarious position. Unless they return to Belarus to renew expired passports, they could find themselves without their primary identification document and unable to access a wide range of essential services in their current countries of residence,” wrote Hanna Liubokova, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“However, returning to Belarus could result in arrest and prosecution in connection with their earlier involvement in anti-regime protests.”
For example, a Belarusian abroad wanting to sell property back home through a third person needs to grant power of attorney but that can only be done from inside Belarus, Krystsina Rykhter, a legal adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.
“The same applies to notarization and state registration of contracts related to real estate and vehicles,” she said.
No reliable figures are available on how many Belarusians have fled the country since the tainted 2020 presidential election.
Research by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe indicates that as many as 500,000 Belarusians may have resettled abroad in that time.
Minsk Already Cracking Down On Returning Belarusians
As many as 100 Belarusians who were living as expats have been detained so far this year upon their arrival back in Belarus, according to Vyasna, which was designated as “extremist” by Lukashenka’s government in August.
“The numbers are approximate, because we usually learn about mass cases of detention, as was the case in June when about 40 people were detained. Or we learn about cases of detention related to criminal cases,” Svyatlana Golovneva, a Vyasna lawyer, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Veranika Kazak was detained by Belarusian security forces on August 25 after her return from Italy, where she has resided for several years, Current Time reported. Upon arrival, she was reportedly summoned by police in Minsk for questioning about comments she had posted on social media. Her current whereabouts are unknown. According to Vyasna, an unspecified criminal case has been opened against Kazak.
Returning Belarusians have been facing greater scrutiny at the border for more than three months now, activists say. Security officials often check their mobile phones or question them about whether they took part in any of the 2020 postelection protests or even their views on the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Russia used Belarus as a launchpad for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Many of the 30,000 Russian troops stationed in Belarus poured over the border into Ukraine, only to be beaten back.
Routes Back Home Closing
Getting home for many Belarusians is not necessarily a simple task.
Flights between European destinations and Belarus have been severely restricted since the European Union imposed overflight and airport bans following Belarus faking a bomb threat to reroute an international flight carrying dissident blogger Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend in May 2021.
For those wishing to travel back by road, options are also diminishing as countries bordering landlocked Belarus shut border crossings amid ongoing migrant and security crises along with other sources of tension with Minsk.
Poland has closed all but one border crossing with Belarus this year following the imprisonment of a journalist of Polish origin and expulsions of Polish diplomats. Lithuania has closed two of six border crossings.
On August 28, Poland and all three Baltic states vowed to close their borders with Belarus entirely in the event of any “critical incident” involving mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said in remarks quoted by Reuters.
EU and NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, which each share a border with Belarus, have been increasingly concerned about border security since hundreds of battle-hardened Wagner mercenaries arrived in Belarus at the invitation of Lukashenka following an abortive mutiny in Russia.
Those neighbors have also seen an increase in the number of mainly Middle Eastern and African migrants trying to cross the border in recent months and accuse Belarus of facilitating them, a claim Minsk rejects. The crisis at the EU’s eastern border with Belarus had otherwise eased since Minsk intensified flights from non-European destinations in 2021 as part of what Western officials dubbed Lukashenka’s inhumane “weaponization” of third-country migrants.
In February, Lukashenka’s government established a commission ostensibly to “aid” Belarusians wavering about whether to return home to provide them with practical information, including whether arrest warrants await them at home.
Critics fear the commission is just another tool to locate Lukashenka opponents — something he himself appeared to allude to in comments on February 6 when the new body was announced. “We should look not only at the so-called opposition in exile. There can be others. They understand very well that we will find them anyway. Someone will apply to the commission. You will sort everything out in the commission,” Lukashenka said.
For Belarusians wary of risking arrest, part of the organized opposition abroad hopes they will opt for their version of the same document. Self-exiled Belarusian opposition members unveiled an alternative “new national passport” on August 6. Valer Kavaleuski of the group United Interim Cabinet of Belarus told a conference in Warsaw that talks with the European Union were under way to get the passport recognized.
Whether the international community or Belarusians will opt for that is unclear. Many analysts, however, are predicting a rise in the number of Belarusians either applying for asylum abroad or seeking citizenship in the foreign countries where they now reside.