Belarusians Abroad Face Document Limbo
A new decree requires citizens to renew passports in-country, putting exiled government critics at risk.
Belarus has tightened its rules for renewing passports and other essential documents for citizens living abroad, leaving opposition figures and human rights activists in exile at risk of statelessness.
The regulation, signed into law by President Alexander Lukashenko on September 4, requires Belarusians to return to their home country to obtain the documents. Belarusian embassies no longer have the authority to issue them.
“The decree is a blow to Lukashenko’s opponents,” Belarusian political scientist Valery Karbalevich, who is based in Lithuania, told IWPR. “The state has abandoned one of its fundamental responsibilities: protecting its citizens abroad. The expulsion [or forced exile] of the regime’s critics was merely the first phase of purging disloyal citizens. The next step is revoking their citizenship and assets belonging to those who have left. [Many] Belarusians may now consider applying for residency, asylum, or citizenship in other countries.”
The opposition in exile is negotiating with the EU to agree an alternative document for Belarusians who fled the country to confirm their citizenship and grant freedom of movement within the Schengen area.
Street protests broke out in August 2020 over Lukashenko’s election win, which critics, including international observers, stated was rigged. Demonstrations lasted for months until security forces suppressed them, triggering a mass exodus.
Many Belarusians in exile remain uncertain about the threats to their safety back home, where nearly 1,500 people remain in jail for political reasons, including 33 journalists.
RISK OF STATELESSNESS
An active passport is necessary for every administrative task abroad, including acquiring residence permits. Under Belarusian law, citizens who allow their passports to expire and fail to renew them can be subject to fines, regardless of where they live.
Since 2020, at least 60 citizens have faced detention during passport checks at the Belarusian border upon their return. Some discovered that criminal cases had been initiated against them for their social media activity, despite not being in Belarus during the 2020 protests. As a result, many found themselves sentenced to prison terms once back in the country.
Legal experts noted that severing the ties between the state and its citizens can lead to statelessness.
“Similar practices of exerting control over the citizens in emigration have been observed in other countries, for example Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,” commented Azizbek Ashurov, a Kyrgyz lawyer who was awarded the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award in 2019 for his work to end statelessness in Kyrgyzstan.
“For example, an Uzbekistan regulation stipulated that if an Uzbek citizen failed to register with a consulate abroad, they would lose their citizenship. Uzbekistan had no consulates in many countries [which] means that if an Uzbek was in a country with no diplomatic representation they would lose their citizenship. Many people did not even realise they effectively became stateless.”
Alina (not her real name) fled Belarus in the summer of 2021 and relocated to Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city, with her five-year-old son.
Georgian law allows Belarusians to live and work in the country for one year. Subsequently, they must leave Georgia for a day (a process known as “resetting”) before re-entering to live for another year. Now, like many other Belarusians, Alina will need to sort out her legalisation status in Georgia. Her son’s passport expires in 2024.
“Next year he will be left without documents; with no valid passport he will not have access to services like medical insurance,” the 42-year-old editor told IWPR. “I will try to apply for a residence permit in Georgia through the school, but he still won’t be able to travel. I also do not know what to do when his residence permit expires. Lawyers suggest applying for international protection, but in Georgia, such cases can take up to two years and I do not know of any positive stories.”
Belarusians abroad are short of options. Currently Estonia, Lithuania and Poland are the only countries providing travel documents to residency-holder Belarusians whose passports have expired.
In other countries they can apply for refugee status, which is a lengthy process and a distinct option from having a valid passport for international travel. In the EU, citizens can obtain a residence permit and subsequently apply for a special foreigner travel passport, which grants them the ability to travel within the Schengen zone. However, to acquire this document it is necessary to have temporary or permanent residency.
Belarusian activist Anisia Kozlyuk used to work at the Viasna Human Rights Centre, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, who is serving a ten-year sentence. Living in Ukraine since 2021, she planned to renew her passport at Poland’s Belarusian consulate, but will not be able to under the new rules.
“My passport is valid until 2026, but there’s no space left for visas,” Anisia explained. “To obtain a travel document in my situation, I’d need to apply for refugee status or additional protection status, but these options are not viable in Ukraine due to the absence of the necessary legal mechanisms. Now I have to relocate to Poland.”
AN ALTERNATIVE PASSPORT
The office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in 2020 and is considered by many the legitimate winner of the vote, is working to issue New Democratic Belarus passports. Based in Lithuania, the self-declared government-in-exile has opened more than 20 alternative embassies and information centres abroad.
The document reportedly meets the requirements set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and Lithuania has already signalled its potential willingness to share its alphanumeric code for this alternative passport. However, it would not exempt Belarusians from obtaining a Schengen visa or EU residence permit.
“This document will confirm Belarusian citizenship and will serve as a travel document for exiled Belarusians. We are taking lessons from the Baltic States who continued to issue their national passports in exile during the Soviet occupation,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
The outcome of the initiative depends on political will, but the move could set a precedent as it challenges conventional concepts of sovereignty and state authority.
“Accepting the passport issued by an authority that is not recognised as a legitimate representative of a state is an unusual instrument,” Rainer Bauböck, of the Global Governance Programme at Italy’s European University Institute, told IWPR. “It is different from a contested state scenario, like Kosovo, where we have two governments. Belarus has one government in power that is under sanctions and a government in exile that claims that it should be recognised [as legitimate].”
He noted that if Tsikhanouskaya was recognised as the leader of a legitimate government as a functioning authority that can perform the functions of the government in exile, that “might change the game [and] it’d be easier to recognise documents issued by that government. Getting all the Baltic states on board may strengthen this proposal inside the EU”.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have voiced their support for the initiative, but Tallinn has made it clear that the decision on these passports should be taken at the EU level
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.