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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

BELARUS NOTES #5: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT

Among the many disconcerting developments in Belarus this year, Alyaksandr Lukashenka's decree in early September on the rules surrounding passport renewals warrants particular attention from the international community. Many exiled Belarusians, who have a passport today, will not have one in the future as a result of the decree; it will therefore render many people 'stateless'.


Lukashenka's decision happened to coincide with the exiled opposition unveiling its alternative, 'New Belarus' passport. While some saw the timing of the two announcements as fortunate for the opposition, the reality is that the New Belarus passport will have a difficult time obtaining international recognition. For this reason, alternative solutions to exiled Belarusians' passport predicament should not be foreclosed by the opposition.


Decree No. 278


Lukashenka's decree of 4 September concerns procedures for issuing documents to citizens. In particular, under the pretext of 'optimising' the work of the country's embassies and consulates abroad, passports can only be renewed or extended by citizens in person on the territory of Belarus since September. Consequently, any exiled Belarusian unwilling to return to Belarus -- for example because they fear being arrested on their return -- risks being left stateless once their current passport expires.


This is a significant problem given the numbers of Belarusians prospectively affected. Following the 2020 presidential election, the Belarusian authorities clamped down hard on protests and at least 300,000 people left the country; many fear that they will be arrested were they to return to Belarus for their involvement in that year's popular uprising. Other legislative changes this year mean that the threshold for depriving Belarusians of citizenship has already been lowered considerably. The most recent change means the Belarusian authorities can 'disown' citizens who do not return to Belarus.


Stateless individuals will not be able to travel freely and find themselves discriminated against in other ways. The Belarusian opposition were quick to point out, as well, that children born to Belarusians outside the country will not be issued with a national identity or travel document. Of course, not all of those who left the country fear returning to Belarus, but those who participated in the protests of 2020 will be nervous to do so and will be aware of cases of people being detained at the border when entering the country.


The New Belarus passport


It seems to be by chance that the opposition had been working on its own alternative passport. The Office of Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her 'government in exile' hope that the New Belarus passport will meet international standards. Indeed, an issue that was raised early on was the security of the document. This was never going to be an insurmountable problem, however, because the Belarusian diaspora includes many IT and security specialists. The production of the passports can be outsourced to an appropriate enterprise in the European Union, as I think is the plan, and they will have a microchip containing biometric data about the bearer.


The bigger challenges, in my view, concern accountability and legitimacy. The two issues are related. In respect of legitimacy, the problem is twofold. The position taken by most western states (Lithuania is an exception) after 2020 was that they did not recongise the election in Belarus; in other words, these states rejected the process rather than recognise any given individual as the legitimate winner. Accordingly, it is not apparent why they would recognise a document issued by a 'government' they don't officially recognise.


Moreover, even if western states decided today to recognise Tsikhanouskaya as the winner of the last election, they would still face the issue that her term will expire in 2025. The new passport will not be issued until the middle of 2024 at the earliest -- and questions about the 'legitimacy' of the 'government' issuing it will soon loom large.


(At this point I wish to mention the chutzpah of a certain Boris Johnson. He recently recorded a video in which he 'recalled' that Tsikhanouskaya had won the election; that wasn't a position taken by the UK government in August 2020 and so I hope he takes it up with the person holding the office of British prime minister at the time... oh, hang on...!)


As regards accountability, I'm not sure I've quite pinned down the issue. But if the passport is recognised and concerns arise about the issuer abusing their issuer's privilege, who is to be held accountable? Here I admit that I do not know how much accountability exists surrounding state-issued passports at present. Russia has certainly abused its passport-issuing authority in the past, issuing identity documents to citizens in Georgia's regions. It is using similar tactics in the occupied regions of Ukraine today. But it is at least clear that the Russian state is the entity that must answer for these actions and one can imagine there being suitable procedures and courts that it might be a signatory to.


The third alternative


The Belarusian opposition is aware of the difficulties they face. One of Tsikhanouskaya's chief advisers, Franak Viachorka, claimed in an interview to Open Democracy that two European countries had provisionally agreed to recognise the document. Although he did not disclose which states these were, one would guess that Lithuania is one, and Poland most probably the other.


European states, apprised of the issue, are making their individual provisions. Tsikhanouskaya claimed, for instance, that Germany will recognise expired Belarusian passports. The German interior ministry, however, said something different to the Associated Press: Germany will consider whether it is 'reasonable' to issue replacement paperwork. That is the more feasible position -- states will treat people on a case-by-case basis. More importantly, I think the Belarusian opposition is overly optimisitic about the future recognition of the passport. No one I have spoken to in the United Kingdom seems to think it likely that the document will attain recognition in this country.


Even if the European Union member states were to recognise the document, it would still afford passport holders only limited travel options. A document with the UN's imprimatur would seem to me a better ambition in giving freedom of movement globally. The UN does issue renewable travel documents to refugees, the modern day version of the Nansen passport, and it may make more sense for the opposition to think about how to contribute to the UN's ongoing work towards better support for stateless peoples. This will potentially help to keep the issue on the agenda within the UN system, responding to a warning issued in September by a group of UN special rapporteurs about the consequences of Decree No. 278.


The New Belarus passport, whose design features national symbols rejected by the Lukashenka regime, serves as a good rallying cry within the diaspora which was presumably its original intention. It is less clear that it is a solution to the problem of Lukashenka's September decree.



Image credit: Cropped and rendered black and white by me. Original from Kremlin.ru and used under creative commons licence 4.0.

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