Belarusian law students enrolled at European Humanities University are filing reports with JURIST on current circumstances in Belarus under the constitutionally-disputed presidency of Alexander Lukashenka. Katsiaryna Vasilionak files this dispatch from Vilnius, Lithuania.
A decree on passports that came into effect late last year has effectively stranded tens of thousands of Belarusians living abroad who cannot or will not return to the country to renew their documents. Decree No. 278 “On the Procedure for Issuing Documents and Performing Actions” by Lukashenko came into effect in Belarus in September 2023.
This decree provided that citizens of the Republic of Belarus can no longer exchange or extend their passports at Belarus embassies and consulates abroad; instead, they must personally come to Belarus to do so. What does this mean, and why is the adoption of the decree so serious?
The legislative changes actually affect three crucial areas:
1) Passports: Belarusians whose passports are expiring and who cannot return to Belarus can now only rely on alternative documents such as a foreigner’s travel document. Since the new decree by Lukashenko has taken effect, obtaining a passport of a citizen of the Republic of Belarus at consular offices has practically become impossible. Those Belarusians who were not involved in protest activities can return to Belarus. However, individuals who publicly expressed their views are effectively presented with two options: either go to Belarus for a passport and face imprisonment or explore opportunities to obtain a travel document in their country of residence.
The consular service had only one formal reason to refuse to extend the validity of a passport or issue a new one: if a person was prohibited from leaving Belarus.
Now, consulates have basically lost the authority to exchange passports or extend their validity period. The only procedures that consuls can perform with passports are to withdraw them and issue certificates for return to Belarus.
2) Real Estate: The state has closed the possibility of dealing with real estate or other property located outside Belarus. Now, this is only possible with personal presence or if a notarized power of attorney is issued within the territory of Belarus. Moreover, Belarusians can no longer inherit or dispose of such property.
3) Education: Young people and students can no longer obtain an apostille (certification) on their documents for university admission and job searches. An apostille is an internationally standardized form containing information about the legitimacy of a document for presentation in countries recognizing such a form of legalization. Now, obtaining it is possible only in person in Belarus.
For Belarusians who have left the country, this decree signifies a specific refusal by the state to fulfill its obligations to its citizens. Every Belarusian citizen residing far beyond the country’s borders may face the problem of passport expiration.
Referring to UN data, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry says that in 2020, about 1.5 million Belarusians lived outside the country. The last three years have seen the largest wave of emigration in the history of Belarus. Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, referring to PACE data, reported that from August 2020 from 200 to 500 thousand people left the country.
What options do Belarusians have? Lithuania and Poland have mechanisms to address similar issues: in these countries, it is possible to obtain a “foreigner’s passport” if the passport issued in Belarus has expired or run out of pages, and obtaining a new one is not feasible.
Another option is a Geneva passport. A Geneva passport is a document that can be obtained by a person with refugee status. It is recognized by more than 140 countries in the world, including EU members. However, before any trip using such a passport, it is worth checking the list of these countries.
Democratic forces led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya are working towards the recognition of passports from the “New Belarus.” However, this process requires time. The situation of the impossibility of obtaining passports abroad may expedite this process due to increased complexity.
Thus, many Belarusians are trapped by the actions of the Lukashenko regime now. Legalization, education, sale of real estate and even marriage have become impossible if you do not have the opportunity to return to Belarus. This is, without a doubt, the biggest challenge for Belarusians since August 2020 and the controversial presidential elections.
Opinions expressed in JURIST Dispatches are solely those of our correspondents in the field and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.