Editor’s Note: The full names and some of the locations of the Belarusian citizens quoted in this article have been omitted at their request to protect their identities and those of their loved ones.
After participating in protests and later witnessing the defeat of the Belarusian revolution in 2020, Yauhen and his family were faced with the option of either leaving Belarus or waiting to be arrested.
Belarusians went out into the streets to protest against dictator Alexander Lukashenko when he declared victory against his political opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the 2020 presidential election.
Hundreds of instances of voter fraud were recorded by NGOs like the Voice Platform, the Zubr Platform, and the Honest People Initiative, who came to the conclusion that Lukashenko could not have won 80% of the vote as he had claimed.
Clampdowns against the Belarusian opposition started early on in the protests and have only intensified in the four years since then. The Belarusian human rights organization Viasna reported that as of Jan. 31, they had confirmed the identities of 1,429 political prisoners. Additionally, they were able to confirm criminal convictions against 4,500 people on politically-motivated charges.
Up to 500,000 Belarusians have fled the country in the years that followed, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
“The passage of time (before my family managed to leave) became a constant battle between emotional states. One fear was the thought of prison, and the other was the anxiety of change and everything associated with it,” Yauhen told the Kyiv Independent.
Even though Yauhen and his family resettled in one of the Baltic countries, they, along with the rest of the Belarusian exile community, are now faced with a new setback.
Lukashenko’s regime barred in September 2023 the renewal of Belarusian passports in embassies abroad, putting those with soon-to-be-expired or already expired passports in a precarious legal situation.
The renewal of residence permits or other bureaucratic matters abroad typically requires a valid passport from one’s home country, and for many Belarusian exiles, the prospect of returning to Belarus is not an option for as long as Lukashenko remains in power.
Tsikhanouskaya, who leads her opposition government in exile, has been lobbying other countries to aid Belarusian exiles. One important initiative is the creation of an alternative Belarusian passport that would protect the Belarusian exile community and allow them to take a renewed stance against Lukashenko’s regime.
While there is some historical precedent to these efforts, it is an ambitious undertaking that requires the support of the global community, and some Belarusian exiles fear that they are already running out of time.
‘The nightmare we lived in’
The Lukashenko regime’s disregard toward Belarusian citizens “had been clear for a long time,” according to Yauhen. However, the level of cruelty and violence displayed from 2020 onward was “unthinkable.”
Wanting to stick together, his family weighed their options, eventually deciding to leave the country.
“(Reports of) pressure on children in schools and visits from social services only reinforced our decision,” he added.
Yauhen and his family resettled in one of the Baltic countries in 2022 after some friends helped them prepare all the necessary documents and support for their departure. Before they managed to leave, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, and the presence of Russian soldiers in Belarus, coupled with the audible sounds of military aircraft and missile launches in the direction of Ukraine only added to their anxiety.
Two of Yauhen’s children’s passports were set to expire by the end of 2023. While they successfully managed to schedule an appointment to renew one of them in the spring, the other embassy appointment could only be scheduled for October.
“Then we were told (by the embassy in September) to go back to Belarus. Knowing it was not an option, we continued to seek alternatives in (the country where we now live). As of today, this issue remains unresolved,” Yauhen said.
“I hope that something will be figured out soon. Like most Belarusians, my family does not have time, and the need to find a solution was yesterday.”
Another Belarusian exile, Pavel, wasn’t surprised when he learned that Lukashenko had made it more difficult for Belarusian exiles to renew their passports.
“It was so petty of him and probably the last thing he thought he could do to somehow get back at those of us who openly turned their backs (on him) and took their taxes out of the country,” Pavel said.
Pavel realized his main task was to move to a safer place after receiving a call from a military official inviting him for a “personal conversation” about how it was better to reconsider his views on public policy and reminding him that he had a family.
He left after the full-scale invasion and one of the last things he did was attend an anti-war protest.
Upon resettling in Europe, he got emotional realizing that he could sleep peacefully “without expecting a knock on the door” in the middle of the night.
“Sometimes it’s frightening to realize the nightmare we lived in,” he explained. “On the inside, you kind of got used to it and couldn’t grasp the full scale. It’s only in another country that you begin to understand how abnormal (life in Belarus) is.”
Pavel is in the process of renewing his documents to remain in the country where he currently resides. His passport hasn’t yet expired, but the bureaucratic process, such as waiting on a support hotline for two hours or trying to track down documents lost in the mail, can be dehumanizing.
Across the European continent, there are countless stories of Belarusians facing bureaucratic hurdles and narrowing deadlines.
In Poland, another Belarusian exile, Eugen, has been waiting for his temporary residence permit since 2020. He left Belarus in 2020 but dreamed of leaving even earlier because he saw no freedom or opportunities as long as Lukashenko remained in power.
“I don’t agree with Lukashenko’s idea of what it means to be Belarusian,” he said.
According to the Belarusian Solidarity Center’s statistics from August of 2023, 91,000 Belarusians reside in Poland with some kind of official documents, as opposed to 28,000 three years prior. Belarusians make up the second-largest foreign community in Poland, second only to Ukrainians.
However, only 35,749 of them have gained permanent residency. The majority have temporary residence permits.
After the ban on renewing passports abroad was implemented by Lukashenko in September of 2023, Eugen said he began to get nervous. An official stamp in his passport indicating that he is in the process of filing for residency is what has allowed him to remain legally in Poland, but his passport is set to expire in 2024.
“I'm trying to be realistic and respond to any changes as they come,” he added.
Tsikhanouskaya told the Kyiv Independent that during her trip to Denmark in October, she met with members of the Belarusian diaspora, including an active Belarusian association that has done a lot to support her democratic initiative. One of the association’s own board members, as well as their daughter, have passports set to expire in 2024.
“They can’t travel to Belarus to get a new passport because they expect that the regime will imprison them,” she explained.
The repressive acts taken by the Lukashenko regime against Belarusians in exile include not only the weaponization of passports but also conducting trials in absentia against Belarusians for “extremism” and putting pressure on their family members back home.
“(That’s why) we can’t be surprised when they are now trying to use passports as a form of revenge to deprive up to half a million Belarusians in exile of their citizenship,” Tsikhanouskaya added.
Lukashenko signed a decree in February of 2023 establishing a commission “to work with citizens who wish to return to their homeland” and guarantee that they have not committed a “possible violation of the law,” as Belarusian state media quoted. However, very few Belarusians abroad actually believe in the authenticity of this commission.
This is mainly because the attacks on Belarusian citizens back home are ongoing.
A mass police raid and property seizure was carried out across Belarus at the end of November 2023, which was “one of the most extensive and barbaric attacks by the regime since 2021,” according to a statement later released by Tsikhanouskaya.
“The regime’s logic makes every third person in Belarus a terrorist and a criminal,” she wrote. “They label us terrorists, call us a threat to society, and take our loved ones hostage. But exiled activists are not criminals. The people who continue making Belarus a prison are.”
The design of the alternative Belarusian passport has already been completed, and the Belarusian opposition has made “promising headway” during meetings with foreign governments regarding the use of a specific country code for the passport, according to Tsikhanouskaya.
“The main task at this time is establishing a legal entity for producing and issuing these passports.”
Many governments “clearly understand” the need to find a solution for exiled Belarusians. It is important that they understand given that “the biggest challenge is the legal and diplomatic groundwork needed to make such passports valid internationally,” she added.
The order for materials required to produce authentic passports has recently been placed, and Tsikhanouskaya said that she expects the specimens should be ready sometime before March.
“This is a precondition for us to address national governments with the request to (officially) recognize the passport.”
Tsikhanouskaya and her team have history to guide them, as Lukashenko's methods are reminiscent of those used by the Soviet Union.
After Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, the Soviet authorities attempted to gain control of their diplomatic missions abroad and threatened citizens to return home.
The Soviet authorities published a declaration in the Estonian State Gazette on Aug. 5, 1940, warning that those who did not return to their homeland were considered “outlaws” and, therefore, subject to being shot dead within 24 hours of falling into Soviet custody.
Any remaining adult family members of Estonians considered “outlaws” risked up to 10 years in prison and property seizure if they were judged by a Soviet court to have “contributed in any way” to said act of treason. The decision of the court was final and couldn’t be repealed.
During the years of Soviet occupation, the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian diplomatic services abroad relied on each other for support, and with the backing of Western nations like the U.S. that continued to recognize their sovereignty independent of the USSR, they issued “alternative” passports to those that could prove their citizenship.
“These passports were not just travel documents — they were powerful symbols of resistance,” Tsikhanouskaya explained. “They asserted the existence of the Baltic States as independent entities despite the occupation.”
In today’s digital age, the Belarusian opposition have to contend with online disinformation campaigns reportedly conducted by the Lukashenko regime to hinder their efforts.
A number of illicit websites, social media pages, and advertisements have surfaced online in recent weeks trying to solicit Belarusians’ names and other personal information under the guise of creating a “registry” for the alternative passport.
Tsikhanouskaya accused Lukashenko’s special services of being behind this operation on Feb. 1, aiming to gather information about Belarusians outside the country. She urged Belarusians to protect their personal data and only follow announcements through official channels.
Belarusian state-controlled media later wrote on Feb. 6 that ambassador to Russia Dmitry Krutoy said Belarus was working with Russia to create a shared registry of “extremists” and “extremist materials.”
The Belarusian exile community is largely supportive of Tsikhanouskaya’s initiative to create an alternative passport for both practical and symbolic reasons, even if some are skeptical that it can be implemented in the near future.
“The new Belarusian passport, as a continuation of our protracted revolution, is a fine and fortunate initiative. It is an opportunity to show that Belarusians do not identify themselves with the regime or the aggressor,” Yauhen said.
For those Belarusians residing in a country outside of the EU who cannot enjoy the freedom of movement of the Schengen area, such a document will be especially practical and useful.
However, Yauhen also expressed his concern that the Belarusian opposition possessed enough “intellectual and financial resources” to make this act effective.
“This ambitious and unprecedented project requires perfection and time,” he said.
But Eugen in Poland is hopeful and believes the alternative Belarusian passport has a great chance to succeed.
“This could be a big step forward in this political war. No one lives forever, but ideas do. We all believe in better changes,” he said.
Pavel added that he hopes to hear less about how foreign officials are “deeply concerned” by the Lukashenko regime’s actions and see them come up with strong actions of their own in support of the Belarusian exile community.
“Many Belarusians suffered for the ideals they pursued during the revolution, some by imprisonment, others by losing their homes and friends. The success of this new passport would be a symbol that, although it's difficult, we are moving toward building a new Belarus.”
Note from the author:
Hi, this is Kate Tsurkan, thanks for reading this article. It's important to remember that the Belarusian people's fight for a better nation is ongoing, particularly in light of the Lukashenko regime continuing to target innocent people. If you enjoyed reading this story please consider supporting our reporting.