Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, has ordered its foreign missions stop issuing passports to those citizens who need to apply for one.
The fear is that this will prompt panic returning on the part of the regime's many critics, who often live abroad, often as nearby as neighboring Lithuania, to avoid persecution.
Their return ahead of a passport expiring could then set them up for reprisals, it is feared.
The highest-profile Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, tweeted that a new Belarusian passport was under preparation in conjunction with host countries.
Today, the Lukashenka regime denied Belarusians abroad the ability to obtain new passports at diplomatic missions. We're working with host countries to solve the situation & preparing the New Belarus passport. While the state abandons its duty to care for its citizens, we won't! pic.twitter.com/bxaQi8aIdH— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) September 5, 2023
Tsihanovskaya, who sought refuge in Lithuania following a major crackdown on dissidents in Belarus starting in 2020 during presidential elections widely thought to have been rigged, did not elaborate on how this passport system would work and whether it would, for instance, simply function as a travel document outside of Belarus itself.
Belarus has become further isolated internationally since then, given its alignment with Vladimir Putin's Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
While Belarusian troops are not known to have taken part in the invasion and occupation directly, Lukashenko permitted the Russian military to use the country as a staging post. More recently, mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group were "exiled" there in the wake of a failed coup in June led by the now-deceased Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Whereas in Russia the Putin regime must simultaneously balance various powerful interest groups within the country in order to remain in power, the far smaller and more homogenous Belarus allows for a dictatorship in the more classical sense. Lukashenko has been leader since 1994, almost the entire period since the collapse of the Soviet Union of which Belarus was a constituent republic.
Monday's decree as issued by Lukashenko permits Belarusian citizens to obtain or renew a passport only from consular offices within the country and hear to their most recently registered residence.
Until now, Belarusians living abroad were able to obtain new passports at the country's diplomatic missions, including in Tallinn, where the embassy is located on Magdaleena street.
Minsk has jailed hundreds of people (the human rights organization Viasna puts the number of political prisoners there at 1,501) who have spoken out against the Lukashenko regime since August 2020, while tens of thousands of Belarusians fled the country and have been fearful of what might happen if they return home.
Not being able to obtain a passport while abroad can threaten their legal status in their country of residence in addition to causing problems when liaising with authorities in Belarus.
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: AFP, BNS