Estonia supports the initiative of democratic forces in Belarus to start issuing their own passports to offset obstacles created by the Lukashenko regime, but emphasizes that whether to recognize them must be a EU-level decision.
"We first and foremost sharply condemn the Lukashenko regime's attempts to punish citizens who have left the country, to control people outside the country who might not agree with the regime, which we interpret as a fundamental violation of the basic rights of Belarusian citizens," said Marko Koplimaa, Estonia's special representative with the Belarusian opposition. "But our political reaction to exile passports needs debate, and we can shape our political attitude for these debates together with partner countries at this time," he added.
"Regarding recognition of the document to be issued by the Belarusian opposition, we should proceed based on an EU-wide decision for all countries to have the same reaction. If recognition is optional, people could get stuck moving from one country to another," said Janek Mägi, head of the Ministry of the Interior's border guard and migration policy department.
He suggested that if a Belarusian citizen cannot return home to renew their passport, alternative solutions are a possibility. "As concerns individual cases of expired documents and the person being unable to return home to renew it, or other reasons, those will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis," Mägi said.
Alexander Lukashenko in early September ordered Belarusian embassies to stop issuing passports in foreign countries, which requires people who have left Belarus to return to the country to renew their travel document. Until then, Belarusian living abroad could renew their passports at the country's foreign representations.
Vitali Molchanov, representative of the office of Belarus' democratic opposition leader in Estonia and Latvia, told ERR that the opposition's information suggests half a million people have left Belarus following the elections fraud of 2020 and the repressions that followed. Belarus has a population of around 9.5 million.
Hundreds of people have been sentenced to prison for anti-Lukashenko statements during and after protests in the country were quashed, many have been tortured in prison and several have allegedly died. The Viasna human rights organization suggests there are 1,501 political prisoners in Belarus today.
The country's democratic opposition is afraid that people who decide to return to Belarus may be met with repressions.
The regime's decision not to allow passports to be renewed abroad has drawn criticism from the UN Human Rights Council that wrote on social media how the move violates the rights of thousands of Belarusians in exile, including their freedom of movement.
#Belarus: Decree banning issuance or renewal of passports abroad risks violating rights of thousands of Belarusians in exile, including their freedom of movement. No one should feel pressured to return & risk persecution. We urge review of decree in line with int'l standards.— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) September 8, 2023
Molchanov told ERR that an outdated passport which cannot be renewed causes other problems than restricting mobility, including with opening bank accounts, getting married, real estate transactions and other activities where a person needs to be identified.
Belarus' opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has said that the opposition is preparing to issue a new Belarusian passport.
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
The opposition's representative in Estonia said that a contract with a recognized documents maker has been signed, and samples will now be taken to other countries which are hoped to approve the new document.
Koplimaa told ERR that the democratic forces of Belarus have said that the passport meets all European standards. "We can verify all that once the passports reach us. However, I believe it is more important to find a political solution. It will be a political decision in the end, and we need European-level discussions the time frame of which is very difficult to forecast," he admitted.
"I believe that the entire EU community is trying to come up with some kind of a solution, and we will be working with this new idea for as long as we do not have a better one," Estonia's special representative said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski