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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Russia And Belarus Are Cracking Down On Exiles — And A Passport Fix To Fight Back

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is making it impossible for citizens who've fled the country to renew their passports, which may make some effectively stateless. What are some possible solutions?

Photo of a customs official stamping a passport in Minsk, Belarus

Stamping passports in Minsk, Belarus

Boris Gorozovsky

Under strict new measures introduced by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, foreign embassies may no longer issue documents to Belarusians. This will make it impossible for Belarusians outside of the country to renew passports unless they return — which could lead to criminal prosecution for some who fled after the 2020 protests.

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Russia, on the other hand, has adopted a different approach to encourage the return of its citizens abroad. After considering a 30% tax on emigrants' income, they settled on a 13% personal income tax rate.

There are even discussions about allowing Russians abroad to go to consulates to obtain internal passports, which are separate identity documents all Russians are required to have. But there is also growing concern that Russia may follow Belarus' lead by taking harsher measures against expatriates.

State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin proposed that Russians who, while abroad, “discredit the Russian army,” should have their property and passport confiscated.

A bad rap for emigrants

Belarus has gone further than any country in prohibiting citizens abroad from selling property and vehicles unless done in person or through powers of attorney issued within Belarus. This change affects emigrants who sold their assets, assuming they wouldn't return for a long time. Belarusian diplomatic institutions will stop issuing powers of attorney, and previously issued ones will be cancelled. Expired passport holders also face fines wherever they are.

Additionally, Belarus has categorized those working and studying abroad as "parasites," and increased their utility bills. Moreover, Belarus is now revoking citizenship from those convicted of extremist activities or those who serve in the military or police of another state.

Belarus has categorized those working and studying abroad as "parasites."

The wave of emigration from Belarus has been significant, with about a million citizens leaving since 2020, adding to the already large number of Belarusians living abroad. In 2022, a significant number of Russians similarly left their home country, with at least 820,000 departing after the start of the war.

A passport is essential not only for travel but also for employment, banking and other administrative errands — so, what options do those left virtually stateless have, and what can be done to restore their status?

Belarusian President Alexander LukashenkoBelarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Lu Jinbo/Xinhua/ZUMA

New Belarus, and "Good Russians"

Unlike Russia, Belarus has a government-in-exile known as the United Transitional Cabinet (UPK). In early August, the office of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled president-elect of Belarus, announced plans to issue a "New Belarus" passport. However, the chances of this project succeeding are slim. Passports are typically issued by states with controlled territory, and exceptions to this norm are rare.

There are historical instances of governments-in-exile issuing passports. For example, during the Soviet Union's occupation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the U.S. and many European countries did not recognize the annexation. Diplomatic missions continued to issue passports for these Baltic states, which were recognized by countries that opposed the Soviet occupation.

To make New Belarus passports a reality, Tikhanovskaya's office faces several challenges. They must persuade European countries to issue a special country code for this New Belarus, as well as address issues related to collecting and storing personal data.

The Russian government has not pursued the idea of issuing special passports to Russians abroad. In May 2022, Garry Kasparov and Dmitry Gudkov proposed this idea, but it has not progressed beyond debates.

Foreign passports and Geneva passports

A more practical alternative is a foreign passport, which several countries, including EU member states, the U.S., Australia, Japan and Canada, issue to individuals unable to return to their home country. These serve as temporary replacements for regular passports and are typically granted to those with a residence permit.

Russians can also obtain foreign passports under certain circumstances, such as when their current passport is full, or if there have been changes in their name or gender. In such cases, they must provide a valid reason for not obtaining a new passport from their country or its consulate and present their old passport.

Geneva or "blue" passports are recognized by around 150 countries. To obtain one, individuals must prove they have refugee status, indicating they face persecution in their home country. But this status often comes with certain restrictions, such as a six-month prohibition on working and limitations on leaving the host country's borders. Refugees also have limited choice in their place of residence and may be held in refugee detention centers.

Foreigner's passports do not grant new citizenship but offer temporary replacements for expired passports. Nevertheless, they allow individuals to travel within Europe's Schengen free-movement zone, obtain visas for other countries, open bank accounts and secure employment. It's worth noting that these passports do not grant the right to remain in the issuing country if the residence permit expires. For many, foreigner's passports are just a temporary solution until they can secure citizenship elsewhere.

A Belarusian passport


Nansen passports

Considering that foreigner's passports offer only temporary relief and obtaining refugee status has become increasingly complex, revisiting a century-old solution appears to be the most practical approach. This solution, proposed by Norwegian explorer and public figure Fridtjof Nansen, involved the issuance of "Nansen passports."

These passports were introduced by the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, between 1922 and 1938. They emerged in response to the Soviet government's decision in 1921 to strip citizenship from around 800,000 expats.

Many of these individuals not only lacked legal status but also faced dire living conditions. Nansen's efforts extended beyond passports, encompassing humanitarian and social assistance for Russian refugees. Initially, he anticipated that many Russians would return home, but some were met with violence by the Bolsheviks, while others were denied entry into the country.

Nansen passports served not only Russian emigrants but also Armenian refugees escaping the Ottoman Empire's genocide, as well as Assyrian, Turkish and Bulgarian refugees. Approximately 450,000 of these passports were issued, including to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. By 1926, Nansen passports were recognized by over 20 countries, a number that grew to 52 by 1942.

Similar to modern foreigner's passports, Nansen passports functioned as travel documents and protected holders from deportation. However, they didn't offer coverage under the comprehensive social, medical and pension security systems seen today in Europe.

At the time, obtaining the right to reside in a specific country was also less challenging compared to the present. Nansen passports were typically issued for one year, with the possibility of extension, allowing recipients to live and work in all European countries recognizing them.

Nansen passports essentially represented the first document offering international protection and legal status to stateless individuals — those without a nation to call their own. Over time, the number of stateless people increased. After World War II, the rights provided by Nansen passports were incorporated into the international refugee convention.

Nevertheless, the growing refugee influx made obtaining refugee status increasingly arduous. In 1921, the League of Nations recognized all Russians who had left their homeland without acquiring another citizenship as refugees. Today, this process is lengthy and bureaucratic, with outcomes influenced by the individual's country of origin. For instance, in 2015, nearly all Syrian applicants received refugee status, compared to only 29% of people from Mali.

Given these challenges, many see the most rational solution as reviving Nansen passports, adapted to modern circumstances. Such passports could offer a lifeline to people fleeing their countries due to conflict and dictatorships, enabling them to exist abroad without adopting the citizenship of other nations.

What to expect

In June, the UN Refugee Commission began contemplating the 21st-century iteration of Nansen passports (consultations are ongoing). These passports are expected to incorporate biometric features, and countries participating in the initiative will commit to safeguarding passport holders from forced repatriation and facilitating their return to countries where they have been granted asylum.

It's likely that these passports will have a longer validity period than current foreigner's passports and could be recognized as legitimate identification for financial institutions.

If implemented, these new Nansen passports would closely resemble current foreigner's passports, with key advantages being their extended validity and issuance by the UN. This would reduce dependency on the goodwill of specific countries, which could be particularly relevant for those who have left Russia.

For instance, in 2022-2023, Poland and Lithuania readily issued foreigner's passports to Ukrainians and Belarusians. However, it was difficult for Russians to obtain these documents, which required a residence permit.

These new passports could provide reassurance to individuals seeking a stable future.

The potential for these new Nansen passports to become a universal solution is significant. They could aid not only Russians and Belarusians but also the approximately 26 million refugees identified by the UN and OECD in 2021.

A similar approach, with expanded rights, has also been proposed for citizens of island nations who are facing displacement due to rising sea levels, granting them the right to choose a new state for themselves.

Nevertheless, a major hurdle remains: not all countries are currently willing to support such a system. Host countries are often hesitant to grant refugees the freedom to choose their new place of residence.

During the 2015-2016 migration crisis, Central and Eastern European countries resisted efforts by Brussels and Germany to increase their refugee intake. Only recent political crises, such as the situation in Belarus and Russia's conflict with Ukraine, have prompted some of these countries to agree to accept "kindred" Belarusians and Ukrainians.

Russians and refugees from other nations cannot necessarily expect a similar reception.

It's improbable that the new Nansen passports will grant the right to live in any country, including the Schengen zone. In such a scenario, they would represent a slightly enhanced version of current foreigner's passports.

Nevertheless, even in this form, these new passports could provide reassurance and confidence to individuals who have lost their citizenship and are seeking a stable future.

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