oDR: Analysis

Lukashenka is repopulating Belarus with pro-government citizens

While moving to strip dissidents of citizenship, Belarus’s president is offering passports to a very different group

Igor Ilyash
11 January 2023, 11.07am

Alexander Lukashenka has been in power since 1994

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Image: President of Belarus

After two years of arrests and persecution against dissidents in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka’s regime is looking for new ways of dealing with the fallout of the post-election protests that shook the country in 2020 and 2021.

On 5 January, Lukashenka signed a new law into effect: it allows the authorities to revoke Belarusian citizenship from people outside the country who “have lost their legal connection” with the Belarusian state.

“Are these people worthy of being citizens of Belarus if they fled from their native country and actually severed ties with it?” Lukashenka asked in September 2022.

Thousands have left the country since 2020 as Belarusian security forces arrested and imprisoned anyone they could find – and now the threat of expulsion will be used to “encourage” even more people to leave.

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Indeed, the real reason the Belarusian authorities have introduced this new piece in their repressive toolkit appears to be an effort to change the nature of Belarusian society itself.

Leave if you want

In 2020, after thousands of people came out against elections that the OSCE found were “not transparent, free or fair”, Lukashenka rejected the possibility of any compromise with society and launched a large-scale campaign of political repression.

The purpose of the repression was not only to throw thousands of individuals into prison. It was even more important to intimidate everyone else and push tens of thousands to leave the country. The authorities saw this move as a guarantee for the long-term stabilisation of the political situation.

Just a few days after the 2020 presidential elections, the then secretary of the Belarusian Security Council hinted that those who were dissatisfied with the regime could move to the West, “each freeing up their jobs here, places for children in the kindergarten, reducing the burden on teachers at school, competition to enter the university and seeing a doctor”. Soon, Lukashenka openly talked about the fact that the departure of dissidents from the country was good for the state.

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Thousands of people have been arrested, jailed or left the country since Belarus' 2020 elections

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(c) Maksim Safaniuk / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Lukashenka instructed the Belarusian education ministry not to recognise Western diplomas in the country, and also promised not to let “smart Belarusians who left our country at this difficult time” return home. At that time, the authorities periodically restricted entry and exit from the country, and also threatened to close the borders completely. Against the backdrop of mass repressions and official promises to identify everyone who joined the protests, the regime’s message was unambiguous: leave Belarus while you still have the opportunity, and don’t come back.

It is not possible to calculate accurately how many Belarusians left after the 2020 presidential elections: only a small number of migrants officially apply for refugee status or other forms of protection. But according to some experts, between 135,000 and 300,000 Belarusians left the country.

Sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky believes that the departure of Belarusians abroad has become one of the sources for maintaining Lukashenka’s rating within the country – in effect, Vardomatsky says, there’s a slow reduction of the number of people who are against the regime.

A blow to the exiles

So far, it remains unclear how widely the Belarusian authorities are going to use the mechanism of deprivation of citizenship.

The law states that Belarusians who are abroad can be deprived of their citizenship “for participating in extremist activities or causing grievous harm to the interests of the Republic of Belarus”.

The wording does not allow for double interpretations: after 2020, “extremism” has firmly entered the newspeak of the Belarusian authorities as a term for any form of dissent and protest activity.

Those “extremists” include the iconic faces of Belarus’ political opposition in exile – who in turn the authorities have tried in absentia.

But it’s telling that trials in absentia, under so-called new “special procedures” laws, have only been used against the leading lights of the opposition, like Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Pavel Latushko and many others.

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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian opposition leader

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(c) UPI / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

These are people who the regime considers their own personal enemies, but they are comparatively less vulnerable than regular Belarusians outside the country.

“By and large, [these people] have opposed themselves to the country. They no longer have any connection with this country. Accordingly, how should they be treated? It must be admitted that they lost their citizenship on their own. And the state in this case can recognize the fact of such a loss,” the deputy head of the Belarusian Presidential Administration Olga Chupris explained.

But at the same time, the authorities are not going to automatically revoke the citizenship of everyone who left: doing so requires a court verdict in a criminal case related to politics. The room for manoeuvre is large: in total, 55 different articles of the Criminal Code are indicated in the law.

Replacement of voters

The Belarusian authorities will likely not deprive people of citizenship en masse in the near future. There’s little need, in the regime’s eyes, anyway.

Political émigrés have turned out to be de facto disenfranchised, after the authorities simply refused to open polling stations abroad for the 2022 constitutional referendum. Now the ban on voting outside of Belarus is planned to be enshrined in the country’s electoral code.

Yet the authorities continue to remind émigrés that only prison awaits them at home.

There are many cases when, immediately upon arrival home, Belarusians have been arrested for participating in protests or leaving comments on social networks, and were forced to record “repentant videos”. An attempt to attend the funeral of one’s parents or just visit relatives can turn into years behind bars.

Often such actions are demonstrative. For example, in December 2022, human rights activists reported that border guards stopped buses with Belarusians returning home, checked their passports and called for the riot police.

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For Belarusians who have their country, the border is now fraught with danger

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(c) Free Belarus! / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Lukashenka himself periodically calls on people to return home, but these statements are more like mockery. “My advice to you: come home, repent and kneel… Pay the fines for the damage done… Sit somewhere quietly for a while,” he said. He even promised to create a “public commission” to decide the fate of each “fugitive”. The commission, he suggested, should be headed by one of the main architects of the mass repression that followed the 2020 elections, general prosecutor Andrei Shved, and state propagandist Grigory Azarenok, who publicly calls for reprisals against dissidents.

At the same time, in the last year and a half, another trend has emerged: in parallel with the expulsion of “unreliable” people from Belarus, the authorities began to actively distribute passports to loyal foreigners.

As a result, 7,317 foreign citizens received Belarusian citizenship over the past 16 months. These people are largely Ukrainian migrants from Donbas who have no existing legal link to Belarus, but crucially hold pro-Russian and pro-Lukashenka views. In August 2021, Lukashenka ordered that passports be issued to a “certain category” of Ukrainians in a simplified manner. “In general, these are our people,” he said.

Ultimately, the regime’s current manipulations with citizenship are the logical continuation of a large-scale campaign to build a new totalitarian society, from which all dissidents must be excluded in one way or another.

The Lukashenka regime experienced a strategic catastrophe after the 2020 elections, completely losing its legitimacy in the eyes of a significant part of the country's population.

The authorities have not been able to get out of this electoral abyss since then. And as it was not possible to change the sympathies of the people, Lukashenka decided to – at least partially – replace Belarusian society itself.

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