Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says she and her cabinet are planning to issue passports next year that could ease travel hurdles for many Belarusians forced to live in exile.
The political activist, who was declared the winner in the 2020 presidential election by outside observers but was forced into exile after incumbent Alexander Lukashenko seized power, told VOA in an interview in Washington on Thursday that issuing passports would be an unprecedented initiative for her exile government. Lukashenko has banned the country’s embassies from renewing passports for citizens who live abroad.
“I understand the fear [that some might have] about this project, but unconventional times need unconventional decisions. It is necessary to show dictators they cannot own people. They cannot make people return home and detain them,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
Tsikhanouskaya lives with her two children in Vilnius, Lithuania. Her husband, popular video blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, 43, was arrested shortly after announcing his candidacy for the 2020 presidential vote. Later, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the Lukashenko regime.
Tsikhanouskaya came to the U.S. capital with members of her cabinet to participate in the Strategic Dialogue, a bilateral forum between U.S. officials and the Belarusian Democratic Forces.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: I know you came to Washington this time to take part in this initiative called the Strategic Dialogue. Can you tell us more about it?
Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Strategic Dialogue is a new level of relationship between the USA and the democratic forces of Belarus. I hope that at the beginning of the strategic dialogue, working groups between the U.S. government and democratic forces will be launched on different topics.
We need a consistent focus on problems such as political prisoners in our country, threats to our independence, accountability for representatives of the regime who committed crimes against people, who became complicit in the war and abduction of Ukrainian children.
Of course, one important issue is commitment to the future because we all understand that sooner or later there will be negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, because of this war, and Belarus should be a part of that. Belarus shouldn’t be given as a consolation prize for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin during these negotiations.
VOA: In September, Lukashenko issued a decree basically banning the Belarusian embassies from issuing passports overseas to Belarusian citizens. Why do you think he has done that?
Tsikhanouskaya: Of course it’s revenge on all those people who are opposing the regime. And he can’t reach them because they live at the moment in peaceful countries, but they are not giving up the fight against Lukashenko’s regime. So that’s why he wants to make life more difficult for people, and of course, it’s a huge challenge for us because Belarusians can’t live illegally in different countries.
But when you can’t renew your passports, you can’t register your newborn children or you can’t get any documents, so it’s rather difficult. So that’s why we are working of course on this issue with our other credit partners, and we are proposing a short-term solution to this issue and a long-term solution.
As a short-term solution, we are asking to give passports of foreigners to Belarusian people and here in the USA to provide temporary protection status to Belarusians because of this extraordinary situation.
But what is more important for us is to issue our own passports – passports of new Belarus to Belarusians. It’s rather unprecedented. No one has done this before, but it will be the more systematic approach.
VOA: Who will be the issuing authority for these passports?
Tsikhanouskaya: It will be the united transitional cabinet that was launched last year, the government of the democratic forces [of Belarus].
VOA: When are you expecting to issue the first batch of passports?
Tsikhanouskaya: So the first specimen supposedly will be produced the beginning of next year. We will send the specimens to Brussels for them to evaluate and to capitals of different countries to see what can be done.
VOA: Are you in discussions with the U.S. government, with the EU, with other countries’ governments? Will they be accepting those passports, and what will be the standard for them?
Tsikhanouskaya: Actually, this project is [perceived] rather cautiously because nobody has done this before, and everything new is scary, usually. We haven’t heard any negative feedback on this project. But of course, you know, people have to take this into their hands, send it to [government] ministries for them to believe in the possibility of recognition.
But I know that it’s necessary for us, so that’s why we insist. We’ll explain why it’s necessary to do; we’ll give pros and cons of this. I understand some fear about this project. But I am simply sure that nonconventional times need nonconventional decisions, and it’s necessary to show dictators they can’t own people. They can make people return home and detain them, but to give opportunity to people to be inventive, to be creative, just support us.
[The U.S. State Department did not reply to VOA’s request for a comment about the passport initiative before publication.]
VOA: There was some controversy regarding what to actually call it. Is it like just an ID card? Is it a travel permit? Or is it a full-fledged national alternative Belarusian passport? What are they?
Tsikhanouskaya: It’s a good question, because I think that passport can play different roles. For sure, it’s an identification document – it will be given on the basis of your old passport – but for sure you will need visas in order to travel. It [also] will be a document to help apply for residence permits in different countries.
VOA: You call Moscow’s actions and dominance in Belarus “cultural and identity genocide” toward the Belarusian people. Can you please elaborate on what you mean by that?
Tsikhanouskaya: What’s happening in Belarus now with the allowance of illegitimate Lukashenko is a silent war. It’s not visible from abroad. Nobody pays attention that there is a process of Russification in Belarus. They take our joint Belarusian and European heroes, monuments from museums, and put “Russian” instead. They change road signs from Belarusian language to Russian. We see how they influence Belarusian media and education, in the military sphere, in the economic sphere. It’s a creeping occupation of our country. And it goes on without any attention from democratic countries. Our independence is at stake at the moment, and we need powerful countries who will help us protect it.
VOA: Why do you think Lukashenko is allowing this to happen? Because it looks like he may completely lose autonomy, and if things go south, he can be replaced by Moscow. No?
Tsikhanouskaya: Lukashenko has never valued everything Belarusian. He never speaks the Belarusian language. [Lukashenko has publicly spoken in Belarusian on just a few occasions.]
When he came to power, he changed our national symbols to pro-Soviet ones, and he’s the most pro-Soviet Union person or pro-Russian person in Belarus. He’s ready to sacrifice our serenity in exchange to stay in power. Moreover, I suppose that he dreams to be president of the whole Russian empire, to replace Putin instead.