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Lithuania to give Belarusians special passports amid repression fears

FILE A woman waves an old Belarusian national flag standing on the roof as Belarusian opposition supporters march to Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, on 23/08/2020.
FILE A woman waves an old Belarusian national flag standing on the roof as Belarusian opposition supporters march to Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, on 23/08/2020. Copyright Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Joshua Askew with AP
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Vilnius has struggled to form a coherent policy on its population of Belarusian exiles in recent months.

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Belarusians living in Lithuania will be able to obtain special travel documents, after they were stripped of the right to renew their passports overseas by Minsk. 

Lithuania's Interior Ministry made the announcement on Monday, offering such passports to Belarusian exiles who have the right to live in Lithuania, but lack travel documents. 

The move may bring limited relief to the more than 58,000 Belarusian citizens inside the small Baltic country. 

It will allow holders to leave and enter Lithuania, which shares a 679km border with Belarus, though there are considerable questions about how the document will work in practice and if it will be accepted by other countries.

Minsk - a staunch supporter of Russia - announced last week its embassies would no longer issue passports to citizens permanently living abroad in a massive blow to the Belarusian expat community in Europe. 

The ban could force those who fled repression in Belarus to return to renew their travel documents, where they may face arrest. 

Belarusian security forces crushed massive anti-government protests between 2020 and 2021, triggered by the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, which was widely considered fraudulent. 

More than 35,000 people were arbitrarily detained during that period, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many experienced violence, threats, ill-treatment and inhumane detention conditions. 

Lithuania opened its doors to those fleeing the violence, but has since flip-flopped on its stance towards Belarusian citizens. 

In March, Lithuanian lawmakers controversially proposed banning Belarusian nationals from applying for visas or extending their residency permits. 

Franak Viačorka, a Belarusian opposition politician, criticised the move to Euronews in August, saying “Putin and Lukashenko want the old Iron Curtin between Belarus and Europe."

“Then the regime can commit atrocities with impunity."

An estimated 200-300,000 Belarusians have left the country in the last three years since the massive protest movement, with a large proportion going to neighbouring Poland and Lithuania. 

One of them is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a leading opposition politician who fled to Vilnius after Lukashenko claimed victory in disputed 2020 vote. 

“Even if your passport expires, you should not return to your home country if you risk persecution," she warned earlier.

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