Lithuania: arrangements for a wave of political emigration from Belarus (Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik)


Lithuania is preparing for the increasing number of Belarusian citizens seeking asylum in its territory. Although there have not been many cases of individuals applying for this status so far, Lithuania is already experienced in granting asylum for political emigrants from Russia and Ukraine. Lithuania’s hitherto activity confirms its deep engagement in supporting Eastern Europe’s democratization processes and its assistance towards those who, for political reasons, have been forced to leave their own country. As a result, Lithuania hopes to improve regional security and strengthen its position in the international arena.

The leader of the Belarusian opposition in Lithuania. On August 11, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the leader of the united opposition of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, arrived in Lithuania. This came after she refused to recognize Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in the presidential elections (August 9, 2020) and calling on him to hand over his office while facing pressure from the Belarusian authorities and fearing for her safety.

Tikhanovskaya may stay in the country for up to a year without any restrictions because of her Lithuanian visa. Maria Moroz, Tikhanovskaya’s head of campaign team, who was previously detained by the Belarusian police, is also in Lithuania. According to Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius, as a result of Tikhanovskaya’s leaving, Lukashenko may suppress the opposition easier and further consolidate his power. On the other hand, however, it may paradoxically increase the frustration of society and, as a symbol of the struggle, raise citizens’ morale.

So far, there have been few cases where representatives of the Belarusian opposition have sought asylum in Lithuania. According to the Department of Migration in Lithuania, currently, over 21.1 thousands Belarusian citizens have a residence permit in the country, five of whom have been granted asylum. It is worth noting that during the last decade, Lithuania has granted asylum to a total of 55 people from Belarus. Political emigration has not been en masse, although under the current circumstances, including the brutal restrictions for the protesters, the arrests, and the elimination of potential political competitors in Belarus, the number of persons seeking asylum in Lithuania is likely to increase significantly.

Lithuanian Minister of the Interior, Rita Tamašunienė, discussed the situation in Belarus including the possibility to support Belarusians arriving in Lithuania, with representatives of the Migration Department, the State Border Guard Service and the Police Department. Particular authorities have confirmed readiness if any tensions on the country’s south and east borders occur. According to the procedure established in Lithuania, asylum can be granted in two forms: refugee status or subsidiary protection. The first one is granted to an asylum seeker who, due to race, nationality, religion, social group, or political opinion, may be at risk of persecution in his or her place of residence. On the other hand, subsidiary protection is granted to an asylum seeker who does not qualify for refugee status in line with the reasons mentioned above, but who is nevertheless at risk of being threatened, faces the death penalty or his or her freedom, health or life as are threatened a result of an ongoing war.

The Lithuanian government has decided to lift restrictions that were introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic for foreigners crossing the Lithuanian borders “for humanitarian purposes”. In fact, according to the Ministry of the Interior, a few Belarusians arrived in Lithuania based on the new rule this week. Additionally, the Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis confirmed that there are premises prepared to quarantine potential refugees, where individuals could be isolated in accordance with the protection requirements during the quarantine period. The exact procedures should be provided soon, and, if necessary, Lithuania may also ask for EU assistance.

Lithuania’s reaction to the events in Belarus. Lithuania was among the first of the Central European countries to express concern over the situation in Belarus. In July, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling on the Belarusian leaders to ensure safe, free and fair elections, to release all detainees and guarantee fundamental freedoms and human rights. It is worth noting that several hundred people were detained in the pre-election period and after the election “because of their active participation in collective endeavors that seriously disturb public order”. In August, the Foreign Ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Nordic countries called on the Belarusian authorities to stop persecuting political opponents. Furthermore, Lithuania and the Lublin Triangle countries expressed an interest in establishing dialogue and cooperation in line with democratic values. It can be noted that Lithuania and Poland had previously issued a similar statement. Finally Lithuania confirmed to provide assistance to Belarusian citizens.

During a telephone conversation with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, the President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda, declared that the state was ready to act as a mediator to resolve the crisis in Belarus, due to its historical and cultural proximity, its geographical position in the region, and experience in supporting oppositionists from Russia, and Ukraine. Thus, he ensured the possibility of initiating a political dialogue at the diplomatic level – in his opinion, the role of mediator could be played jointly by Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine. The three-point plan proposed by the Lithuanian President would include: 1. de-escalation of the situation in Belarus by stopping the violence against the Belarusian citizens; 2. the release of detainees, and 3. resumption of dialogue between the actual authorities and the representatives of civil society.

The effectiveness of mediation will depend on the Belarusian authorities’ readiness to solve the problem and the opposition’s expectations as to the future situation in that country. Finally, Nausėda does not exclude the imposition of new sanctions targeting Belarusian officials by the EU or national authorities.

While the leader of the political party of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL-ZChR), Valdemar Tomaševski, has defended Lukashenko claiming that the attitude of Lithuanian officials toward Belarusian authorities is “too categorical”, it seems his voice represents a very small minority among Poles in Lithuania.

Direction – Lithuania. Lithuania, like Latvia and Estonia, is attractive to Belarusian travelers mainly due to its geographical proximity and the widespread use of the Russian language among the inhabitants in the region. It also attracts travellers because of an efficient system of state administration and a business-friendly legal and regulatory environment, living standards, affordable prices and the cultural closeness of the inhabitants. It must be mentioned that Lithuania ranked 11th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2020” ranking, which increased compared to previous years.

Political emigrants are looking for economic and political freedoms, possibilities to develop their own business, and better access to the public sphere for social activities. In Lithuania, as in the state of their residence, they are granted a number of social and political rights. The status of a political emigrant allows for a permanent residence, which in practice means rights that Lithuanian citizens have, with the exception of the right to work as state officials, serve in the army, vote, and stand for parliamentary and presidential elections. The authorities provide support with finding accommodation, accessing the job market, and learning the Lithuanian language.

Support for the democratic opposition from Eastern Europe. Lithuania has repeatedly confirmed its involvement in Eastern European countries’ democratization processes and its support toward political emigrants. After 2014, Lithuania offered asylum to Ukrainian citizens, while the Lithuanian authorities have co-organized films, exhibitions, events, and discussions devoted to democratic elections in Russia. For example, during a meeting commemorating Boris Nemtsov, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevičius, underlined that the tragically deceased political opposition activist is “a symbol of the struggle for freedom not only in Russia but also in the world”.

Moreover, the Free Russia Forum, annually hosted by Vilnius, is one of the most important initiatives of Russian political emigrants in Europe devoted to political, economic, and social issues. The event is supported by various Lithuanian politicians and European civic activists. Therefore, the forum a platform for international debate on Russia and its foreign policy, cooperation with the EU, economic and social development, and an alternative system to Putin’s political one. It is likely the Kalinauskas Forum organized in Vilnius to discuss the future of Belarus plays a similar role.

Conclusions. Due to political and socio-economic reasons as well as geographical proximity, Lithuania may be an attractive destination for political emigrants from Belarus after the last presidential elections in the country. The Lithuanian authorities’ involvement and assistance provided to Belarusian dissidents may encourage those who, for various reasons, have been forced to leave their place of residence. As a consequence, Belarusians may be more interested in migrating to Lithuania than to Latvia, Estonia – where the percentage of the Russian-speaking minority is much higher – or to Poland – where the authority’s attempts to support democratic opposition from Eastern Europe have not been so significant as in the neighboring state of Lithuania.

It may be expected that the Belarusian emigrants coming to Lithuania will seek to maintain ties with their Homeland (if possible) and engage in activities concerning human rights and free elections. The more the European Union authorities and civil society assist Belarusians, the more visible the effects of their efforts will be.

The migration of the Belarusian opposition may also strengthen Lithuania’s international position as a leader struggling for stability and democratization in Eastern Europe. The aim of such activities is not only to improve the state image but also to safeguard security and stability in the region.