In the aftermath of the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election of August 2020, Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his government brutally crushed a democratic uprising. In the three years that have followed, the country has transformed into an international pariah and military aggressor. As a result, over 200,000 Belarusians have fled west, with two-thirds driven by a lack of protection and half by fears of government repression. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Lukashenka’s strengthening ties to the Kremlin, European governments are now reevaluating their relationship with Belarusian exiles, increasingly treating them with suspicion over concerns that they may be acting as puppets for the very regime they sought to escape.
Poland and Lithuania have been the main allies of the Belarusian democratic movement. Both countries have accepted tens of thousands of Belarusian political refugees, and the office of Belarus’s democratic leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is located in Vilnius. However, while the Polish and Lithuanian authorities continue to officially support the democratic movement, their approaches to Belarusian exiles are beginning to diverge as Lithuania becomes more cautious. At the same time, interest from other European capitals continues to wane. But, overlooking the struggles of Belarusian exiles – or worse, treating them with suspicion – plays right into Lukashenka’s hands. As Tsikhanouskaya notes, “if Belarus is forgotten, [Lukashenka] can do whatever he wants”. Thus, if hopes for a Belarus away from Lukashenka – and the Kremlin’s embrace – are to stand any chance, European leaders should learn from Poland’s hospitality, and from Lithuania’s misplaced caution, to guarantee enduring support for Belarusian exiles to help them build a democratic future.
Lithuania: A struggle between suspicion and support
Although Lithuania has actively welcomed those fleeing Lukashenka’s oppression in recent years, many Belarusian exiles are now beginning to doubt whether the country’s welcoming policies will continue. The changing perspectives of Lithuanians towards Belarusians began with Russia’s war against Ukraine, in which Lukashenka’s government has played an integral part. Since then, the question of supporting existing Belarusian exiles and new arrivals has been increasingly linked to debates around Lithuania’s national security. In turn, Lithuania suspended visa applications and put in place visa restrictions for Belarusian (and Russian) nationals, and several MPs argued that such measures are crucial to the integrity of Lithuania’s security. These debates are, in part, fuelled by the unfounded beliefs that all Belarusians are puppets of the hostile regimes in Minsk and Moscow and may be ‘unfit’ for the Western world, as well as fears of Belarusians claiming the history and legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as exclusively theirs.
The security concerns raised by the Wagner mutiny and the settlement of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus only increased Lithuanian distrust towards Belarusians. In light of this, the voices which advocated for increasing restrictions towards Belarusians, to match the rules directed at Russians, became even louder. A mandatory questionnaire which includes questions on Belarusian and Russian nationals’ past ties and views towards the war is yet another illustration of increasing Lithuanian suspicion. Following the survey, more than a thousand Belarusians and Russians were considered a national threat, causing hundreds of revoked residence permits and visas. While the stricter rules that apply to Russian nationals have not yet been extended to Belarusians, the matter will likely reappear in upcoming political debates.
Although there are strong voices who oppose restrictions and advocate for continuous support to Belarusian exiles, these recent developments in Lithuania point to the risks of undermining the much needed assistance for Belarusians fleeing their country: As Tsikhanouskaya has repeatedly pointed out, it will hurt Belarusians who crave democracy and benefit Lukashenka. Instead, she urges Lithuanian lawmakers to avoid severe measures against Belarusian nationals.
Poland: A safe haven, for now
Unlike Lithuania, Poland is yet to waver its support for Belarusian exiles and has repeatedly adapted legislation to meet their needs. In doing so, Poland has demonstrated how a welcoming policy can not only aid Belarusian exiles in their struggle for democracy, but also benefit the country they seek safety in.
Since 2020, the number of Belarusians with permission to stay in Poland has more than tripled, and according to informal estimates there may be more than 300,000 Belarusian citizens currently in the country. In Poland, Belarusians are provided with several options for legalisation, free access to the labour market, and public support from local governments. Poland has also exempted Belarusians from certain duties and allowed them to obtain travel documents for free.
Companies with Belarusian capital can also easily enter Poland, encouraged by Poland’s Business Harbor program, frequently utilized by IT specialists from Belarus to relocate. In just three years, Poland has issued more than 100,000 visas of this category to Belarusians, boosting Poland’s IT sector. Poland is also eager to accept Belarusian doctors, many of whom left Belarus due to the risk of arrest and is developing simplified procedures for confirming their qualifications.
Warsaw remains the main advocate of a policy that distinguishes the Lukashenka regime from Belarusians themselves. Polish president Andrzej Duda explained that his country will “support and will continue to support [Belarusians’] quest for a free, sovereign, independent homeland. But until then, we’ll always be glad to see [them] here.” This echoes the promises that Western partners have given to Ukraine, pledging to ‘support Ukraine as long as it takes.’
However, unlike Ukraine, Belarusians do not have as many international allies. For now Poland is their main advocate, but the rising tensions between Warsaw and Kyiv give a poignant lesson on how approaches may suddenly change. Perceptions towards Belarusians are already shifting within Polish society, indicating that these welcoming policies might not last forever, as echoed in the Lithuanian case.
Europeans should offer Belarusian exiles their continued support
The large scale of the democratic uprising in 2020, the ongoing activities of Belarusian opposition figures in exile, and the sheer number of political prisoners in Belarus who jeopardise their lives to voice dissent, offer clear proof that Belarusians as a whole cannot and should not be equated with the regimes in Minsk or Moscow. Europeans should refrain from viewing Belarusians as a danger by default, a lost cause, or just another tool of Russian aggression. Instead, decision-makers across European capitals should allow Belarusians to seek safe exile, provide space for discussion, and – especially in light of Lukashenka’s decree robbing the ability for Belarusian citizens to renew their passports abroad – offer legal and bureaucratic assistance. This could be done by allowing exiles to use expired documents, issuing travel documents or Geneva passports, or even supporting the opposition’s ambitious idea of an alternative Belarusian passport.
Warsaw’s various welcoming policies towards Belarusians should serve as a roadmap for other European capitals. Not doing so could further calcify an oppressive, authoritarian regime. It could also pose a significant strategic risk, emboldening an aggressive, pro-Kremlin regime on the EU’s eastern border – one that has already housed Wagner’s mercenaries and claims to have stationed Russia’s nuclear weapons.
Instead, Europeans should reap the benefits of having Belarusian exiles within the EU through, for example, the new businesses Belarusians bring, talent in the IT sector, and idea exchanges with exiled activists. Rather than thinking that Belarusians will be forever hijacked by Lukashenka or Putin, and opting for restrictive and hostile policies, Europeans should further institutionalize ties with and foundations for a future democratic Belarus. At the very least, Belarusians (and Russians) should be provided with a safe space to live away from their oppressive regimes because this is what makes Europe stronger, not weaker.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.