Press review Critical Eastern

Belarus: New passport? Certainly, but first an interrogation and prison

Each month, in partnership with Display Europe and Krytyka Polityczna, we publish Paulina Siegien's press review of news from Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. A selection of carefully chosen topics and articles from the local independent press to give an insight into what’s happening in the ‘New Europe’.

Published on 28 September 2023 at 10:15

Early August, the Belarusian opposition Transitional Cabinet, headed by Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, unveiled a draft New Belarus passport. It is a document intended to benefit Belarusian citizens in exile.

The presentation sparked an avalanche of memes and a heated discussion about the graphic design of the document. One controversial issue was the use of the outlines of a Marc Chagall painting, except with an obvious omission. In the artist's famous painting of lovers, Over the Town, a little bare-buttocked figure sits in the bottom left corner. On the pages of the new passport, where the motif is revealed by UV light, the detail is missing.

But today no one is laughing. The Belarusian regime has just introduced a law that deprives its citizens in exile of the possibility to renew their passport at Belarusian consulates. If the expiry date of the old document is over, you now have to go to Belarus to get a new one.

And at the border the police are waiting, to interrogate you, scrupulously check your phone and, not unlikely, arrest you. Any kind of civic activity, even a liked social-media post with anti-regime overtones, may now be treated as extremism.

Belarusian political émigrés have no doubt that this is the revenge of Aleksandr Lukashenka, who regularly threatens to strip "traitors" of their Belarusian citizenship. A punishment that cannot be ruled out.

For the time being, besides the impossibility of obtaining a passport abroad, the regime has added several draconian new regulations. For instance, powers of attorney that were drawn up outside Belarus will no longer be honoured. This means that expatriates who fear imprisonment if they return home will be virtually unable to manage their Belarusian affairs. If they have any property or a car there, for example, they will not be able to sell it with the help of friends and family.

The passport rule is the biggest challenge, however. This may leave hundreds of thousands of people without an identity document: it is estimated that there are up to half a million Belarusians in exile. Without a passport they will not be able to legally stay and work in their host countries, nor to travel.

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Moreover, Belarusian children born abroad will have problems obtaining citizenship at all. This is one reason why [exiled interim-government leader] Svyatlana Tikhanouskaya has announced that she will speed up negotiations with the European Commission and with the governments of the countries hosting the largest Belarusian diasporas over their recognition of the New Belarus passport as a fully-fledged document.

Russia: Mr Wagner will teach fascism to children

One challenge for any country at war is veterans. Russia has just come up with an idea for dealing with those who fought in the Ukrainian "special operation". Upon their return from the front, they will be invited to undergo a special course and retrain as educators.

After being prepared for their new profession at one of the universities in the Moscow suburbs, they will be sent to schools, where they will teach a new subject – homeland security and defence – and conduct practical classes in military matters. Children will be taught tactical medicine, weapons handling and communication systems. For the older ones, the course will involve firing live ammunition, digging trenches, throwing grenades and controlling drones.

Russian schools were never a hotbed of democratic and liberal thought, but with the Ukraine war they have begun to turn fascist at a quick pace. A year ago, "Discussions about important issues" – that is, talks to instil patriotism and traditional Russian values in students – were introduced into the curriculum.

The new top-down materials prepared for teachers explain why Russia is at war with Ukraine. This school year saw the introduction of new history textbooks, which have radically changed the teaching on recent history – i.e., the period of the declining USSR and post-Soviet Russia.

The school system, which is just one branch of the state bureaucracy, is following its orders obediently. Schools are slowly turning into barracks to prepare young Russians for perpetual war. In a few years' time it may turn out that beating the Russian army on the battlefield was easy, but that winning back the society of Putin's Russia, poisoned by aggression, militarism and resentment, is virtually impossible.

Ukraine and Poland: a war where grain looms large

The bromance between Polish president Andrzej Duda and Volodymyr Zelensky is apparently coming to an end, along with the romantic vision of a grand Polish-Ukrainian alliance to bring Russia to its knees. The issue of the export of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products – of great importance for the economy of this war-torn country – has become a bone of contention in bilateral relations.

After an exchange of unpleasant remarks about gratitude, and a mutual dressing-down of ambassadors, Warsaw and Kyiv have failed to find a way forward. An official Ukrainian delegation did not come to the Economic Forum in Karpacz, where the Polish government was trumpeting its achievements.

Not only that, as Gazeta Wyborcza's Kyiv correspondent Piotr Andrusieczko discovered, but Ukrainian parliamentarians were banned from travelling to Poland. MPs from the presidential party Servant of the Nation prefer to call it a recommendation, but this does not change the essence of the matter, since such trips are simply impossible without the validation of an official delegation.

Russia is not only blocking agricultural exports from Ukrainian ports, it is bombing them, and destroying grain-filled silos and warehouses. The crisis around Ukrainian exports in wartime is thus becoming an important test for the EU’s principles on the common market and European solidarity.

Poland: Law and Justice has found a way to hate refugees and make money out of them at the same time

Poland's Central Anti-Corruption Bureau recently marched into the Polish foreign ministry, resulting in the dismissal of deputy minister Piotr Wawrzyk. Although the government is reluctant to comment on media reports on the subject, journalists have established that under the auspices of the deputy minister a corrupt system was set up for trading in Polish visas for temporary workers from Southeast Asia among other places.

The 350,000 visas issued over the past three years by the Polish authorities may now be in question. The matter is also being investigated by other European countries, where thousands of migrants have ended up after travelling through Poland.

It is of course Law and Justice politicians who present themselves as the greatest opponents of migration from culturally different countries – read: countries where people have darker skin colour or follow a different religion.

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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