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Security threat or arbitrary rejection? Belarusian exiles battle with Lithuania’s migration policies

Russian and Belarusian citizens applying for residence in Lithuania have to prove they are not a threat to national security. They have to fill out questionnaires with questions like “Whose is Crimea?” and fear arbitrary decisions from Lithuania’s institutions.

June 16, 2023 - Jurga Bakaitė LRT - Articles and Commentary

Belarusian opposition marks anti-Lukashenko protests anniversary in Vilnius. Photo: E. Blaževič / LRT

Anxiety over ‘correct’ answers

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Migration Department has announced that foreigners applying for a residence permit in Lithuania may be asked to fill out a special questionnaire that includes questions about their views on the war and Russian policies. The answers are checked by the State Security Department (VSD), Lithuania’s intelligence agency.

The questionnaire is intended primarily for Russian and Belarusian citizens, but not exclusively, as applicants from other countries can be asked to fill them out too. As people interviewed by LRT.lt point out, it is not clear what criteria are used to select the foreigners who get screened by the VSD.

For example, the questionnaire was to be filled out by the Ukrainian filmmaker Hanna Bilobrova, who together with her late fiancé Mantas Kvedaravičius made the documentary Mariupol 2 and recently received the European of the Year award.

She comments that she had doubts and fears about how to answer some of the questions so as not to be flagged by the authorities. The questionnaire, which is not publicly available, includes ambiguous questions such as “Whose is Crimea?” and whether the person has had any contacts with foreign secret services. “Yes, I was surprised. […] When I was filling out the document, I was thinking, did I fill it out correctly?” she says.

Her first job was in eastern Ukraine, a territory occupied by Russia since 2014. Her father, with whom she has not been in contact for a long time, was an officer in the Russian army. “Does this say anything about me now? My father, whom I have seen only once in my life, was an active and high-ranking officer in the Russian army, and I don’t know if he still is. Does that make me an undesirable person, perhaps connected with the Russian army?” the filmmaker asks rhetorically.

In addition to worrying about how to give the “correct” answers, she says she was also inconvenienced by how long it took to process her application when she was left without documents. “It is now quite common for Ukrainians travelling to be asked if they are registered in any European country. I almost missed my flight once because I had to explain that my documents were no longer valid and I was waiting for new ones,” she says.

The worst situation, in her opinion, is that of Belarusians and Russians who have moved to Lithuania and have to prove that they are worthy of being accepted. “They obviously do not want to be in Russia if they are here filling out this paper,” says Bilobrova. “Three years ago, Lithuania supported those people fighting against the Belarusian regime, but now it treats them as terrorists,” she adds.

Prove you are not an enemy

Andrei Vaitovich, a journalist working in Lithuania with Belarusian and French citizenship, has already complained to the Migration Department about the questionnaire. He had received a temporary residence permit before the start of the Ukraine invasion but was asked to fill out the questionnaire this year when he lost his document and wanted a replacement. He has been waiting for his application to be processed since March 28, and the reason he has not received any reply yet is that the VSD has not given its verdict.

Vaitovich says that as soon as he entered the Migration Department, he chose to be served in English and presented his French passport. “But a woman saw my name and said in Russian: Let’s speak Russian,” he recalls. He suspects that the Russian language and a Russian-sounding name are among the criteria for selecting people to give the questionnaire. Vaitovich points out that in France, he has never been asked about his Belarusian citizenship, while in Lithuania, it has become a problem.

“Isn’t this a violation of EU law on freedom of movement for EU citizens? Is this questionnaire legal?” Vaitovich asks rhetorically. He points out that the document is not public, is unofficial, and that there were mistakes in the translation he was given. Like Bilobrova, he is worried his application may be rejected because he answered all questions honestly, disclosing that the Belarusian KGB tried to recruit him when he was preparing to go to Vilnius to study in 2011.

According to Vaitovich, just half an hour after applying for a student visa at the Lithuanian Embassy in Minsk, he received a phone call from a man who said he could help with tuition fees. At the time, Vaitovich’s family was struggling to pay for the first semester. In exchange for help, the officer asked for information about the university and some people. “I said it wouldn’t happen and hung up. They called my mother and tried to persuade her, told her to make me stop publishing Lukashenko’s critics on my blog,” he recalls.

He believes he is justifiably worried. For example, because of this questionnaire, Lithuania recently refused to renew the residence permit of a Belarusian citizen who had been working in the country for six years. He honestly stated that he used to work for the Belarusian Interior Ministry but quit before the protests in Belarus and the Russian invasion of Crimea. According to the VSD conclusions, this person could be exploited by Russian services. “I served the people, I did not take part in any repression. This is what angered me the most,” the man denied residence in Lithuania told Zerkalo.

Like Vaitovich, he had to wait longer for a response, despite paying for a fast-track procedure. The French media have also taken an interest in why a French citizen cannot obtain a residence permit in Lithuania, describing Lithuania’s policies as “derusification”. Vaitovich quipped on Twitter that Lithuanians like to use the phrase “for your freedom and ours” when talking about changes in Belarus, but in this case it is Lithuania that restricts freedoms. “Even though I spent so many years in this country, even though I studied journalism here, I had to put in writing that I am not evil, that I am on the right side. As if my work was not proof enough. As if I had to justify myself for a crime,” he tweeted.

Honestly will be used against you

Remigijus Rinkevičius, a lawyer interviewed by LRT.lt, says he often encounters Belarusian citizens given to fill out the questionnaire. According to him, the Migration Department cancels or refuses to issue residence permits to Belarusians in Lithuania precisely because of the decisions of the VSD.

He says there are people who came to Lithuania from Belarus after participating in the 2020 anti-government protests but are now deemed a national security threat because they were once employed at state institutions or were drafted into the army. “The VSD is spitting out clichés about how if you are a Belarusian, you are a threat and we will not give you anything,” Rinkevičius comments.

There is no evidence that these people present any real risks to the Lithuanian state, he says, but the VSD still uses arbitrary criteria to reject applications. “If you worked in the police 20 years ago, if you had a relationship with the authorities, if you were an officer, then you are most certainly to be deemed dangerous,” Rinkevičius says.

The Migration Department has the right to give the questions even to EU citizens, he adds, commenting on Vaitovich’s case. “According to the letter of the law, they have the right to do so. […] From the perspective of Euro-integration, this is absurd, because he is a citizen of an EU country and does not have to explain his other nationality. He cannot be refused a residence permit unless he poses a real threat,” Rinkevičius comments.

The lawyer says he sometimes has to advise his clients on what to put and what to withhold from their residence applications. “I have to tell them that ‘your honesty will definitely be used against you’. Therefore, some people may decide not to tell about their past in great detail because it will automatically mean that they are enemies of the state. […] If, God forbid, you have worked as a cleaner [in the army] or served, you may not want to disclose that,” Rinkevičius admits.

One of the questions in the questionnaire, he says, asks about military service. “If you served in the army some years ago because you were conscripted, you are immediately [perceived as] a threat and they [the VSD] are churning out these decisions like pastries. I have no words to describe this nonsense,” the lawyer says. Lithuania’s policy towards Belarusian citizens is incoherent, he believes, jumping from one extreme to another without any good reason. “A couple of years ago, all Belarusians were welcomed, issued humanitarian visas. Now, these same people get their heads chopped. I know of cases where people who received humanitarian visas have now been banned from entering Lithuania and the Schengen area,” Rinkevičius says.

Another lawyer interviewed by LRT.lt, Rytis Satkauskas, says that EU legislation leaves national security policies to each member state to decide. Lithuania has the right to set its own regulations for foreigners and such restrictions may also limit the rights of individuals, according to the lawyer. “However, these restrictions must be clearly justified. Human rights and EU law cannot be restricted just by declaring some politically motivated security arguments,” he says.

He notes that the EU Court of Justice issued a ruling last year concerning irregular migrants and Lithuania’s pushback policies. The court said the government must prove that migrants crossing the border with Belarus posed a concrete threat to national security, while abstract arguments were not enough.

According to Satkauskas, the situation is similar to using national security arguments to deny residence permits to Belarusians or Russians, especially if they are also citizens of EU countries. “In that case, concerning the restriction of the right to apply for asylum, the Lithuanian government failed to explain the impact of its measure on public order and domestic security. In the case of restricting the EU citizens’ right of movement, it requires justifying how the questionnaire contributes to the protection of national security in particular, and even more specifically, why it is necessary. Only then would the restriction of EU law and human rights be legitimate,” Satkauskas points out.

Hundreds of Belarusians denied residence

LRT.lt approached the authorities responsible for screening foreigners – the Migration Department and the VSD – but has not received a detailed comment on the situation. The VSD did not say how long it takes to process an application, nor did it comment on whether an application can be rejected if the applicant has been contacted by Russian or Belarusian security. “At the moment, the screening of Vaitovich is not completed. The Migration Department will be informed about the results of the screening in the very near future,” the VSD said in a written comment to LRT.lt.

In its recent report on threats to national security, the VSD said that the Belarusian KGB was infiltrating collaborators into the ranks of Belarusian opposition émigrés. “In Lithuania, they [the KGB] collect intelligence information on the Belarusian diaspora and the democratic opposition, its organisations, ways of entering the country, intelligence institutions, border screening procedures, and the organisers of the entry of Belarusian citizens into Lithuania. Upon their return to Belarus, such persons are exploited by the Belarusian regime in propaganda campaigns aimed at discrediting Lithuania, its state institutions, and the Belarusian democratic opposition,” reads the latest edition of the VSD annual threat assessment report.

For example, Andrei Abramenko, a former Belarusian OMON officer, took part in protests in 2020, which led to a criminal case against him. In 2021, he came to Lithuania and applied for asylum. Abramenko returned to Belarus a few months later and became one of the main figures in a propaganda film defaming Lithuania. The VSD suspects that he collaborated with the KGB.

The Migration Department has informed LRT.lt that since the beginning of the year, 365 Belarusian citizens have had their applications for temporary residence or its extension denied. It is not clear, however, whether the reasons had to do with how the applicants filled out the questionnaire. The Migration Department also does not say what criteria it uses to decide which applicants are given the questionnaire, or how long it takes to receive a response from the VSD.

“There is no such statistical category as ‘denial of residence because of the questionnaire’. The State Security Department, the State Border Guard Service, and the police are consulted on the questionnaire responses if necessary. These institutions assess the threats posed by individuals to national security, public order, human health, etc., as well as the threat of illegal migration,” the Migration Department says in its comment to LRT.lt.

The agency also says that while the questionnaire is not public, it is not classified. It is not made public because there have been cases of people posting its photos on social media. The legal basis for giving the questionnaire, according to the Migration Department, is the Law on the Legal Status of Foreigners and a decree by Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė.

Evelina Gudzinskaitė, the director of the Migration Department, has commented to Radio Svoboda about what answers led to residence applications being rejected. “It was because of threats to the country. Including answers in the questionnaire, which must be filled out when submitting documents. Some justified Russia’s actions. Some try to explain something in complicated language,” she said.

This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

Jurga Bakaitė is a journalist with LRT.lt

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