“A blatant North Korea in the center of Europe.” Belarusian refugees explain why it’s so difficult to beat the dictatorship
Editor’s NoteLukashenka’s crackdown on the protests that erupted after he stole the election in August 2020 was relentless: now, they are all but extinguished. Activists, journalists, and ordinary protesters are being sentenced to years in jail on trumped-up criminal charges.
It is estimated that the number of Belarusians who have fled to Ukraine could be as high as 158,000. We talked to two of them to understand why Lukashenka’s regime was able to withstand a national uprising and found out why very few refugees settle in Ukraine, instead moving on to Poland and Lithuania.
Her name is Maria; her husband is Valeriy. I get anxious as I ladle them borscht in my kitchen in Kyiv. After all, theirs was the best restaurant in Mozyr, an industrial Belarusian city a mere 250 km to the north. It was frequented by the local bigwigs and a must-see for the tourists.
Borscht, a staple of Ukrainian cuisine, was on the menu, of course. After all, gastronomy is one of the many things Ukraine shares with Belarus. My version of the magenta vegetable soup is just like the one they cooked in their Mozyr eatery, Maria says.
The restaurant is now a thing of the past and so is Maria’s fabric shop. The businesses that took 30 years to build were destroyed by an relentless system of government repression after joining the national strike on 26 October 2020. This strike, announced by now-exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is widely believed to be the real winner of an election rigged in favor of dictator Lukashenka, was meant to add some economic oomph to incessant protests that are still engulfing the country.
The restaurant and shop suspended their activities for one day.
These were Maria and Valeriy’s only acts of disobedience after decades of tolerating the regime. The reaction was merciless: the successful businesscouple was driven out of the country. State inspections came in one after the other, inevitably finding a reason to shut the family businesses down. Maria and Valeriy got hints that if they did not want to end up behind bars, they should better leave the country, like their activist daughter did years ago.
The family is tired from the nerve-wracking travels – till the last minute, they did not know if the border guards would let them through. Often, refugees fleeing Belarus discovered that a criminal case has been opened against them only at the border. Maria and Valeriy were fortunate.
Also, they managed to escape before Lukashenka shut the borders this December, sealing protest participants inside the country, where they are now slowly being jailed in cases one more ludicrous than the other. Nowadays, refugees still escape from Belarus, but do so by crossing the border illegally by foot.Maria and Valeriy tell me a story of Belarus undepicted by the headlines. About a country where the Soviet Union never ended, that finally found hope, but cannot dare to make the final step. About why people join a system of state repression. About how difficult it is for democracy to take root in authoritarian countries. And I understand that, despite the similarities of our food, history, and language, Ukraine is a galaxy away, thanks to, in a large extent, the Euromaidan Revolution.
If only there would be no war
“We lived like all Belarusians, keeping quiet so we would not attract unwanted attention from the regime,” Maria and Valeriy begin their story. “They let us breathe — and thank God for that.”
The majority of Belarusians tolerated Lukashenka because he offered stability. The common-sense reasoning was that any political situation can be endured “if only there would be no war.” This phrase had become the rallying call of Belarusian political apathy of the last decades. It was born out of the memory of WWII, which is very much alive in Belarusians. It is estimated that the war took the lives of 24% of Belarusians.
The regime used the example of nearby Ukraine, where Russia retaliated for the Euromaidan revolution by occupation and an invasion, to discourage Belarusians from insubordinate proclivities: “Do you want there to be a war, like in Ukraine?”
“Even those Belarusians who traveled to participate in Euromaidan were later hunted out [by the security services] back at home,” Maria tells about Lukashenka’s Euromaidan-phobia.
“Belarus was a testing ground for socialism,” adds Valeriy. “We took pride: such a clean, calm, beautiful country. Mozyr was the most beautiful, clean city of my childhood. But behind this impeccable façade lay our fear.”
When did they understand that it was time to change something? Hope appeared in 2020. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who had unilaterally reigned over Belarus for 26 years, had predictably imprisoned and disqualified all his presidential challengers. Then the stay-at-home wife of one decided to run instead. That was the start of the story of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the now-exiled opposition leader of Belarus who is likely to have really won the election of 9 August 2020.
It seemed the whole nation rose up behind her: immediately after the rigged vote, the authoritarian state saw the largest demonstrations and most brutal dispersals in its history. At least 17,000 were arrested in the first days of the most brutal crackdown. Yet Belarusians kept coming out: they saw hope.
It was scary: you have children, a business
“We wanted change all this time, but it was scary: you have children, a business. We built it over 30 years,” Valeriy explains. “Most of the people are not for uniting with Russia or the EU. For some reason, the media get it wrong. The people want a Belarus independent of Russia or Europe, that would be all by itself. For a long time, the president posed as a guardian of stability. But the things that happened inside…”
“It was pretty difficult. Like during the 70 years of Soviet power, we rarely discuss politics even in our kitchens,” Maria adds.
But why not even in the kitchens? “It might lead to trouble,” explains Maria. “Somebody in the company could be a snitch. And then there’s this,” she points to her telephone.
The phone could be bugged? Why “could be,” of course it is, Maria says. Belarus is a small country; the police have no trouble keeping files on anyone with the potential of stepping out of line.
“Even our acquaintances who held high posts and were our ‘guarantors,’ became undesirable at one point. Their private conversations, tapped recordings were then used [by the special services],” Valeriy explains.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB didn’t lose its functions but became even stronger. It is part of the system of state repression (or simply the system), just like the predominantly unprofitable state enterprises that receive subsidies, dolloping out a modest yet stable salary that keeps its employees silent and dependent on the government.Another component of the system are the siloviki – representatives of various police institutions that are called “law enforcement” in democratic countries, yet serve the purpose of “regime enforcement” in dictatorships like Belarus.
It were the siloviki who eventually smothered out the throbbing public protests that broke out all over Belarus in August. The relentless beatings on the streets, torture and humiliation of tens of thousands of detainees, crackdowns on rallies of any size, and now, farcical persecution for any displays of the opposition white-red-white colors (even if they are socks), have run their course. Even the opposition leaders have admitted they lost the streets.
What pushes young men to become stormtroopers of the regime and work in the system?
“This always carried prestige; they have more social benefits and possibilities. The chance to rule over another person, to have access to information that nobody else knows, even if it’s meager – this all is very attractive, and there’s the financial side of the equation, as well. The salaries are large, they are not published anywhere, not advertised, you can find out about it only through rumors,” my interlocutors tell.
Perhaps the siloviki could be afraid to disperse the protests, fearing public shame?
“Absolutely not. They are so protected that they don’t care what people will think of them. But the inspectors – they are not siloviki. They are regular people. But the way they carry themselves… on the one hand, they lower their gaze, but are still harsh, arrogant, disdainful. To find four fabric rolls that had lost their tags! The fabric was lying there, it was not being sold, wasn’t put up on any exposition. We gave them the documents for these four rolls with no tags, they say ‘We don’t care about your documents’,” Maria recalls the encounter with the inspectors that ultimately led to her shop being shut down.
This system of inspectors for private businesses is an instrument through which Lukashenka controls the independent-minded and self-reliant middle class – the greatest threat to any dictatorship.
“And above these inspectors are other inspectors. They understand very well that if the regional republican authority comes, they won’t only lose their bonuses, they’ll be kicked out of their job,” Maria continues.
These repressive instruments hail from Soviet times, she says. But there was no Internet back then, and nobody knew about the rare incidents of disobedience – in Georgia, and even in Moscow – that were snuffed out with the same brutal means.
The majority is afraid: everyone has kids
Meanwhile, it is the young people who are more zealous in their servitude to the regime, Valeriy says:
“My guys who went to the army – they also participate in all these protest dispersals. And they have been so brainwashed there that they believe they are fighting the good fight by protecting the government… we in Belarus are being scared with [the example of] the Euromaidan. Like, Europe came and paid everyone to protest and ruin the country, in order to take over the economy.”
The older generation is more critical-minded. But it is afraid.
“There are many people sympathetic to the protesters in the power structures, but upon talking to them, it becomes clear that they think one thing but do something totally else. It’s paradoxical: they understand it all shouldn’t be this way. But they continue servicing the regime, they are forced to.”
How are they “forced”?
“They would need to leave their jobs, like us, would need to hide. If all the progressive-thinkers rose up, the result would follow, without any doubt. The state institutions, teachers, doctors – they try [to protest], but not all of them, and the majority is afraid. Everyone has kids,” Valeriy explains.
It is not uncommon for parents to be deprived of parental rights for participating in protest actions, and for reprisals for the activism of one family member to fall upon the rest of the family. It was for this reason that the opposition-minded daughter of Valeriy and Maria emigrated – to allow mom and dad to develop their businesses.
What is the future of the protests?
Will the protests achieve their aim? They will annoy the regime, Maria and Valeriy say, but it has already gotten used to them. It will weed out all dissenters until the entire Belarusian society will be defanged.
“If nobody can lead, this will continue ad infinitum. There will be no quick victory…The people are actually very calm; if this was happening in Europe, it would have just exploded. I don’t understand, how you can calmly watch 7,000 be detained in two days, and everyone getting beaten. But people are even afraid to tell they went protesting. Mind you, I am afraid to tell something about myself because if it falls on the wrong ears, there will be even more problems. I have a sister, mother, family living there,” says Maria.
At her fabric store, no employee went to protest during the several months of heated street demonstrations following the rigged election, despite harboring sympathies for the protesters. Their only action was that one day of participating in the boycott, after which the store was forced to close.
How can the world help? Maria pauses.
“You can get outraged that there is this blatant North Korea in the center of Europe. It’s happening to people who don’t want to harm anyone, who want to peacefully and calmly build and be friends with everyone, to grow their children and business. They are being simply done in, put on their knees and being bent over, and nobody cares.
We hoped that Europe could influence Lukashenka… but it turned out nobody cares about us. Everyone around is busy with their problems. So the people are left to raise up a revolution.”
An unfriendly welcome for Belarusian “supermigrants” in Ukraine
Escaping the crackdown of the regime termed “the last dictatorship in Europe,” many protesters, like Maria and Valeriy, go south, to Ukraine. It is a logical choice: there is no language barrier or visa, the two Slavic countries have many centuries of shared history; often, relatives live here. However, it turned out that the “fraternal country” did not offer a fraternal embrace. For Belarusian refugees, it is endlessly more difficult to get legalized in Ukraine than in Lithuania or Poland. For many, Ukraine becomes a brief stopping point on their journey west – and so it did for Maria and Valeriy.
Palina Brodik, coordinator at the Kyiv-based Free Belarus Center, an NGO providing assistance to refugees, tells that most Belarusians travel over the border to Ukraine because there is no visa requirement. However, upon staying the allowed 180 days, not being able to find work, and encountering the maddening difficulty of migration paperwork, move on to Poland and Lithuania.
In Poland, they are eligible for a one-year humanitarian visa which allows working. Refugees can stay in refugee camps until their applications are reviewed. Ukraine offers no such possibilities, and thus refugees go West despite the higher prices and language barrier.
It is unclear how many Belarusians actually left for Ukraine, Ms. Brodik says. The Ukrainian migration service’s estimate of 2,000-3,000 is woefully inaccurate, as another official organ, the Ministry of Transformation, reported that 2,000 IT freelancers alone were granted work permits.
Nobody knows the truth; some estimate the number to be as high as 158,000. What is certain, however, is that since the start of the protests in August 2020, only 369 Belarusians received a residence permit in Ukraine.
“The number of refugees is falling because, during the first mass protests, people were arrested based on administrative charges, and on the second-third time it was obvious that the next time, a criminal case would be opened. Now the mass arrests are over; they are coming to specific activists, human rights defenders, journalists, etc. with criminal cases, and this means you won’t be allowed to cross the border. People run away from criminal charges, and only if they can make it in time across the border… But even so, there are many such cases; volunteers write me each week, saying that such and such a person will leave, if he can make it in time across the border,” Palina Brodik explains.
Right now, Ukraine’s rules make it all but impossible to get a residence permit. The period of visa-free stay is 180 days, and in that period, the refugee must be able to find legal work with a minimum salary of UAH 61,000 ($2,200) – a task all but impossible in a country where the average wage is six times lower.
It turns out that Ukraine is turning away a skilled labor force used to working transparently – supermigrants, who don’t need any handouts, just to be allowed to work, — Ms. Brodik spells out:
“The main measures Ukraine took to ease the lives of Belarusian refugees concerned the high-qualified IT specialists… They are helping those who generate the most taxes. But this isn’t right, even economically speaking. All Belarusians are searching for legal work [from which taxes are paid], they are not used to living otherwise. They would work, if they had the opportunity. Ukraine is doing very little – and only if there is pressure from the migrants. And I am not talking about financial support, we understand that Ukraine does not have those resources. But increasing the number of visa-free days to 365 is completely possible.”
Brodik names three reasons for Ukraine’s cold welcome of Belarusians:
- corruption in Ukraine’s migration service;
- the Security Service’s reluctance to take in people from a country where the Russian FSB operates freely (but it if wants to get into Ukraine, it will do so without any laws, Brodik protests);
- Ukraine has too much going on without Belarus; nobody sees advantages in laboring to help the refugees.
How can the world help Belarus?
“It’s very important to exert economic pressure on the regime, to introduce targeted sanctions against state enterprises. Not everyone is willing to risk tying up interaction with them, like with the Belaruskali potassium plant or with the Belarus nuclear power plant. It’s hard to believe, but Ukraine is buying electricity from this plant, built by the Russians and under Russian management. This is basically a direct payout to both the Belarusian and Russian regimes!” Ms. Brodik fumes.
An import ban on Belarusian electricity was active in Ukraine from late 2019-2020. The ban was lifted in 2021. As well, Ukraine has not introduced economic sanctions against Belarus.
“They say Ukraine isn’t planning any economic sanctions because it isn’t profitable… but that’s the very point of sanctions. I wish that Ukraine would be as consistent in her actions towards Belarus, as she demanded this from the world community in relation to Russia since 2014,” Ms. Brodik, herself hailing from Belarus, says.
The names and city of my interlocutors were changed, as per their request, for the sake of the safety of relatives still in Belarus.