Belarusian dissidents in Lithuania fear Lukashenko’s actions

On a summer evening in Vilnius, Lithuania, a small group of protesters chanted against the dictator at home in front of the Belarusian embassy.

They are wrapped in the red and white flags that have become synonymous with resistance to the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. Passing drivers honk their horns for assistance.

In the past year, the Lithuanian capital has become a center of the Belarusian opposition. Since Lukashenko won a sixth term in an election that the White House and most Western countries viewed as sham, Lukashenko has cracked down on opposition at home and abroad.

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Many have fled across the border into neighboring Lithuania and sought humanitarian protection, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee peace of mind.

Leading Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who recently met US President Joe Biden in the White House, is based in Lithuania.

But that goes hand in hand with an additional feeling of risk. In May, a commercial flight to Vilnius carrying opposition journalist Roman Protasevich was ordered to land in Belarusian airspace. The journalist and his girlfriend were taken from the plane by security officers and arrested on Lukashenko’s orders.

In the Belarusian capital Minsk, Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent opposition activist, has just been sentenced to eleven years in prison.

For the protester Tatsiana Ihnatsyeva, it is actions like this that strengthen her activism against the Lukashenko government.

“They made up thousands of criminal cases.”

Tatsiana Ihnatsyeva, protester, Vilnius, Lithuania

“They made up thousands of criminal cases,” sighed Ihnatsyeva.

Related: Activists: Olympic athlete from Belarus wants to apply for asylum in Poland

Ihnatsyeva fled to Lithuania in October last year after being prosecuted for collecting signatures for the opposition movement.

For her and others in a similar predicament, she said, “We cannot close the door or turn the page. We know we cannot influence the authorities much, but we express our solidarity [with the opposition]. “

She said she planned to keep fighting: “My friends in Belarus always say that it is very important because they see that nothing is forgotten and nothing is forgotten.”

“A sense of danger”

Vyacheslav Zhukov works for the A Country To Live In foundation. It helps activists organize in Belarus and supports refugees. He has refugee status in Lithuania, but he is still cautious about being targeted by the Lukashenko government.

“When I see a car with Belarusian license plates here,” he said, “I’ll open it first” [the] telegram [app]“, A secure messaging service that activists use to exchange information.

“There are lists [in the app] of police and KGB agents’ cars, and I’m trying to find matching license plates, ”Zhukov continued. “If I can’t find one, maybe he’s a friend, I don’t know.”

Belarusians have fled to Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere.

In August, police in Ukraine opened a murder investigation after the leader of a Belarusian human rights organization was found hanged in a park in the capital, Kiev. It spread fear among the Belarusians in exile. It also raises questions for the governments that host them.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said hosting the Belarusian opposition and lobbying for sanctions put them in direct confrontation with Minsk, and they fear that Lukashenko’s agents are staging a provocation.

Related: The aircraft hijacking in Belarus has thwarted Biden’s hopes of repairing tense US-Russia relations

“As well as being responsible for people, there is also a sense of danger,” he said.

At the beginning of September Belarus and Russia carried out large joint military exercises across the border in Lithuania.

Landsbergis said Lithuania will continue to give refuge to Belarusians fleeing persecution, even though the diplomatic dispute has meant a reduction in embassy staff in Minsk.

“It is now much more difficult to apply for a humanitarian visa because it takes much longer. In addition, it is much more difficult to leave the country, the border controls are much stricter, ”he said.

Lukashenko doesn’t let a lot of people out, he said.

“But people are still getting off and we are still accepting them and we will continue to do that,” he added.

“Birth of a new diaspora”

Dissidents in Lithuania received an express visa or were allowed to enter at border controls. But some, targeted by Lukashenko’s government, had to flee without papers from Belarus through the forests and into Lithuania.

Andrei Strizhak, the head of the Belarus Solidarity Foundation (BYSOL), helps them travel across the border.

Related: The state of health of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny warrants “well-founded, serious concern,” says his adviser

But Strizhak fears that Lukashenko’s security forces could invade Lithuania.

“The Belarusian government keeps saying, ‘We’ll get you, we can go through a field or a forest through the border.’ Nobody can feel safe. “

He said he certainly didn’t feel safe. His foundation has raised millions of dollars in donations for Belarusians released for political activism and the families of political prisoners; the funds were channeled through cryptocurrencies to avoid being intercepted by Lukashenko’s government.

His efforts, he said, made him a wanted man by the regime. His home and his organization’s office were both ransacked by the police.

Strizhak admits that he sometimes argues over other implications of leaving Belarus – who will build the country?

“The soul of Belarus is leaving, but I very much hope that the people who are building a new life now will have money, knowledge and skills in 10 or 20 years that they can import into Belarus. We are witnessing the birth of a new diaspora. “

Andrei Strizhak, head of the Belarus Solidarity Foundation (BYSOL)

“The soul of Belarus is leaving, but I very much hope that the people who are building a new life now will have money, knowledge and skills in 10 or 20 years that they can import into Belarus. We are witnessing the birth of a new diaspora. “

Belarus is isolated from the West. But Russian President Vladimir Putin recently promised Minsk hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, cheap gas, and military hardware.

After months of brutal action, the streets of Belarus are now largely silent, and Strizhak said people were traumatized.

“It’s easier for me because I know what to do every day. I just can’t stop my work, ”he said. “I don’t have time for depression.”

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