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Lithuania’s campaign to help Belarus’s protesters offers more than just words

Lithuania has shown solidarity with Belarus through advocacy, hosting Tsikhanouskaya and many other initiatives by their civil society. This has also been noticed at the Kremlin.

September 3, 2020 - Olga Irisova - Articles and Commentary

Human chain in solidarity with Belarus in the outskirts of Vilnius. Photo: Jakob Wöllenstein

At a meeting in Berlin on August 25th, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 senior Belarusian officials following the country’s contested presidential elections and subsequent crackdown on protesters. Despite this, the decision still resembles more of a ‘declaration of intent’. This is because the exact list of persons subject to these new sanctions has yet to be agreed upon. Such an agreement will take at least another week.

However, not everybody will be happy with this delay. Some EU member countries, such as Belarus’s neighbours Lithuania and Poland, have been pushing for a quicker and more assertive response from Brussels. On August 24th, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius told Politico that the bloc’s reaction to the crisis has been too slow, stating that “It is not enough to judge, to assess, to condemn, there should be actions”. According to the representative, “simple rhetoric is not enough, this has been proven more than once during previous crises.” At the same time, some countries in “old Europe” are adhering to a more cautious approach, fearing that the EU’s adoption of an active role in the crisis may provoke an aggressive reaction from Moscow. This approach partly fails to understand the circumstances of countries that find themselves in Russia’s sphere of influence. Naturally, Lithuania, like other countries once occupied by the USSR, understands better than others the injustice of examining developments in Belarus through the lens of the Kremlin.

Indeed, Lithuania has been one of the few countries that has taken a consistently tough stance against Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s human rights violations and aggressive response to peaceful protest. This has resulted in the country offering practical help, as well as statements of support. As Linkevičius has stated, “we (Lithuania) are trying to help those who are in danger, we are trying to take an active role in consolidating the EU countries and strengthening the European position. (…) We must do our best to reassess relations with this country (Belarus), because there must be some political consequences.” Vytis Jurkonis, project director of the Lithuanian branch of Freedom House, has stressed in this regard that “Lithuania has the political will to help Belarusians, and not only at the level of statements”.

Back in mid-August, the Lithuanian parliament unanimously decided not to recognise the results of Belarus’s presidential elections, which reported that Lukashenka had won 81 per cent of the vote. At the same time, the Lithuanian government decided to allow Belarusians who were fleeing the country for political and humanitarian reasons to enter the country. This is in spite of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These arrivals still have to go through a two-week quarantine. However, the Lithuanian government has provided assistance regarding this issue. According to Jurkonis, “we are now talking about several dozen (not hundreds) of people who have fled to Lithuania.” Of course, one of these refugees was presidential candidate and Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Jurkonis also notes that the prospect of a two-week quarantine appears to have reduced the number of those fleeing Belarus to Lithuania during the past few weeks. The fact that it was easier for Belarusians to go to countries where there are comparatively fewer restrictions, such as Russia and Ukraine, has only further discouraged travel to Lithuania. However, since the night of August 28th, Ukraine has banned foreign citizens from entering its territory due to a spike in new coronavirus cases. Subsequently, Belarusians trying to cross the border with Ukraine were quickly denied entry. Even if Ukraine also makes exceptions for Belarusians in the coming days, its prior decisions will still affect the country’s attractiveness for those seeking asylum.

On August 31st, Lithuania, together with Latvia and Estonia, imposed travel bans on 30 Belarusian officials responsible for vote-rigging and violence against protesters. Most notably, Lukashenka was included in this group. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda noted that “[other] people will be added to the list in the future”.

Apart from Lithuanian officials, the country’s civil society is also taking action to help Belarusians. These acts of solidarity have been carried out by NGOs and even Lithuania’s universities. For example, Vilnius University recently announced that students from Belarus will be able to enroll in undergraduate and graduate programmes free of charge, with all training costs covered by the university. At the same time, monthly scholarships are also being provided to the most talented students. Those who have been the victim of political persecution in Belarus will also be able to transfer to Vilnius University. In addition, it is also worth noting that there is a university in the capital that focuses mostly on Belarusian students. This is the European Humanities University, which was founded in Minsk in 1992 but relocated to Vilnius after authorities revoked its licence in 2004. In response to ongoing events in the country, the institution doubled the number of grants for applicants in 2020. The Kaunas Forestry and Environmental Engineering University of Applied Sciences has also reduced the cost of education for Belarusian applicants.

Lithuania’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by Russian propaganda, which has produced articles with titles such as “Lithuania is preparing an intervention in Belarus” and “Lithuanians are expressing indignation at the arrival of Belarusians in the country.” The first headline is largely the product of narratives promoted by Russian political elites and media, who tend to see the “hand of the West” in any political unrest in countries close to Russia. This outlook subsequently deprives these countries of their independence at a rhetorical level. The second narrative simply does not stand up to reality. For instance, on August 23rd around 50,000 people showed their solidarity with the Belarusian protesters by joining hands and forming a human chain from Vilnius to Medininkai. This demonstration follows a powerful historical tradition. On August 23rd 1989, approximately two million people formed a human chain across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as people campaigned for their freedom and independence from the USSR.

Olga Irisova is a political analyst and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Riddle, an analytical journal focused on Russian affairs

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