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Supolka – Belarusian diaspora in Italy

Supolka is a diaspora group that operates in Italy. The group was born as a consequence of the political crisis and along with the democratic movements rising in Belarus. It aims to inform the Italian public about the situation in Belarus.

September 7, 2021 - Antonio Scancariello - Stories and ideas

Ekaterina Ziuziuk (right) and Svetlana Tshikanouskaya in Rome in May.

One year after the elections, the situation in Belarus remains the same. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who rigged the ballot held in August last year in his favour, is still in power despite widespread protests throughout the country. Lukashenka has been in power since 1994. This is despite Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya seemingly securing a landslide victory for herself in the presidential elections little over a year ago. Italian RaiNews reported that during his most recent annual press conference, Lukashenka said that he will “very soon” not be president anymore.

The Italian public broadcasting channel also reported that the president said that “there was, and never will be, any repressions in Belarus”. However, when Lukashenka won his sixth presidential term, protests erupted in the country. Following the end of these widespread public protests, some Belarusians who openly opposed the government have been forced to flee the country.

Supolka is a diaspora group that operates in Italy. The group was born as a consequence of the political crisis and along with the democratic movements rising in Belarus.
The event that started the diaspora movements activities was the arrest of Viktar Babaryka in June 2020. Supolka had, therefore, a political aim ahead of the election and protests that ensued. NEE spoke to its president, Ekaterina Ziuziuk, to find out more about its activities.

Elections, protests and the government’s interference

Belarusians overwhelmingly rejected last year’s results and supported the victory of Tsikhanouskaya, who now lives in Lithuania. Since then, the country has been rocked by protests. Residents have taken to the streets in the thousands to demand Lukashenka’s resignation. Despite this, Lukashenka held on and many residents, activists, artists and journalists quickly became subject to government repression. Many of these figures were imprisoned and many others were forced to leave their homeland as they did not feel safe anymore.

Recently, a Belarusian activist was found dead in a park in Kyiv. On August 3rd, 26-year-old Vitaly Shisov, founder of the “Belarusian House in Ukraine”, was found hanging from a tree in the Svyatoshinsky forest. Around the same time, Olympic runner Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, left Tokyo for Poland after the government asked her to return to Belarus.  Reuters reported that she “complained publicly that coaches had entered her in the 4x400m relay days before the event”.  Reports also explained that Tsimanouskaya said she “had been included in the relay without her knowledge”.

This is the backdrop against which the Belarusian diaspora across Europe have started their activities. Many Belarusians left their country for neighbouring Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania to continue their opposition to the government abroad.

The Italian diaspora – Supolka

The diaspora has worked together to make the rest of the world aware of what is going on in Belarus. As aforementioned, Supolka (which means “association” in Belarusian), is headed by Ekaterina Ziuziuk and brings together Belarusians living in Italy. The group started as a Facebook page but the association gradually got bigger and now has around a thousand members. Ziuziuk has said that the group’s main aim is to inform the public and make democratic institutions aware of what is going on in her homeland. It is hoped that this campaign will encourage politicians to take meaningful action that will result in a diplomatic response.

Commenting on the recent repressions against Belarusians who lived abroad like her, Ziuziuk, who has been living in Italy for 17 years, said: “It’s the agony caused by the regime. They can’t go back. He [Lukashenka] could have resigned last August and that would have been acceptable. Now he can only intensify the crackdown. Journalists, activists, and residents suffer at the protests but it doesn’t make the news anymore. A friend of mine was arrested in July. She was in jail for 15 days with another 15 people in a cell built to hold four people. They were searched twice a day. Their families delivered goods for them but, they were never delivered to them and basic goods like toothbrushes and tampons were missing.”

Talking about how it feels to be abroad following the government’s recent acts of repression, she said: “Clearly we don’t feel very safe, but there’s a difference between living in Italy and living in Ukraine. A KGB agent can go to Ukraine and get away with it, as they would blend in. In Italy it would be harder because of the language and the culture. In Ukraine more damage can be done”. Ziuziuk explained that Ukraine is home to a large Belarusian diaspora that is now doing all sorts of activities to help and support each other in their fight against the government.

Recent actions has naturally had a detrimental impact on the way Belarusians look at the protests. The way civil society is fighting back has also been affected. Ziuziuk believes that “sanctions were not effective enough. The regime didn’t fall, and it answered back with more repressions. Following the fourth round of sanctions, dozens of NGOs have been abolished. People in Belarus are demoralised and are scared of doing what they were doing this time last year. There still are peaceful protests. Small marches of a few minutes are filmed and shared online. People do not protest openly anymore, but this doesn’t mean they have changed their minds or they support the government.”

The role of civic society – more important than politics?

Back in May, Supolka met the opposition leader in Rome, where she was meeting Italian politicians to discuss various issues related to Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya only joined the presidential race when her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski was arrested. Ziuziuk was able to meet her in Rome. She explained how Tsikhanouskaya was in contact with all the other diaspora groups scattered around Europe and how she was listening carefully to their experiences.

Ziuziuk also made it clear that Belarus’s civic society has a larger role to play in opposing the government compared to politicians: “There’s only the civic society in Belarus, there’s no political opposition. Political parties exist, but they are not relevant, while the citizens’ movements engage the whole population. Many were apolitical, now they have an opinion and took part in the protests. No one ever organised anything, they were spontaneous, even if the authorities said that the protests were controlled. Sviatlana is wrongly regarded as the “leader of the opposition” but she is ultimately representing the country’s civil society. She is very well respected but she doesn’t give practical suggestions. She represents Belarusians just like us at Supolka, but on a higher level.”

Ziuziuk also explained how Supolka has received a boost in support through social media, which has helped the Italian diaspora connect with other groups around Europe. Since the beginning, the groups have acted “without a vertical structure”. Ziuziuk explained that it was more “like a wave” that grew as the protests went on.

Supolka has set up a newsletter written in Italian that is called Bielorussia Libera (Free Belarus). This service is run single-handedly by a member of the group. The newsletter is mainly focused on translating news about Belarus gathered from independent media and raising awareness of the country’s internal situation.

Nevertheless, a whole year of protests and initiatives to highlight the main concerns of Belarusians has still not led to a change in government. However, the anniversary of the country’s controversial elections encouraged discussions about Belarus in the Italian and OSCE parliaments. There has also been widespread media coverage of the country and its political situation.

On August 27th the Supreme Court of Belarus dismantled the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a voluntary, non-governmental association that counted more than 1,300 media professionals from across the country. BAJ, as its reported on its website, said “journalists in Belarus have faced unprecedent repression from the state” since last year’s election and more than 500 detentions, arrests, fines, and prison sentences were documented.

Supolka, too, can rightfully claim that it has been helping to bring about change: “We did a lot but it is very hard to assess the achievements of the group. The regime did not fall, so in that respect, it hasn’t been a positive year. But we did not spend this year standing and looking or just crying,” Ziuziuk concludes.

Antonio Scancariello is an Italian journalist and holds an MA from De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.

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