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In and out of Belarus: the dissidents will not give up

Interview with Andrei Vazyanau, a teacher and Belarusian citizen forced to flee across two nations: Belarus and Ukraine. Interviewer: Claudia Bettiol.

January 31, 2023 - Andrei Vazyanau Claudia Bettiol - Interviews

In April 2021, there still were many protest slogans and stickers in the city. In some cases, it could be seen how a slogan was painted over by state workers, but then someone renewed the text (выходи – vyhodi means "come out [onto the streets]").

Thinking about the East, the very first words that surface in one’s mind are those describing the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and everything revolving around it (Russia, Putin, NATO and so on). This might cause us to overlook other active eastern realities that are focused on grassroots protests and dissident activity forgotten by the international spotlight. This is particularly true in the case of Belarus.

As we already outlined in past weeks on the Italian news website Valigia Blu, despite all the brutal repression against dissident activity conducted by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the peaceful opposition movement which rose after the “fake” presidential election held in August 2020 has never stopped. Quite the opposite, it became a bigger threat for the regime, especially following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th last year. Opposition activity continues even without any open western support or international media coverage.

The following interview aims to give us a better understanding of the activities and feelings of those who have participated in opposition activities in Minsk and throughout the Belarusian diaspora during the last months of 2022. Claudia Bettiol interviewed Andrei Vazyanau, a teacher and Belarusian citizen forced to flee across two nations: Belarus and Ukraine.

CLAUDIA BETTIOL: Andrei, you are a Belarusian citizen but of Ukrainian origin, where were you at the time of the Belarusian anti-government protests in August 2020, and later in February 2022 when total war broke out in Ukraine?

 ANDREI VAZYANAU: In 2020 I was in Minsk, collecting signatures for presidential election candidate Viktar Babaryka (there were 10,100 people in his initiative group). I participated in protest marches and wrote posts on Facebook and Instagram openly criticising the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Dozens of my friends, students, and colleagues were arrested for doing the same. So, at the end of 2020 I left the country and settled in Kyiv, Ukraine – I have Ukrainian roots, so I was able to apply for a residence permit there. In February 2022, I was on a work trip in the EU when Russia attacked Ukraine. I decided to stay in Lithuania, where my employer is located.

More than two years have passed since the anti-government protests of August 2020, what has changed since then? Have the protests decreased? According to data collected by Viasna – the non-governmental human rights organisation founded by Nobel prize winner Ales Bialiatski – arrests, searches, deportations, and violence by the security forces continue and the repressions are quite harsh.

In 2021, according to the Freedom House Index, Belarus fell below countries such as Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and China (and far below Russia). More than 50,000 Belarusians were arrested; but many more have lost their jobs. More than 300,000 people (most likely, over half a million) left Belarus, a country of nine million. In the 2020s, only Ukraine had a higher percentage of displacement among European countries. Also, almost all NGOs (more than 700) have been shut down since 2020. And the pace of the repressions has not slowed down. In November 2022, according to Viasna, 11 arrests were happening daily only for “administrative violations” by protesters (that is, there are some more arrests for criminal cases). Finally, speaking the Belarusian language in Belarus is now persecuted more openly than before. One can be arrested for this “crime” right on the street (a recent case of this can be seen regarding Ihar Chmara in Minsk, but there are many more). These facts and numbers are often forgotten when one introduces more limitations on the employment of Belarusians in the EU, or on the issuing of Schengen visas and residence permits for them.

Speaking more informally, since autumn 2020, the country has deteriorated in every sphere, but those especially vulnerable are professional communities that openly spoke against the violence in 2020: journalists, university lecturers, medical workers, IT specialists. This has resulted in a rapid exodus and the quality of life in Belarus has worsened tremendously. This we usually know from our parents, because people of my age and a similar mindset had to leave the country. In Belarus, it is now difficult to find a good teacher and qualified medical help. From other countries, it is impossible to send a letter to a political prisoner, or to donate to their families. People usually have a hard time finding a job if their relative is a political prisoner, they’re unlikely to be employed in the state sector. If you invite an expert in Belarus for an online consultation or participation in a webinar, it is impossible to pay them a honorarium via a bank transfer from Lithuania. This transfer can lead to both the blocking of your account at the Lithuanian bank and additional scrutiny from the Belarusian special services regarding the expert. 

Just thinking about the Nobel prize award – collected by Bialiatski’s wife, Natallia Pinchuk, last December 10th at the official ceremony – how well informed is the average Belarusian citizen? How easy/difficult is it to access information? For example, do people know about Bialiatski or Viasna, are they aware of the Nobel prize?

None of the global messenger or social media platforms have been blocked in Belarus; the state just made a constantly updated list of “extremist media” and all independent media is added there. For reading such media you can go to prison for 15 days. However, many people use a VPN or just avoid subscriptions and check the news outlets manually. Of course, this is much less convenient than having them all pop up in your feed. Our mothers and fathers tend to unsubscribe from non-state media and even delete Telegram or Messenger – to feel more secure.

The average Belarusian of my age and below is quite well informed about the news and avoids watching TV for that purpose; just reading news in and about Belarus and Belarusians means reading about extreme injustice and humiliation. I know that some friends of mine staying in Belarus might read the news less frequently simply to remain emotionally stable; but I see that they watch my Instagram stories, for instance, where I post about news regularly.

People also know about the Nobel prize given to the imprisoned Belarusian activist, but they don’t believe (and for good reason) that it will somehow affect their life. It is not a big thing in Belarus right now, as far as I understand.

Viasna is also widely known – but more in the context of “where to ask for help and information if my nearest and dearest got arrested” rather than anything to do with Viasna’s international reputation.

On many white objects a red strip would be added [in a partisan way to show support for the opposition].

On many white objects a red strip would be added [in a partisan way to show support for the opposition].

What has been and what is currently the role of the international community? After a few months of protests, the international media attention on events in Belarus has been waning. How do Belarusians feel about this? Do they feel isolated or abandoned (like Ukrainians during the last eight years of war in the Donbas)?

There were many hopes related to the international community in 2020, because Belarusians believed that non-violent protest against a dictator backed by the Kremlin could only succeed with the solidarity from democratic European countries. But EU countries were and are acting very, very differently with regard to Belarus. Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have developed a protection mechanism for repressed Belarusians, people use it – when they succeed in leaving the country; and they are really grateful for that. These countries were also quite actively limiting economic relations with Lukashenka. Many other countries declare their full support for the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people but in fact introduce no legal tools to help the victims of repressions. In the sphere of economics, it just seems to be “business as usual”. 

This led many Belarusians to become disappointed in Western Europe in 2021. After the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 this feeling has worsened as European politicians started to treat Belarusian citizens just like those from Russia. This was a shock for many Belarusians, for whom normal life ended in August 2020, when power in Belarus was seized. This was the perfect present for the Kremlin, which could further push its anti-western propaganda in Belarusian media. Belarusian society remained overwhelmingly unsupportive of Belarus’s involvement in the war, but many have lost their sympathy for Europe. Sanctioning Belarusians equally to Russians is not only ethically but also strategically questionable (just ridiculous, to be honest). You have already treated a Russian population whose army commits war crimes all over Ukraine on the same basis as a Belarusian population whose army did not yet leave the territory of their country. The Russian army is present in the territory of three countries, the Belarusian army is just in Belarus – and should it join the war, there is simply no room for more sanctions.

So, the answer is yes, definitely Belarusians feel themselves abandoned and used. One recent connected scandal involves Ikea, which used the labour of Belarusian political prisoners (and in Belarusian prisons work is mandatory for everyone). Belarusians used to make grotesque jokes about Belarusian premium goods that you could never find them in Belarus because they are all exported to Russia and the CIS states, but now the same is true for a Swedish company that never had a store in Belarus. They are reluctant to provide any protection for Belarusian citizens.

My personal opinion is that the story of Belarus and of how Belarusians are treated in the 2020s means a lot of bad news for the EU itself.

It is not the news that dictatorships are showing solidarity and uniting, or that Russia intervenes in every democratic protest in a country which it considers a part of its sphere of influence. It is not even about the fact that repressions have become more severe when the protests decrease, or that people are afraid to protest as their relatives are being tortured in prison. Instead, something new about the EU was revealed to Belarusians when the Czech Republic started a programme of support for repressed Belarusian students in 2020, and then suddenly closed down virtually any possibility for Belarusians to study in the country in 2022 – as if Belarusian society had suddenly changed radically around February 24th last year. So, the news seems to be that the institutional memory of the EU is extremely short, that EU countries might take opposing stances on the same regime, and that EU countries can simply put restrictions on an entire population for the deeds of an illegitimate dictator the EU itself did not recognise in 2020. Here, I believe, it is in the interest of the EU to develop its expertise in Eastern Europe and particularly in the countries of the Eastern Partnership. It would also be better for a shared European future, if the policies regarding neighbouring countries were less contradictory and inconsistent.

How much has Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine affected Belarusian domestic politics and how much does Russian Kremlin propaganda influence President Lukashenka’s political choices?

This one is difficult for me to answer – I am not a political scientist, and I just share a popular opinion that Lukashenka himself would not start a war. However, since Putin is his only friend, he is dependent on him. Altogether, it does not look like the future of Belarus depends on Lukashenka much. Even the Kalinoŭski Regiment (more than 2,000 Belarusians fighting in the Ukrainian army) might have more influence on the next point of transition. But this is very subjective.

Many Belarusian citizens since the beginning of the protests and over the last two years have decided to seek refuge abroad, how are they treated and welcomed?

I guess, it differs from country to country. There is good research comparing the experiences of Belarusian refugees in three key destination countries: Georgia, Lithuania and Poland. As I have Belarusian friends in Georgia and Poland, I can say the research findings do not contradict my intuition. While Belarusians in these three countries had a similar worldview, their experiences of the host countries were very different. Georgian society demonstrated a lack of knowledge about specific Belarusian issues and was least inclined to distinguish them from Russians, while showing solidarity with Ukrainians. Things are different in Poland and Lithuania, where Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees have more personal contacts with each other and thus are better informed. In Warsaw and Vilnius, many Belarusians are involved, to a different extent, in helping Ukraine. Just last week I helped to send to Ukraine power banks that Belarusian journalists acquired for their Ukrainian colleagues. In a Red Cross workshop for Ukrainian children two out of three volunteers turned out to be Belarusians. My Belarusian friends in Warsaw also helped me to send chest seals to Ukrainian medical workers that I bought with donations from the Belarusian community in Vilnius. In personal communication, Ukrainians express gratitude. While Lithuanians are generally aware of the Belarusian situation and its differences from the Russian case.

In July and September 2022, I went to Ukraine with humanitarian packages for medical workers and got to know how Belarusians were volunteering in many places where Russians would not be accepted.

All in all, there is a feeling of strange contrast between friendly interpersonal communications and the hate towards Belarusians disseminated on social media.

Casual Minsk – The billboard says “To know and not to be afraid” regarding HIV infection. Another development back then was the impressive number of new signs in the Belarusian language (and the small enterprises that would use it). I am now cautious about posting them, because the use of Belarusian is perceived as a form of subtle resistance [to the Kremlin-backed Lukashenka regime].

Opposition candidate and protest leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has formed a new opposition government in exile. What do Belarusians at home and in the diaspora think about this?

In the Belarusian diaspora Tsikhanouskaya is most often perceived as a legitimate representative of Belarusians, and even those who criticise her as a politician do use the benefits from her and her team’s work – first of all, in terms of visa policy. She repeatedly talks about mass repressions in Belarus, which makes it less easy for more restrictions to be placed on Belarusian citizens’ rights in the EU. So, most probably, she contributed to the fact that the EU visa policy for Belarusians is slightly less restrictive than for Russians (although de facto it is much harder and riskier for the average Belarusian to get a Schengen visa inside Belarus than for an average Russian inside Russia). There are some other minor achievements, for instance, in the educational and cultural spheres, but they are mostly perceived as significant only by those who fled Belarus since 2020.

Many would probably answer “it’s better than nothing” regarding Tsikhanouskaya’s activity. But life inside Belarus is much less affected by politicians in exile. Some of those staying in Belarus see that their life has got much worse since 2020 and put the blame on her.

Andrei, you are part of the band “Novy Byt, and you recently composed a song in the Belarusian language titled “refugees”. It is a song of solidarity with Ukrainian and Belarusian refugees, and you started an associated fundraising campaign to support Ukrainians fleeing the war and their pets suffering from the Russian invasion. Unfortunately, many artists and bands have been silenced by the regime. What is the situation like now and what does an artist risk in addition to “simple” censorship?

The situation for the Belarusian music scene is indeed disheartening. Many musicians went through years of imprisonment after supporting the protests of 2020. Even without checking online, I can remember the groups “IrdoRath” and “Tor Band” who got years of prison time (Tor Band members got 15 days of imprisonment for each song they published). People from the drummer groups that accompanied protest rallies were imprisoned too, and “Volny Chor” had to emigrate. Both “Razbitae Sertsa Patsana” and “Petlya Pristrastiya”, cult rock bands, experienced administrative detentions and then had to leave Belarus. And this is only a small part of the list.

Many musicians had to earn a living by doing something else, with music just as a hobby. This is also the case for our band, and even if I would have the strength to sing songs after February 2022, I doubt that I would find the time for that between volunteering activities (or prioritise making music over helping the victims of war).

Some bands are still active inside Belarus, which to me seems very brave – and very important for those who stay in the country. Since the public dissatisfaction with the dictatorship has not disappeared, the resistance has just moved into domains that are harder to monitor: contemporary art and indie music are among them. It is possible that the special services will try to intensify their control in those spheres as well, and this will mean more imprisonment and departures, and less Belarusian culture overall. The tragedy is that, although I love listening to those bands and would sincerely recommend them to anyone interested, I cannot think of mentioning them all together in a media publication, because it would be risky for the musicians. For a music geek, it won’t be difficult to find their records on the web.

This article was originally published in Italian on the Meridiano 13 website and social media channels. All photos within the article are the property of our interviewee, Andrei Vazyanau, and were taken in Minsk in spring 2021.

Claudia Bettiol is an Italian translator and reporter living in Kyiv (at the moment temporarily in Italy due to the war situation) that covers Ukraine and post-Soviet countries for Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, Meridiano 13 and Valigia Blu. In 2022 she translated from Ukrainian into Italian the report “Our others” (Nashi inshi) by Olesja Jaremčuk, published by Bottega Errante.

Andrei Vazyanau is a social anthropologist, a lecturer at the European Humanities University (Lithuania), and an indie musician. He spent his childhood in Mariupol, Ukraine, in a family of factory workers of Romanian, Greek and Belarusian ethnic origins. Since 2017 he has collaborated with Belarusian NGOs and lived in Minsk after defending his PhD thesis at the University of Regensburg (Germany) in 2018. He left Minsk for Kyiv at the end of 2020, and then from Kyiv to Vilnius in February 2022. In summer and autumn 2022 he went to Kyiv twice, delivering humanitarian packages from the Belarusians of Lithuania.

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