‘I don’t feel safe anymore.’ Belarusians in Lithuania – yesterday’s friends, today’s foes?
With a new law in Lithuania, Belarusian exiles in Vilnius have found themselves facing a new reality – are they no longer welcome?
“This is a country that welcomes people in a complicated situation for their moral and political stance,” Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė told Voice of America News last month. “It was like that, it is like that, it will be like that.”
Yet, the government’s changing position on Belarusian and Russian refugees, as well as Lithuania’s recently-passed pushback law, questions the official line.
In late March, a bill appeared in the parliament banning newly arrived Russian nationals from obtaining Lithuanian citizenship, owning property, applying for visas or extending their residence permits.
The initial proposal sought to equate sanctions on Belarusians and Russian nationals, causing an anxious uproar among the opposition exiles in Lithuania. What followed was a 2,000-strong petition, calls to MPs, and meetings between officials and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the once-presidential hopeful now in exile in Lithuania.
The pressure worked – the law was toned down on Belarusians. Yet, the Lithuanian president then vetoed it, saying the same measures should apply to Belarusians as to Russians, since Lithuania’s official position holds Russia and Belarus equally responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. Almost unanimously, the parliament overturned his veto.
The law was eventually watered down – the contentious provisions banning the path to citizenship were removed for both Russian and Belarusian nationals. Now, newly-arriving Russian nationals will be barred from owning property or gaining residency permits, unless mediated by officials, which will not apply to Belarusians. Visas, meanwhile, will remain inaccessible for both Belarusian and Russian nationals without the involvement of Lithuania’s institutions.
Nevertheless, the discussions left a bitter taste among Belarusians who were once welcomed to the country en masse following the 2020 crackdown on protests in their country. More than legal and bureaucratic roadblocks the law would potentially create, they say the main issue was different – it shook the foundations of their safe exile.
Afraid of being sent out
“I moved to Lithuania because they [the government] pointed out it’s a friendly safe place for Belarusians. If they had not announced it, I would have chosen another country,” said Sviatlana Kubrak, a 21-year-old Belarusian journalist in Vilnius.
“The values they were announcing before turned out to be super fake. They changed their opinion from 2020,” she added.
Following the August 2020 election in Belarus and the subsequent crackdown, Lithuania handed out thousands of so-called humanitarian visas for people fleeing repressions. In all, there are now over 48,000 Belarusian nationals in the country, with a recent survey indicating that the overwhelming majority of them are political refugees. Although estimates are hard to come by, activists say several hundred thousand Belarusians have been forced to flee abroad.
In 2020, the outpouring of support was everywhere – the white-red-white flags of independent Belarus hung all around the Lithuanian capital, as people mobilised to help those fleeing the repressions next door. Tens of thousands gathered for the so-called Freedom Way, a human chain stretching 30-odd kilometres from Vilnius to the Belarusian border to express solidarity with protesters.
But this began to change with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, where Belarus played an integral part. As support among Lithuanians refocused on the arriving Ukrainian refugees, the sentiment among some politicians toward people from Belarus, now seen as coming from a country partaking in the invasion, began to shift.
And even though Ukrainian refugee flows have not created divisions, the differential treatment has fostered distrust toward Lithuanian institutions, “in particular because the reasons for the more favourable treatment of refugees from Ukraine, from the point of view of the Belarusian diaspora, are not properly explained”, according to a report by the Eastern Europe Studies Center in Vilnius.
Their survey, which polled 335 people in late 2022, indicated that Belarusians are not discriminated against in Lithuania. Yet some cases still occur – “28.9% had no personal experience [of discrimination], but said they had heard of such cases. 8.5% of respondents had experienced discrimination in their search for housing, 5% in the labour market,” the study said.
Meanwhile, in-depth interviews revealed that Belarusians are worried Lithuania may take the same actions as Ukraine, like freezing bank accounts and expelling them from the country.
Amid debates surrounding the new law, the social media space among Belarusian exiles, many of them in their early 20s, filled with memes and ironic posts, mulling where they should go next once the doors on their future in Lithuania shut. One of those thinking about leaving was Kubrak, a Belsat journalist.
“Before the law, I felt safe, and now I do not,” she said. “I was talking non-stop with my friends trying to figure out where to go, that we need to save money, that this place is not safe anymore for Belarusians, just because the president of Belarus is following the rules of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and my country is occupied.”
“Belarusian people proved so many times that we do not support this regime. We talk so much about not listening to propaganda, but many people all over the world still listen to the official opinion of Minsk,” Kubrak added.
The new law, and the anxiety it sowed, touched not only political activists, but those who relocated to Lithuania due to deteriorating political climate in Belarus, including professionals and entrepreneurs, according to Maksimas Milta, teaching fellow at Yale University in the United States and formerly staff at the European Humanities University (EHU), a Belarusian school in exile in Vilnius.
“We have to change the attitude that one day we are standing at the Freedom Way, [but] a couple of years go by, and here we are saying to the Belarusians, ‘I don’t know, maybe you won’t be able to get that apartment in Vilnius’,” Milta said. “This is a very inconsistent approach and escalation in the form of a veto is very dangerous.”
“Even though they were very actively invited to Lithuania in 2020, 2021, […] the law appeared [to sow] doubts whether they are really welcome in Lithuania,” he added.
“If we want to act geopolitically in Lithuania, we need to have friends in countries where change is possible. We need to have friends not with regimes, but with civil society,” said Milta. “A significant part of those people are in Lithuania, but whether they will be here for a long time if we repeat such antics, I don’t know, because they [can move to] Poland.”
‘Belarusian services operating in Lithuania’
Anton Turkou, a 21-year-old photographer, first fled Belarus to Ukraine after the crackdown began. Then, the war came knocking; his next stop was Vilnius.
“Three months ago I decided to learn Lithuanian, because I really like this country. I started to understand people’s mentality, but I feel this law decided to make Belarusians second-class [residents],” he said. “For me it’s offensive, because all I want to do the last three years after 2020 is to live a simple life like a simple person with the rights I didn’t have in Belarus.”
“I’ve been in this mood for the past month that I am ready to move to Poland,” he said. “I don’t feel angry, I just feel nervous.”
Yet, much of the anxiety among Belarusians stemmed from rumours and false information. Many believed the changes meant they would eventually be sent out of the country. Indeed, few Belarusians said they had read the full text of the law, which is available online.
During the process, Lithuanian lawmakers sought to calm fears, saying the debate was natural to a democracy – laws are shaped and formed by interested parties and the final reading is often different from what was initially proposed.
They also claimed that despite the limits, political refugees will be able to enter the country, as exceptions continue to apply for political refugees.
Standing at one pro-Ukraine demonstration in Vilnius in late April, several Belarusians argued among themselves about what the future held. Now the law was changed, said one man, but what would happen in the future, after the elections in 2024?
In the parliament, several MPs reiterated that Belarusians were “captives” of the regime. Another MP claimed it was more about the young Belarusians who live, work, and raise families here, not just the prominent opposition figures.
Dovilė Jakniūnaitė, a professor and researcher at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science, wrote that, in the current climate, “defending Russians and even Belarusians is seen as near-treasonous or disloyal, or at the very least a sign of bad taste”.
“But I still want to point out how ‘security theatre’ is being created under the guise of the security argument – it’s a simulation of security [and] wanting to appear like ‘something’ is being done,” she added.
Speaking to LRT.lt after Nausėda’s veto was rejected, Jakniūnaitė said the president’s move showed a clash between Lithuania’s declared international position, equating Russian and Belarusian regimes as one, with domestic policies toward political exiles.
“The position of the president’s office is consistent, they are arguing that when they speak internationally, they link the two states as one, that there are two aggressors [against Ukraine]. And that consistency is important, the argument is acceptable and credible,” she said.
“Where the complications are, [that] we were on the Freedom Way, and it’s as if that support for the Belarusians and the mobilisation was huge, but a lot of things have changed since then,” Jakniūnaitė said. “Now [Belarus and Russia] are considered the same, forgetting our support and hope that something will change.”
In political debates, lawmakers said the Belarusians will feel as if Lithuania “is turning its back on them”, she said.
But the adopted law will not create additional barriers for Belarusians, she added.
More stringent measures have already begun to apply to Belarusians. This year, refusals to issue residence permits have grown more than tenfold, according to the Migration Department. Most of those who were rejected were Belarusian nationals.
“The verification had already taken place, now it’s just being defined in the law,” Jakniūnaitė said. “The question is why these additional restrictions have appeared, as the justification for the law is quite abstract.”
Ultimately, the proposed changes carry risks for Lithuania’s own democracy. “Few people care now because it’s aimed at citizens who we can be more careful with. But the scale of the restrictions makes it necessary to be vigilant, because they can easily be directed at ourselves, at our citizens, and that’s not good for the quality of democracy,” she said.
One of the initiators of the law is Laurynas Kasčiūnas, a prominent member of the conservative Homeland Union (TS-LKD), the lead party in the country’s ruling coalition. According to him, “the fundamental starting point is that we must put Lithuania’s national security first”.
“This is a question of the survival of our country,” said Kasčiūnas. “This is how we should measure how open we can be.”
“The beacon [for political refugees] remains, the exceptions remain. We have done a great deal to give those people a safe place away from regimes,” he added. But there is a need to better control those who are coming into the country. As the Lithuanian intelligence has warned that “Belarusian secret services are operating and trying to build their network” in the country, he added.
This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.
Benas Gerdžiūnas is an editor with LRT English.
Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.
Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.